Loudon’s Law

I was writing up some documentation about Amazon Web Services and Docker recently, and after I explained how the pieces fit together, I added: but — Loudon’s Law — it’s more complicated than that!

Jim Loudon (1944-1988) was, of all things, a self-described professional space popularizer.  He joked that he would do private talks, public lectures, weddings, and bar mitzvahs — as long as people wanted to hear about space!

Jim had an amazing ability to lecture at great length and in great detail about space history, physics, rocket launches… with robust humor, and yet manage to keep most people glued to their seats to hear the next bit.  Jim is part of the reason I ended up in Ann Arbor: while I was studying and teaching at Wayne State in Detroit, people told me I had to go to Ann Arbor just to hear this guy.  After several trips to hear his monthly talks, I started to wonder why I was still in Detroit…

Jim’s inevitable punch line — after explaining some abstruse concept in loving detail, where you could see the audience all nodding their heads in understanding — was to take a beat, turn back with an abrupt laugh — and intone:

“But it’s more complicated than that!”

And he’d be right.  And then he’d explain some more.  Even when the lecture was over, the final hangers-on (myself included) would go out to dinner, and he’d keep telling even more details, and more stories. That’s when I heard him first call it “Loudon’s Law”, and it stuck.

There is more information, and recordings of some of his talks, at Richard and Dolores Hill’s Jim Loudon Observatory site.

A few stories that I remember:

  • After the very first launch of the space-shuttle Columbia, Jim brought in some spare shuttle tiles, and passed them around.  They were incredibly light.  He learned (though many contacts at NASA and JPL) that for the first flight or two, they used many hundreds of individual spray cans of water-proofing on the tiles, because some genius realized very late in the game, that the tiles could soak up a lot of water in the humid Florida atmosphere.  Eventually NASA bought huge tanks of the stuff instead.
  • Jim detailed how the size of the SRB’s that launched the shuttle were determined… in a sense… by a pair of horse’s asses.
  • On a much sadder occasion, after the fatal launch of Challenger, Jim held a combination memorial and explanatory session.  I brought him, and I think he played, a memorial song titled “Minus Ten and Counting”.  The meaning was immediately obvious to him: Grissom, White, Chaffee; Resnik, Scobee, Smith, Onizuka, McNair, Jarvis, McAuliffe.


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