Posts Tagged ‘Rockets’

British Spaceplane Skylon to Fly in 2020?

February 25, 2017

hotol-badge-pic

The papers also reported this week that the government was looking for somewhere to put a spaceport for a British spacecraft, which would take off from ordinary runaways. The spacecraft would be launched in 2020. One of the places suggested as a possible site for the spaceport is Newquay in Cornwall.

This sounds like Skylon, a spaceplane that has been in development by British scientists since the 1980s. The plane will use a mixture of advanced air-breathing engines and rockets to enter space. It’s sort-of the successor to an earlier spaceplane project, HOTOL, which was under development in the 1980s before it was cancelled due to problems developing its air-breathing engines.

This is really great news. There have been other spaceplanes planned by a number of other countries, quite apart from the American space shuttle, and its Russian counterpart, Buran. The Germans had the Sanger spaceplane under consideration in the 1990s, named after the German aerospace engineer and scientist, Eugen Sanger, while the French were also considering the Hermes spacecraft. This was going to be a mini-shuttle launched by their Ariane rocket, rather like the American Dyno-Soar spaceplane of the 1950s. If this does go ahead, it will mean that Britain has once again returned as an independent space power after the cancellation of the Black Knight rocket launcher in 1975.

Russia and China Agreed to Join Moon Programme?

January 3, 2017

The I newspaper reported last week that the Chinese were continuing their programme of sending probes to the Moon and Mars, with the unstated intention of landing a human on the Moon. Way back in 2006, they were negotiating with the Russians about forming a joint programme to explore the Moon. Spaceflight, in its edition for November that year, reported

Russia and China may conclude a Moon exploration agreement by the end of the year, according to Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian Space Agency.

China has successfully launched into orbit two manned space vehicles. Its first manned flight three years ago made it the third country to launch a human being into space on its own, after Russia and the US.

“I can say that as a result of the Russian-Chinese space sub-commission’s work, our priority is a joint programme on Moon exploration,” said Perminov. “A number of contracts have been signed involving both Russian and Chinese enterprises.”

“We are currently working on the Moon as partners, and we have concluded that Russia and China have moved beyond their previous relationship, when China was a buyer and we [Russia] were a seller,” Perminov added.

He explained that the Russian-Chinese Space Exploration Commission will hold a concluding session in Beijing by the end of 2006, and that the Russian delegation will be led by Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.

“The work of our sub-commission should create a favourable context for the visit of our [Russian] prime minister to China,” he said. “We have already adopted a cooperation programme with China for 2007-2009.”

Perminov also said that China may sign a contract to participate in a Russian project to bring soil back from one of Mars’ moons – Phobos.

“One of the directions we are working in is a flight to Phobos, with Chinese participation, which will bring back some of its soil to Earth.” Perminov said. “We plan to reach the final stage [of our talks] by the end of 2006, possibly even by the start of the sub-commission’s work under Prime Minister Fradkov.” (p. 405)

There was no mention of an agreement with Russia in the I’s article, so perhaps the pact has fallen apart. If it does exist, it would certainly show that the Russians are again a major competitor to the Americans in space, especially since the cancellation of the Space Shuttle.

What Happened to the Orion Mooncraft?

January 3, 2017

In his novel Into the Everywhere, set in a future in which humanity has been given fifteen different worlds to colonise by the alien Jackaroo, Paul McAuley mentions a human space ship, the Orion, which has been made obsolete by the new spacecraft introduced by the aliens. It was clear that the Orion is a real spacecraft, but I was left wondering what it was, as I hadn’t heard it mentioned anywhere else. Looking through an old copy of Spaceflight, one of the two magazines published by the British Interplanetary Society, for November 2006, I found an article announcing the news that NASA had selected Lockheed Martin to build it, and that it was intended to take humans to the Moon. The article runs

Just as the last issue of Spaceflight went to press, NASA announced at the end of August that it had selected Lockheed Martin as the prime contractor to design, develop and build Orion, the new US crewed spacecraft.

Orion will be capable of transporting four people on lunar missions and later supporting crew transfers for flights to Mars missions. Orion will also be able to carry up to six crew to and from the International Space Station.

The first Orion launch with people onboard is planned for no later than 2014, and for a human Moon landing no later than 2020, but NASA and Lockheed will be working hard to bring the first crewed mission into Earth orbit forward to around 2012.

The contract with Lockheed Martin is the conclusion of a two-phase selection process. NASA began working with the two contractor teams, Northrop Grumman/Boeing and Lockheed Martin, in July 2005 to perform concept refinement, trade studies, analysis of requirements and preliminary design options.

Meanwhile, the $300 million first test flight of the Project Constellation Ares 1 booster will be made in April 2009. If this fails, another attempt will be made in October.

This first test will use four live Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster segments with an inert fifth upper segment and an Orion spacecraft “mass simulator”.

There will also be a full five-segment SRB ground test firing in 2009 and a test of the Apollo Type launch escape system. A full Ares 1 flight test will be made in 2012, followed by a manned flight in 2014, or earlier if the development schedule permits. (p. 407).

orion-mooncraft

Lockheed Martin’s depiction of the Orion crew vehicle and lunar lander in Moon orbit.

I don’t recall hearing about the launch of this spacecraft on the news. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention, or the news agencies didn’t think it worth reporting. But I doubt I missed it, and am certain that the construction of another rocket capable of taking humanity to the Moon and Mars would be guaranteed massive coverage around the world. It is, after all, nearly half a century since Neil Armstrong and co. stepped out onto the lunar regolith, and a possible mission to Mars is still very much in the news.

This looks very much like it was another NASA project that got cancelled due to budget cuts. Perhaps all the spending that was supposed to go to this got channelled by Obama on furthering the wars in the Middle East instead.

Florence on Terraforming Mars Using Existing Microbes

January 2, 2017

One of the pieces I put up yesterday was on a paper by two scientists in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, discussing the possibility of terraforming Mars using genetically engineered microbes. Florence, one of the commenters on this blog, used to be a microbiologist, and was extremely interested in the exploration of Mars and the prospect for finding life there. She commented that there are already anaerobic microbes that can exist in comparable conditions on Earth. She felt that the experiments carried designed to detect life on the Red Planet were very inadequate. She wrote

There appears little need to create GMOs for terraforming. We already have the real deal here on earth. Back 3.6 billion years ago, when first life is thought to have arrived/ developed / etc there wasn’t an oxygen based atmosphere. It was anoxic, and the first organisms (the archeao bacteria) were very sensitive to oxygen, and there are still many that find oxygen toxic. These are still found in many places including the human gut! Some microorganisms developed oxygen tolerance and that allowed them to use new food sources, and they began adding oxygen to the atmosphere. These organisms then used this evolutionary advantage to evolve and diversify. When I studied anaerobic bacteria the main problems were sensitivity to oxygen – very difficult to remove from all materials prepared in the standard lab – and the slow growth rate (making the rapid generation of results for research funding cycles pretty difficult).

http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/07_03/extremo.shtmlhttp://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/07_03/extremo.shtml

Then there are the organisms that can grow in both aerobic and anaerobic environments. These are the ones that would be useful in terraforming if the aim was to develop a breathable atmosphere for humans and other animals. These live on very basic nutrients of sulphur and iron containing minerals, plus water. I think the “red” planet would be a great place to find these organisms, and vee may not even need to send ours over, but to stimulate the environmental conditions that would allow the planet to terraform itself. I recall the so-called search for life on the early Mars probes left me speechless – they were just totally inappropriate. But that’s can other story! Thank you for reminding me of the whole area of microbial life here and across the solar system! Happy New Year, too!
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23354702https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23354702

The paper discussing the use of GEMOs to terraform Mars did mention that some existing microorganisms had been considered, such as a variety of cyanobacteria.
Looking through the index of papers published in the Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the Mars Society: August 13-16, 1998, edited by Robert and Linda Zubrin, I did find one paper by James M. Graham and Linda E. Graham on terrestrial microbes on Mars. This was ‘Physiological Ecology of Terrestrial Microbes on a Terraformed Mars’, published in the third volume of papers. Unfortunately, I don’t have that volume, and so I really don’t know anything about the paper or its conclusions, just that it exists.

As for the inadequacy of the instruments aboard the Viking probe to detect life on the Red Planet, Dr. Heather Couper and the late Colin Pillinger also believed that they were too limited to disprove the existence of life in that part of the cosmos. Heather Couper is an astronomer, writer and broadcaster, who’s written a series of books on astronomy. A few years ago I heard her talk about life on Mars at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Before she began speaking, she asked her audience how many of them believed there was life there. Only a few people put their hands up. She asked the same question again at the end of her talk, after she had explained the problems with Viking’s experiments, and the evidence for life. That time the majority of people put their hands up.

Dr. Colin Pillinger, who was a scientist with the Open University, also made a very strong case for life on Mars, life he hoped to find with the Beagle Probe. One of the ways life could be detected was through its waste gases, like methane. The Beagle Probe carried just such a detector, and Dr. Pillinger said, ‘So if a bacterium farts on Mars, we’ll find it.’ He was another speaker at the Cheltenham Festival of Science, and was well worth hearing. Sadly, the Beagle Probe was a disastrous failure. Rather than soft-landing, it crashed on to the Mars surface, and was destroyed.

Despite this, I still have immense respect for the man. He and his team seemed to be fighting a lone battle to send a British probe to explore the issue, and I am deeply impressed by the way he and his fellow scientists were able to mobilise public support, including celebrities like the artist, Damian Hurst. I got the impression that his team were rushed, and it may well have been this that caused the mission’s failure. But I don’t fault the man for trying, and I think he did a grand job in taking on British officialdom and winning a place for the probe aboard the Ariane craft, when the British authorities didn’t appear to be at all interested, at least, at the beginning.

It’s sad that he failed, but he was genuinely inspirational in pushing for the project. I hope that it will not be too long before someone else sends another, better probe to Mars. And I think we need more scientists, and science educators like him, who can pass on their great enthusiasm for their subject.

Trump and Putin Revive Nuclear Arms Race

December 24, 2016

Yesterday, Mike put up another piece commenting on statements by the American president-elect and Vladimir Putin that they want to strengthen their countries’ nuclear arsenals. Trump had made a tweet on Thursday saying “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Trump did so the same day that Putin issued his own statement, declaring that “We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defence systems.”

Mike makes the point that the threat of nuclear Armageddon will not make the world more secure. It will not make rogue states like North Korea abandon their nuclear programmes. Instead, Mike urged us to listen to George Takei, whose family personally experienced the horror of the atomic bomb in Japan in World War II.

Star Trek’s Mr Sulu tweeted “Trump wants to expand our nuclear arsenal. I think of my aunt and baby cousin, found burnt in a ditch in Hiroshima. These weapons must go.”

Absolutely. I can remember the very large, and vocal demonstrations against nuclear weapons in Japan during the new Cold War of the 1980s. The Japanese had every good reason to demand the reduction and abandonment of the world’s nuclear arsenals: their country had experienced the terrible carnage produced by these horrific weapons.

Mike also reports that back in May, Trump also stated that he would support South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapons for their own protection.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/12/23/why-are-trump-and-putin-suddenly-keen-to-revive-the-cold-war/

Mike’s also reported that Trump has followed up his idiotic tweet by making his intentions clear in an interview with Mika Brzezinski, one of the presenters on MSNBC’s Morning Joe programme. He said, ‘Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all’.

Mike makes the point that his comments risk needlessly inflaming tensions with Russia, pointing out that what is currently repeated in the western media about eastern Europe and the Middle East is propaganda designed to manipulate public opinion. He also argues that Putin could adopt the opposite approach, and concentrate on saving precious money and resources through the same policy, that has been considered by Labour Jeremy Corbyn. This means killing or otherwise neutralising terrorists’ leaders through surgical strikes, leaving them without effective military direction.

He also points out that technological weapons are also increasingly susceptible to infiltration and sabotage.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/12/24/while-trump-spends-all-his-money-on-nuclear-weapons-what-will-the-russians-do/

Trump’s determination to ramp up America’s nuclear arsenal is bizarre, given his previous statements during his presidential campaign in which he deliberately gave the impression that he would be scaling down America’s military intervention around the globe. However, on examination this does seem very much in line with Trump’s determination to go back on every single one of his election promises, with the exception of repealing Obamacare.

Remember the noise he was making about going to Washington to ‘drain the swamp’, and would stop the corporate domination and corruption of Congress? That’s gone. After attacking Hillary for being a fully paid-up stooge for Wall Street, Trump has himself gone and appointed Wall Street bankers – including one from Goldman Sachs – to his cabinet. In fact, if anything, he’s increased the amount of corporate corruption. He’s allowed his daughter, Ivanka, to stay with him during negotiations with heads of government in either Japan or China, despite the fact that Ivanka Trump is also a businesswoman, who could use the information from these interviews to gain a clear economic advantage. And his sons have been raising money for their father by selling tickets to the extremely and not-quite-so filthy rich for them to attend dinners with him and go on hunting trips. All Trump’s talk about tackling corporate power has been a lie. Instead, it’s very much business as usual.

And it appears to be very much the same here. Counterpunch has published several articles over the past couple of months discussing how Barack Obama has been talking to senior military staff in Washington. He has already started to expand America’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons. He has also considered the possible use of low-megaton ‘battle field’ nukes in a limited nuclear war in Europe. The American comedian Jimmy Dore has several times ripped into Obama on his internet show, bitterly attacking the false image of the soon to be ex-president as some kind of dove and peacemaker. Far from stopping wars, Obama has carried on George Dubya’s brutal military policies in the Middle East, from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, as well as Libya and Somalia. And so this new policy, announced by Trump, really isn’t new at all. It is, as Max Headroom used to say, merely ‘more… of the same’. The difference here is that Max was a fictional character with a satirical edge talking about pop music. The pilot for his series, 20 Minutes into the Future, showed a decaying Britain with massive poverty and homelessness, dominated by ruthless and unscrupulous media corporations. It’s a dystopian vision that is still very relevant today, even if the human brain is far too complicated to be successfully mapped and modelled electronically to produce an AI like Max.

As for the reason behind this dangerous policy, Counterpunch also published a piece describing Hillary Clinton’s vision of America’s role in the world. She seemed to be intent on expanding America’s military power to the utmost. She and the rest of the hawks talked about ‘full spectrum domination’, which means that America is the superior, dominant military superpower with the ability to bomb everyone else back into submission. At the same time, her domestic policies were aimed at keeping the working class as poor and as desperate as possible, so that she could sell American products cheaply to the emerging east Asian market.

It’s also been argued that America spends so much on the military because it is the only way that the American state can stimulate the country’s economy. Leftwing commenters and political analysts have argued that the experience of the Second World War after the Great Depression taught the American industrial and political class that America needed state intervention to create prosperity. This is, however, the Keynsian economic position, which is vehemently rejected by the Republicans and Libertarians as ‘socialism’ or even ‘Communism’. The only way the American state can effectively intervene in the American economy in a manner that is ideologically acceptable, is by doing what the Nazis and Fascists did in Germany and Italy, and invest massively in a re-armament programme. And like the Fascist states, the state has to use its armed forces to maintain its investments and public support for the rearmament programme. This was part of the reason for the outbreak of the Second World War.

As for Trump’s statement that he is prepared to allow South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons, this is grossly irresponsible. Especially in the case of Saudi Arabia. In the case of Japan, it unacceptable for the same reason that the country has difficulty launching its own spacecraft. In the 1980s Japan developed its own rocket launcher to carry its satellites and probes into space. One of these probes was amongst the small flotilla of spacecraft that met Halley’s Comet in 1986. From what I’ve read, the country has only used its launcher a few times because of fears that it would be taken as a missile attack by the Chinese. The same would be true of South Korea. Political scientists and foreign policy analysts have argued very strongly against threatening China, as they respond by passing on nuclear technology and armaments to other nations, such as Pakistan.

And I cannot imagine anything more stupid, more calculated to result a nuclear holocaust, than giving atomic weapons to Saudi Arabia. This is a militant theocracy that has sponsored horrific terror campaigns throughout the Middle East and against America itself. Elements within the Saudi aristocracy and political elite, including its intelligence minister and possibly, if I remember correctly, the current king, sponsored al-Qaeda and ISIS. Terrorist organisations like them, who use suicide bombers and deliberately target civilians, simply cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. But that is what would happen if Trump allowed Saudi Arabia to acquire them.

Trump’s renewal of the nuclear arms race is therefore simply a continuation of Bush’s, Obama’s and Hillary’s arms policies. And it’s insane. During the Cold War of the last century, there were at least three instances where NATO and the former Warsaw Pact were on the edge of full-scale nuclear war. We escaped some of these by the skin of our teeth. This time, we may not be so lucky.

Stephen Hawking on Why British Science Needs the EU

June 1, 2016

One of the many piece Mike put up on his site yesterday reported on Stephen Hawking’s statement that British science would be put at risk if we left the EU. Hawking was speaking as a guest on the show Good Morning Britain, and stated that the EU was good for British science for two reasons. Firstly, it allowed scientists and students from different countries to travel, thus sharing their skills, knowledge and experience. Without this exchange of personnel and ideas, Britain would be come isolated and remote from the centres of scientific endeavour. He also stated that British science benefited from generous funding from the European Union.

Another EU personality clash: Stephen Hawking vs Michael Gove. Who do YOU think should win?

Hawking’s views here are, unsurprisingly, exactly right. In fact, British intellectual culture has benefited from the exchange of staff and ideas from across the continent. Many, perhaps the majority, of unis today have teaching staff and students from elsewhere in the EU and the wider world. In the archaeology department at Bristol University four years ago, when I was studying for my postgraduate degree, there were staff from Greece, Portugal and Germany. There were also speakers at the regular postgraduate seminars from countries such as Austria and Belgium, apart from those from the other parts of the Anglophone world. These archaeologists reported on excavations they had carried out not only in their home countries, but also in places like Turkey, Egypt, Romania and the former USSR. Well some of this is no doubt possible without the umbrella of the EU, it’s made much easier with it.

And Britain does benefit from the international contacts the EU brings at a corporate and financial level. ESA, the European Space Agency, operates a system of a juste retour. Under this system, the countries that contribute the most funding to a European space project get the most contracts for it. And we’ve missed out on the benefits of closer cooperation with the European Space Agency in the past. For example, we could have been much more involved with the Ariane satellite launcher. This was developed by France from the remains of the ESRO project to build a European launch vehicle. We developed our own launcher too, Black Knight, which successfully launched a British satellite in the 1970s, but was cancelled after its first mission. We could have had a place, or many more places for our satellites, aboard Ariane. Instead, some Whitehall mandarin decided that we should instead throw in our lot with the Americans’ space shuttle. Well, we suffered there, not just because of the horrific engineering problems with that space vessel, which resulted in the deaths of the crew of the Challenger and more recent fatalities. We also suffered because the launch of our satellites depended on whether there was space left over after the Americans had filled it with the experiments they wanted for their missions. Meanwhile, Ariane, quietly and successfully, carried other countries’ experiments and satellites into orbit, while we waited for the goodwill of the Americans.

And Ariane itself, the rocket launcher, is excellent value for money. It costs the same as the Space Shuttle to launch a satellite, but that’s only because the Space Shuttle was heavily subsidised by the US government. If you’re looking for something that justifies itself according to free market ideology, then it’s probably Ariane you’d go for.

Much of the cutting-edge, gosh-wow science that science educators love, because it captures young minds, like space, atomic physics and so on, is very expensive. I doubt whether the UK on its own could bear the cost of building a particle accelerator the size of CERN, or its rivals in America. So CERN was the result of collaboration between different European nations. And the importance of international contacts and intellectual mobility between countries is also underscored by the initial post-War success of American atomic physics. The Americans were able to build such huge nuclear reactors and accelerators, not just because they had the vast financial resources to afford them, but also because they benefited from the influx of all the scientists and engineers the Nazis had chased out of Central Europe.

Mike, following one of his esteemed commenters, asks who people should believe about science and Brexit, Stephen Hawking, or Michael Gove? Really, you don’t have to have read A Brief History of Time or understand the intricacies of N-dimensional String Theory to know the answer to that one. It’s definitely going to be Hawking.

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.

The Young Turks on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Space Mission and Return to Earth

December 24, 2015

This is another great piece from The Young Turks. This time, unlike many of the other reports I’ve reblogged from them, covering such iniquitous events and individuals as Donald Trump and so on, it’s actually good news. This is their report on the launch of the private space rocket, Falcon 9, which successfully put a satellite into space. The rocket then returned to Earth, where it can be refuelled and used again on another mission.

Here’s the report:

The Turks’ anchor, Cenk Uygur, reports that this raises hopes that satellites can be put into space much more cheaply. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, originally from South Africa, states that this is part of his ultimate goal to build a city on Mars. He also developed an idea for a rapid transit system in California, which he gave away for others to work on because he and his company didn’t have time to develop it themselves. Uygur makes a joke comparing him to Tony Stark, millionaire inventor and alter ego of Iron Man.

This is great news, as there have been a number of private companies since the 1990s that have been trying to develop low-cost, efficient ways of taking satellites and ultimately humans into space. There’s even a prize of about $100,000 called the X-Prize, offered to the first private spacecraft to do so. Or there was. The prize was based on the early aviation prizes, such as those awarded to great pioneering aviators like Louis Bleriot, Charles Lindbergh, ‘Wrong Way Corrigan’ and Amelia Earhart, or at least their fellows, and which greatly stimulated the development of aircraft technology. The hope behind all this is that one day, costs will be so low that a trip into space will be affordable to most people. At the moment, the only people, who can afford it are multi-millionaires and governments.

This is also possibly one of the few areas where private industry will genuinely be beneficial. Part of the problem developing cheap space travel is that at the moment, space exploration and transport in America is almost totally dominated by NASA. Many space scientists and enthusiasts are frustrated with the agency because it’s part of NASA’s charter that it should be active developing ways to broaden access to space. This goal, however, is very low down in it’s priorities, and there is a feeling that the agency is actively blocking progress in this area. I was at a symposium of space experts and fans at the British Interplanetary Society about a decade and a half ago, where this was discussed by one of the speakers. He believed people should be rightfully angry about it, and should right to the appropriate authorities. NASA is a public corporation, funded by the American taxpayer, and so the American public have a right to see their scientists find ways to get ordinary Americans into space. The various X-Prizes offered by a private foundation are private enterprise’s way of opening up the area to some competition in order to achieve this.

And with the successful return of the Falcon9 rocket, that aim just came a little bit closer.

Danish Amateur Rocketeers Aim for Space

November 19, 2015

This is truly awesome! It’s a VICE documentary I found on Youtube about Copenhagen Suborbitals, a non-profit organisation formed by two Danish guys, Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen, who are building their own spacecraft to carry a person on a sub-orbital spaceflight.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that both have a background as professional rocket engineers. Bengtson used to work for NASA, while his partner, Peter Madsen, also has a background in rocket science. Bengtson got in touch with Madsen after Madsen built and launched his own submarine, the Nautilus, and stated that he’d like to go back to rockets.

Their spacecraft, Beautiful Betty, is built from off the shelf components, like domestic boilers. The rocket uses ethanol as its fuel, and LOX, liquid oxygen, to oxidise it to make it combust. At the time the film was posted in 2012 Bengtson and Madsen were still experimenting with crash test dummies rather than risking a human life. My guess is that they haven’t progressed beyond that, as if they had finally launched someone into space, even in a very short suborbital flight, it would most likely have been all over the news. Bengtson, Madsen and their team would have been celebrities.

The two also encourage others to copy them, in order to show that it doesn’t have to be massive corporations with extremely expensive launchers getting into space. Bengtson says at the end that people are welcome to join them, or copy the details of the spacecraft from their blog and go off and make their own spacecraft.

Here’s the programme:

This is truly inspiring. I strongly believe that the only way spaceflight will ever truly become a mass enterprise, will be when ordinary people have the opportunity to experience space. When the High Frontier is no longer the sole preserve of giant aerospace companies and national or international organisations, like NASA and ESA. When its more like the mass popular migration into space depicted by Ray Bradbury in his classic collection of short stories, The Martian Chronicles. Without, hopefully, the pessimism about human civilisation and it destructive effects contained in Bradbury’s book. In The Martian Chronicles the human settlers destroy the indigenous Martians, and then their civilisation collapses after a nuclear war destroys all life on Earth, or at least humanity there.

Now rocketry, even at the level of Copenhagen Suborbital, is very advanced engineering. Nevertheless, there’s a very large amateur rocketry milieu around the world. These range from hobbyists, who make and launch model rockets that travel only a few hundred feet up, to some extremely serious rocketeers. One year a group sent a 45 foot minuteman missile into orbit.

One of the issues that might strangle the popular, amateur exploration of space is domestic terrorism. In Britain, research into rockets and their use as spacecraft was seriously hampered by the Victorian legislation, nicknamed ‘the fireworks act’, which made it illegal for amateurs to manufacture explosives. The law was passed as a response to bombings by Irish nationalists. Unfortunately, as well as helping to prevent terrorism, it stopped the various early British amateurs from experimenting, though there were a number of rocket societies which developed in the 1920s. Out of them grew the British Interplanetary Society, which is still going today. It still publishes serious papers on rocketry and space science, as well as more popular coverage of spaceflight. Among its members are the late Arthur C. Clarke, and Matt Irvine, who was one of the special effects team building the models for the cult BBC SF series, Blake’s 7.

The legislation regulating the manufacture of explosives is quite correct. These are highly dangerous materials. Apart from anything else, there’s always the danger of accidents, quite apart from the renewed terrorist threat from ISIS and al-Qaeda much earlier. Even in America, which has much less strict firearms regulations, serious rocketeers have to obtain suitable certificates and permits from the Federal Aviation Authority.

Nevertheless, these Danish guys are showing what you can do with skill and ingenuity without the budget of the big space combines. The motto of the British Interplanetary Society is ‘From Imagination to Reality’ – and they’re doing it!
Godspeed, guys!

Peace, Love and Lebanese Rockets

October 22, 2014

The Lebanese Rocket Society

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige
Soda Film + Art
Arabic with English, French and Arabic subtitles
Running time 95 minutes.

Lebanon Rocket 1

With the news full of the horrors of ISIS and their genocidal war in Iraq and Syria, I thought I’d turn to a far more optimistic and inspiring episode of recent Middle Eastern history: how a group of Lebanese students in 1962 were inspired to join the nascent space race and begin building their own rockets. It’s a piece of history that has been all but forgotten. The film not only documents the rise and fall of the Lebanese space programme, but the film makers’ own attempts to jog people’s memories of it on Lebanese radio. They then turned the rocket programme into an art project, constructing a full-scale statue of one of the rockets, which they presented to the Lebanese Armenian college at the centre of the rocket programme. They also made their own version of the Golden Record, the disc containing the sounds of Earth, which was carried into space on the Voyager 2 probe destined to leave the solar system for the depths of interstellar space and possible contact with aliens. In the hands of the film’s producers, the record held the sounds of Lebanon.

They also created an animated film, by Ghossein Halwa, depicting what Lebanon might be like in 2025, if the programme had continued. In Halwa’s film, the Lebanon of the near future is a prosperous, bustling space age state. Space technology has given the country security by allowing it to guard its borders against foreign invasion. It has also contributed to the country’s material wealth by discovering oil reserves off its coast. Beirut and its suburbs are a true, futuristic city like the vast megalopolis’ in Japanese manga films and the SF classic, Blade Runner. Vast space craft, Arab versions of the Space Shuttle, are launched to explore the depths of space. But it’s also a fun a place, where you can trip the light fantastic in zero-gravity nightclubs.

Lebanon Rocket Cartoon

One of the new generation of spacecraft from the alternative Lebanon of 2025.

The Founder, Manoug Manougian

The programme was the brain child of Manoug Manougian, a professor of mathematics at Haigazian college, an Armenian college in Lebanon. Manougian’s interest in space travel seems to have been sparked, like many a child’s, by reading Jules Verne. Now teaching maths at university in Tampa, Florida, he says during one interview that it may not be accident he ended up there. Verne made it the location for his astronaut’s journey into space in his Voyage to the Moon as it was at the right latitude for launching a flight to the Earth’s companion world. Inspired by the achievements of the Americans and Russians, Manougian was inspired to begin his own experiments. He and a group of his students began making and launching a series of rockets. At first these were tiny ‘baby rockets’, not much larger than fireworks and about the same size as some of the model rockets hobby rocketeers enjoyed by hobby rocketeers. The rockets became increasingly larger and more sophisticated, until they reached the end of what could legally be built. The fuel used by the rockets was strictly limited to the armed forces. Furthermore, there was a problem with funding as any further increase in size would make the rockets prohibitively expensive for a small, civilian project. Manougian’s group had caught the interest of the Lebanese army under Captain Wehbe, who stepped in to give the young rocketeers the money and equipment they needed.

Involvement with the Army

The alliance with the army brought its own problems, however. Manougian and his students were only interested in peaceful research. The college’s founder, a Protestant pastor, was very much afraid that the rocket would be used as a weapon, and was initially strongly opposed to the research. He resolved to put a stop to it when he saw his own 12 year old daughter come out of one of the campus’ laboratories, her forearms grey from mixing the rocket fuel. He decided to go round and tell Manougian to put a stop to it.

He was persuaded otherwise by the massive publicity the programme was giving Lebanon and his college. The newspapers were full of stories about Manougian and his band of space cadets. Other, similar groups sprang up elsewhere in Lebanon. One such was a group of 13-15 year old boys, who launched their own baby rockets. The Lebanese also received international assistance and co-operation from France and America. Col. Wehbe attended a course on rocketry and the American space programme in Florida. He also attended the launch of a French experimental rocket in North Africa.

International Tensions and War

The programme was doomed by the political tensions in the Middle East. The film makers point out that the 1960s was a period of tension and conflict between the superpowers, America and Russia, and their allies and clients in the Arab world. Against them was Arab nationalism, led by the Egyptian president Abdel Nasser, which briefly resulted in the union of Syria and Egypt, and the anti-imperial forces. Lebanon was buzzing with spies and political intrigue. One of the speakers recalled how one frequent drinker at a hotel bar in Beirut was none other than Kim Philby, the notorious British traitor. The Lebanese’s success in building larger and more sophisticated missiles attracted attention and alarm from other nations. Their last missile was to have a projected range of 500 km, bringing into range Cyprus, Syria and Israel. Manougian’s rocketeers received a sharp message from their diplomatic staff in Cyprus. The British authorities were understandably annoyed after they made a mistake with one of their rocket’s trajectory, so that it almost landed on a Cypriot fishing boat.

Other Arab nations were also keen to acquire Lebanon’s success and expertise. Manougian recalled how he was approached at an official party by another Armenian, whom he didn’t know. The man asked him if he was looking for funding. When Manougian said he was, the unknown man replied that he knew someone who wanted to meet him. And so Manougian found himself driving through Beirut with the man at 2.30-3.00 O’clock in the morning, before ending up at hotel, in front of which was a crowd of people. He was then approached by the heir of one of the other Arab states, who asked him if he’d like to come and do the same in his country as he’d done for Lebanon. Manougian states that he felt it would have been impolite to refuse the offer, and so simply replied that he’d have to think about it. He then fled back to Texas to complete his education, explaining that at the time he only had a B.A., and not even an M.A.

The Army’s Takeover and End of the Project

With Manougian absent, the rocket programme began to experience a series of disasters. Three of the rocketeers were badly burned in an accident when the perchlorate rocket fuel being mixed exploded. The College decided the rocket programme was too hazardous, and so had them removed from campus. it was then gradually taken over by the Lebanese army. Manougian, Joseph Sfeir and the other leading rocketeers were peaceful visionaries, but the army made it clear that they had always been interested in developing it as a weapon. They just didn’t tell the project’s civilian leaders. Well, said one of the officers, if you told Manougian it would be all over Haikazian college, and if you told Sfeir, it would be all over his home province. Under the army’s control, the tests became more secret and closed to the public, unlike the earlier launches. Eventually the project was closed down due to international pressure. One of the rocketeers identified the French as responsible. Another recalled how he knew the then-president personally, and asked him, which country was responsible. ‘Was it from the north?’ he asked. ‘From the north, from the south, and elsewhere’, came the reply. Clearly Lebanon’s success at creating such a missile had made a lot of people understandably very nervous.

The film laments how very, very few Lebanese now remember the programme, despite the massive publicity it had at the time. They feel that the 1967 War and the losses of Arab territory to Israel and subsequent conflicts have blotted out all memory of the programme, and made Arabs afraid to dream and strive for utopias. There is very little Science Fiction in the Middle East, they opine, because there’s always the danger that someone in the future will consider it subversive.

Peaceful Idealism

What actually comes out of the film, in contrast to the militarism and political intrigue, is the peaceful idealism and patriotism of the projects leaders and founders. Manougian states that Lebanese Armenians are very loyal to their adopted country for taking them in after the Armenian massacres that occurred throughout the Turkish Empire and the Middle East. It’s a situation the film’s producers strongly sympathise with. One of them has an Armenian grandparent, while the other is part Palestinian. They see the space programme as what their country, and the Arab peoples themselves, can achieve if only they dare to dream and look for utopias. The film was made in 2009-10, during the Arab Spring, which they hail as the Arab people once more daring to dream of better societies without tyrants or despots. As for Manougian, he is still very much a visionary and campaigner for peace. He’s active in a project, ‘Peace through Education’. The film makers hoped by making the film they would restore its memory. The sculpture of the rocket was painted white to show that it wasn’t a real missile, and taken through the streets of Beirut to Haikazian College to show what Lebanon had achieved peacefully, through idealism.

The Lebanese Rocketeers – The Arab ‘Mice that Roared’

The film and its rocketeers remind me somewhat of the Ealing comedy, the Mouse on the Moon. This was the successor to the comedies about the minuscule state of Little Fenwick, an English village that manages to gain independence from the rest of the UK, Passport to Pimlico and The Mouse that Roared. The Mouse on the Moon chronicles the events as Little Fenwick joins the space race, rushing to land on the Moon ahead of the Americans and Russians. Apart from well-known Ealing stars like Margaret Rutherford, it also has Bernard Cribbins, known to grown-up children of a certain age as the narrator of The Wombles, and to a new generation of children as one the friends of David Tenant’s Doctor. It shows what small nations and ordinary people can do with skill, vision and military backing. Sadly, from the perspective of 2014 the film’s optimistic embrace of the Arab Spring seems misplaced. The despots throughout the Middle East have either successfully clamped down on the civil rights movements, or else the dissident movements themselves have led to the raise of dangerous and unstable Islamist militias. Egypt’s brief experiment with the democracy and the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood has collapsed, and the country is once more under the control of the army. Nevertheless, for a brief moment another world of peace and freedom seemed possible.

Human Progress Made when Peoples and Cultures Come Together

The other point that comes out of the film is the amazing advances in science and civilisation when difference peoples and cultures come together in peace to try to learn from one another. Lebanon was known as the Switzerland of the Levant. It’s a mosaic of different peoples and religions, including Christians, Muslims and the Druze, a highly unorthodox form of Islam. Islam was able to make great strides in science in the Middle Ages, because the early caliphs were keen to draw on the knowledge and expertise of their empire’s subject peoples. The caliph Al-Ma’mun founded a bayt al-hikma, or House of Wisdom dedicated to science and medicine. They drew on Greek, Persian and Indian science and mathematics, and employed Christians, Zoroastrians and Hindus, as well as Muslims, to translate scientific and medical works into Arabic. Al-Ma’mun himself sent a scientific mission of scholars, including the pioneering mathematician al-Khwarizmi, who gave his name to word ‘algorithm’, to acquire scientific knowledge and texts from the Byzantine Empire, the Greek Empire of the East. Western science, in its turn, because massively enriched from the 12th century onwards when European scholars acquired copies of the lost Greek classics and Arabic scientific and medical texts. Peaceful contact between nations and cultures, and the great advances they could make by learning from each other, is now threatened today by the rise in militant xenophobia and, in the Middle East, by the genocidal Islamism of groups like ISIS.

Bill Hicks’ Vision – ‘We Can End World Hunger and Colonise Space’

This film shows the opposite, of what can be achieved through peaceful co-operation. It goes some way to proving the point the late comedian, Bill Hicks, used to make at the end of his gigs. Hicks used to state that if the world spent the amount of money it spends on arms instead on developing, we could feed the world. ‘Not one person would starve. Not one. And we could go and colonise space, in peace, together.’

Bill Hicks sadly died of cancer, but the dreams lives on.

Here’s the great man in action, taken from Youtube.