Posts Tagged ‘Aviation’

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.


































































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.












































Flat Earth Builder of Homemade Rocket Dies in Crash

February 25, 2020

And now for something a bit different. Yesterday, 25th February 2020, the I reported the sad death of Mike Hughes. Hughes was the Flat Earther, who built his own steam-driven rocket to fly above the planet to see if it really was round. He succeeded, but as he only got a mile or so up, he couldn’t actually see the curvature of the Earth, and so remained unconvinced.

According to the paper, Hughes and two other teams were competing to launch their homemade spaceships for the show Homemade Astronauts on the American Science channel. It was when this was being filmed that the crash happened. The report, ‘Flat Earther and DIY astronaut dies after homemade rocket crashes in the desert’ by Rory Sullivan, runs

A daredevil pilot, who believed the Earth was flat has been killed after his homemade rocket crashed shortly after take-off in California.

“Mad” Mike Hughes, who hoped to prove the Earth was flat by going into space, died on Saturday near Barstow, California, after attempting to launch his steam-powered rocket for a new television  series called Homemade Astronauts on the US Science Channel.

In a statement, the Science Channel said: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends during this difficult time. It was always his dream to do this launch and Science Channel was there to chronicle his journey.”

A video of the launch, posted by a witness on Twitter, shows a parachute trailing behind the rocket immediately after take-off.

The rocket then hurtles down to earth before crashing into the desert.

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said its officers responded to a fatal rocket crash on Saturday afternoon, but did not name the deceased.

With the help of his engineering partner Waldo Stakes, Hughes, 64, wanted to reach 5,000 feet (152.4m) in his rocket, according to the website

The site added that the pair were one of three teams who were trying to reacdh the Karman line, which, at 62 miles above the Earth’s surface, is that by some to mark the start of space.

In a trailer filmed by the Science Channel ahead of the launch, Hughes had said: “People ask me why I do stuff like this. Basically, it’s just to convince people they can do extraordinary things with their lives.”

Hughes, with the help of his assistants, built the rocket in his garden, at a cost of around $18,000 (£14,000).

Picture accompanying the article of Hughes with his rocket.

I realise that to many people, Hughes is probably a crank, who killed himself doing something that should best be left to the big national space agencies, but to me, he’s a true-blue American hero. It’s through people like Hughes that aviation and rocketry advanced in their very early years.

Way back in the 1990s the X-Prize was launched to stimulate and encourage the private development of spaceflight. The organisation behind it observed how innovation in early airplane flight and development had been driven by private individuals competing for prizes. And this had lead to superb feats, such as the crossing of the Atlantic by men like Charles Lindbergh, ‘Wrong-Way’ Corrigan and others. They believed that the way out of the doldrums spaceflight was currently in would only come if the stranglehold of big government organisations like NASA on the area was broken by private individuals and companies competing for a similar prize. They therefore set a prize of $100,000 to be awarded to the first privately-made and launched rocket, that would ascend to space and then return. The result was a series of private aerospace companies, producing great, innovative and not always successful designs to accomplish this.

At the same time, there is, or was, a flourishing milieu of hobby rocketeers. They build and launch model rockets, sometimes in massive meets right out in the American desert. And not all of these spacecraft are small. One group set off a missile, and got very excited because their onboard video camera brought back pictures of black sky. They reached the edge of space!

I could see things going further, and so wrote an article published in Spaceflight, the popular magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, ‘This Sporting Life’, arguing that as spaceflight developed and continued to gain popularity, eventually people would turn to crewed sports rocketry. Just as people now fly microlight aircraft to enjoy some of the experienced they’d get from flying full-size aircraft, so I foresaw a leisure industry developing where people would take short pleasure hops in hobby rockets to experience some of the pleasure of being astronauts. A few years later, I published in a paper in the Society’s technical journal, the JBIS, working out the equations for such a craft.

I suggested using solid rocket motors, as they’re simpler and don’t have have the complex plumbing of liquid fuel rockets. I also selected as the propellant GALCIT – C. This is quite low energy, a bit more powerful than gunpowder but not much. Nevertheless, it would have enough power to carry a rocket carrying a single person a mile or so up. This I considered to be the best distance for a pleasure hop, rather than full-scale voyage into the stratosphere and beyond.

Mr Hughes and the other teams competing in the show aren’t quite the leisure industry I imagined, but they’re almost there. They’re amateurs, doing it for their own pleasure as well as being part of a television show.

I therefore commiserate with the Hughes’ family, friends and the other participants of the programme in his death. But believe his example will hopefully inspire many others to take up science, engineering and rocketry.

He has truly shown that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

The Tory Attacks on Health and Safety Legislation Is Causing Carnage

January 21, 2020

Since almost as long as I can remember, the Tories and their lackeys in the press have been attacking health and safety legislation. The common reasons trotted out are that it is an unnecessary burden to employers, binding them with complicated red tape and costs. More recently the authors of Britannia Unchained and similar works have demanded that such legislation protecting people at work should be rolled back in order to make Britain more competitive against countries in the Developing World, whose workers don’t benefit by such protection. The Tories have tried to make this assault popular by making health and safety legislation seem not only cumbrous, interfering and bureaucratic, but also massively overprotective and silly. Remember all those stories from the Heil years ago claiming that, thanks to the ‘Nanny state’, schools were having to make children wear goggles before playing conkers?

The truth is that when health and safety legislation was introduced in the ’70s, it massively cut down on deaths and injuries among working people – and that’s basically why the Tories would like to get rid of it. They want labour to be cheap and easily disposable, and health and safety laws are an obstacle to that. And the chapter by Hilda Palmer and David Whyte in The Violence of Austerity by Whyte and Vickie Cooper shows exactly how devastating in terms of lives and injuries their attacks on the legislation has been. The government watchdog in charge of overseeing the implementation of the legislation, the Health and Safety Executive, has had its funding cut by 47 per cent. The Tories have also threatened to close it down altogether. In 2013 the government launched a review in order to see whether there was still a need for its functions and if it complied with good governance. The number of staff employed at the executive fell from 3,702 in April 2010 to 2,706 in December 2013. Since the Tories came to power, the number of inspections by the Executive has fallen by a third.

These cuts have resulted in an increase in work-related accidents and injuries, although the authors warn that the government’s figures are almost certainly too low. The real figures are almost certainly higher. They write

Typically, the official ‘headline figure’ published by the HSE records between 140 and 240 deaths per year resulting from sudden injury and 13,000 deaths caused by occupational diseases and illnesses. Those figures, however, only reflect a small proportion of total deaths caused by work. The first figure does not include key categories of deaths cause by work. The Hazards Campaign estimates that seven times more deaths are caused by work incidents than the figure official cited by the HSE. HSE figures exclude work-related road traffic deaths, the workplace deaths recorded in other industries that the HSE does not have formal responsibility for, like the maritime and civil aviation industries, or deaths to members of the public killed by a work activity, such as scaffold collapses or train crashes. A more complete estimate would also include suicides attributed to work related stress. There are approximately 6,000 suicides involving working-age people in the UK each year, and a number of those involve workers driven to despair by work-related stress. In Japan, where work-related suicides are officially recognised and compensated, it is estimated that 5 per cent of suicides are work-related. This estimate, if applied to the UK, would amount to roughly 300 people killed through work related strees.

In sum, a more complete figure of workplace deaths caused by sudden injury, which takes into account all of the above exclusions, would amount to between 1,000 and 1,400 deaths every year, or 3-4 deaths per day. (p. 142).

They also argue that the estimated number of deaths from occupational diseases are also probably grossly underestimated once recent academic studies are taken into account. For example, a 2005 study of the causes of occupational and environmental cancer by Richard Clapp estimated that about 8-16 per cent of all cancer deaths came from occupational cancer. If the mid-range figure of 12 per cent is taken as the number of occupational deaths from cancer, the number of people dying through work-related cancer is 18,000 per year.

A 2005 paper in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine estimated tath 15-20 per cent of all cases of COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – could be work related. Which means 6,000 deaths per year. There is also evidence that up to 20 per cent of all deaths from heart disease are related to conditions at work. This figure adds up to 20,000 deaths per year.

A further conservative estimate that diseases in which work can be a contributory cause, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis and so on comprise a further 6,000 deaths per annum.

They state

All of this adds up to an overall estimate by the Hazards Campaign of up to 50,000 deaths from work-related illness every year – four times the typical HSE estimate of around 13,000 per year. Our contention then, is that the HSE figures grossly underestimate the number of workers whose current working conditions expose them to both the well-known and the newer risk factors, that will produce the workers deaths of the future. (p. 143).

They also make the point that the death toll is still rising, because of toxins to which people may have been exposed to as much as 40 years previously, such as some carcinogens. The EU has estimated that in the 1990s five million workers, or 22 per cent of the working population, were exposed to cancer-causing substances.

They also argue that, thanks to austerity, more workers are suffering under poor working conditions that are damaging their health. These include bullying and harassment, long hours, and the zero hours contracts imposed on 5.5 million workers. The insecurity these contracts cause are linked to stress, heart and circulatory diseases. Workers are also still exposed to dusts and chemicals that cause or contribute to respiratory and heart diseases. They also point to the connection between low paid work and poor safety standards

Low paid work guarantees more than hardship: low pay goes hand in hand with low safety standards. Occupational injuries and diseases such as diabetes and cancer are directly linked to low paid jobs. (p. 144).

They also make the point that the ‘compensation culture’ the Tories have claimed exists is actually a myth. In fact, many workers don’t receive the compensation to which they’re entitled. They write

One of the first moves of the Coalition government, in October 2010, was to appoint Lord Young, a former Cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, to deliver ‘a Whitehall-wide review of the operation of health and safety laws and the growth of the compensation culture.’ He found absolutely no evidence of this ‘compensation culture’, citing figures which actually showed a downward trend to legal claims, but still demanded action to deal with ‘red tape’. Indeed, figures obtained by Hazards Magazine show that fewer than one in seven people suffering an occupational injury or disease ever receive compensation. For occupational diseases alone, this drops to just one in twenty-six. For most occupational cancers, there is barely any prospect of compensation at all.  (p. 145).

They also show that the government’s division of work into high and low risk is also highly dubious and has resulted in an increase in deaths at work. It was done by Cameron’s government in order to restrict HSE inspections to those jobs considered high risk. But the low risk category is wide, and includes textiles, clothing, footwear, light engineering, road and air transport and docks, electricity generation and the postal and courier services. Hazards Magazine found that 53 per cent of all deaths at work caused by sudden injury were in the low risk sector. Palmer and Whyte state ‘In other words, the government’s fiscal purge of health and safety enforcement has meant abandoning scrutiny of the workplaces where the majority of deaths occur’. (p. 145).

Palmer and Whyte state that this death toll should be a ‘call to arms. to any government, regardless of its political stance. But instead, despite the ‘glaring’ evidence that the red tape is good for workers, employers and the economy, governments have doubled down and insisted that such legislation is an intolerable nuisance. This has reached the point where the HSE doesn’t even both to ask ‘what’s so wrong with red tape anyway?’ The government’s ideological obsession with red tape means that ‘there is no room for argument or evidence that health and safety legislation doesn’t burden business, while its absence carries a high cost to business, workers and the public purse.’

This means that when some rag like the Heil, the Depress, or the Scum claims that health and safety legislation is unnecessary, costly and stifling business, they are lying. And lying to defend an attitude to workplace safety that is murderously dangerous to working people.

But then, as the disabled have found, Tory responsibility for mass injury and death is nothing new.



Video on Proposed Swiss Space Shuttle

October 13, 2019

This is an interesting little video from Swissinfo on YouTube about Swiss Space Systems, a company set up by engineer Pascal Jaussi, which is developing another space shuttle concept. Jaussi was inspired to become a space scientist as a child after he was given a copy of the Tintin book, Tintin on the Moon. His company’s design for the shuttle will have it taken up to 10,000 metres by a passenger jet acting as the shuttle’s first stage. The shuttle will then leave the jet, flying up to a higher altitude, where it will launch a satellite, which will then ascend to its final orbit using its own rockets. The shuttle is initially intended to be a satellite launcher, but later missions will be crewed.

Jaussi’s company does not intend to develop any new technology, but is simply trying to use and integrate already existing technology from America, France and Russia. This is aided by Switzerland’s neutral status. The American’s would understandably be extremely reluctant to give sensitive technology to the Russian the firm, which is building the engines for Jaussi’s shuttle. They’re the same as those in the Russian Soyuz rocket. The French aerospace firm Dassault is responsible for constructing the shuttle’s airframe. The company’s based in Jaussi’s home town of Payerne, in Vaud canton. He would like to build the launch complex there with another, launch complex without an accompanying crew planned for Croatia. The video also shows the shuttle’s cameras being tested in Canada. The video was posted four years ago in 2014, and states that the first test flights were planned for 2018.

This is another version of the Jet/shuttle combination initially proposed by Sanger in Germany. I’ve already blogged about British shuttle proposals using the same idea, Spacebus and Spacecab, by David Ashcroft and Patrick Collins.  The Swiss design is interesting, but 2018 was last year and the fact that we haven’t heard anything more of this fascinating project suggests that it’s experiencing difficulties. I hope that these are just a minor setback, and that we can look forward to the Swiss joining the other nations now entering a new Space Age, one that will lead to the proper exploration, industrialisation and hopefully colonisation of the solar System.













Franky Zapata, French Hoverboard Pilot and His Marvel Comics’ Predecessor

July 23, 2019

Yesterday’s I, for Monday, 22nd July 2019, carried a profile on page 3 of the ‘inventor and daredevil’, Franky Zapata by reporter David Woods. Zapata’s a former jet ski champion and French military reservist, who intends to attempt to cross the Channel this Thursday on a jet-powered hoverboard he’s invented. He’s doing it to mark the 110th anniversary of French aviator Louis Bleriot’s historic flight from France to England. Apparently, Zapata will fly from Sangatte near Calais to St. Margaret’s Bay near Dover.

He could only afford to make his vehicle after receiving a grant for £1.1 million from the French defence and procurement agency last December. The board has five mini turbo engines and can run independently for ten minutes, reaching a speed of 118 mph. Zapata has said, however, that he intends to cruise at 86.9 mp.

Zapata demonstrated the craft’s abilities at the Bastille day celebration last week, where he flew around the Champs Elysees waving a gun around in front of Macron and other European leaders. But he’s rather more pessimistic about his chances with this flight. He told the paper Le Parisien that he’s only got a thirty per cent chance of succeeding in this flight, saying that he only used 3 per cent of the board’s capabilities when he last used, but will need to use 99 per cent of them for this flight.

The French maritime officials have said that the Channel is extremely dangerous because of the sheer volume of shipping. They have insisted that Zapata informs search and rescue teams before he takes off. This means that he will only be able to refuel once instead of twice, as he originally planned. This makes the flight, according to him, 10 times more difficult.

I hope he’s able to make the flight and complete it successfully without killing himself. Louis Bleriot’s flight across the Channel is one of the great landmarks in the history of aviation, and hopefully, this will be too. People have been fascinated by flight and inventing flying machines since Daedalus and his son, Icarus, in ancient Greek myth. There are any number of people now building their own, often rickety and highly unwieldy flying machines, many of which use propellers driven by electric motors. I hope Zapata succeeds, and inspires even more hobbyists to create their own machines. Just as I hope his flight isn’t as disastrous as Icarus’. He flew too close to the sun, so that the wax holding his wings together melted and fell out of the air and crashed.

But looking at Zapata and his hoverboard also reminds me of another figure, this time from Marvel Comics. It doesn’t look that much different from the device Spiderman’s old enemy, the Green Goblin, used to fly around on. All it needs is a pair of bat wings. Here it is with the Goblin himself from the cover of Stan Lee’s Bring on the Bad Guys: Origins of the Marvel Comics Villains (New York: Simon & Schuster 1976), as drawn by the great Marvel artist, John Romita. So it seems that this is once again a case of life imitating art, and Stan ‘the Man’ Lee, Jolly Jack Kirby and the rest of the Marvel madhouse got their first.








Self-Taught Engineer Successfully Flies aboard Steam Rocket

September 21, 2018

And now, before the serious stuff, something completely different, as Monty Python used to say. This is a short video I found on YouTube from the Inside Edition channel. It’s their report on the successful flight of a steam-powered rocket, built and crewed by ‘Mad’ Mike Hughes. Hughes is a limousine driver and a self-taught engineer. His reason for building the vehicle is, er, eccentric: he wanted to see if the Earth was flat.

The video was posted on 18th March 2018, and shows Hughes and his rocket taking off in the Mojave desert in the south-western US. It climbed to an altitude of 1,850 feet before finally returning to Earth, its descent slowed by two parachutes. Hughes had spent ten years building it, and the video shows stills of early versions of the rocket.

Hughes’ landing was rough, however. The video describes it as a crash. A rescue team got him out of the cockpit, but he complained that his back was broken. When the news crew caught him with him to talk, ironically just outside a courthouse where he’d been giving a ticket for speeding, Hughes’ claimed that he might have a compressed vertebra.

The video ends by reassuring its viewers that, yes, the Earth is indeed flat.

I’m actually saluting this bloke, because he’s obviously really clever and has done something I’d love to do myself: build a low power rocket that could hold a man or woman and send them up to a reasonable height. Way back in the 1990s I had a paper printed in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society arguing for the construction and flight of such vehicles as a new leisure industry. I based this on the use of hang-gliders, paragliding and microlight aircraft as hobby aviation. People fly them because they want to enjoy the experience of powered flight, not because they actually want to go from A to B. In the same way, I feel, human-carrying rockets could be built and flown to give ordinary people something of the experience of astronauts going into space aboard real rockets, like the Space Shuttle or the Russian Soyuz craft. But obviously without having to spend millions on a ticket to space.

Steam, or hot water rockets, have been around since the 19th century. The first modern hot water rocket was patented in Britain in 1824 by the American inventor, Jacob Perkins (1766-1849). The American Rocket Research Institute, based in California, and founded in 1943, established a special centre for the research and construction of hot water rockets, the Perkins Centre, named after him. The Institute runs a number of training programmes for students and aspiring rocket engineers. The rockets developed could carry payloads up to 5,000 feet.

After the War, the German rocket scientist, Eugen Sanger, and his wife Irene Sanger-Bredt, carried out research into hot water rockets to see whether they could work assisting heavily loaded aircraft into the air. The main US researcher in the area was Bob Truax.

The rocket engines developed by the RRI ranged from senior student college engineering projects with a thrust of 700 lbs per second to the Thunderbolt II constructed by Truax Engineering, which had a thrust of 16,000 lbs per second.
The photo below shows the STEAM-HI III hot water rocket being installed at the Perkins Safety Test Centre in 1963.

This photo shows Truax Engineering’s Thunderbolt rocket and its static test firing in 1973.

See ‘The Rocket Research Institute, 1943-1993: 50 Years of Rocket Safety, Engineering and Space Education Programs’, George S. James and Charles J. Piper, in Jung, Philippe, ed., History of Rocketry and Astronautics, AAS History Series, Vol. 22; IAA History Symposia, vol. 14 (American Astronautical Society: San Diego 1998), pp. 343-400.

And the Earth is very, very definitely round. As it has been known to be by educated European since the 9th century, and by the Greek astronomers long before that. All that stuff about how people in the Middle Ages believed the world was flat and that if you sailed far enough west you’d fall off was basically invented in the 19th century by Washington Irving. The Church Fathers knew and accepted that it was round. St. Augustine said so in one of his works, and argued that when the Bible spoke of the world as flat, it was an instance of God using the beliefs of the time to make His moral message intelligible to the people then alive.

I’ve no idea where the modern delusion that the world’s flat comes from. Well, actually, I do – it seems to have started a year ago in 2017 with the comments of a rapper on American radio. But before then I thought the idea was very definitely dead and buried. In Britain, the Flat Earth Society had dwindled to a single member. This was actually a physicist, who believed that the Earth was round. He used the Society to argue against dogmatism in science. And I thought he had packed finally packed it in, leaving the number of Flat Earthers in Britain at zero.

Now it seems that there are any number of eccentrics, who believe the world is really flat. They’re completely wrong about that, including Hughes.

But Hughes did something superb in building his own, human-carrying rocket

Lobster Review of Newsletter on Israeli Involvement in Foreign Fascist Politics

March 10, 2018

The Israelis have been allied with some very unpleasant regimes around the world since the 1970s. This started in the 1970s, when the country found itself isolated, and so started to search for new allies in the other pariah states at the time. Which included apartheid South Africa.

I found this review of a newsletter documenting Israel’s support for extreme right-wing regimes, and its involvement in American politics, in Lobster 17, page 21. It runs

Often referred to in other things is Israeli Foreign Affairs – ‘an independent monthly report on Israel’s diplomatic and military activities world wide’.

It is eight pages A4 and though this is not a subject I am interested in, this looks very impressive and is thoroughly documented. September ’88 includes (using IFA’s headlines

* Jerusalem Christian ’embassy’ aids Contras.
* Israeli Help on New South African Aircraft
*Pentagon Sleaze
*Pipeline Sleaze

etc etc. It’s your basic parapolitics methodology (read and collate a hell of a lot) applied to Israel’s foreign policy.

it is one of the tragedies of the post-war years that Israel should now have lined itself up with all the pariah states – perhaps unavoidable fate given the nature of the US administration these past 8 years and Israel’s dependence on the dollar. Headbangers in Washington produce headbangers in Israel? (Or is it the other way around?)

I don’t know if this newsletter is still going, but it might have a web presence, or a cache of old numbers on the net somewhere.

Why I Believe Leaving the EU Will Be Particularly Bad for Bristol, Gloucestershire and Somerset

February 22, 2016

Since David Cameron raised the issue of the EU referendum last week, there’s been a flood of posts about the subject. I’ve blogged about the dangers to British workers and the middle class if we leave Europe, and the human and workers’ rights legislation contained in the EU constitution and treaties. The Lovely Wibbley Wobbley Old Lady has put up her piece explaining the issues involved in Britain leaving the EU, as have a number of others. In this piece I won’t discuss the general issues, just give some of my thought on why it would be disastrous for Bristol, Somerset, Gloucestershire, and areas like them elsewhere in Britain if the country decides to leave.

Firstly, Bristol is a port city. It’s not so much now, after the docks in Bristol have been closed to industry, and the port itself moved to better deep water facilities over in Avonmouth. Nevertheless, a sizable amount of trade goes through port facilities. The EU is Britain’s major trading partner, and my fear is that if Britain leaves Europe, trade will be hit, and the income and jobs generated by that trade will plummet. This will, of course, hit British industry generally, but it’ll also affect the ports as the centres of the import/export trade.

Bristol furthermore has a proud tradition of aerospace research through BAE and Rolls Royce at Filton. Further south in Somerset there is the former Westland helicopter firm, while in the Golden Mile in Gloucestershire there are engineering firms, such as Dowty, that specialise in aircraft instrumentation and control systems. The sheer cost of developing and manufacturing modern high-performance civil and military aircraft means that many of these projects are joint ventures between aviation companies across Europe. Airbus is one of the most obvious examples, as is the Eurofighter. And then, back in the 1970s, there was Concorde, which was a joint project between Britain and France. Hence the name. Parts of the aircraft were built in France, but the wings and a other components were manufactured here in Bristol.

The same is true of space exploration, and the satellites and probes sent up to the High Frontier. Several of these, or parts of them, have also been manufactured by British Aerospace at Filton. I’ve got a feeling the Giotto probe that was sent to investigate Halley’s Comet in 1986 was also partly made in Bristol. Again, like aviation, space travel can be enormously expensive. The costs are literally astronomical. So many of the space projects are joint ventures across Europe, between aerospace firms and contractors in Britain, France and Italy, for example. This was always the case going back to ESRO in the 1950s and ’60s. This was a joint European attempt to create a rocket launcher, involving Britain, France, Italy and Germany. Unfortunately the project collapsed, as the only section of the rocket that actually worked was the British first stage. Nevertheless, the French persevered, and out of its ashes came Ariane, launched from their base in Kourou in French Guyana.

ESA, the European Space Agency, operates under a system of ‘juste retour’. Under this system, the country that supplies the most funding for a particular project, gets most of the contracts to make it. Despite various noises about the importance of space exploration and innovation in science and technology by various administrations over the years, space research by and large has not been well-served by the British government and mandarins at Whitehall. It has a very low priority. Opportunities for British firms to benefit from European space research have been harmed by the British government’s reluctance to spend money in this area. I can remember one of Thatcher’s ministers proudly informing the great British public that they weren’t going to spend money just to put Frenchmen into space. It’s partly because of this attitude that it’s taken so long to put a British astronaut into space with Tim Foale. Those of us of a certain age can remember Helen Sharman’s trip into space with the Russians in the 1980s. This was supposed to be a privately funded joint venture with the Russians. It nearly didn’t happen because the monies that were supposed to come from British capitalism didn’t materialise, and in fact the Soviets took Sharman to the High Frontier largely as a favour.

The aerospace industry in Bristol and the West Country has contracted massively in the past few decades, as the aviation industry throughout Britain has declined along with the rest of our industrial base. I’m very much afraid that if we leave Europe, we will lose out on further commercial aerospace opportunities, and that part of Britain’s scientific, technological and industrial heritage will just die out. We were, for example, invited to take part in the development of Ariane, but the mandarins at Whitehall didn’t want to. Rather than invest in the French rocket, they thought we’d be better off hitching rides with the Americans. The problem with that is that the Americans naturally put their own interests first, and so tended to carry British satellites only when there was a suitable gap in the cargo. It also meant that British satellite launches were limited to the times the Space Shuttle was flying. These were curtailed after the Challenger explosion. If we’d have stuck with the French, we could possibly have had far more success putting our probes into space.

I’m sure there are very many other ways Bristol and the West Country could also be harmed by the decision to leave the EU. It’s just what occurs to me, as someone with an interest in space exploration, from a city that was a centre of the aeroplane, rocket and satellite industries. I also decided to post this, because I know that Bristol’s not unique in its position. There are other working ports and centres of the aerospace industry across the country, that will also suffer if we leave Europe. And so I firmly believe we should remain in.

More on the Coeloptere, the Piasecki Airgeep and the Avrocar

December 29, 2015

Last week I posted up a few pieces on three very unusual aircraft, the French VTOL Coeloptere, the Piasecki airgeep – a type of hovercraft designed in the late 1950s, and the flying saucer-like Avrocar. Here are a few more pictures of them I found in The World’s Strangest Aircraft: A Collection of Weird and Wonderful Flying Machines, by Michael Taylor (New York: Barnes & Noble 2000).

The Avrocar

AVrocar 2

Here’s a video of the Avrocar in flight.

The Avrocar wasn’t the first plane that had a circular design. Almost right at the very beginning of aircraft development in the 20th century inventors were experimenting with circular wing designs. In 1911 Cedric Lee and G. Tilghman Richards in Britain brought out a biplane with annular (ring-shaped) wings. This was unsuccessful, but they continued experimenting, and produced a successful glider. This was another biplane, which shared elements of the earlier plane. The upper wing was semi-circular, while the lower wing was ring-shaped. This flew in 1912. Tests in wind tunnels showed that the aircraft with annular wings were more stable, and needed a shorter wingspan than more conventional designs.

The two then produced a monoplane, whose wings were a 22 ft ring. This seated two people, and was driven by a 80 horsepower Gnome engine. This first flew in 1913. Unfortunately, it proved tail heavy, and stalled during flight. Fortunately, the plane and its pilots were saved from death by being caught on nearby telegraph poles. The plane was salvaged, repaired and suitably modified, and returned to the air. It proved very airworthy, and made a series of flights up to the outbreak of the First World War. The two began work building further annular monoplanes, in 1914, but the design was unpopular didn’t catch on.

Lee and Richards’ Annular Wing Monoplane

Annular Wing Monoplane

The Piasecki Airgeep

Piasecki Airgeep 2

The Coeloptere

This is a cutaway diagram of the structure of the French Coeloptere, another annular wing design which unfortunately proved to be unviable.

Coleoptere Drawing

These are only just four of the many weird aircraft that have been designed over the years. They show the immense inventiveness of the aircraft engineers and pioneering inventors, even if some of them proved unworkable in practice.