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Technology, History, and Place

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Quick thought: Indian roads and radical monopoly

In his 1973 book Tools for Conviviality, Austrian author Ivan Illich writes about the “radical monopoly,” in which one technology comes to dominate over all others, even going so far as to transform the landscape to exclude technological alternatives. Illich singles out the automobile in America, which in most parts of the country is the only safe and practical way to get from Point A to Point B anymore. Do you want to take the train from the suburbs to the city? Good luck! How about walking or biking on the Interstate highway? If you aren’t killed by a semi truck, you’ll probably get picked up by the cops, because walking or biking on freeways is illegal in most parts of the country.

While this is the case in most parts of the United States, it isn’t the case everywhere. Take India for example. While automobiles are widely used throughout the country, they have not established a radical monopoly there. On city streets, rural roads, and even highways, cars and other motor vehicles (especially motor scooters) have to share the road with other forms of non-mechanized transport, including bicycles, cycle-rickshaws, ox-carts, camel carts, and the occasional horse-tonga.

Quick thought: Why combined road-rail bridges are common in India but not the United States

When I was writing my dissertation and subsequently my book, one of the subjects I wrote about was the Saraighat Bridge, a combined road-rail bridge built over the Brahmaputra River in Northeast India between 1958 and 1962.

The Saraighat Bridge was one of several road-rail bridges I encountered in India. Building a multi-use bridge can be an efficient way to carry traffic across a river, because it only requires building one bridge for both modes of transportation. Yet while road-rail bridges are common in India, they are rare in the United States. Why is that?

First off, even though combined bridges are efficient, they aren’t always the best engineering solution, because rail and road bridges are not exactly interchangeable. Road bridges have to be broad to carry multiple lanes of traffic, while rail bridges can be narrow because they only need to carry one or two rail lines.

Another reason has to do with timing. In the United States, development of road networks lagged behind the railroads, and therefore rail bridges tended to be built at strategic locations decades before road bridges. In India in the twentieth century, especially in the early-independence period (when Saraighat Bridge was built), road and rail networks were developed concurrently.

And a third reason involves jurisdiction. In India, both the road and rail networks are nationalized, whereas in the United States only roads are public while railroads are private. The rare examples of road-rail bridges in the United States tend to carry public roads and public rails belonging to municipal public transit systems. An example of this is the Manhattan Bridge, which carries seven road lanes and five lines of the New York City Subway across the East River.

The Golden Gate Bridge of California: six lanes of traffic and not a rail line in sight.

The Golden Gate Bridge of California: six lanes of traffic and not a rail line in sight.

The Manhattan Bridge: a rare road-rail bridge in the United States.

The Manhattan Bridge: a rare road-rail bridge in the United States.

Space Shuttle studies and model rockets

In 1969, the model rocket company Estes Industries introduced a kit called Orbital Transport. The rocket consisted of two parts, a larger carrier rocket and a small glider. When launched vertically from a standard model rocket launch pad, the carrier rocket would take the glider up to altitude, and then the glider would detach and glide back to the ground while the carrier rocket descended under a parachute.

My Estes Orbital Transport, which I built mostly in 2000 and flew just once in 2003. It is a “clone” of Orbital Transport, built not from a kit but from plans using stock parts. The markings are hand-painted rather than using decals, which I didn’t have.

My Orbital Transport, which I built from plans in 2000 and flew just once in 2003. The markings are hand-painted rather than using decals, which I didn’t have.

The 1969 Estes catalog had this to say about the design of the kit:

Spectacular in flight and a true show model on the ground, the Orbital Transport is the launch vehicle of the 80’s. Based on the latest proposals for a reusable air breathing (scramjet) booster for orbital vehicles, the Transport is an exciting experience to build and fly.

What were these “latest proposals” that the catalog referenced?

Between August 1965 and September 1966, a joint NASA-US Air Force panel studied the possibility of building spaceplaces to succeed the expendable boosters and single-use capsules that were then launching people into space. The panel studied three classes of spaceplanes, namely:

  • Class I: A reusable spaceplane launched atop an expendable booster, such as the Saturn I-B or Titan III-M.
  • Class II: A fully reusable two-stage spaceplane, both stages winged and both powered by rocket engines. The orbital second stage would ride piggyback atop the suborbital first stage.
  • Class III: Another two-stage spaceplane, similar to Class II, but with air-breathing engines (scramjets) in the first stage.
Three different types of spaceplanes studied by the joint NASA-USAF panel in 1965-66 (L-R): Class I, launched atop a Saturn I-B booster; Class II, with two reusable rocket-powered stages; and Class III, with a scramjet-powered first stage. Class III is shown on the right in a three-view. (Source: USAF illustration printed in Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision, p. 83)

Three different types of spaceplanes studied by the joint NASA-USAF panel in 1965-66 (L-R): Class I, launched atop a Saturn I-B booster; Class II, with two reusable rocket-powered stages; and Class III, with a scramjet-powered first stage. Class III is shown on the right in a three-view. (Source: USAF illustration printed in Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision, p. 83)

The panel envisioned all of these spaceplanes flying, one after the other, with the technology developed in one class being used in subsequent classes. In the panel’s optimistic timeline, Class I would fly by 1974, Class II by 1978, and Class III by 1981.1

The joint NASA-USAF panel issued its report in 1966, three years before Estes introduced the Orbital Transport. The design of the Orbital Transport kit is clearly based on the Class III spaceplane, and several details of the kit are drawn directly from the 1965-66 study. The carrier rocket, which represents the first stage of the Class III spaceplane, has open boxes under its “wings” (fins), which represent air-breathing scramjet engines. The 1980s date for the design (as the catalog description says) is also from the study, because Class III was supposed to be flying by 1981.

The Estes model rocket design included one fanciful element that was not present in the NASA-USAF study. While Class III was intended for launching satellites and possibly servicing a space station, Orbital Transport was a passenger transport, a space-airliner. The decal set that came with the kit identified it as being operated by “Astron Aerospace Lines,” and the decals for the glider had a row of windows with a stripe through them, like the airliners of the 1960s.

The NASA-USAF study proved to be fanciful as well. More than 55 years after the panel issued its report, a spaceplane like Class III has never been seriously considered. In the latter half of the sixties, NASA tried hard to make the Class II design work, but it was too big and too expensive, and the engineering challenges inherent in its design were too great. NASA at last fell back on a version of Class I, and in January 1972 (fifty years ago this month), President Nixon approved NASA’s plans to build a reusable spaceplane with a partially reusable booster—what would become known as the Space Shuttle. The shuttle first flew in 1981, the year that the vastly more sophisticated Class III spaceplane was supposed to start flying.

President Nixon (R) meeting with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher to approve the Space Shuttle program, January 5, 1972. (Source: NASA)

President Nixon (R) meeting with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher to approve the Space Shuttle program, January 5, 1972. (Source: NASA)

The Space Shuttle concept as it appeared when initially approved in 1972. The basic elements of the design are all in place, but the liquid-fuel boosters pictured here would be replaced by solid boosters in the shuttle as built. (Source: NASA)

The Space Shuttle concept as it appeared when initially approved in 1972. The basic elements of the design are all in place, but the liquid-fuel boosters pictured here would be replaced by solid boosters in the shuttle as built. (Source: NASA)


The Estes Orbital Transport has been out of production for a long time (except for a brief reissue in the early 2000s), but Semroc makes a reproduction of it. I made my Orbital Transport by “cloning” it, which means that I built it from plans using stock parts (rather than using a kit, which wasn’t available at the time). I got the plans from JimZ Rocket Plans.

  1. T.A. Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA’s Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle (Washington, DC: NASA History Office, 1999), 82-83. []

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