Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Radio 4 Programme On Rise of Eco-Fascism and Anti-Humanism

July 10, 2020

According to next week’s Radio Times for 11-17 July 2020, Monday’s edition of Analysis on Radio 4 is about ‘Humans vs the Planet’. The blurb for the programme on page 119 of the magazine reads

As Covid-19 forced humans into lockdown, memes emerged showing the earth was healing thanks to our absence from nature. These were false claims, but their popularity revealed how seductive the idea that “we are the virus” can be. At its most extreme, this way of thinking leads to eco-fascism, the belief that the harm humans can do to Earth can be reduced by cutting the number of non-White people. But the Green movement is also challenged by a less hateful form of this mentality known as “doomism” – a sense that humans will inevitably cause ecological disaster.

These sentiments have been around for a very long time. Earlier this year, a female professor of Queer philosophy at one of the new universities published her own manifesto for saving the planet. Dubbed ‘professor Goth’ by one of the Conservative news sites that covered the story, she advocates saving the planet through making humanity extinct. It’s a radical, misanthropic, anti-human stance that neither unique nor original to her. About a quarter of a century ago in the mid-90s the radical Green group, VHMNT, was agitating for the same policy. VHMNT, pronounced ‘Vehement’ , stood for Voluntary Human Extinction. It was peaceful and didn’t advocate violence, but wanted humanity to save the planet through voluntary extinction. Those who joined it vowed not to reproduce.

Some left-wing, ecologically aware scientists have been accused of possessing the same mindset, but willing to contemplate much more aggressive tactics. Over a decade ago, back in the early years of this century, Conservatives accused a scientist of advocating the extermination of humanity through disease. He had been speaking at a conference on the ecological crisis, and made some comment about the threat of new diseases to humanity as the environment deteriorates. His defenders argue that he was not advocating it, simply stating that such a disease would arise. Many Conservatives have a deep hatred of the Green movement. At the extremes, they see it as an anti-human, pagan nature cult aimed at the communistic redistribution of wealth and with its origins in Nazism. Hence all the rants by conspiracy-peddler Alex Jones about Obama taking over America by declaring a state of emergency and forcing Americans into FEMA camps and his denunciation of eco-friendly ‘Hobbit homes’.

The SF author, Bruce Sterling, also predicted that there would spring up guerrilla groups also dedicated to the mass culling of humanity to protect the planet. His 1990s novel, Heavy Weather, is set in a Texas turning to desert through the aquifers drying up, devastated through violent hurricanes created by a climate becoming increasingly extreme. These have left masses of Americans homeless, living in refugee camps. The story follows the adventures of the alienated son of one of the rich families, as he falls in with an underground group of outlaw storm chasers. One of the characters he encounters is an angry young man, who belongs to a terrorist organization attempting to save the planet through violence. The man describes how people might be killed by poisoning, after model boats are floated on the water of a reservoir. People die, but nobody is responsible. He compares it to the lynching of Blacks by the Klan. Blacks died, but again, nobody was responsible.

The book was a work of fiction and Sterling is very definitely not a racist or an advocate of such terrorism. It’s simply a a fictional treatment of what might arise if climate change and the deterioration of the environment becomes acute.

As for the hatred of the non-White peoples of the Developing World, this no doubt comes from the fact that families in these nations are traditionally larger than those of western Whites. The birthrate in Britain is actually below the level required for the maintenance of the population at the present level. The country’s population is only increasing due immigration. Without it, it would be falling. Hence the racist alarm at the growth of Britain’s Black and Asian populations. It is the expansion of the human population that is causing the current environmental crisis, but much of this is due to excessive consumption of energy and resources by the Developed West.

The birthrate is also falling in the Developing World as literacy rates rise and these countries modernize. This has led some demographers to fear that instead of a population explosion, as feared in the 1970s, there will be population crash. It’s predicted that this will happen, if at all, sometime around 2050. Fearing a shortage of labour, they predict that states will compete to encourage immigration. It has also been predicted that one of the African countries, that today has a terrible infant mortality rate and left-expectancy, will become the first country to suffer catastrophic population decline.

The programme, Analysis: Humans vs the Planet, is at 8.30 pm in the evening on Radio 4.

No, We Are (Probably) Not Going to See a Black Death Pandemic

July 6, 2020

Mike this morning has put up a piece on his blog reporting that the Chinese city of Bayannur in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, has sounded the alarm after a hospital reported a case of Bubonic Plague. This was the disease, spread by fleas on rodents, which was responsible for the Black Death in 14th century Europe. The disease is believed to have killed a half to two-thirds of the European population and China experienced an even higher number of deaths.

Coming after the Coronavirus pandemic, this all sounds really scary, right? Well, I don’t think there’s any need to panic. Bubonic Plague has still been around in parts of the Developing World, like India for years. There’s no question that it should be wiped out, but it’s now much, much less lethal than its medieval and early modern predecessor. So much so that some historians and microbiologists have wondered if it really is the same disease.

For example, way back in the 1990’s New Scientist carried a piece about an outbreak in India. It was extremely localized. While the people living in one house or set of houses fell ill with the disease, the folks a few doors down were left unscathed. The small scale of Bubonic plague outbreaks, which only mercifully affect a very few, have led some scientists to question whether the Black Death was actually another, far more contagious disease. Back when I was at secondary school, the Beeb’s history series, Timewatch, aired a programme which suggested that the Black Death may instead have been anthrax. I think the symptoms are similar, but anthrax can also be contracted from dead bodies, which Bubonic Plague cannot. This would explain why Medieval people believed even handling the bodies of the dead was dangerous.

There is another, related form of Bubonic Plague, Pneumonic Plague, which is rather more serious as its an airborne disease and so more contagious. But fortunately even the outbreaks of this disease have been far more restricted than the outbreaks of the plague in the Middle Ages and 16th/17th centuries.

Rather more worrying is the news, which was also reported by the Mirror as well as a number of other papers, that a new strain of Swine Flu has developed, which is resistant to current vaccines. I’d consider that a more serious risk, but I don’t think we’re quite in danger of seeing that become a world-wide pandemic just yet.

Obviously, these diseases need to be monitored and are of serious concern to organizations like the World Health Organization, but the chances of either of these becoming another global pandemic like the Coronavirus is probably remote. As for avoiding people who have visited the Far East, I can remember Dr Kevin Fong’s remarks at the Cheltenham Festival of Science during the Bird Flu epidemic. Fong was speaking about space medicine, of which he’s an expert. He was also suffering from a cold and had just come back from Beijing. As he appeared on stage blowing his nose into a handkerchief, he reassured the crowd by saying, ‘Don’t worry – it’s just a cold.’ He explained how he’d just come back from the Chinese capital, and said that it was amazing how much room you could get now on the London Underground as an Asian man. Which was his jokey way of allaying any suspicions.

It might still be best to avoid people, who have travelled to China and neighbouring countries, but that would only be because of the Coronavirus. I’m very sure we aren’t going to see a return of the Plague next.


US Air Force Planned Orbital Warplane 20 Years Ago

July 4, 2020

I found this fascinating piece in the June 1999 issue of the popular science magazine Frontiers. Now 21 years old, it’s still acutely relevant now that Trump has said he’s going to set up a Space Force. The article has the headline Space Fighter Plane, with the subtitle ‘The US Air Force plans to become a Space Force.’ This states that the US air force was developing a fighter that could travel beyond the atmosphere into space. It runs

By the early 2010s US military pilots could be flying scramjet warplanes that can leave the atmosphere behind. Research by the US Air Force’s Air Vehicles Directorate suggests a trans-atmospheric vehicle (TAV) could be built as early as 2013. The intention would be to build a reconnaissance plane or bomber that could reach anywhere in the world within three hours. Flying at Mach 10 the TAV could piggyback a small spaceplane to the top of the atmosphere so it can fly the rest of its way into orbit.

The proposed vehicle is part of a shift in military thinking that will eventually see the US Air Force renamed the Aerospace Force. Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine reports that the Air Force is doubling its £100 million space-related research budget. One intention is to shift surveillance work carried out currently by aircraft such as AWACS to satellites equipped with advanced optics, space-based radar and hyperspectral imaging. To deliver such hardware into orbit the Air Force intends to build an unmanned reusable spaceplane called the Space Manoeuvre Vehicle (SMV).

The other thrust of Air Force research is to perfect space-based lasers that could in principle be used with space-based radar to target enemy ballistic missiles for ‘Star Wars’ operations, or even take out targets on the ground at the speed of light. The downside of such ‘space superiority’ tactics is that satellites will become a tempting target for other nations. Air force researchers aim to maximise satellite ‘survivability’ by flying clusters of satellites that work collectively and whose function can survive the destruction of individual units. (p. 37).

The article has two pictures of the projected space warplane, one of which is a computer simulation.

The caption reads: ‘The Air Force’s Space Manoeuvre Vehicle is the first in a series of planned military spaceplanes.’

As this image’s caption suggests, it appears to be a photo of the plane going through flight tests.

Trump doesn’t seem to be acting alone in demanding a US space force. It looks like he’s following a policy that was suggested at least twenty years, if not longer. I’ve got a couple of books dating from the 1980s about possible future wars in space. As for the space-based lasers, this was one of the projects in Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ programme, or the Space Defence Initiative as it was officially called. Which means in one form or another, Trump’s space force has been floating around the Pentagon for about forty years. ‘Star Wars’ was cancelled due to its massive expense and the fact that it became irrelevant after Glasnost’ and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now it seems that it’s been taken out of the cupboard of bad ideas and dusted out.

I see nothing wrong in transatmospheric spaceplanes, but let them be used for the peaceful exploration and colonisation of space. Trump’s Space Force violates international law and threatens to increase international tensions through the militarisation of space. In Arthur C. Clarke’sand Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, at the time the black monolith is found on the Moon, the Earth’s superpowers have ringed the planet with orbiting nuclear bomb platforms. The Cold War is becoming hot. Right at the end of Clarke’s book, the nuclear missiles are launched only to be stopped by the Star Child, the transformed astronaut Bowman, as he returns to the solar system from his journey to the home system of the monolith’s builders. The book ends with him pondering what to do about the crisis: ‘But he would think of something’.

Trump’s space force threatens a similar nuclear holocaust. But there will be no Star Child to rescue us.


































































BBC 2 Programme Next Week on Possibility of Life on Pluto

July 2, 2020

Way back in the 1970s David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust asked if there was life on Mars. Things have advanced since then, and a new programme on BBC 2 next Monday, 6th July 2020, ponders the possibility that life might exist on the dwarf planet traditionally at the edge of our solar system: Pluto. From being a dead world, Pluto is geologically active and possesses organic chemistry, the building blocks of life. Which raises the question of whether life of some sort exists there.

The programme’s titled Pluto: Back from the Dead and the  blurb for it on page 62 on next week’s Radio Times for 4th – 10th July 2020 reads

New discoveries from the edge of the solar system are transforming what is known about Pluto, thanks to the New Horizons space probe that took the first-ever close up images of the dwarf planet. This Horizon documentary reveals that Pluto, once thought to be geologically dead, is an active world of stunning complexity, with mountains carved from ice, a nitrogen glacier that appears to be moving and a recently active volcano. The data sent back has led some scientists to speculate that there may even be life on Pluto today.

David Butcher’s piece about the programme on page 60 adds

There might be life on Pluto. It sounds far fetched, but that’s the conclusion some scientists have reached, and its one of the unexpected new angles explored in this intriguing edition of Horizon.

The insights come courtesy of New Horizons, a tiny spacecraft that travelled 3.26 billion miles to the edge of the solar system, and sent back amazingly detailed imagery.

It reveals a geologically fertile world with, among other features, a nitrogen glacier and a recently active volcano. Moreover, Pluto’s abundant supply of organic molecules and liquid water suggest some form of alien life might exist.

Pluto isn’t alone in possessing mountains of ice. They also exist on Titan and the other moons of the outer solar system. Titan also possesses organic chemistry, which is why scientists are particularly interested in it for clues about the origin of life on Earth. And it was also at one considered that it too may have life. Carl Sagan also suggested that it might even have volcanoes of frozen gas. There’s an illustration of Titan with one such volcano erupting by the astronomy/science Fiction artist David A. Hardy in his and Patrick Moore’s The New Challenge of the Stars. I don’t know if such volcanoes actually exist there. I haven’t seen anything about the Huygens probe to Saturn and its moons finding any.

Scientists also began speculating that life might also exist in the frozen wastes of the outer solar system after someone suggested that the difference of a few degrees’ temperature between light and shadow on them might be enough to provide the energy to drive life. The quantum physicist and SF author Stephen Baxter expanded this into a short story in his Xelee sequence, collected in the his short story anthology, Vacuum Diagrams. I think that story, however, was set further out in one of the dwarf planets of the Kuiper Belt.

After all this time searching the solar system, I think it’s extremely unlikely that there’s life on Pluto. But who knows, perhaps I’m wrong. It would be truly epoch-making if I was and Pluto did possess a biosphere, even if it was only simply microbial organisms.

The programme’s on BBC 2 at 9.00 pm on Monday, 6th July.


Personal Hobby Rocket Based on NASA Mercury Capsule

June 27, 2020

A little while ago I put up a piece about a paper I had published several years ago in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS). This argued that as flying enthusiasts now attempt to recreate the experience of the great pioneering age of aviation by flying hang-gliders and microlight aircraft, so there is an opportunity for developing personal leisure rockets to take space enthusiasts on very short rocket trips in order to recreate some of the experience of real spaceflight. The rockets and the capsules don’t have to be very large – just enough to carry a single person or so to a height of a few thousand feet.

The problem I found when I was going through the equations for just such a vehicle is that the amount of fuel needed would make a rocket that was actually smaller than the capsule for the hobby ‘astronaut’. It would simply be impossible to follow the conventional rocket design in which the capsule stands atop the rocket, as it would simply overbalance. A few years ago I found a couple of videos from the Danish company, Copenhagen Suborbitals, who were also trying to develop their own, private spacecraft. They seemed to be trying to solve the problem by placing the rocket in front of the personnel capsule, like the arrangement of the escape tower on the manned NASA rockets – Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, which preceded the spaceshuttle.

I think the Mercury rocket would actually make a fitting design for such a small hobby rocket. They were the first American rockets which took men into space, after a series of unmanned, automated tests and then using chimpanzees. The capsules were small, designed for only one man, measuring 2 meters in diameter at their widest point, and about 3 meters tall, not counting the escape tower. The rocket that was initially used for them was the Redstone, and it was a Mercury-Redstone combination that took John Glenn in Friendship 7 on his epoch flight into space. This was a suborbital flight from one side of America to the other.

Mercury Restone rocket from The Space Traveller’s Handbook, Michael Freeman (London: Hamlyn 1979) 54.

Obviously, you don’t want a rocket as powerful as a Redstone, as even a suborbital, transcontinental trip would be too far. You’d only need an arrangement like the Mercury capsule and its escape tower. The escape towers on all the NASA manned rockets supported small, solid fuel rocket motors. If there was a problem with launch rocket, they were designed to carry the capsule to safety. Thus they were developed to take crewed capsules on the kind of very short trips of the kind that a crewed hobby rocket may also make.

Mercury capsule from the above book, page 56.

As a hobby rocket would not actually travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, it would not need retro-rockets and heat shield. It would still obviously need to carry a parachute, which would also still need to be above the rest of the capsule for the safety and stability of the hobby astronaut. I’m thinking of short trips that go up and straight down, with the capsule landing on its base. From the above illustrations it looks like the escape tower rocket minus its aerodynamic spike was 172 cm long and 43 cm wide. Looked at closely, it also seems that it had three nozzles arranged at equal spaces around its base, angled away from the body of the capsule to provide thrust while maintaining stability.

In addition to the problem of stability, the escape tower arrangement also poses some difficulty in that in order for the parachutes to open, the escape rocket itself must be jettisoned. This complicates the design of capsule. It struck me, however, that this could be solved if the single escape rocket was replaced by three solid rockets 572 cm long at the rear of the capsule, spaced at equal distances around its circumference in order to provide stability as shown in my sketch below.

If the rockets and their exhaust nozzles aren’t able to support the weight of the capsule, perhaps landing legs somewhat like those of the lunar module the Apollo astronauts used to land on the Moon could be added.

I’m not a rocket scientist, just an ordinary person who has read some of the science and physics involved, so don’t take this as solid fact. But I think the three rockets together would provide the same amount of thrust as a single rocket of three times the length of one of them. However, as the three rockets would fire together, the actual burn time would be shorter and so imagine it would ascend with a greater acceleration than a single, larger rocket would. But the speed reached, and thus the height after the rockets stopped firing, should be the same.

I think the design’s practical, though it would obviously have to undergo extremely rigorous tests before any aspiring hobby astronaut got anywhere near it. However, there is already a large hobby rocketry milieu. They largely fire off models rockets, but these can be quite large. One group of enthusiasts, according to the magazine High Power Rocketry, sent up a Minuteman missile one year. And last year an American built his own steam rocket which successfully took him a mile up. The man was an eccentric – he wanted to make the journey as he really believed the world was flat and wanted to see if it was round. But his rocket worked, although he lost his life making a subsequent flight. And if one man wants to make an amateur, hobby rocket flight, there are probably others. This is an idea waiting to be developed by professional aerospace technicians and engineers.

But if successful, it would create a new age of personal rocketry and interest and enthusiasm for real spaceflight, just like those flying hang-gliders and microlights are enthusiastic about conventional aircraft.

























































































































































































































































NASA Film Explaining Their Plan to Return to the Moon

June 25, 2020

Here’s a short film from NASA. Narrated by William Shatner, Star Trek’s original Captain Kirk, it explains that the space agency intends to return to the Moon after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first landed there fifty years ago. This time the agency intends to stay.

It discusses some of the problems that have to be overcome, like isolation, radiation, gravity and the harsh environment of space. To get there, NASA has produced the SLS -Space Launch System – rocket, the most powerful yet developed, to lift heavier payloads into space. The crew will be carried by a new space capsule specially developed for the mission, Orion. The film also states that they’re developing new instrument system for exploring the Moon with their commercial partners.

They want to create fully reusable lunar landers that can land anywhere on the Moon’s surface. The simplest way to enable them to do this is to create an orbiting platform – a space station – around the Moon. This will also contain experiments as well as humans, and has been called ‘Gateway’. Gateway has been designed so that it will move between orbits, and balance between the Earth’s and Moon’s gravity.

It was discovered in 2009 that the Moon contains millions of tons of water ice. This can be extracted and purified for use as drinking water, or separated to provide oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for fuel.

They also state that the Moon is uniquely placed to prepare and propel us to Mars and beyond. The film also declaims that humans are the most fragile part of the mission, but humans are at the heart of it. NASA is going back for all humanity, and this time the Moon isn’t a checkpoint, but a way station for everything that lies beyond. Shatner ends with ‘Our greatest adventure lies ahead of us. We are going.’ This last sentence is repeated as a slogan by the many engineers, technicians, astronauts and mission staff shown in the video. They are shown working on the instruments, rocket engines, launch infrastructure, training aircraft, mission control centre, and the huge swimming pool used to train prospective astronauts in zero G. NASA’s staff and crew are both men and women, and people of all races, Black, White and Asian. One of the ladies is Black, clearly following in the footsteps of the three Afro-American female mathematicians who helped put America’s first men in orbit.

It also includes footage of the first Apollo astronauts walking to their Saturn V rocket and landing on the Moon, with computer simulations of the planned missions, as well as Mars and Jupiter.

From the video, it looks like NASA has returned to its original strategy for reaching the Moon. This was to build a space station between the Earth and Moon at which the powerful rockets used for getting out of Earth’s gravity well would dock. Passengers to the Moon would then be transferred to the landers designed to take them down the Moon. These would be less powerful because of the Moon’s lower gravity.

This was the infrastructure of lunar missions that Wernher von Braun originally intended. It’s the plan shown in Floyd’s journey from Earth to Clavius base on the Moon in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. America, however, needed to beat the Russians to the Moon in the space race for geopolitical reasons, and so chose to go directly to the Moon instead of building the intermediate space station. As a result, after the cuts of the 1970s, America and humanity never returned.

There was talk of a commercial mission to the Moon in the 1990s, using Titan-Centaur rockets assembled into a lunar vessel in orbit. Just as there were also confident predictions that by this year, humanity would have put an astronaut on the Moon. Or perhaps a taikonaut, the Chinese term for it. Stephen Baxter in an article on possible Mars missions in this present century suggested that the first person to walk on the red planet would be a Chinese woman. Who knows? The Chinese are making great strides in their space programme, so I think that’s still a real possibility.


Ren Wicks’ painting for NASA of 2019 mission to Mars, from Peter Bond, Reaching For The Stars: The Illustrated History of Manned Spaceflight (London: Cassell 1993).

Fifty years is far too long for us to have stayed away from the Moon. I can remember all the books on space from the 1970s and early ’80s which predicted that by this time there’d be holidays in space, orbital colonies, a base on the Moon and expeditions to Mars and beyond. These haven’t materialised. The last section of Shatner’s voiceover for the video was a piece of oratory designed to evoke JFK’s classic speech, in which he declared America was going to the Moon. ‘We intend, before this decade is out, to put a man on the Moon. We do this, and the other thing, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.’

I wish NASA and all the other space agencies and companies around the world all the very best in realizing the ancient dream of taking people into space. Despite the economic and medical crises caused by the virus, I hope they are successful and in four years’ time put people on the Moon at last. And that this will be just the first in a series of further steps out onto the High Frontier.

As somebody whispered on that fateful day when the Saturn V rocket carrying Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins took off, ‘Godspeed’.
























Radio 4 Programme on DNA and Art

June 25, 2020

Radio 4 are also broadcasting next week what looks like an interesting programme on art and poetry based on DNA science. It’s titled The Art of Now: Recombinant Rhymes and DNA Art. The blurb for it in next week’s Radio Times simply says

Anna McNamee meets the artists and poets collaborating with genetic scientists to create work inspired by biotechnology, examining the connection between DNA and art.

Some genetic engineers and biotech scientists have already used their skills to create works of art. Way back in the ’90s a group of such scientists created specially genetically engineered organisms. This included a cactus that had hairs instead of spines. Later on another pair of scientists created a jacket made out of living skin. I’m not sure whether these creations were art, or simply monsters created by people with twisted morals and a perverse aesthetic sense.

If you want to listen to it, the programme’s on at 11.30 am on Thursday, 2nd July 2020.

Trailer for AppleTV’s ‘Foundation’ Series

June 24, 2020

Here’s another video that has zilch to do with politics. Apparently, the computer giant Apple has, or is launching, their own TV channel. And one of the shows they’ve made for it is an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s epic Foundation series of books. This is one of the works for which Asimov is best remembered, along with his Robot books – I, Robot, The Caves of Steel and others. I, Robot was filmed a few years ago with Will Smith playing a human detective investigating the suicide of a robotics scientist. Together with the chief suspect, a unique robot with free will and a mind of its own, Smith uncovers a conspiracy to take over the city with a new generation of robots. I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know how faithful the movie was to them. Something tells me that they took a few liberties, but I don’t know.

I haven’t read Foundation either, but I gather it’s an epic about an academic, Hari Seldon, who invents the science of psychohistory. Using its techniques, he predicts that the vast galactic empire that is so ancient, no-one actually knows where Earth is anymore, is about to fall into a new Dark Age. He prepares for this by setting up the eponymous Foundation on a barren planet with the intention of collecting all human knowledge in preparation for the restoration of civilization. It’s one of the major influences behind both Frank Herbert’s Dune and George Lucas’ Star Wars. The heart of the galactic empire is Trantor, a world that has become one vast, planet-wide city. This is the model for Coruscant, the city planet which is the capital of the Republic and then the Empire in Star Wars.

The video shows scenes from the new series along with clips of others as they were being shot. There’s also a comment from the director or one of the producers, who says that Asimov was keenly interested in technology, and so would have approved of Apple making the series. There have been attempts to adapt Foundation before, apparently, but they’ve all failed due to the complexity and immense time span covered by the books. I do remember way back in the ’70s there was an LP version, where it was read by William Shatner. Less reverently, back in the ’90s one of the Oxbridge theatre groups decided to stage a play which combined it and Dr. Strangelove, titled Fundament! This ended with a Nazi scientist shouting, ‘Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!’, just like the end of Kubrick’s movie.

Take a look at the trailer. It looks awesome, though unfortunately there have been movies where all the best bits were in the trailer, and the film itself actually dull. I hope this isn’t the case here. My problem with it at the moment is that it’s going to be on another streaming channel, which will mean having to subscribe to that, rather than getting it with a satellite/cable TV package.

Elon Musk and Tom Cruise to Film Movie on International Space Station

June 23, 2020

Here’s another fascinating video that has absolutely nothing to do with politics. It’s from the YouTube channel Screen Rant, and reports the news that tech mogul Elon Musk and Tom Cruise are planning to film an action movie on location in space. They’re planning to use the International Space Station. Neil Lehmann, who was worked with Cruise before on previous movies, is going to be the director. And no, apparently it’s not a hoax or publicity stunt. NASA’s Jim Bridenstine has announced that the space agency is totally behind the idea, and hopes that it will inspire more people to be interested in space, and to become scientists and engineers.

There aren’t, however, any details yet regarding the movie’s title or what it will actually be about. It won’t be a sequel to Mission: Impossible nor to Top Gun: Maverick. Neither is it connected to another film set in space that starred, or was to star Cruise, Lunar Park. What is certain, however, is that it’s going to be expensive. It cost Musk $90 million to launch his $100,000 Tesla car into space. Another film-maker, Richard Garriott, also spent two weeks in space at the station, where he filmed a five minute short, Apogee Lost. NASA charged $30 million for those two weeks. The station is open to paying guests, who are charged $35,000 per night for their stay.

According to Garriott, the station isn’t the best place to shoot. Because of the weightlessness, anything not stuck down with velcro tends to float away, and he did have trouble with the sets and props he was using floating off the walls. It also gets hot up there, so the station has a multitude of ventilator fans going, whose noise may pose a problem when recording sound.

There’s also a problem in that Cruise, and everyone of the film crew who goes with him, must pass NASA’s stringent astronaut fitness tests. They also have to be proficient swimmers and pass the course on water survival as part of the rigorous astronaut training.

The film is being billed as the first to be shot in space. It isn’t that – that honour belong’s to Garriott’s, but it will be the first full-length movie shot in space. And Screen Rant says that it will be interesting to compare it with other SF films shot on Earth.

The video naturally includes clips from a number of Cruise’s movies, including Top Gun and Mission: Impossible.

I’m particularly interested in this news because I presented a paper at a meeting of the British Interplanetary Society recommending the same idea. 

It was at a symposium at the Society’s headquarters in London on the popular commercialisation space in September 2001. All of the talks presented were really fascinating, but the one that justly received the greatest interest and applause was on how space could be used for sport, especially Harry Potter’s school game, Quidditch. Some of the papers, including mine, were later published in the May/June 2002 issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS). The paper is quite long, so I’ll just put up the abstract:

Space exploration is the subject of intense media interest in a way unparalleled in any other branch of science. It is the subject of countless films and television programmes, both fact and fiction, many using original footage from space. Astronauts have broadcast live from the Moon, and TV journalists have travelled to Mir, similar to the use of exotic terrestrial locations for filming by professional film crews. Although prohibitively expensive at the moment, the next generation of spacecraft may lower launch costs to an affordable level, so that space locations become competitive against computer graphics and model work. The constructions of orbital hotels will create the demand for human interest stories similar to those set in holiday locations like the south of France and Italy made just after the Second World War, at a time when much tourism on foreign holidays was just beginning, aided by the development of large transport aircraft able to cater to the demand for mass flight.

Moreover, special effects and studio artificiality have been eschewed by a new generation of auteur directors in pursuit of cinema verite like the Danish Dogme ’94 group. These directors will prefer to travel to orbit to film, rather than use terrestrial studio locations and special effects. The construction of zero-gravity playrooms in orbital hotels may create new spectator sports which can only be played in low or zero gravity, necessitating sports journalists to travel into space to cover them. The lack of human-rated vehicles for the Moon and the great distance to Mars will rule these out as film locations for the foreseeable future, although journalists may well accompany colonists to Mars, and a native, Martian film industry may develop when that colony matures. (p.188).

I can’t claim that Musk and Cruise stole my idea, as I doubt Musk and Cruise are even aware my article exists, let alone have read it. When I wrote the paper, NASA was testing advanced spacecraft designs using aerospike engines, which they hoped would significantly reduce launch costs. These never materialised due to the repeated failures of the spacecraft leading to the programme’s cancellation. It may be, however, that the development of Musk’s SpaceX rocket, which has just successfully carried a crew to the ISS, may lead to the emergence of further spacecraft vehicles which may do this. NASA is also is also involved in the development of landers for a possible crewed mission to the Moon. Space hotels aren’t a reality yet, but a first step towards them was made in 2016 with the addition of an inflatable section, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the International Space Station. This was launched aboard the Spacex rocket, and was developed by the hotel magnate Robert Bigelow.

Despite the immense costs involved, I hope this movie does get made and that it inspires other film makers to use space as a location. And I also hope they do start building proper space tourist hotels and start playing and broadcasting sports in space. After all, one of the last Apollo crewmen played golf on the Moon.

And if there are other billionaire space entrepreneurs looking for a few ideas to develop, perhaps they might consider another I had, which I discussed in a previous post. I had a piece published in one of the British Interplanetary Society’s magazine’s looking forward to competitive, human-carrying hobby rocketry, similar to hang gliding and microlights in aviation. I’d be delighted to see someone start developing that.












































Adam Savage Hitches Rickshaw to Four-Legged Spot Robot

June 21, 2020

This is another video which has absolutely nothing to do with politics, but I’m putting it up simply because it’s fun. In it, Adam Savage, the engineer and Science Fiction fan behind Mythbusters, builds a joint for Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot so he can hitch a rickshaw he built for himself to it. Boston Dynamics have developed a series of robots, some of which are humanoid and bipedal. They produced another quadrupedal robot, Big Dog, as a carrier for the American army. However, the programme was cancelled because the robot’s electric motors produced too much noise for it to be used in combat, as this would have alerted the enemy to the soldiers’ approach.

Savage says of the rickshaw he built, that it was originally going to be very brightly coloured after the Indian vehicles. When he came to build it, it became darker, and much more European so that it had a Steampunk look. Steampunk is the type of Science Fiction that imagines what would have happened if the Victorians had really developed the kind of technology in the early SF of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and had space and time travel and computers. One of the founding books of this genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which is set in a Britain where Lord Byron has led a revolution and is now the head of government and Charles Babbage’s pioneering early mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title, has been built.

The Spot robot itself is semi-autonomous. As Savage has shown in previous videos, it can be operated by remote control. However, it recognises and avoids obstacles, and so it’s impossible to steer it into a brick wall. It will just stop, or try to go round it. When Savage and two other engineers and technicians are testing how it performs with the rickshaw attached, the robot comes to a halt on a slope. This is because it doesn’t realise that it needs to put in more power to pull the rickshaw up it, and so the two technicians work on its software so that it can correctly assess the force it needs and perform accordingly.

The robot and rickshaw together really do look like something out of Steampunk SF, or the 19th century SF art of the French author, Jacques Robida. Or even a scene from the Star Wars’ galaxy, which similarly mixes high technology – spaceships, robots and landspeeders with very low-tech forms of transport like animals. The fact that this is reality in 2020 shows that we are living in an age of SF.