Steam Locomotive

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 13th, 2013

Technology 101

The Steam Locomotive was one of the Few Technologies that wasn’t replaced by a Superior Technology 

Man first used stone tools about two and a half million years ago.  We first controlled fire for our use about a million years ago.  We first domesticated animals and began farming a little over 10,000 years ago.  The Egyptians were moving goods by boats some 5,000 years ago.  The Greeks and Romans first used the water wheel for power about 2,500 years ago. The Industrial Revolution began about 250 years ago.  James Watt improved the steam engine about 230 years ago.  England introduced the first steam locomotive into rail service about 210 years ago. 

In the first half of the 1800s the United States started building its railroads.  Helping the North to win the Civil War.  And completing the transcontinental railroad in 1869.  By 1890 there were about 130,000 miles of track crisscrossing the United States.  With the stream locomotives growing faster.  And more powerful.  These massive marvels of engineering helped the United States to become the number one economic power in the world.  As her vast resources and manufacturing centers were all connected by rail.  These powerful steam locomotives raced people across the continent.  And pulled ever longer—and heavier—freight trains.

We built bigger and bigger steam locomotives.  That had the power to pull freight across mountains.  To race across the Great Plains.  And into our cities.  With the chugging sound and the mournful steam whistle filling many a childhood memories.  But by the end of World War II the era of steam was over.  After little more than a century.  Barely a blip in the historical record.  Yet it advanced mankind in that century like few other technological advances.   Transforming the Industrial Revolution into the Second Industrial Revolution.  Or the Technological Revolution.  That gave us the steel that built America.  Electric Power.  Mass production.  And the production line.  None of which would have happened without the steam locomotive.  It was one of the few technologies that wasn’t replaced by a superior technology.  For the steam locomotive was more powerful than the diesel-electric that replaced it.  But the diesel-electric was far more cost-efficient than the steam locomotive. Even if you had to lash up 5 diesels to do the job of one steam locomotive.

The Hot Gases from the Firebox pass through the Boiler Tubes to Boil Water into Steam

The steam engine is an external combustion engine.  Unlike the internal combustion engine the burning of fuel did not move a piston.  Instead burning fuel produced steam.  And the expansion energy in steam moved the piston.  The steam locomotive is a large but compact boiler on wheels.  At one end is a firebox that typically burned wood, coal or oil.  At the other end is the smokebox.  Where the hot gases from the firebox ultimately vent out into the atmosphere through the smokestack.  In between the firebox and the smokebox are a bundle of long pipes.  Boiler tubes.  The longer the locomotive the longer the boiler tubes. 

To start a fire the fireman lights something to burn with a torch and places it on the grating in the firebox.  As this burns he may place some pieces of wood on it to build the fire bigger.  Once the fire is strong he will start shoveling in coal.  Slowly but surely the fire grows hotter.  The hot gases pass through the boiler tubes and into the smokebox.  And up the smoke stack.  Water surrounds the boiler tubes.  The hot gases in the boiler tubes heat the water around the tubes.  Boiling it into steam.  Slowly but surely the amount of water boiled into steam grows.  Increasing the steam pressure in the boiler.  At the top of the boiler over the boiler tubes is a steam dome.  A high point in the boiler where steam under pressure collects looking for a way out of the boiler.  Turned up into the steam dome is a pipe that runs down and splits into two.  Running to the valve chest above each steam cylinder.  Where the steam pushes a piston back and forth.  Which connects to the drive wheels via a connecting rod.

When the engineer moves the throttle level it operates a variable valve in the steam dome.  The more he opens this valve the more steam flows out of the boiler and into the valve chests.  And the greater the speed.  The valve in the valve chest moved back and forth.  When it moved to one side it opened a port into the piston cylinder behind the piston to push it one way.  Then the valve moved the other way.  Opening a port on the other side of the piston cylinder to allow steam to flow in front of the piston.  To push it back the other way.  As the steam expanded in the cylinder to push the piston the spent steam exhausted into the smoke stack and up into the atmosphere.  Creating a draft that helped pull the hot gases from the firebox through the boiler tubes, into the smokebox and out the smoke stack.  Creating the chugging sound from our childhood memories.

The Challenger and the Big Boy were the Superstars of Steam Locomotives

To keep the locomotive moving required two things.  A continuous supply of fuel and water.  Stored in the tender trailing the locomotive.  The fireman shoveled coal from the tender into the firebox.  What space the coal wasn’t occupying in the tender was filled with water.  The only limit on speed and power was the size of the boiler.  The bigger the firebox the hotter the fire.  And the hungrier it was for fuel.  The bigger locomotives required a mechanized coal feeder into the firebox as a person couldn’t shovel the coal fast enough.  Also, the bigger the engine the greater the weight.  The greater the weight the greater the wear and tear on the rail.  Like trucks on the highway railroads had a limit of weight per axel.  So as the engines got bigger the more wheels there were ahead of the drive wheels and trailing the drive wheels.  For example, the Hudson 4-6-4 had two axels (with four wheels) ahead of the drive wheels.  Three axles (with 6 wheels) connected to the pistons that powered the train.  And two axels (with four wheels) trailing the drive wheels to help support the weight of the firebox.

To achieve ever higher speeds and power over grades required ever larger boilers.  For higher speeds used a lot of steam.  Requiring a huge firebox to keep boiling water into steam to maintain those higher speeds.  But greater lengths and heavier boilers required more wheels.  And more wheels did not turn well in curves.  Leading to more wear and tear on the rails.  Enter the 4-6-6-4 Challenger.  The pinnacle of steam locomotive design.  To accommodate this behemoth on curves the designers reintroduced the articulating locomotive.  They split up the 12 drive wheels of the then most powerful locomotive in service into two sets of 6.  Each with their own set of pistons.  While the long boiler was a solid piece the frame underneath wasn’t.  It had a pivot point.  The first set of drive wheels and the four wheels in front of them were in front of this pivot.  And the second set of drive wheels and the trailing 4 wheels that carried the weight of the massive boiler on the Challenger were behind this pivot.  So instead of having one 4-6-6-4 struggling through curves there was one 4-6 trailing one 6-4.  Allowing it to negotiate curves easier and at greater speeds.

The Challenger was fast.  And powerful.  It could handle just about any track in America.  Except that over the Wasatch Range between Green River, Wyoming and Ogden, Utah.  Here even the Challenger couldn’t negotiate those grades on its own.  These trains required double-heading.  Two Challengers with two crews (unlike lashing up diesels today where one crew operates multiple units from one cab).  And helper locomotives.  This took a lot of time.  And cost a lot of money.  So to negotiate these steep grades Union Pacific built the 4-8-8-4 articulated Big Boy.  Basically the Challenger on steroids.  The Big Boy could pull anything anywhere.  The Challenger and the Big Boy were the superstars of steam locomotives.  But these massive boilers on wheels required an enormous amount of maintenance.  Which is why they lasted but 20 years in service.  Replaced by tiny little diesel-electric locomotives.  That revolutionized railroading.  Because they were so less costly to maintain and operate.  Even if you had to use 7 of them to do what one Big Boy could do.


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Generator, Current, Voltage, Diesel Electric Locomotive, Traction Motors, Head-End Power, Jet, Refined Petroleum and Plug-in Hybrid

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 6th, 2012

Technology 101

When the Engineer advances the Throttle to ‘Run 1’ there is a Surge of Current into the Traction Motors

Once when my father suffered a power outage at his home I helped him hook up his backup generator.  This was the first time he used it.  He had sized it to be large enough to run the air conditioner as Mom had health issues and didn’t breathe well in hot and humid weather.  This outage was in the middle of a hot, sweltering summer.  So they were eager to get the air conditioner running again.  Only one problem.  Although the generator was large enough to run the air conditioner, it was not large enough to start it.  The starting in-rush of current was too much for the generator.  The current surged and the voltage dropped as the generator was pushed beyond its operating limit.  Suffice it to say Mom suffered during that power outage.

Getting a diesel-electric locomotive moving is very similar.  The massive diesel engine turns a generator.  When the engineer advances the throttle to ‘Run 1’ (the first notch) there is a surge of current into the traction motors.  And a drop in voltage.  As the current moves through the rotor windings in the traction motors it creates an electrical field that fights with the stator electrical field.  Creating a tremendous amount of torque.  Which slowly begins to turn the wheels.  As the wheels begin to rotate less torque is required and the current decreases and voltage increases.  Then the engineer advances the throttle to ‘Run 2’ and the current to the traction motors increases again.  And the voltage falls again.  Until the train picks up more speed.  Then the current falls and the voltage rises.  And so on until the engineer advances the throttle all the way to ‘Run 8’ and the train is running at speed. 

The actual speed is controlled by the RPMs of the diesel engine and fuel flow to the cylinders. Which is what the engineer is doing by advancing the throttle.  In a passenger train there are additional power needs for the passenger cars.  Heating, cooling, lights, etc.  The locomotive typically provides this Head-End Power (HEP).  The General Electric Genesis Series I locomotive (the aerodynamic locomotive engines on the majority of Amtrak’s trains), for example, has a maximum of 800 kilowatts of HEP available.  But there is a tradeoff in traction power that moves the train towards its destination.  With a full HEP load a 4,250 horsepower rated engine can only produce 2,525 horsepower of traction power.  Or a decrease of about 41% in traction horsepower due to the heating, cooling, lighting, etc., requirements of the passenger cars.  But because passenger cars are so light they can still pull many of them with one engine.  Unlike their freight counterparts.  Where it can take a lashup of three engines or more to move a heavy freight train to its destination.  Without any HEP sapping traction horsepower.

There is so much Energy available in Refined Petroleum that we can carry Small Amounts that take us Great Distances

The largest cost of flying a passenger jet is jet fuel.  That’s why they make planes out of aluminum.  To make them light.  Airbus and Boeing are using ever more composite materials in their latest planes to reduce the weight further still.  New engine designs improve fuel economy.  Advances in engine design allow bigger and more powerful engines.  So 2 engines can do the work it took 4 engines to do a decade or more ago.  Fewer engines mean less weight.  And less fuel.  Making the plane lighter and more fuel efficient.  They measure all cargo and count people to determine the total weight of plane, cargo, passengers and fuel.  So the pilot can calculate the minimum amount of fuel to carry.  For the less fuel they carry the lighter the plane and the more fuel efficient it is.   During times of high fuel costs airlines charge extra for every extra pound you bring aboard.  To either dissuade you from bringing a lot of extra dead weight aboard.  Or to help pay the fuel cost for the extra weight when they can’t dissuade you.

It’s similar with cars.  To meet strict CAFE standards manufacturers have been aggressively trying to reduce the weight of their vehicles.  Using front-wheel drive on cars saved the excess weight of a drive shaft.  Unibody construction removed the heavy frame.  Aerodynamic designs reduced wind resistance.  Use of composite materials instead of metal reduced weight.  Shrinking the size of cars made them lighter.  Controlling the engine by a computer increased engine efficiencies and improved fuel economy.  Everywhere manufacturers can they have reduced the weight of cars and improved the efficiencies of the engine.  While still providing the creature comforts we enjoy in a car.  In particular heating and air conditioning.  All the while driving great distances on a weekend getaway to an amusement park.  Or a drive across the country on a summer vacation.  Or on a winter ski trip.

This is something trains, planes and automobiles share.  The ability to take you great distances in comfort.  And what makes this all possible?  One thing.  Refined petroleum.  There is so much energy available in refined petroleum that we can carry small amounts of it in our trains, planes and automobiles that will take us great distances.  Planes can fly halfway across the planet on one fill-up.  Trains can travel across numerous states on one fill-up.  A car can drive up to 6 hours or more doing 70 MPH on the interstate on one fill-up.  And keep you warm while doing it in the winter.  And cool in the summer.  For the engine cooling system transfers the wasted heat of the internal combustion engine to a heating core inside the passenger compartment to heat the car.  And another belt slung around an engine pulley drives an air conditioner compressor under the hood to cool the passenger compartment.  Thanks to that abundant energy in refined petroleum creating all the power under the hood we need.

The Opportunity Cost of the Plug-in Hybrid is giving up what the Car Originally gave us – Freedom 

And then there’s the plug-in hybrid car.  That shares some things in common with the train, plane and (gasoline-powered) automobile.  Only it doesn’t do anything as well.  Primarily because of the limited range of the battery.  Electric traction motors draw a lot of current.  But a battery’s storage capacity is limited.  Some batteries offer only about 20-30 miles of driving distance on a charge.  Which is great if you use a car for very, very short commutes.  But as few do manufacturers add a backup gasoline engine so the car can go almost as far as a gasoline-powered car.  It probably could go as far if it wasn’t for that heavy battery and generator it was dragging around with it.

This is but one of many tradeoffs required in a plug-in hybrid car.  Most of these cars are tiny to make them as light as possible.  For the lighter the car is the less current it takes to get it moving.  But adding a backup gasoline engine and generator only makes the car heavier.  Thus reducing its electric range.  Making it more like a conventional car for a trip longer than 20-30 miles.  Only one that gets a poorer fuel economy.  Because of the extra weight of the battery and generator.  Manufacturers have even addressed this problem by reducing the range of the car.  If people don’t drive more than 10 miles on a typical trip they don’t need such a large battery.  Which is ideal if you use your car to go no further than you normally walk.  A smaller battery means less weight due to the lesser storage capacity required to travel that lesser range.  Another tradeoff is the heating and cooling of the car.  Without a gasoline engine on all of the time these cars have to use electric heat.  And an electric motor to drive the air conditioner compressor.  (Some heating and cooling systems will operate when the car is plugged in to conserve battery charge for the initial climate adjustment).  So in the heat of summer and the cold of winter you can scratch off another 20% of your electric range (bringing that 20 miles down to 16 miles).  Not as bad as on a passenger locomotive.  But with its large tanks of diesel fuel that train can still take you across the country.

The opportunity cost of the plug-in hybrid is giving up what the car originally gave us.  Freedom.  To get out on the open road just to see where it would take us.  For if you drive a long commute or like to take long trips your hybrid is just going to be using the backup gasoline engine for most of that driving.  While dragging around a lot of excess weight.  To make up for some lost fuel economy some manufacturers use a gasoline engine with high compression.  Unfortunately, high compression engines require the more expensive premium (higher octane) gasoline.  Which costs more at the pump.  There eventually comes the point we should ask ourselves why bother?  Wouldn’t life and driving be so much simpler with a gasoline-powered car?  Get fuel economy with a range of over 300 miles?  Guess it all depends on what’s more important.  Being sensible.  Or showing others that you’re saving the planet.


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Corduroy Roads, Positive Buoyancy, Negative Buoyancy, Carbon Dioxide, Crush Depth, Pressurization, Rapid Decompression and Space

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 9th, 2012

Technology 101

Early Submarines could not Stay Submerged for Long for the Carbon Dioxide the Crew Exhaled built up to Dangerous Levels

People can pretty much walk anywhere.  As long as the ground is fairly solid beneath our feet.  Ditto for horses.  Though they tend to sink a little deeper in the softer ground than people do.  Carts are another story.  And artillery trains.  For their narrow wheels and heavy weight distributed on them tend to sink when the earthen ground is wet.  Early armies needing to move cannon and wagons through swampy areas would first build roads through these areas.  Out of trees.  Called corduroy roads.  It was a bumpy ride.  But you could pull heavy loads with small footprints through otherwise impassable areas.  As armies mechanized trucks and jeeps with fatter rubber tires replaced the narrow wheels on wagons.  Then tracked vehicles came along.  Allowing the great weights of armored vehicles with large guns to move across open fields.  The long and wide footprints of these vehicles distributing that heavy weight over a larger area.  Still, nothing can beat the modern rubber tire on a paved road for a smooth ride.  And the lower resistance between tire and road increases gas mileage.  Which is why trucks like to use as few axles on their trailers as possible.  For the more tires on the road the more friction between truck and road.  And the higher fuel consumption to overcome that friction.  Which is why we have to weigh trucks for some try to cheat by pulling heavier loads with too few axles.  When they do the high weight distributed through too few wheels will cause great stresses on the roadway.  Causing them to break and crumble apart.   

Man and machine can move freely across pretty much anything.  If we don’t carry food and water with us we could even ‘live off the land’.  But one thing we can’t do is walk or drive on water.  We have to bridge streams and rivers.  Go around lakes.  Or move onto boats.  Which can drive on water.  If they are built right.  And are buoyant.  Because if a boat weighed less than the water it displaced it floated.  Much like a pair of light-weight, spongy flip-flops made out of foam rubber.  Throw a pair into the water and they will float.  Put them on your feet and step into the deep end of a pool and you’ll sink.  Because when worn on your feet the large weight of your body distributed to the light pair of flip-flops makes those flip-flops heavier than the water they displace.  And they, along with you, sink.  Unlike a boat.  Which is lighter than the water it displaces.  As long as it is not overloaded.  Even if it’s steel.  Or concrete.  You see, the weight of the boat includes all the air inside the hull.  So a large hull filled with cargo AND air will be lighter than the water it displaces.  Which is why boats float. 

Early sail ships had great range.  As long as the wind blew.  Their range only being limited by the amount of food and fresh water they carried.  Later steam engines and diesel-electric engines had greater freedom in navigation not having to depend on the prevailing winds.  But they had the same limitations of food and water.  And when we took boats under the water we had another limitation.  Fresh air.  Early submarines could not stay submerged for long.  For underwater they could not pull air into a diesel-electric engine.  So they had to run on batteries.  Which had a limited duration.  So early subs spent most of their time on the surface.  Where they could run their diesel engines to recharge their batteries.  And open their hatches to get fresh air into the boat.  For when submerged the carbon dioxide the crew exhaled built up.  If it built up too much you could become disoriented and pass out.  And die.  If a sub is under attack staying under water for too long and the levels of carbon dioxide build up to dangerous levels a captain has little choice but to surface and surrender.  So the crew can breathe again.

Rapid Decompression at Altitude can be Catastrophic and Violent

Being in a submarine has been historically one of the more dangerous places to be in any navy (second to being on the deck of an aircraft carrier).  Just breathing on a sub had been a challenge at times while trying to evade an enemy destroyer.  But there are other risks, too.  Some things float.  And some things sink.  A submarine is somewhere in between.  It will float on the surface when it has positive buoyancy.  And sink when it has negative buoyancy.  But submarines operate in the oceans.  Which are very deep.  And the deeper you go the greater the pressure of the water.  Because the deeper you go there is more ocean above you pressing down on you.  And oceans are heavy.  If a sub goes too deep this pressure will crush the steel hull like a beer can.  What we call crush depth.  Killing everyone on board.  So a sub cannot go too deep.  Which makes going below the surface a delicate and risky business.  To submerge they flood ballast tanks.  Replacing air within the hull with water.  Making it sink.  Other tanks fill with water as necessary to ‘trim’ the boat.  Make it level under water.  When under way they use forward propulsion to maintain depth and trim with control surfaces like on an airplane.  If everything goes well a submarine can sink.  Then stop at a depth below the surface.  And then resurface.  Modern nuclear submarines can make fresh water and clean air.  So they can stay submerged as long as they have food for the crew to eat.

An airplane has no such staying power like a sub.  For planes have nothing to keep them in air but forward propulsion.  So food and water are not as great an issue.  Fuel is.  And is the greatest limitation on a plane.  In the military they have special airplanes that fly on station to serve as gas stations in the air for fighters and bombers.  To extend their range.  And it is only fuel they take on.  For other than very long-range bombers a flight crew is rarely in the air for extended hours at a time.  Some bomber crews may be in the air for a day or more.  But there are few crew members.  So they can carry sufficient food and water for these longer missions.  As long as they can fly they are good.  And fairly comfortable.  Unlike the earlier bomber crews.  Who flew in unpressurized planes.  For it is very cold at high altitudes.  And there isn’t enough oxygen to breathe.  So these crew members had to wear Arctic gear to keep from freezing to death.  And breathe oxygen they carried with them in tanks.  Pressurizing aircraft removed these problems.  Which made being in a plane like being in a tall building on the ground.  Your ears may pop but that’s about all the discomfort you would feel.  If a plane lost its pressurization while flying, though, it got quite uncomfortable.  And dangerous. 

Rapid decompression at altitude can be catastrophic.  And violent.  The higher the altitude the lower the air pressure.  And the faster the air pressure inside the airplane equals the air pressure outside the airplane.  The air will get suck out so fast that it’ll take every last piece of dust with it.  And breathable air.  Oxygen masks will drop in the passenger compartment.  The flight attendants will scramble to make sure all passengers get on oxygen.  As does the flight crew.  Who call in an emergency.  And make an emergency descent to get below 10 thousand feet.  Almost free falling out of the sky while air traffic control clears all traffic from beneath them.  Once below 10 thousand feet they can level off and breathe normally.  But it will be very, very cold.

Man’s Desire is to Go where no Man has Gone before and where no Human Body should Be

Space flight shares some things in common with both submarines and airplanes.  Like airplanes they can’t fly without fuel.  The greatest distance we’ve ever flown in space was to the moon and back.  The Saturn V rocket of the Apollo program was mostly fuel.   The rocket was 354 feet tall.  And about 75% of it was a fuel tank.  In 3 stages.  The first stage burned for about 150 seconds.  The second stage burned for about 360 seconds.  The third stage burned for about 500 seconds (in two burns, the first to get into earth orbit and the second to escape earth orbit).  Add that up and it comes to approximately 16 minutes.  After that the astronauts were then coasting at about 25,000 miles per hour towards the moon.  Or where the moon would be when they get there.  The pull of earth’s gravity slowed it down until the pull of the moon’s gravity sped it back up.  So that’s a lot of fuel burned at one time to hurl the spacecraft towards the moon.  The remaining fuel on board used for minor course corrections.  And to escape lunar orbit.  For the coast back home.  There was no refueling available in space.  So if something went wrong there was a good chance that the spacecraft would just float forever through the universe with no way of returning home.  Much like a submarine that can’t keep from falling in the ocean.  If it falls too deep it, too, will be unable to return home.

Also like in a submarine food and fresh water are critical supplies.  They brought food with them.  And made their own water in space with fuel cells.  It had to last for the entire trip.  About 8 days.  For in space there were no ports or supply ships.  You were truly on your own.  And if something happened to your food and water supply you didn’t eat or drink.  If the failure was early in the mission you could abort and return home.  If you were already in lunar orbit it would make for a long trip home.  The lack of food and hydration placing greater stresses on the astronauts making the easiest of tasks difficult.  And the critical ones that got you through reentry nearly impossible.  Also like on a submarine fresh air to breathe is critical.  Even more so because of the smaller volume of the spacecraft.  Which can fill up with carbon dioxide very quickly.  And unlike a sub a spacecraft can’t open a hatch for fresh air.  All they can do is rely on a scrubber system to remove the carbon dioxide from their cramped quarters.

While a submarine has a thick hull to protect it from the crushing pressures of the ocean an airplane has a thin aluminum skin to keep a pressurized atmosphere inside the aircraft.  Just like a spacecraft.  But unlike an aircraft, a spacecraft can’t drop below 10,000 feet to a breathable atmosphere in the event of a catastrophic depressurization.  Worse, in the vacuum of space losing your breathable atmosphere is the least of your troubles.  The human body cannot function in a vacuum.  The gases in the lungs will expand in a vacuum and rupture the lungs.  Bubbles will enter the bloodstream.  Water will boil away (turn into a gas).  The mouth and eyes will dry out and lose their body heat through this evaporation.  The water in muscle and soft tissue will boil away, too.  Causing swelling.  And pain.  Dissolved nitrogen in the blood will reform into a gas.  Causing the bends.  And pain.  Anything exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation will get a severe sunburn.  Causing pain.  You will be conscious at first.  Feeling all of this pain.  And you will know what is coming next.  Powerless to do anything about it.  Brain asphyxiation will then set in.  Hypoxia.  The body will be bloated, blue and unresponsive.  But the brain and heart would continue on.  Finally the blood boils.  And the heat stops.  In all about a minute and half to suffer and die.

Man is an adventurer.  From the first time we walked away from our home.  Rode the first horse.  Harnessed the power of steam.  Then conquered the third dimension in submarines, airplanes and spacecraft.  We are adventurers.  It’s why we crossed oceans and discovered the new world.  Why we climbed the highest mountains.  And descended to the oceans’ lowest depth.  Why we fly in airplanes.  And travelled to the moon and back.  When things worked well these were great adventures.  When they did not they were horrible nightmares.  While a few seek this adventure most of us are content to walk the surface of the earth.  To feel the sand through our toes.   Or walk to the poolside bar in our flip-flops.  To enjoy an adult beverage on a summer’s day.  While adventurers are still seeking out something new.  And waiting on technology to allow them to go where no man has gone before.  Especially if it’s a place no human body should be.


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