Mir: Sharing the World

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 22 February, 2018.

Three weeks after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, another mission was launched, though not by NASA. Authorized by a 1976 decree, it had its work halted in 1984 by another project, before being scheduled to launch in time for the 27th Communist Party Congress in 1986. This mission was the Mir Space Station, launched by the Soviet Space Programme.

Designed to be an improvement of the Salyut space station, the Mir was designed for longer occupation and was derived from the Soyuz spacecraft. Named Mir, which can be literally translated as ‘peace’ or ‘world’, the word actually had a deeper connotation in Russian, being used to mean ‘sharing of resources.’ As such, in its native Russian, Mir meant ‘peaceful sharing of world resources.’ Quite apt, I think, for what it became.

On 19 February 1986, the Mir Core Module was launched, containing the main living quarters. The first astronauts stayed 51 days on-board, before leaving for the Salyut 7 space station for 51 days, gathering 400kg of scientific material and 20 instruments from that station, before returning for another 20 days, and then returning to Earth.

The second mission to Mir (launched 5 Feb 1987) was to attach the astrophysics module to the space station, which contained various telescopes and radiation detectors, as well as oxygen generators and carbon dioxide scrubbers. It had a troubled dock, when after an EVA it was found that a trash bag was stuck between the module and the station that prevented docking. This period saw three different crews on the station, with the first international visitors as well (from Syria, Afghanistan and France), before the station was once again left unoccupied on 27 April 1989.

The launch on 5 September 1989 would result in the longest human presence in space on the Mir, a record that was only surpassed afterwards by the ISS. It also added and augmentation module with an Extra-vehicular Activity (EVA) airlock, a cargo compartment with a backup airlock, and a water filtration system, water storage system and a shower. By 31 May 1990 it was further expanded with a technology module containing material processing furnaces and biotechnology experiments. And then, as it orbited far above the Earth, the Earth decided to interfere.

The tenth crew to launch to Mir launched from the USSR, as Soviet citizens, and returned as Russians. The Soviet Union had dissolved. Facing a financial crisis, the power and earth sensing modules were put into storage. But all was not lost – on 17 June 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and US President George HW Bush announced the Shuttle-Mir programme, a co-operative venture where the US Space Shuttle would start docking with the Mir. This however, was still a few years off.

Life of Mir was very structured. Waking to at 8h00, they had two hours for breakfast and personal hygiene, then three hours of work, one hour exercise and one hour lunch. This was followed by three more hours of work and an hour of exercise, before having their evening meal, after which they were free. Because one of the effect of long-term weightlessness is muscle atrophy and deterioration of the skeleton, exercise was vital. Cosmonauts were expected to cycle the equivalent of 10km per day and run at least 5km per day on the provided equipment. Most food was frozen, refrigerated or canned, and prepared by a dietician. It provided 100g protein, 130g fat and 330g carbs per day, with additional mineral and vitamin supplements. Mostly the crew drank tea, coffee or fruit juice, but unlike the ISS, the Mir was provided with cognac and vodka for special occasions.

It was during the final stretch before the Shuttle-Mir programme became operational that Valeri Vladimirovich Polyakov set the record for the longest single stay in space, staying on board the Mir for 437 day and 18 hours (14 months), adding to his long stay during the second Mir mission of 240 days and 23 hours. He orbited the earth 7 075 times and travelled a total of 300 765 472 km around the planet, or about a light-second.

After the Shuttle-Mir programme launched in 1995, the power and earth sensing modules were finally added, alongside a docking module to enable easier docking with the space shuttle. The Shuttle-Mir programme would last for four years, and allow US astronauts to join their Russian cosmonaut comrades in gaining experience in long space missions. During this time, however, Mir began to show its age, with many malfunctions and incidents. Initially designed for only 5 years of operation, it had lived long past what it was designed for. 

With the lessons learned from Mir, a new, International Space Station was envisaged, and its first modules launched in 1998. In 1999, Roscosmos announced that it could not fund both the ISS and Mir, and opted to deorbit the station. Loaded up with extra propellant for its final orbit, the final crew departed Mir on 28 August 1999, just 8 days short of ten years of continuous occupation. The de-orbit finally occurred on 23 March 2001, entering the atmosphere above the Pacific near Nadi, Fiji. It is said that the light show was most spectacular. It had been in space for 15 years and 31 days, and orbited the Earth 86 331 times. In total 104 people from 12 countries visited the station.

Mir’s success is felt to this day, with the studies on long-term human occupation of space applied to the newer ISS, and resulted in the refinement of the Soyuz spacecraft into the most reliable launch vehicle in the world. With the retirement of the US Shuttle programme in 2011, the Soyuz has become the only launch vehicle to transport astronauts and cosmonauts to the International Space Station. So when you look up at night, and catch a glimpse of the ISS, spare a thought for its venerable predecessor, the humble Mir.

Be Still My Heart

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 15 February, 2018.

There are numerous legends surrounding Valentine’s Day. Some say that St Valentine performed secret Christian weddings for the soldiers of Roman Emperor Claudius II, who supposedly believed married men made good soldiers. Others claim that St Valentine cut hearts from parchment to remind these soldiers of their vows. It is said that he was executed for this, and before his execution, he performed a miracle by curing his jailer’s daughter of blindness.

This, however, remains legend. Claudius II never forbade marriage among his soldiers, and in fact encouraged them to take wives for themselves after victory over the Goths. The Valentines honoured on February 14 are in fact Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. Valentine of Rome was a priest who was martyred in 269 CE and sanctified to sainthood by Pope Galesius in 496 CE. Valentine of Terni was the bishop of Interamna and was martyred under Emperor Aurelian in 273 CE. The current General Roman Calendar does not even list Saint Valentine’s Day anymore, noting: “Though the memorial of Saint Valentine is ancient, it is left to particular calendars, since, apart from his name, nothing is known of Saint Valentine except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14.”

Until recently, Valentine’s Day was not even associated with romantic love. In Slovenia, Saint Valentine was the saint of spring, and patron of beekeepers and pilgrims. “Saint Valentine brings the keys of roots,” they said, as plants started to grow at the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. The day of love was traditionally 12 March, Saint Gregory’s day, or 22 February, Saint Vincent’s day, with the patron saint of love, Saint Anthony’s day falling on June 13. 

The first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love is actually by Geoffrey Chaucer, in his poem Parliament of Foules, written in 1382. "For this was on St. Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate." The poem was written to honour the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, and readers naturally assumed he was referring to February 14, but some have noted that he might have been referring to the Feast Day of St Valentine of Genoa, which was celebrated on 3 May, as by that time birds have begun mating. Nevertheless, the connection stuck.

And so, Valentine’s Day grew to be associated with love via poets of the ages. The association with red roses also began the same way, with the earliest reference in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene in 1590 CE: “She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew, And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.” The Cliché Valentine’s poem was written in its earliest form in Gammer Gurton’s Garland, back in 1784 CE, “The rose is red, the violet's blue, The honey's sweet, and so are you. Thou art my love and I am thine; I drew thee to my Valentine: The lot was cast and then I drew, And Fortune said it shou'd be you.”

Nowadays Valentine’s Day has become much more commercial, with the day even celebrated in corporations and schools. In fact, teachers are by far the people who receive the most Valentine’s every year. Worth over US$ 15 billion a year, it truly has become a modern-day commercial holiday. Yet something seems lost in the translation – people spend so much because they feel obligated to. And, in a way, perhaps because of that, they do not spend that much during the rest of the year. Instead of a celebration of the love we show during the year, we have instead begun to celebrate love ONLY during this one day of the year. 

Let me be clear – Valentine’s Day is an excellent way to remind you the love needs to be celebrated. Let it remind you every year that you NEED to celebrate love in any way you can, as often as you can, because it is the pinnacle of the brief existence that is our lives. Love is a reformer, a teacher, a source of motivation, a path to self-discovery, but perhaps most importantly, it is the connection to another human being in the most intimate way possible. And it is the only feeling that’ll allow you to one day say, oh, I don’t know, something like this:

“Hey, I've seen things you couldn't imagine, and done things I'd prefer you didn't. I don't exactly have a reputation for being a thinker; I follow my blood, which doesn't exactly rush in the direction of my brain. So I make a lot of mistakes. A lot of wrong bloody calls. A lot of years, and there's only one thing I've ever been sure of. YOU!

Hey, look at me. I'm not asking you for anything. When I say I love you, it's not because I want you, or because I can't have you - it has nothing to do with me. I love what you are, what you do, how you try. I've seen your kindness, and your strength, I've seen the best and the worst of you and I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are. You're a hell of a woman. You're the one!” 

(With apologies to William the Bloody)

Cash and Currency

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 8 Feb, 2018.

Helen Gurley Brown once said, “Money, if it doesn’t bring you happiness, will at least help you be miserable in comfort.” Money, cash, currency – these things are all integral to our daily lives, and yet we don’t always know what makes it so. Common tales involve it being an improvement on simple bartering, but archaeologists have taken this myth to town – originally, humanity simply worked on gifts and debts. Yet around the world we all started using commodity money.

In 3000BC, the Mesopotamians used the shekel – the weight of 160 grains of barley. In the America’s, Asia, Australia and Africa, the use of shell money was prevalent – using the shells of the cowry, a type of sea snail. The Lydians (ancient Turks) were the first to introduce gold and silver coins, around 650 to 600 BC. Eventually this system of commodity currency would develop into representative currency, as bank would store the commodity, and the receipts would function as ‘notes.’ This system first started during the Song dynasty in China, and would later spread to Europe after a chapter in Marco Polo’s book, The Travels of Marco Polo, entitled ‘How the Great Kaan Causeth the Bark of Trees, Made Into Something Like Paper, to Pass for Money All Over his Country’ became widely read. 

During the 17th to 19th centuries, paper currency slowly replaced gold coins as a representative currency, and before long, use of actual gold was discouraged. Most currencies were pegged to gold. After World War II and the Bretton Woods conference, currencies were instead pegged to the US Dollar, which was pegged to gold, given that the US had the greatest gold reserves in the world. But the oil crisis of 1971 resulted in Richard Nixon abandoning the gold standard, and since then, paper money was backed by law only. In particular, governments impose taxes, which are only payable in legal tender, creating demand for that currency.

Why do we find money so useful, then? When William Stanley Jevons analysed the reasons back in 1875, he found four functions, elegantly summarized as “Money’s a matter of functions four. A Medium, a Measure, a Standard, a Store.” Modern economists now consider only three functions, however – a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value. 

We can immediately recognize the value of money as a medium of exchange. Without it, we’d have to barter, and to buy something at the supermarket, you’d have to have something the supermarket wanted as well. Money thus functions as an intermediary – you can give the supermarket money, and they can exchange that for what they need from someone else.

Its function as a store of value is also quite recognizable – you can save money to use later! Here, of course, is where the problem of inflation creeps in. However, inflation can usually be countered by saving money where it bears interest – if the interest paid is greater than inflation, your money holds its value. It is why money fails in a hyperinflationary economy, like that of Zimbabwe a few years ago. It fails as a medium of exchange when you cannot be certain that the money you received can be counted on to be the same value later, when you want to use it.

Finally, money is a unit of account – without money, accounting could not exist! It allows you to accurately measure your income and expenses, and make sure you don’t spend more than you’ve earned, as all expenses (or goods and services consumed) can be tracked with their prices over periods of time. It allows us to borrow money, purchase houses, and pay it off over time. And, of course, this is how government imposes taxes. 

Recently, however, there has emerged a new form of currency – cryptocurrency. Usually identified as the ‘coin’ that started this new trend, Bitcoin, it uses a technology known as a blockchain. Essentially, this relies on an open, public and encrypted ledger that verifies transactions based on computations done by volunteer networks of computers across the globe. These charge transaction fees for transactions verified, while also attempting to ‘mine’ new coins by discovering the relevant cryptographic keys.

The technology is quite innovative, and presents many solution for disparate transaction systems, but its proponents are arguing that it has the potential to replace our other forms of money. But does it provide the same functions as money? As a medium of exchange, it’s certainly making inroads – worldwide, many businesses already accept bitcoin, and with its recent popularity, that number is certain to rise. 

As a store of value, however… A year ago, a bitcoin was worth 942 USD, and in December 2017 it peaked at USD 19500. At time of writing, it has been hovering between USD 6000 and USD 9500 just over the last week. It does not seem to be quite stable and is thus unlikely to function as a store of value. As a unit of account – well, given its unstable value, it remains unlikely to be able to be used as a unit of account by person or companies, and I believe that until a government start accepting bitcoin to pay taxes, that will remain so for the foreseeable future. 

In Namibia, this is actually a moot point. The Bank of Namibia has released a Position Paper back in September 2017 that stipulated that there is no legal provision for the establishment of virtual currency exchanges in Namibia, and stated that it is not legal tender in Namibia. Bitcoin has become quite popular due to its rapid rise in value, with many ‘investing’ in bitcoin, but it should be remembered that as it currently stands, it is not money – it is a speculative investment. With no wealth created by itself, it rather transfers wealth with the changes in its value – it’s a zero-sum game. So while you can make lots of money quickly, it is also possible to lose it rather quickly as well, as the last month’s price fluctuations have shown. In the end, the only way to really become rich is slowly, with blood, sweat and tears.