The Feynman Constant

April 11, 2010

The family’s been away this weekend and it’s just been me, the cat, some frozen dinners, a laptop, and the Internet. It’s a little grim, to be honest, it can be unhealthy being too much in your own head. But on the plus side, I had some time to spend getting down the first part of another story, about someone else’s experience. I was Googling “Von Braun” on Friday night when I came upon a post by Dick Hoagland on his site related to Von Braun and the Explorer I mission having an unusually high orbit. I was shocked because it was partial confirmation of a story my first boss at NASA told me. Hoagland’s account attributes the high orbit to “hyperdimensional” or “torsion field” physics. My boss never spoke in those terms nor did he give any explanation in physics, he merely described the peculiar adjustment of equations to compensate for the observed effect. I certainly don’t know enough to affirm or contradict Hoagland’s account. To be honest, the more I have read of what Hoagland has been up to since I met him 20 years ago the more skeptical I become of his claims. I am trying to be open minded, but the glimpses I have gotten of some of the conspiracies he is alleging exceeds what I could accept at this point, no matter what degree of proof he would offer; as a scientists I am not proud to make this statement, but I am trying to be honest about my bias and limitations.

I haven’t finished this story, only the first half is done. If you want don’t want to be frustrated, just wait for me to finish and update it.

To the skeptics I will readily admit that I have no direct knowledge to back up this story. It may be complete and utter crap, this is what I was told by someone I had reason to trust.

I’ll call him “Fred”, for the sake of his anonymity. He was my boss when I first joined NASA, and he was an important influence on the direction my career would take. He was brilliant, as so many I worked in those days were, but unlike the vast majority of them, Fred’s intellect didn’t make him aloof, distracted, or boring. He was utterly charming when he wanted to be, which seemed like most of the time, and in relaxed moments he was a raconteur par excellence. He had more stories than anyone I’ve ever known. The most amazing moments for me were when I would hear him relate to someone else some incident that I had experienced with him. His narrative found the marvel that exists in even the most common moments. Some incident that might have happened weeks before, that I’d found only mildly interesting, he would retell, and in his telling it could easily become an epic and amazing comedic adventure that I was deeply sorry I had somehow missed first time around. And yet at no time did he lie, or even significantly exaggerate. I didn’t understand how he might be able to do this until some years after the last time I saw him. I was watching a late night talk show and one of the guests, a comedian, came out and delivered a little stand up. Midway through he told a joke that was exactly the same as a joke I’d heard a month earlier before, delivered by another comedian. But this time I laughed, and laughed so hard tears came to my eyes. The same words earlier had elicited nothing from me. The words were the same, the punch line the same, the only difference was the man, his timing and energy. Maybe that’s how Fred’s stories worked.

Looking back I wish I could have carried around a tape recorder and recorded his every story; they were too big for the small audience he had, too good to die with him. Ah well… I doubt he would have appreciated me perpetually taping him, especially given the nature of some of his stories. But perhaps my retelling a few of his stories is a way to keep his legacy alive; just know that you would be twice as entertained if he was the one telling them.

I never knew Fred to lie; I only saw him be scrupulously honest, even in the minutest of affairs. But I must confess he shared with me some stories that well exceeded the bounds of my credulity. For the first story Fred shared with me, touching on his hidden knowledge of people within NASA, see the first story of him I got down a few months ago, Werner Von Braun and the Meatball Pin. The more I got to know Fred the more I couldn’t help but believe his stories. To trust a man is to trust his stories, even if you can’t make sense of them, or reconcile them with your own experience. Before my time with him ended I did myself experience a few things which supported at least parts of a few of his stories, but I always wanted incontrovertible proof, and that seems forever elusive. I am hopeful that perhaps someone reading of my experiences, and indirectly of his, may be able to provide pieces of this larger puzzle.

One of the most interesting stories he told me in those first years started with, “Did I ever tell you about the ‘The Feynman Constant’?” Richard Feynman was a brilliantly interesting physicist, and ultimately a Nobel Prize winning quantum theorist. Fred knew Feynman from their shared time at JPL and Caltech during our earliest missions into space, the Explorer missions.

Fred’s role in Explorer II was unofficial. Those early missions were part of the race to catch up to and exceed Sputnik. The on-board science was limited by the lifting capacity of the rocket and the vast unknowns that still needed to be conquered; the science teams were similarly limited. But there was plenty of opportunity for good tangential, unofficial science, and Fred was encouraged and given the limited access he needed. The theory Fred would initially test required only the passive reception of signals Explorer would broadcast anyway.

Fred had developed a theory in graduate school that a space craft’s telemetry (radio signal) could be used to learn about the atmosphere through which that signal passed. If he knew the precise position of the vehicle, the precise output signal strength, and the signal’s precise carrier frequency, any perturbation from expectation would be primarily the result of atmospheric disturbances. He believed he could develop a good model for this relationship by analyzing the telemetry signal variations captured while the craft was passing over areas where there was good weather station data. If Fred was right and his model worked, deorbit burns could be planned much more accurately.

The interface between a space craft and the earth’s atmosphere is critical. Explorer’s course would be governed by relatively few variable factors of significance: thrust, inputs to control surfaces, and air resistance. Man understood and could control for all of these factors except one: air resistance. Air resistance in this sense was governed not just by the density of the air, but also the motion of that air, which could be extreme in the upper atmosphere. The better they could estimate this air resistance the better they could predict where a craft would come down. This was key to the successful recovery of men in the later Mercury and Apollo missions. Recovery would depend on slow moving naval fleets, and their limited-range helicopters; the margin for error was tiny.

Fred started at JPL fresh out of graduate work at Caltech, at the very end of 1957. He was picked in the first of the hiring booms that followed the launch of Sputnik I just two months before. The research projects he worked on at Caltech made him a natural hire, he had already worked with and was respected by several figures within JPL, having been second author on papers submitted to prominent journals.

This respect for Fred did not translate into unanimous belief that his current line of inquiry would bear fruit. Few seemed to believe that the radio signal fluctuations would be detectable enough or significant enough to yield reliable insight into atmospheric conditions. Even Fred had strong doubts. But the nature of science is to come up with hypotheses and test them, and that is what he endeavored to do, and why they supported him doing it.

All Fred could do for the first Explorer flights was observe and begin to build the dataset he needed. He would calculate the perturbations of the telemetry signals, note the positions of Explorer when those perturbations occurred, and relate these to the weather data JPL had access to from government and civilian weather stations and weather balloons. He would work to come up with a mathematical relationship that might be able to predict remote air density/activity based on vehicle position and radio signal perturbation. He knew it might take several flights before he had enough data with which to meaningfully work.

The most difficult part of building this dataset would prove to be determining Explorer’s position to the degree of accuracy he needed. He could not merely use the data the tracking stations were able to provide. Their margin of error was greater than the effect he wanted to measure. He needed to use statistical methods to improve upon the tracking station’s accuracy and use interpolation to fill gaps in their data.

It was during his post-flight attempts to accurately compute Explorer I’s track that Fred got his first surprise. And it would be in his post-flight attempts to accurately compute Explorer II’s track that Fred would find what he called “The Feynman Constant”.

(to be continued)