2865: The Wrong Stuff
|The Wrong Stuff
Title text: The phantom found Edward Everett Hale a century too early; by the time we invented satellites, the specifics of his 'brick moon' proposal were dismissed as science fiction.
Multiple times in history, there have been incidents where companies, governments, and engineers have proposed or developed plans for large vehicles composed of unconventional materials. One example is Project Habakkuk (mentioned in the comic), an aircraft carrier which was to be composed of pykrete, a mixture of wood pulp and ice. The comic imagines that all of these proposals are linked together by a single "Material Phantom," a ghost which haunts engineers and convinces them to design giant vehicles made of impractical materials.
The three "wrong material vehicles" mentioned in the comic are:
- The Spruce Goose - The largest flying boat ever made, in spite of its name, almost entirely out of birch wood. Most modern planes of that era were being constructed out of aluminum or some other metal/alloy. Due to wartime restrictions on aluminum usage, the use of birch wood was the next best option. The development of the aircraft was highly troubled due to various factors (including building in wood at an unprecedented scale), and the designers were accused of war-profiteering with an impossible design. The plane did make a single 26-second flight in 1947, well after the end of the war, but all it did was merely prove that the concept was possible. The plane is currently on display at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, United States. Other wooden aircraft of that era, such as the De Havilland Mosquito, were highly successful. Many early planes made use of wood in their construction, and the skills and knowledge to build an airframe of that kind were still readily available in that era, in a way that they might not be today.
- Project Habakkuk - A proposed aircraft carrier whose hull was to be made out of pykrete (a mixture of wood pulp and ice). It would have been able to be easily camouflaged as an innocuous iceberg, and it was both stronger than steel (which the Mythbusters proved in a 2008 episode) and did not require voids between the structural elements in order to be buoyant (so could absorb a lot of damage and cannot spring leaks). Although the project excited great enthusiasm from Churchill, it quickly became clear that Pykrete did not scale well as a material, needing to be super-cooled to prevent creep, requiring a massive cooling system causing expense and engineering challenges to mount until it was concluded that it would cheaper to build traditional steel-alloy hulls, from which ships continue to be built today, given that large quantities of metal were pulled in to prevent the ship from warping under its own mass via extra cooling and structural support. There were also now airfields available to use in various Atlantic islands that could close the air-gap in coverage without having to (effectively) build their own floating island from scratch. The abandoned prototype lasted for several years before it finally melted.
- Trojan Horse - A mythological, giant wooden horse, supposedly used by the Greeks to invade the city of Troy. Actual horses are composed, like any other animal, out of meat, bone, and other tissues and bodily fluids. In addition, the interior of the Trojan Horse was composed of Greek warriors rather than horse innards.
The title text references 19th-century author Edward Everett Hale and his science fiction novella The Brick Moon, the earliest known depiction of an artificial satellite and a scientifically-accurate GPS system in fiction. The satellite was made from brick as it is a refractory ceramic material capable of dealing with high heats. The novella is, of course, just a sci-fi story, but the title text states that Hale was actually approached by the Material Phantom, and the novella was a serious proposal for a moon made out of bricks. Ceramics are widely used in spacecraft today, largely as part of thermal protection systems, as they are lighter than most metals and able to withstand high temperatures.
The title "the Wrong Stuff" may be a play on The Right Stuff, a book/movie/TV series about the pilots engaged in U.S. postwar research with experimental rocket-powered, high-speed aircraft and the astronauts of Project Mercury. In that title, "the right stuff" refers to the figurative material that these men were made of which gave them the bravery to embark on these missions.
This comic was uploaded with the "the" in "the Wrong Stuff" being entirely lowercase, breaking the normal title case used for XKCD comic titles. Possibly another word was initially intended to come before "the", in which case lowercasing "the" would be correct. xkcd displays lowercase letters in titles with small caps, making the lowercase "the" less obvious than it is in the true lowercase used on explainxkcd.
However, it's worth noting that the comic title has since been changed to "The Wrong Stuff," with "the" capitalized as per standard title case.
Every September, Adult Fans of Lego who like spaceships have a month long build event called SHIPtember (SHIP stands for Seriously Huge Investment in Parts) where spaceships are actually built out of bricks: Lego bricks!
|This transcript is incomplete. Please help editing it! Thanks.
- [A ghost is approaching Cueball in a workshop. They are surrounded by shop equipment, such as a table with a press on it, and a small pile of what appears to be lumber. Cueball is backing away from the ghost, holding his hands up defensively.]
- Ghost: oooOOOOOOoooo
- [The "ooooo"s of the ghost are written in wavy letters of varying sizes]
- Ghost: Build a spaceship out of bricks!
- Ghost: oooooOOOOOOOOoo
- Cueball: No! Go away!
- [Caption below the panel:]
- The Spruce Goose, the Project Habakkuk Ice Ship, and the Trojan Horse were all work of the Material Phantom, a ghost that wanders the Earth convincing engineers to make giant vehicles out of the wrong stuff.
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