Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Bezos’

The Sky At Night Looks at Britain in Space

October 19, 2018

I just managed to catch the weekday repeat a day or so ago of this month’s Sky at Night, in which presenters Maggie Aderin-Pocock and British astronaut Tim Peake looked at the history of Britain in space, and forward to the country’s future in the deep black. The programme’s changed a bit over the past few years in the case of its presenters. It was famously presented by Sir Patrick Moore from its beginning in the 1950s until he passed away a few years ago. This made the programme the longest-running show presented by the same person. Aderin-Pocock joined it before Moore’s departure. She’s a black woman scientist, with a background in programming missile trajectories. She’s obviously very intelligent, enthusiastic and very definitely deserves her place on the show. But I wish she’d done a job that didn’t involve the military use of rocket technology, however much this is needed as part of national defence.

Aderin-Pocock was speaking to one of the management officials from Orbex, a new, British company, which has developed a rocket launcher and intends to open a spaceport in one of the more deserted areas of Scotland. The rocket will stand about 17 meters tall, using propane and High Test Peroxide as fuel. High Test Peroxide is a highly concentrated version of the hydrogen peroxide used by hairdressers to bleach peoples’ hair. The use of propane is particularly important, as it’s lighter than conventional rocket fuels, meaning that the rocket doesn’t have to carry as much fuel to lift off into space. Advances in satellite design have also allowed the rocket to be smaller than other spacecraft used elsewhere. British universities have succeeded in developing microsatellites – satellites that are much, much smaller than some of the satellites put into orbit, but which can perform the same functions. As these satellites are smaller and lighter, they only need a relatively smaller, lighter rocket to launch them.

The Scottish launch complex also wasn’t going to be as big as other, larger, major launch complexes, such as those of NASA, for example. I think it would still contain a launch tower and control buildings. As well as the official from Orbex, the show also talked to a woman representing the rural community in the part of Scotland, where they were planning to build it. She admitted that there would be problems with building it in this part of the Scots countryside. However, the community was only going to lease the land, not sell it to Orbex, and care would be taken to protect the farms of the local crofters and the environment and wildlife. Like much of rural Britain, this was an area of few jobs, and the population was aging as the young people moved away in search of work. She looked forward to Orbex and its spaceport bringing work to the area, and creating apprenticeships for the local young people.

The programme went on to explain that this would be the first time for decades that a British company was going to build a British rocket to launch a British satellite. From what looked the British space museum in Manchester, Time Peake stood under the display of Britain’s Black Knight rocket and the Prospero satellite. He explained how the rocket launched the satellite into space from Australia in 1975. However, the project was then cancelled, which meant that Britain is the only country so far which has developed, and then discarded rocket technology.

But Black Knight wasn’t the only space rocket Britain developed. Peake then moved on to talk about Skylark, a massively successful sounding rocket. Developed for high altitude research, the rocket reached a maximum of altitude of 400 km in the few minutes it was in flight. At its apogee – its maximum distance from Earth – the vehicle briefly experienced a few minutes of zero gravity, during which experiments could be performed exploring this environment. The Skylark rocket was used for decades before it was finally cancelled.

Aderin-Pocock asked the official from Orbex how long it would be before the spaceport would be up and running. The manager replied that this was always an awkward question to answer, as there was always something that meant operations and flights would start later than expected. He said, however, that they were aiming at around the end of 2020 and perhaps the beginning of 2021.

Orbex are not, however, the only space company planning to open a spaceport in Britain. Virgin Galactic have their own plans to launch rockets in to space from Cornwall. Their vehicle will not, however, be launched from the ground like a conventional rocket, but will first be carried to a sufficiently high altitude by an airplane, which would then launch it. I’m not a betting man, but my guess is that of the two, Orbex is the far more likely to get off the ground, as it were, and begin launching its rocket on schedule. As I’ve blogged about previously, Branson has been telling everyone since the late 1990s at least, that Virgin Galactic are going to be flying tourists into space in just a few months from now. This fortnight’s Private Eye published a brief list of the number of times Branson had said that, with dates. It might be that Branson will at last send the first of his aspiring astronauts up in the next few months, as he claimed last week. But from his previous form, it seems far more likely that Orbex will start launches before him, as will Branson’s competitors over the pond, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

When asked about the company’s capability of perfecting their technology, Orbex’s manager not stressed the skill and competence of the scientists, technicians and engineers working on the project. This included not just conventional space scientists, but also people, who had personally tried and failed to build their own spacecraft. He said that it was extremely important to fail to build rockets. He’s obviously referring to the many non-professional, hobby rocketeers out there trying to build their own spacecraft. He didn’t mention them, but one example would be the people at Starchaser, who started out as a small group of enthusiasts in Yorkshire but have gone on to create their own space company, now based across the pond in America. I think it’s brilliant that amateurs and semi-professionals have developed skills that the professionals in the industry find valuable. And the failures are important, as they show what can go wrong, and give the experience and necessary information on how to avoid it. I don’t think the rocket will be wholly built in this country. The manager said that some of it was being constructed in Copenhagen. This sounds like Copenhagen Suborbitals, a Danish team of rocket scientists, who are trying to put a person into space. They’re ex-NASA, I believe, but it’s a small, private venture. They have a webpage and have posted videos on YouTube, some of which I’ve reblogged. They’ve also said they’re keen for people to join them, or start their own rocket projects.

I’d been looking forward to that edition of the Sky at Night for the past week, but when the time came, it slipped my mind that it was on. I’m very glad I was able to catch it. If Orbex are successful, it will be the first time that a British satellite will launch a British satellite from here in Britain. And it sounds really optimistic. Not only will Britain be returning to space rocket development, but the Scots spaceport sounds like it will, hopefully, bring work to a depressed area. I’m also confident that the local environment there will also be preserved. The launch complex around NASA is necessarily so remote from other buildings, that it’s actually become a wildlife haven. So much so that it’s now a location for birdwatching.

When it was announced that they were planning to build a new spaceport in Scotland, I assumed it would be for Skylon, the British spaceplane. There had been articles in the paper about the spacecraft, which stated that it would be launched either from Scotland or Cornwall. It seems I was wrong, and that it’s Orbex’s rocket which will be launched there instead. But nevertheless, I wish Orbex every success in their venture, and hope that sometime soon Skylon will also join them in flight out on the High Frontier.

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Branson’s Spaceplane and Kubrick’s 2001: The Legacy of a Vision

October 11, 2018

Today’s I also carried a picture of Richard Branson hanging out of the portholes of one his spaceplanes, waving a model of the craft he claims will shortly take paying passengers for a trip into space.

This follows his announcement yesterday that, after over a decade of delays, one of his spacecraft will launch sometime in the next few weeks. And then, a few months after that, Branson himself would take a journey into the High Frontier. There’s supposed to be a race on between Branson, Bezos and Musk over which will be the first private company to send people into space.

I’ve got my doubts that it will be Branson. He’s been telling the world that his Virgin Galactic spacecraft will be taking people up there in a year’s time since the late ’90s. For a moment, it did look as though he might actually do it, until one of the spaceships crashed due to a design fault, killing one of the co-pilots. Moreover, investors and those worried about the state of the NHS should look very carefully at what else is going on in Branson’s empire when he makes these announcements. There was a story in Private Eye a few months ago about how Branson uses them to direct attention away from other projects, which might be controversial. He was quoted as saying that he made one announcement, that his planes were ready to fly, to distract people from the fact that his private healthcare division, Virgin Health, had just one a whole slew of NHS contracts and was ready to open several clinics around the country.

And several times in the past Virgin has had problems with its finances to the tune of hundreds of millions or so. Private Eye was threatened several times with a libel action from Branson, claiming it was all false. The Eye later ran a story about this, quoting Branson himself as saying that he tried to silence the satirical paper because it was true, but he didn’t want the public, investors or the banks knowing because it would stop him getting more money from the banks.

Now that he’s declaring that they’re nearly all set and raring to go, we’re entitled to ask whether this is really the case, or is it just another distraction from him eating up more of our precious NHS, or the possible collapse of one of his other companies.

As for the spacecraft itself, I was struck by the similarity between it and the Orion spaceplane of Kubrick’s SF masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As you can see from the cover for the DVD version of Kubrick’s epic, the two look very similar.

And I’m not surprised, as this shows the very thorough research Kubrick did to get the look of the space vehicles just right. Clarke’s a Hard SF writer, which means that his fictions are based in scientific fact, although often with more than a little extrapolation and fantasy. There are, after all, no real black alien monoliths in the solar system, which form stargates to alien realities. Kubrick also wanted to make the greatest SF movie ever, and so he turned from relying on artists to real space scientists and engineers to design the spacecraft.

Which is why the spacecraft in 2001 – the spaceplane, orbital space station, Moon shuttle and the Discovery spacecraft itself – look utterly convincing as well as cool. The film was shot in Britain, and as well as using experts from NASA and American aerospace companies, he also used British firms, especially for the one-person space pods.

I think if Branson really wanted to get into space, he would have been better off ringing Kubrick up for a few hints about spacecraft design. He’d also have been in the enviable position of being in charge of the first company whose promotional film would have won and academy award.

Branson may be set to go into space, but Kubrick and Clarke got their first. And it was awesome.

And here’s a video from YouTube showing a bit of the spaceplane from 2001.

BBC 2 Programme on ’21st Century Race for Space’ Next Tuesday

August 30, 2017

Here’s news of yet another BBC programme on space exploration and science. Next Tuesday, 5th September 2017, physicist, broadcaster and massive Carl Sagan fan Dr. Brian Cox will present a programme, The 21st Century Race for Space, on BBC 2 at 9.00 in the evening, on the private companies planning to take humanity into the High Frontier. Among the scientists and engineers he interviews in the programme are Richard Branson and the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

As a new age of interplanetary exploration dawns, it is private companies and their maverick owners who are planning to finance space tourism, asteroid mining and even colonies on Mars. Professor Brian Cox investigates the technical challenges that could stop these billionaires achieving their dreams and also finds out how they hope to overcome the daunting obstacles to human space travel. Sir Richard Branson is among the stargazers explaining how they plan to fly through the heavens. (p. 76).

Another piece about the programme on the previous page, page 75, by David Butcher, also adds the following

When the likes of Richard Branson or Amazon founder Jeff Bezos enthuse about space travel it’s easy to be skeptical. But when Brian Cox meets both billionaires for this engaging look at “the prospect of us becoming a space-faring civilization” he comes away convinced by their vision, their desire to push boundaries and to make sci-fi stuff happen.

And for us, it’s hard to see the various hangars and labs and prototypes and launches and not get the feeling that space tourism, mining on asteroids and trips to Mars really aren’t that far off.

Cox is a good guide, leaning towards the deeper questions implicit in the subject. Ultimate, one designer argues, space travel is about “building life insurance for the species.” Though you hope we won’t need it.

That snippet also has a photo of Cox and with the space scientist, Brian Lillo, in space suits outside a Mars Society Research Station in Utah, ‘exploring the Red Planet’.

I went to a symposium 17 years ago on space tourism at the British Interplanetary Society’s headquarters in London. There are no end of really great ideas, and very motivate, intelligent people out there planning and discussing ways to take people up into the Deep Black for their holidays. One of the scientists, reviewing previous spacecraft designs going back to the early days of spaceflight, showed how sophisticated some of these were. He made the case that we’re actually decades behind schedule in our ability to explore and commercially exploit space and its resources.

Counterpoint on the Washington Post’s Journalist Blacklist and the CIA, Eugenicist Nazis and Ukrainian Fascists

December 12, 2016

Last week the American radical news magazine, Counterpunch, carried a report analysing a piece by Craig Timberg in the Washington Post, falsely accusing about 200 journalists, websites and news organisations of being disseminators of Russian propaganda. This followed Hillary Clinton’s accusations that her defeat by Trump at the presidential elections was due to Russian hacking. There’s no evidence for this, and Clinton’s accusation and the smears in the Washington Post suggest that the blacklist was compiled and published as an attempt by the corporate mainstream media to close down its rivals, and by the Democratic Party as part of Killery’s campaign to blame anyone and everyone except her for her failure, and to force some kind of confrontation with Russia. Craig Timberg, the author of the piece, was a national security editor at the Post, and was unusually deferential to Eric Schmidt, the head of the world’s largest spying organisation. The Washington Post is closely involved with the American deep state. It’s proprietor, Jeff Bezos, is one of the three richest people in America. His main firm, Amazon, is a contractor to the CIA.

Last weekend Counterpunch also published a story tracing the apparent connections between the authors of the blacklist, a shadowy group calling itself PropOrNot – as in ‘Propaganda or Not’, and the CIA, Ukrainian Fascists, including their sympathisers in the Democrat Party, and the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a far right think tank, which specialised in defending colonialism, advocated eugenics and thought that America could win a nuclear war with the former Soviet Union.

The article’s author was Mark Ames, owned a satirical newspaper in Russia, which was closed down by the Kremlin on charges of ‘extremism’. Which in the modern Russian context means basically criticising or making fun of Tsar Putin. Ames took the hint, and returned to America. So whatever Timberg or PropOrNot may claim, Ames himself is not a supporter of Putin or traitor to his country.

Ames reveals that one of the news sites smeared was Truthdig, one of whose founders is the veteran newspaperman Robert Scheer. In the mid and late ’60s Scheer was an editor and journalist for Ramparts, a news magazine respected for its investigative journalism. Scheer and Ramparts drew the ire of the CIA when they exposed the agency’s funding of the National Student Association. The CIA then began an illegal campaign of spying on Scheer and his magazine, as they were convinced they were Soviet spies. They weren’t, and the CIA’s intense efforts failed to turn up anything on them. This was, however, just the beginning. The programme was expanded into MK-CHAOS, the CIA operation under which hundreds of thousands of Americans were under the agency’s surveillance. The programme lasted until 1974, when it was exposed by Seymour Hersh.

PropOrNot is anonymous, but there are some clues to the identities of the people behind it. One of its contributors on Twitter goes by the monicker “Ukrainian-American”. Even before PropOrNot was known, this user had revealed their ethnic identity in Tweets in Ukrainian, repeating Ukrainian far right slogans. A PropOrNot Tweet of November 17th, 2016, saluted the efforts of Ukrainian hackers in combating the Russians with the phrase “Heroiam Slavam” – ‘Glory to the Heroes’. This salute was adopted by the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists at their congress in Nazi-occupied Cracow in 1941. The OUN was a Fascist organisation, which fought for the Nazis as auxiliary SS regiments during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Two months after the adoption of the slogan, the Nazis allowed the OUN to control Lvov for a brief period. This resulted a horrific pogrom in which thousands of Jews were tortured, raped and murdered.

The article then goes on to describe how the present Ukrainian regime, installed in the 2014 Maidan Revolution, has rehabilited the wartime Fascist and Nazi collaborators as national heroes, and the links many members of the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, have with Fascist organisations. Ames writes

Since the 2014 Maidan Revolution brought Ukrainian neo-fascists back into the highest rungs of power, Ukraine’s Nazi collaborators and wartime fascists have been rehabilitated as heroes, with major highways and roads named after them, and public commemorations. The speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, Andriy Parubiy, founded Ukraine’s neo-Nazi “Social-National Party of Ukraine” and published a white supremacist manifesto, “View From the Right” featuring the parliament speaker in full neo-Nazi uniform in front of fascist flags with the Nazi Wolfsangel symbol. Ukraine’s powerful Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, sponsors several ultranationalist and neo-Nazi militia groups like the Azov Battalion, and last month he helped appoint another neo-Nazi, Vadym Troyan, as head of Ukraine’s National Police. (Earlier this year, when Troyan was still police chief of the capital Kiev, he was widely accused of having ordered an illegal surveillance operation on investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet just before his assassination by car bomb.)

Ames also argues that the Washington Post’s wretched article is modelled on a similar blacklist compiled by the Ukrainian secret state and associated hackers. The regime has been attempting to silence and intimidate independent and dissenting journos. It has set up a ‘Ministry of Truth’, which sounds straight out of Orwell, as well as a website, Myrotvorets, which means ‘Peacemaker’. This has the backing of the Ukrainian answer to the KGB, the SBU, Avakov, the head of the Interior Ministry, and his Nazi deputy, Anton Geraschenko. The website publishes the names and personal information of 4,500 journalists, including westerners and Ukrainians working for western media companies. Those so doxed for not obeying the government’s demands to publish only articles from the required ultra-nationalist viewpoint have suffered death threat, many of which ended with ‘Ukraini Slavam!’ ‘Glory to Ukraine’, the other Fascist salute adopted by the OUN at its 1941 congress.

One of the lobbyists working for the Democratic National Committee is Alexandra Chalupa, who is the head of the Democratic National Committee’s opposition research on Russia and on Trump, and founder and president of the Ukrainian lobby group “US United With Ukraine Coalition”. In October 2016, Yahoo named her one of the 16 most important people, who shaped this year’s election. It was Chalupa, who blamed Shrillary’s defeat on Russian hackers, and that Trump’s campaign was aided by the Kremlin. This was because Trump had appointed Paul Manafort as his campaign manager, who had ties to Putin. Chalupa worked with Michael Isikoff, a journalist with Yahoo News, to publicise her views on Russian influence on the election campaign. She has also hysterically accused Trump of treason, even requesting the Department of Justice and other official government departments to investigate Trump for this alleged crime.

Ames is very careful, however, to state that he is not arguing that Chalupa is one of those behind PropOrNot. Rather, he is using her to show how PropOrNot is part of a wider, venomously anti-Russian movement within the Democrat party. He states that in his opinion, it is a classic case of blowback. After the Second World War, the US supported Ukrainian Fascists, despite their collaboration with the Holocaust and the massacre of the country’s ethnic Polish population, because they were seen as useful agents and allies against the Russians. Now that policy is beginning to blow back into domestic American politics.

Timberg’s other source for his blacklist was the Foreign Policy Research Institute, citing its ‘fellow’, Clint Watts, and a report Watts wrote on how Russia was trying to destroy America’s democracy. The Institute was founded on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania by Robert Strausz-Hupe, who had fled Austria in the 1920s. It was funded by the Vick’s chemical company, which sponsored a large number of initiatives devoted to rolling back the New Deal. It was also clandestinely funded by the CIA. Strausz-Hupe’s collaborator was another Austrian émigré, Stefan Possony. Possony had been a member of the Fascist governments of Dollfuss and Schuschnigg, but fled in 1938 after the Nazi annexation. Possony was the co-author of nearly all of the institute’s publications until he moved to the Hoover Institute at Stanford in 1961. He also continued publishing in the FPRI’s Orbis magazine, and was one of the contributors to Mankind Quarterly. This was one of the leading proponents of pseudoscientific racism and eugenics. Possony also wrote books advocating the same vile policy with another White supremacist, Nathaniel Weyl.

Possony claimed that Black Africans, along with the peoples of the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia, were mentally inferior to Whites. He stated that giving them independence was high dangerous. Instead, they benefited from White rule, which was gradually improving them. Whites dedicated to overthrowing colonialism were derided as ‘fashionable dupes’ who would be responsible for a ‘White genocide’. Possony defended William Shockley’s theories on racial eugenics, which argued that spending money on welfare was wasteful, because non-White races were too inferior to improve their conditions. Possony also supported Reagan’s Star Wars programme, as he believed it gave America first strike capability, and thus would allow it to win a nuclear war with Russia.

Strausz-Hupe believed that America was losing the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, and demanded a series of reforms to strengthen the American propaganda machine and close the gap between Soviet and American propaganda. And when Kubrick’s Cold War black comedy, Doctor Strangelove, came out, he accused the great cineaste of either being a conscious Soviet propaganda agent, or a willing dupe.

Ames’ article concludes

Today, the Foreign Policy Research Institute proudly honors its founder Strausz-Hupe, and honors his legacy with blacklists of allegedly treasonous journalists and allegedly all-powerful Russian propaganda threatening our freedoms.

This is the world the Washington Post is bringing back to its front pages. And the timing is incredible—as if Bezos’ rag has taken upon itself to soften up the American media before Trump moves in for the kill. And it’s all being done in the name of fighting “fake news” …and fascism.

See: http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/12/09/the-anonymous-blacklist-promoted-by-the-washington-post-has-apparent-ties-to-ukrainian-fascism-and-cia-spying/

These are very disturbing and dangerous times for western democracy. Not only is it under threat from Trump and the Nazis and White Supremacists in his supporters, but it’s also under attack from the corporatist Democrats, the Clintonite wing, desperate to expand American military and industrial power throughout the world, and using Cold War-era McCarthyite rantings and persecution to stifle dissent at home. If we are to enjoy peace and genuine democracy, it means effectively combatting both of these threats.