A Powerful Idea

The back story

2 min read

In 1975, Carolyn Meinel was editing a quirky newsletter, the L5 News , devoted to discussions about space colonization. A common topic was how to get tons of materials into space cheaply, and at the time, one of the most intriguing ideas was to launch them with railguns or coilguns. These would unleash enormous electromagnetic forces to hurl payloads into orbit, in theory much more efficiently than rockets ever could.

Meinel got to witness the first public demonstration of the Mass Driver I, an early coilgun, in 1976. She was hooked. She soon met some of the key electric gun researchers, including Harry D. Fair, a physicist who struck her as being ”optimistic but also intellectually honest,” she says.

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The Great Ventilator Rush

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, engineers launched extraordinary crash programs that produced scores of ventilator designs. What will happen to them now?

14 min read
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Not Rocket Science: Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory built a working ventilator prototype in a 37-day period spanning the months of March and April 2020.
Photo: JPL-Caltech/NASA

The projections were horrifying. Experts were forecasting upwards of 100 million people in the United States infected with the novel coronavirus, with 2 percent needing intensive care, and half of those requiring the use of medical ventilators.

In early March, it seemed as if the United States might need a million ventilators to cope with COVID-19—six times as many as hospitals had at the time. The federal government launched a crash purchasing program for 200,000 of the complex devices, but they would take months to arrive and cost tens of thousands of dollars each.

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