Posts Tagged ‘Rockets’

Trump’s Space Force Breaks International Law

June 28, 2020

Remember when Trump announced a few months ago that he was setting up a space force to protect America from attack from that direction? He was immediately criticised because such a force would break the current international treaties governing the exploration and use of space. Mitchell R. Sharpe discusses these treaties in his book Satellites and Probes: The Development of Unmanned Spaceflight (London: Aldus Books 1970).

Sharpe writes

As the tempo of space exploration increases and more nations become involved through international agreements, it is obvious that problems in international law will ultimately arise. In this field, the UN took an early interest and is now the principal organization for studying and proposing space law. After manned space flight began in 1961, the General Assembly laid down some brief principles of a space code. On December 13, 1963, these were expanded; and an international treaty based upon them was signed in Washington, Moscow, and London on January 27, 1967. In brief, the treaty states that space exploration is available to all nations equally and that there will be no use of space for military purposes. Other international agreement provide that there will be no annexation of other planets by Earth powers and that astronauts are to be returned to their own nations in case they land by accident in other countries.

Pp. 30-1 (my emphasis).

The book notes that international relations in space have been strained, but nevertheless is optimistic about future cooperation between countries in the High Frontier.

The road to harmonious international cooperation in space research and exploration is not a smooth one. It has been strewn with obstacles of mutual suspicion, and distrust through conflicting political ideologies, outright chauvinism, cumbersome coordinating organizations, periodic temperature changes in the Cold War. However, the progression has been steadily forward despite these momentary checks…

As the second decade of the Space Age dawned, Man was beginning to realize the space, in its infinity, precludes all petty approaches to its exploration and eventual exploitation. International cooperation in both seemed an imperative for the ensuing decade, and the signs of a growing effort toward this were encouraging. (p. 31).

By the time of the publication of Michael Freeman’s Space Traveller’s Handbook (London: Hamlyn 1979), international relations had become much colder and the prospects for cooperation much less optimistic. The joint American-Soviet space mission of 1975, which saw astronauts from the two nations link up in orbit and exchange greetings was then four years in the past. The new Cold War that would dominate the global situation until the Gorbachev era and the fall of Communism was just beginning. The Space Traveller’s Handbook is a fictionalized treatment of rocketry and space exploration using the framework of a history book from 2061. The section on space law makes it plain that international legislation concerning space is extremely fragile and expects it to be broken. This is laid out in the section’s final two paragraphs.

International law is no law.

The most unsatisfactory aspect of the whole legal question in space is that the effectiveness of international legislation depends entirely on the good will of nations. Not all nations are signatory to all treaties, some elements of international space law are plainly at odds with the national law of some countries. and in the final analysis a nation can simply ignore the findings of the International Court of Space.

Basically, international law, on Earth as well as in space, is a conflict of law, the confrontation of two nations, each with its own set of internal laws. Legislation must be by treaty, and legal disputes tend to follow diplomatic channels in the first instance. The setting up of the International Court of Space by the ISA was an attempt to regulate disputes, but its only means of enforcing its judgements is to present its recommendations to the ISA. Essentially, the only punishment is sanction, [such as was applied to Rhodesia after UDI]. This is only effective if a sufficient number of nations agree to undertake it. Even criminal cases against individuals must in the end be referred to national courts. (p. 49).

The ISA and the International Court of Space, or at least the latter, are fictitious, and part of the book’s future history. It’s interesting, though, that the book predicted it would be set up ten years ago in 2010. I am not aware that any institution like it actually has.

Trump’s projected space force clearly is in breach of international law, and it seems to bear out Freeman’s prediction that it would eventually prove to be toothless. However, he hasn’t set it up just yet, and it remains to be seen whether it will actually become reality. If it does, I fear it will lead to a disastrous arms race in outer space, a race that may well bring us once again to the brink of nuclear armageddon as the Earth-based arms race did far too many times in the past.

For humanity’s sake, let us follow the vision of the late, great comedian Bill Hicks. Hicks used to end his show by stating that if the world spent what it does on armaments instead on peaceful projects, we could explore and colonize space and feed our world.

No one need starve, and we could go forth in peace forever.

Meanwhile, Trump’s announcement has provided yet more subject matter for the satirists. Netflix is launching a new comedy series, Space Force. Here’s the trailer from YouTube.

I think The Office mentioned in the title credits must be the American version of the show, rather than the British original made infamous by Ricky Gervaise. It stars Steve Carell and Lisa Kudrow, who older readers may remember as Phoebe in the ’90s comedy series, Friends.

 

Personal Hobby Rocket Based on NASA Mercury Capsule

June 27, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Mercury capsule from the above book, page 56.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NASA Film Explaining Their Plan to Return to the Moon

June 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

80s Space Comedy From Two of the Goodies

May 26, 2020

Astronauts, written by Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie, 13 episodes of 25 minutes in length. First Broadcast ITV 1981 and 1983.

I hope everyone had a great Bank Holiday Monday yesterday, and Dominic Cummings’ hypocritical refusal to resign after repeatedly and flagrantly breaking the lockdown rules aren’t getting everyone too down. And now, for the SF fans, is something completely different as Monty Python used to say.

Astronauts was a low budget ITV sitcom from the very early ’80s. It was written by the two Goodies responsible for writing the scripts for their show, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie, and based on the personal conflicts and squabbling of the American astronauts on the Skylab programme six years earlier. It was about three British astronauts, RAF officer, mission commander and pilot Malcolm Mattocks, chippy, left-wing working-class engineer David Ackroyd, coolly intellectual biologist Gentian Fraser,and their dog, Bimbo,  who are launched into space as the crew of the first all-British space station. Overseeing the mission is their American ground controller Lloyd Beadle. Although now largely forgotten, the show lasted two seasons, and there must have been some continuing demand for it, because it’s been released nearly forty years later as a DVD. Though not in such demand that I didn’t find it in DVD/CD bargain catalogue.

Low Budget

The show’s very low budget. Lower than the Beeb’s Blake’s 7, which often cited as an example of low budget British science fiction. There’s only one model used, that of their space station, which is very much like the factual Skylab. The shots of their spacecraft taking off are stock footage of a Saturn V launch, the giant rockets used in the Moon landings and for Skylab. There also seems to be only one special effects sequence in the show’s entire run, apart from outside shots. That’s when an accident causes the station to move disastrously out of its orbit, losing gravity as it does so. Cheap matte/ Chromakey effects are used to show Mattocks rising horizontally from his bunk, where he’s been lying, while Bimbo floats through the bedroom door.

Class in Astronauts and Red Dwarf

It’s hard not to compare it with the later, rather more spectacular Red Dwarf, which appeared in 1986, three years after Astronaut’s last season. Both shows centre around a restricted regular cast. In Red Dwarf this was initially just Lister, Holly and the Cat before the appearance of Kryten. Much of the comedy in Red Dwarf is also driven by their similar situation to their counterparts in Astronauts – personality clashes in the cramped, isolated environment of a spacecraft. The two shows are also similar in that part of this conflict from class and a Conservative military type versus working class cynic/ liberal. In Red Dwarf it’s Rimmer as the Conservative militarist, while Lister is the working class rebel. In Astronauts the military man is Mattocks, a patriotic RAF pilot, while Ackroyd, the engineer, is left-wing, Green, and affects to be working class. The three Astronauts also debate the class issue, accusing each other of being posh before establishing each other’s place in the class hierarchy. Mattocks is posh, but not as posh as Foster. Foster’s working class credentials are, however, destroyed during an on-air phone call with his mother, who is very definitely middle or upper class, and talks about going to the Conservative club. In this conflict, it’s hard not to see a similarity with the Goodies and the conflict there between the Conservative screen persona of Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie’s left-wing, working class character.

Class, however, plays a much smaller role in Red Dwarf. Lister is more underclass than working class, and the show, set further in the future, has less overt references to contemporary class divisions and politics. The humour in Red Dwarf is also somewhat bleaker. The crew are alone three million years in the future, with the human race vanished or extinct with the exception of Lister. Rimmer is an ambitious failure. For all he dreams of being an officer, he has failed the exam multiple times and the B.Sc he claims is Batchelor of Science is really BSC – Bronze Swimming Certificate. Both he and Lister are at the lowest peg of the ship’s hierarchy in Red Dwarf. They’re maintenance engineers, whose chief duties is unblocking the nozzles of vending machines. Lister’s background is rough. Very rough. While others went scrumping for apples, he and his friends went scrumping for cars. The only famous person in his class was a man who ate his wife. The three heroes of Astronauts, however, are all competent, intelligent professionals despite their bickering. Another difference is that while both series have characters riddled with self-loathing, in Red Dwarf it’s the would-be officer Rimmer, while in Astronauts is working class engineer Ackroyd.

Britain Lagging Behind in Space

Other issues in Astronauts include Britain’s low status as a space power. In a speech in the first episode, the crew express their pride at being the first British mission, while paying tribute to their American predecessors in the Apollo missions. The Ealing comedy The Mouse on the Moon did something similar. And yet Britain at the time had been the third space power. Only a few years before, the British rocket Black Arrow had been successfully launched from Woomera in Australia, successfully taking a British satellite into orbit.

Personal Conflicts

There are also conflicts over the cleaning and ship maintenance duties, personal taste in music – Mattocks irritates Ackroyd by playing Tubular Bells, publicity or lack of it – in one episode, the crew are annoyed because it seems the media back on Earth have forgotten them – and disgust at the limited menu. Mattocks is also shocked to find that Foster has been killing and dissecting the mice he’s been playing with, and is afraid that she’ll do it to the dog. Sexism and sexual tension also rear their heads. Mattocks fancies Foster, but Ackroyd doesn’t, leading to further conflict between them and her. Foster, who naturally wants to be seen as an equal and ‘one of the boys’ tries to stop this by embarrassing them. She cuts her crew uniform into a bikini and then dances erotically in front of the two men, before jumping on them both crying ‘I’ll have both of you!’ This does the job, and shames them, but Beadle, watching them gets a bit too taken with the display, shouting ‘Work it! Work it! Boy! I wish I was up there with you boys!’ Foster also objects to Mattocks because he doesn’t help his wife, Valerie, out with the domestic chores at home. Mattocks also suspects that his wife is having an affair, which she is, in a sort-of relationship with Beadle. There’s also a dig at the attitudes of some magazines. In the press conference before the three go on their mission, Foster is asked by Woman’s Own if she’s going to do any cooking and cleaning in space. Beadle and his team reply that she’s a highly trained specialist no different from the men. The joke’s interesting because in this case the butt of the humour is the sexism in a certain type of women’s magazine, rather than chauvinist male attitudes.

Cold War Espionage

Other subjects include the tense geopolitical situation of the time. Mattocks is revealed to have been running a secret espionage programme, photographing Russian bases as the station flies over them in its orbit. The others object, and Ackroyd is finally able to persuade Beadle to allow them to use the technology to photograph illegal Russian whaling in the Pacific. This is used to embarrass the Russians at an international summit, but the questions about the origin of the photos leads to the espionage programme being abandoned. The crew also catch sight of a mysterious spacecraft in the same orbit, and start receiving communications in a strange language. After initially considering that it just might be UFOs, it’s revealed that they do, in fact, come from a lonely Russian cosmonaut. Foster speaks Russian, and starts up a friendship. When Mattocks finds out, he is first very suspicious, but then after speaking to the Russian in English, he too becomes friends. He’s the most affected when the Russian is killed after his craft’s orbit decays and burns up re-entering the atmosphere.

Soft Drink Sponsorship

There are also digs at commercial sponsorship. The mission is sponsored by Ribozade, whose name is a portmanteau of the British drinks Ribeena and Lucozade. Ribozade tastes foul, but the crew nevertheless have it on board and must keep drinking it. This is not Science Fiction. One of the American missions was sponsored by Coca Cola, I believe, and so one of the space stations had a Coke machine on board. And when Helen Sharman went into space later in the decade aboard a Russian rocket to the space station Mir, she was originally to be sponsored by Mars and other British companies.

God, Philosophy and Nicholas Parsons

The show also includes arguments over the existence or not of the Almighty. Mattocks believes He exists, and has shown His special favour to them by guiding his hand in an earlier crisis. Mattocks was able to save them, despite having no idea what he was doing. Ackroyd, the sceptic, replies that he can’t say the Lord doesn’t exist, but can’t see how God could possibly create Nicholas Parsons and Sale of the Century, one of the popular game shows on ITV at the time, if He did. As Mattocks is supposed to be guiding them down from orbit, his admission that he really didn’t know what he was doing to rescue the station naturally alarms Foster and Ackroyd so that they don’t trust his ability to get them down intact.

Red Dwarf also has its jokes about contemporary issues and politics. Two of the most memorable are about the hole in the Earth’s ozone layer being covered with a gigantic toupee, and the despair squid, whose ink causes its prey to become suicidal and which has thus destroyed all other life on its world in the episode ‘Back to Reality’. Other jokes include everyone knowing where they were when Cliff Richard got shot. Red Dwarf, however, is much more fantastic and goes further in dealing with philosophical issues, such as when Rimmer is incarcerated in a space prison where justice is definitely retributive. If you do something illegal, it comes back to happen to you. This is demonstrated when Lister follows Rimmer’s instruction and tries to set his sheets alight. He shortly finds that his own black leather jacket has caught fire.

Conclusion

Red Dwarf is able to go much further in exploring these and other bizarre scenarios as it’s definitely Science Fiction. Astronauts is, I would argue, space fiction without the SF. It’s fictional, but based solidly on fact, including generating gravity through centrifugal force. But critically for any comedy is the question whether its funny. Everyone’s taste is different, but in my opinion, yes, Astronauts is. It’s dated and very much of its time, but the humour still stands up four decades later. It had me laughing at any rate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is This the Most Insulting Comment Aliens Have Said to an Abductee?

April 29, 2020

I’ve just finished reading Dr. David Clarke’s The UFO Files, a history of UFOs in Britain from the phantom airship scares of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the abduction experiences from the 60s onwards, the 70’s craze created by Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, right up to the years immediately preceding the book’s publication in 2009. The book was written to accompany the release of the government’s files on UFOs by the National Archives, and is naturally based on the records compiled by the MOD, the Air Ministry, RAF and armed forces, and the Airmiss inquiry group, which investigates near misses between aircraft.

It’s a fascinating book that shows that UFOs have been around for over a century and that the government and the British military don’t really know any more about them than anyone else. The aliens haven’t established secret bases in Britain, and neither to the RAF or anyone else for that matter have alien bodies stashed away in a secret hangar somewhere. The official government line, repeated over and again, is that UFOs or of ‘no defence significance’, and they really don’t want to get involved unless it’s absolutely necessary. They’ve therefore investigate UFO sightings and encounters when it affects national security, such as if the UFOs may actually be foreign planes. The last government report on the phenomenon concluded that most of them were generated by people wrongly identifying a variety of artificial objects and natural phenomena. Those that couldn’t be properly identified, were probably poorly understood meteorological phenomena, electromagnetic plasmas, which could also create hallucinations through interfering with the brains of witnesses. This part of the report was, however, attacked by scientists on its release as pseudoscience.

But very many of the UFOs reported over the years have been people mistaking a variety of normal objects and phenomena for alien craft. During the First World War, an anti-aircraft crew at an army base in Cumbria fired at what they honestly believed was a German Zeppelin. Except that an officer, arriving at the scene, reported that he saw them staring at a star. It was discovered during the Second World War that flocks of migrating birds could make radar trails very much like approaching enemy aircraft, although the airmen sent up to intercept them would find no-one except themselves up there. During the Cold War, UFO reports were generated by the Americans releasing the Mogul spy balloons from their base in Scotland, as well as later flights by spy planes like the U2 and SR-71. These were so secret, the Americans didn’t inform their NATO allies in the countries across which the planes and balloons traveled on their way to the USSR. As a result, RAF jets were scrambled to intercept these unidentified aircraft, while there was a spate of UFO reports along the German border.

Some UFO sightings were also caused by particularly spectacular fireball meteors burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. One of these was responsible for the Berwyn mountain crash, dubbed by some ‘the Welsh Roswell’. A series of meteors were seen over England, followed by an earthquake measuring 4-5 on the Richter scale centred in Bala. It was feared that a military plane had crashed on the mountain, as several had done so previously. The RAF therefore sent up a mountain rescue squad, which found nothing and came back down again. This was subsequently inflated into stories of the RAF’s retrieval of a crashed UFO and alien bodies.

Other sightings were caused by the re-entry of Soviet spacecraft burning up in the atmosphere. This is believed to be the cause of the Rendlesham Forest incident, ‘the British Roswell’, in which a group of American squaddies from a USAF base entered the forest to encounter a triangular UFO in 1980. It seems that the Americans seen the rocket for a Soviet Cosmos spy satellite re-entering, and then the lights from a nearby lighthouse, believing they came from an alien spacecraft.

One MOD scientific/intelligence officer believed that most UFO reports could be satisfactorily explained if they had been investigated immediately they occurred, rather than sometime afterwards. Nevertheless, there are encounters that are still genuinely perplexing. Such as the report a trucker driving through Devon in the ’70s made at a local police station. He had been driving along the main road there when a craft shaped like a mushroom descended, landing on the road ahead, out of which came six short figures wearing uniforms. After gesturing at him, the creatures eventually got in their spacecraft, which lifted up into the air and flew on, leaving the trucker shaken by the experience.

And then there’s the encounter reported by a gent in Basingstoke in 1968. The fellow had been walking down by the canal one morning when a UFO descended and he was taken aboard by their occupants. They examined him, before telling the poor chap, “You can go. You are too old and infirm for our purposes.” Popular SF, which seems to have strongly influenced the content of UFO encounters, has been full of tales of evil aliens coming to other to conquer and enslaved humanity, and carry off people off for breeding purposes. It’s usually females, as in the SF B-movie Mars Needs Women, but sometimes men as in the 1949 Hammer flick, Devil Girl from Mars. This episode occurred around about the time of the Villas Boas encounter, when a Brazilian farmer of that name had been abducted by aliens and forced to have sex with a red-headed alien woman. Possibly the crew of the Basingstoke UFO also had something similar in mind. If so, both they and the poor bloke they abducted were out of luck. Or perhaps they had in mind something far more unpleasant, in which case their intended victim was lucky. The Contactees, who met peaceful aliens in the 1950s, and the abductees from the 1980s onwards, were given messages by humanity by the aliens they encountered. These tend to moralistic sermons preaching international and intergalactic brotherhood, peace, an end to nuclear weapons and concern for the environment. Sometimes they include descriptions of the aliens’ own planets and their societies. Sometimes they’re even whisked away on journeys to these distant worlds. This poor fellow didn’t get any of that, just the blunt statement that he was too old and infirm for them. He was spared the horror and humiliation of being examined and experimented upon, but their comments still seem just a tiny bit insulting. They could have put it a bit more tactfully.

My own feeling is that UFOs, when they aren’t misidentified normal objects or phenomena, are internal visionary experiences drawing on the imagery of Science Fiction, but expressing deep-seated human fears and needs. I don’t know what generates them. I think some are probably the result of poorly understood psychological states, such as sleep paralysis. But I also wonder if others are genuine encounters with something paranormal, something that in previous centuries took the form of fairies and other supernatural beings, and now takes the form of aliens and spaceships as images more suitable for our technological society.

While David Clarke’s done excellent work researching the government’s UFO archives, and has shown that very many of them have entirely rational explanations, there may still be something genuinely paranormal out there. But it didn’t want the man from Basingstoke it encountered on that day in 1968.

Ad Astra: A Tale of Quest, Obsession and Disappointment

March 23, 2020

Directed by James Gray, starring Brad Pitt, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones and Liv Tyler.

I wanted to catch this one at the cinema when it came out last year, based on the trailer I’d seen online. This showed Brad Pitt as clean-cut, square-jawed space captain racing across the lunar landscape in a rover, guns blazing away at the bad guys in theirs. It looked a very convincing depiction of a possible near future. A future when humanity is at last moving out to colonise and exploit the resources of the solar system, but still plagued by geopolitical intrigues and violence. From the trailer, I thought it might be about terrorism on the high frontier, just as the motive for sending the Robinson family into space in the ill-fated 90s version of Lost in Space was a global threat from an insurgency. But it isn’t. It’s instead about humanity’s quest to discover alien intelligence, and the dangerous consequences of one man’s refusal to face the fact that we haven’t found it.

Warning: this review contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, and want to see it fresh, please don’t read on. I’ll put up something else in due course, which you can read without worrying that it’ll spoil your fun.

Brad Pitt plays Commander McBride, a hard-working, intensely focused career astronaut, whose devotion to his duty has led to his wife walking out on him. But because of his intense, single-minded concentration on his duty, he isn’t particularly affected by this. The film begins with a statement that humanity will expand into space, and will continue looking for extraterrestrial intelligence. Then the action begins with McBride in space, working with other astronauts on the outside of a giant space structure. This is hit by massive power surges, causing vital components to overload and explode, hurling pieces of the station and the astronauts desperately trying to fix them off into space. McBride is one of these, knocked off the station by falling debris. But he, and the other astronauts, fall downward to Earth, rather than off into space. Tumbling, Pitt eventually rights himself and parachutes back to the ground. The station is revealed to be no such thing. It’s a giant radio antenna, set up to receive possible signals from the ETs.

The power surge that hit the antenna was one of a series, each increasing in strength, that is causing blackouts and devastation across the world’s cities. Their source has been located near Neptune. It’s believed that their caused by an antimatter reaction, and a lost system commanded by McBride’s father, is believed to be the cause as it was powered by antimatter. The ship was sent out there on a 29 year mission to search for alien signals, far away from the interference of human telecommunications in the inner solar system. However, 16 years into the mission it disappeared. McBride’s father became a hero, and many astronauts tell McBride that it is thanks to him that they took up a career in space. This raises the question of whether McBride senior has indeed found aliens, who are hostile and using the station to disable Earth ready for conquest. This would be the plot in other movies, but not in this one.

Journey to the Moon

McBride is instructed to go to the Moon, from which he will be launched to Mars, to send a message to his father on Neptune, who is suspected of being alive. On his trip to the Moon, he’s joined by a Colonel Pruit (Donald Sutherland), who knew McBride’s father. The lunar base at which they land is a bustling town with a mall stuffed full of tourists and shops selling souvenir tat. McBride says to himself that it’s the kind of thing his father hated, and he would have tried to get as far away from it as possible. Pruitt is due to go with him, but is prevented from doing so at the last minute due to a heart problem. Finding a secluded spot away from the crowd, Pruitt gives him a memory stick, telling him that not everybody believes McBride senior to have been a hero. The stick contains suppressed information that they will do anything to prevent getting out. McBride then goes on to join the team that will take him to the launch site of the ship, that will take him to Mars. The Moon is being exploited by a number of different mining companies, but no territorial rights exist, so, as someone explains, ‘it’s like the Wild West out there.’ Hence the armed guards with McBride when he leaves the base. It’s this part of the programme that appears on the trailer for the movie, with McBride and team racing across the grey lunar landscape while under attack from what can only be described as space bandits. Various members of McBride’s team are killed, but he survives and succeeds in getting to the opposite base. He then joins the crew of the Cepheus, who will take him to Mars.

Space Rescue

On the way there, the crew receive a distress call, which they are obliged to answer. McBride tries to deter them because of the vital importance of the mission, but is unsuccessful as he is travelling incognito and so can’t reveal just how his mission overrides international space law. The SOS comes from a Norwegian scientific research station. McBride and the ship’s captain, Tailor, cross over to investigate. They don’ find any survivors, who have been killed by escaped baboons or some other ape used for research. These kill Taylor, and try to kill McBride, but he shuts them behind a door and decompresses that section, killing them. Crossing back to the Cepheus, the give Tailor a space burial.

McBride finally gets a chance to watch the video on the stick. It shows his father, (Tommy Lee Jones) announcing that the crew have mutinied. The mission has been unsuccessful, and so they wish to return to Earth. McBride as therefore suppressed it by putting them all in one section of the station and decompressing it, killing them all, innocent and guilty alike. This obviously leaves McBride shaken.

Mars and the Radio Call

On Mars, he’s taken from the launch complex to the base, where he is taken under great secrecy to a soundproof room, from which he reads out a scripted message to his father. This occurs several times, and are unsuccessful. On the next attempt, he goes off script and makes a personal appeal. He suspects that he has been successful, but the commanders won’t tell him. Throughout his journey, McBride is subjected to psychological testing before he is allowed to continue. He fails this for the first time, and is taken back to a comfort room – a room in which reassuring pictures of flowers are projected on the walls. He is told that he will not be continuing his journey. The crew of the Cepheus will instead go on alone to meet his father. They are equipping the ship with nuclear weapons to destroy the station before it can generate further power surges that will destroy civilisation. McBride is freed from his captivity by the station’s director of operations, a Black woman, whose parents were on board the station and murdered by McBride’s father. McBride has to rush through an underground tunnel to the launch complex, including swimming through a subterranean lake. He finally emerges in the system of tunnels, that will take the ship’s exhaust away from the ship itself when it launches. The countdown has begun, and it’s now a race against time for McBride to get aboard before he’s incinerated when the rocket fires its engines.

Encounter at Neptune

He succeeds in getting aboard and the ship launches. However, the crew are instructed to restrain him using any means necessary. In the ensuing struggle, he accidentally kills them. He then takes over the mission. He inserts the various tubes which will feed him intravenously during the 179-day mission, informs base what he intends to do and has done, and that he will now go dark.

He eventually arrives at the station, and comes aboard, moving through the decomposed section in which the bodies of the murdered crew are still floating. He brings one of the nuclear bombs on board with him. He meets his father, who blithely tells him what he did, and that he cared nothing for either his son or his mother. It is plain that he doesn’t want to come home, as although he hasn’t found alien life, he is convinced it’s out there. He just hasn’t found it yet. McBride sets the bomb, and tries to take his father back to Earth. But on the journey to the Cepheus, McBride senior pulls away from him, dragging him with him as the two are tethered together. The father tells McBride to let him go, McBride releases the tether, and his father floats off into space. McBride then jets back to the station, to rip off one of the panels so that he can use it as a shield against the icy particles and dust making up Neptune’s rings as he jets through that on his way back to the Cepheus. He then returns home, making a successful descent back to Earth, where friendly hands help him out of his capsule. Earth is safe, and his brought back all his father’s information on the countless alien worlds he discovered.

The film ends with McBride back in a military canteen, performing a kind of psychological evaluation on himself. He muses that his father was driven by his obsession to find alien life, and his disappointment at not finding it blinded him to the wonders of the worlds he had found. He is well-balanced, and focused on the tasks at hand, but not to the exclusion of the ability to love and be loved in return. There is a hint that this new attitude is bring his wife back to him.

Ad Astra as the Reply to 2001, Solaris, and Contact.

It’s a very good movie. The designs of the ships and rovers are very plausible and seem very much based on the old lunar rovers NASA used during the Moon landings on the one hand, and those on the drawing board for Mars on the other. It’s also a very quiet movie. It follows Gravity, and the masterpiece of SF cinema, 2001, in showing no sound in space except what can be heard through the characters’ space suits when they’re hit by the force of an explosion or some other event. It’s also at just under 2 hours a longer movie than most. This is gives it some of the quiet, epic quality of 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The interrupted space journey of its hero, from Earth to the Moon and the Moon to Mars and thence Neptune, also recalls that of Floyd, Bowman and the other astronauts of 2001.

But there’s an important difference between Ad Astra and these flicks. 2001 and Solaris are about humanity’s encounter with powerful, but unknowable aliens. These encounters are transformative for the species and at an individual, personal level. In 2001, the aliens’ black monoliths raise humanity up from apes, and then transform Bowman into the Star Child at the film’s climax. In Solaris, the hero rekindles a relationship with his lost love through a simulacrum of her generated by the planet below. This allows him to medicate and discourse on the nature of humanity, honour and the need for humans to value each other. He is then able to descend to the planets surface, where he meets another simulacrum, this time of a dying friend he left on Earth, in a house where it’s actually raining inside. In both films, the aliens are genuinely alien, incomprehensible, but nevertheless interested in humanity and able to be reached out and contacted.

This is a reply to those movies, which is clearly informed by the fact that after decades of searching for alien intelligent alien, we still haven’t found it. Nor have we discovered any life elsewhere in the solar system. It’s possible that it exists on Mars, but if it is, it’s at the level of microbes. This makes the film a kind of anti-2001. It could have been called ‘The Stars My Disappointment’, as a pun on the title of Alfred Bester’s SF masterpiece, The Stars My Destination. McBride’s conclusion – that the scientific information about the myriad alien worlds his father discovered – is still immensely valuable, even if they are uninhabited and lifeless, but the obsession with finding alien life blinded his father to its value – is a good one. But I remember the SF writer and encyclopaedist John Clute saying something similar to Clive Anderson back in 1995. This was during the Beeb’s Weekend on Mars, a themed series of programmes on the Red Planet on the weekend that the NASA pathfinder probe landed. Of course, people are still fascinated by the question of whether Mars is, or has been, an abode of life. Anderson asked Clute if he would be disappointed if they discovered there was no life there. Clute responded by saying that if someone said they were disappointed at that, he would be disappointed in them, as we would still find out so much about the world, which should be sufficiently fascinating itself. Well, yes, but that’s very much the consolation prize. What people have always dreamed about is finding life in space, and particularly Mars. You can’t really blame them for being disappointed if we don’t. As for the message that it’s good to focus on your work, but not so much that it damages your personal relationships, it’s a good one, but hardly an earth-shattering revelation. And in the context of space travel, Tarkovsky says something similar in Solaris. There the hero says at one point that humanity doesn’t need space travel and alien worlds. There is 5 billion of us – a mere handful. What man needs is man. This shows the humanistic focus of Tarkovsky’s movie against its theme of space travel and alien encounters.

Conclusion

Ad Astra is an excellent movie, but ultimately somewhat of a disappointment. It’s to be applauded as an attempt to make an intelligent SF film with a grounding in established science. But ultimately its message that the search for alien life shouldn’t blind us to the possibility that it doesn’t exist, or that it may be extremely difficult to find requiring a search that lasts generations, perhaps centuries, before we find it, isn’t as emotionally satisfying as films in which the aliens are very definitely there. You could compare it to the Jodie Foster film, Contact, in which she played a female scientist convinced aliens exist, and finally succeeds in going out there and finding them. In the vast majority of such movies, the hero is nearly always a believer in the existence of the ETs, who is finally vindicated when they turn up. This is one of the few films to show the contrary. It’s a valuable, perhaps necessary message, but one less attractive to most audiences, who want there to be aliens, if only fictional and contained in the narrative of cinema.

Oh yes, and I have to differ with the comments about the presence of tourist malls in space. Yes, such places are full of tat and kitsch, but there are also the sign of a genuinely vital human culture. People aren’t all high-minded, serious creatures, and for genuine, living human communities to be established in space, they can’t all be left to scientists and engineers solemnly probing the secrets of the cosmos or working on the best way to extract and exploit their resources. They’ve also got to be where ordinary people visit, and enjoy the experience of being on an alien planet. And that means buying tat and kitschy souvenirs as well as indulging in deep philosophical meditations. As Babylon 5 also showed with its market, the Zocalo, and its tat. Though in that episode, the stores selling the tourist kitsch were all closed down. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Space.com.

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.

Cartoon: Michael Gove – Idiocracy

February 22, 2020

Here’s another of my cartoons, in which I lampoon the Conservatives and their horrendous government. This piece is based on that photograph taken when Cameron decided to make Michael Gove education minister, or something like it. It showed Gove looking somewhat depressed and forlorn in front of a crowd of primary schoolchildren, as if he had suddenly twigged that a group of five or six years olds were far brighter than he was.

It reminded me of the Jack Black SF comedy that came out a few years ago, Idiocracy. Based on the William Tenn short story, ‘The Marching Morons’, this was about an ordinary, average American joe, who wakes up two hundred years in the future to find out that he’s the cleverest man on the planet. It’s a future where people irrigate their crops with Gatorade, what monster truck rallies on TV and where the most popular comedy programme is where men get hit in the crotch called Ow! My Nuts! And unfortunately, thanks to the Tory media, this does seem to be the future we’re heading for. I am convinced that the Murdoch press is actually diminishing intelligence, rather than enhancing it. Just like a media monitoring survey in America found that you were far better informed about the world if you watched no news at all, than if you watched Fox News.

Tenn’s story is a classic, but it makes me very uneasy. Like one or two other stories from the same period, it’s based on an article of eugenics ideology. This is that the less intelligent are more fertile, and will outbreed the intelligent, thus causing average intelligence to drop over time. It’s the thinking behind the sterilisation programmes in America, Sweden and most notoriously, Nazi Germany, against those considered mentally unfit, and which during the Third Reich led to their murder. In the story there’s an intelligentsia, who have preserved their own intellects through rigid interbreeding. They ask the man from the 20th century how they can raise intelligence back to its former level. He suggests that they pack them into faulty rockets with promises that they’re going on holiday to Venus. The rockets won’t get there, and will instead fall apart, killing their retarded occupants. Then the man, who devised this plan, finds that he himself is put on one of the same rockets to kill him for his ruthless cleverness.

As I said, it’s a grim story, and mercifully human evolution doesn’t actually work like that. Although morons like Andrew Sabisky and Toby Young clearly think that it does, and the racist currently ensconced in No. 10 seems to agree. Or at least he and the polecat, Dominic Cummings, have no problems employing men whose disgusting views should mean that they should be nowhere near government.

But enough of these disgusting people with their depressing, sordid views. Here’s the cartoon to cheer you all up.

 

Russian Rocket Engine Street Art in Cheltenham

January 18, 2020

One of the shops in Cheltenham has a very unusual piece of street art decorating its door. It’s of the rocket motor designed to power the Russian N1 spaceship to the Moon. The N1 was the Russian counterpart of the massive American Saturn V, and was similarly intended for a manned mission. Unlike the Americans, the Russian rocket would have a small crew of two, only one of whom would make the descent to the lunar surface in a module very much like the American. Unfortunately the project was a complete failure. Korolyov, the Soviet rocket designer, had died by the time it was being designed, and the head of the design bureau was his second-in-command, Mishin. Mishin was an excellent lieutenant, but this project was far beyond him. The N1 space vehicles kept exploding on the launch pad. These were powerful spacecraft, and the explosions destroyed everything within a radius of five miles. After three such explosions, one of which, I think, killed Mishin himself, the project was cancelled. The Russians never did send a man to the Moon, and instead had to satisfy themselves with the Lunakhod lunar rover.

I’d been meaning to take a photograph of the painting for sometime and finally got around to it yesterday. The full painting isn’t visible during the day, as much of it is on the cover that gets put over the door at night. This is the part of the painting shown in the top photograph. During the day only the bottom part of the engine, painted on the door itself, is visible.

The shop-owner himself was really helpful. He saw me crouching trying to photograph the bottom part of the engine, and asked if I knew what it was. When I told him it was a rocket motor, he proudly replied that it was TsK-33 for the N-1, and asked if I wanted to photograph the whole thing. I did, so he got down the door cover. Talking to him about the painting both then, and later on with a friend, who also has an interest in space, he told us a bit more about the rocket engine and his painting of it. Although the N-1 was scrapped, the Russians still retained the rocket engines. Someone from the American Pratt and Whitney rocket engine manufacturers met one of the engineers, designers or managers on the N-1 motors, who showed him 33 of the engines, which had been mothballed after the project’s cancellation. The Pratt and Whitney guy was impressed, as it turns out that these Russian motors are still the most efficient rocket engines yet created. He made a deal with the Russians to take them back to America, where they are now used on the Atlas rockets launching American military satellites. Or that’s the story.

My friend asked if the shopkeeper had painted it himself. He hadn’t. It had been done by a street artist. The shopkeeper had seen him coming along painting, and asked him if he would do an unusual request. And so the artist came to paint the Russian rocket engine.

There’s much great street art in Cheltenham, though as it’s an ephemeral genre you have to catch it while it’s there. Just before Christmas there was a great mural of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour logo in one of the town’s underpasses. I wanted to photograph that too. But when I tried yesterday, it had gone, replaced with another mural simply wishing everyone a happy Christmas.

But I hope the rocket engine, as it was done specifically for the shop, will be up for some time to come.

It also seems to me to bear out the impression I’ve had for a long time, that the real innovative art is being done outside of the official artistic establishment. The painting would have delighted the Futurists, who were into the aesthetics of the new machine age. And also the French avant-garde artist, Marcel Duchamps. Duchamps anticipated the Futurists concern with the depiction of movement in his painting, ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’. He also painted a picture of ‘The Star Dancer’, which isn’t of a human figure, but a ship’s engine, which also anticipates the Futurists’ machine aesthetic. Unfortunately, what he is best known for is nailing that urinal to a canvas and calling it ‘The Advance of the Broken Arm’ as a protest against the artistic establishment. This went on to inspire Dada, and other anti-art movements. It’s now in Tate Modern, although it no longer has the same urinal. As a work of art, I really don’t rate it at all. Neither do most people. But for some reason, the artistic establishment love it and still seem to think it’s a great joke.

The real artistic innovations and explorations are being done outside the academy, by artists exploring the new world opened up by science and the literature of Science Fiction. And it’s to that world that this mural belongs. 

 

 

 

 

Video of the V-9: the German Missile Against America

December 26, 2019

Hi peeps! I hope you had a great Christmas Day, and are enjoying Boxing Day.  Here’s another piece about German World War 2 aerospace technology. It’s a video from Mark Felton’s channel on YouTube about the America Rocket. Felton posts vlogs about World War II fighting machines, and in this video he describes how the rocket was designed by Werner von Braun to hit New York. It was a two-stage version of the V-2. Unlike its predecessor, however, it was to be piloted. The German guidance system couldn’t work over such a long range without beacons. The German navy tried placing these in Greenland and other places on the other side of the Atlantic, but they were quickly found and destroyed by the Allies. This left them with creating a piloted version of the missile their only option. It was not, however, a suicide weapon like the Japanese kamikaze. Just before or during its final dive, the pilot was expected to bail out and parachute to safety. Lack of funding and the turn of the War against the Nazis meant that this was fortunately never built. If it had been, not only would the Nazis have built the world’s first ICBM, but they would have been the first nation to put a man in space.

Again, I should say that while I’m impressed with the scientific and engineering expertise in the development of the V-2 and this missile, I despise its purpose. The V-2 was responsible for thousands of deaths in London, and the prospect of a missile that could hit New York is terrifying. Particularly if the Nazis had succeeded in developing nuclear weapons. And the Third Reich was, of course, a brutal dictatorship dedicated to the enslavement and extermination of millions.

After the War there was a plan by the British Interplanetary Society to adapt a captured V-2 so that it could carry a man into space. Nothing came of it, however, as when the plan was finalised the Ministry of Supply weren’t interested and the missiles and their parts were no longer available.