Posts Tagged ‘Space Colonisation’

Did Irish Scientist J.D. Bernal Invent Star Trek’s Borg Back in the ’30s

December 27, 2022

Here’s another question about writers inventing or predicting later scientific concepts. In my last such post, I wondered whether Poul Anderson had predicted James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis back in 1952 in a story about alien plants growing on an asteroid, which had become symbiotically linked so they acted as a superorganism. This time the writer. who predicted later SF trends, is J.D. Bernal, a scientist from Ireland, who was also a Communist. In the 1930s Bernal wrote a pamphlet, The World, The Flesh and The Devil, discussing future trends in technology, the colonisation of space and human evolution. Although it’s something like 90 years, it’s still immensely influential and many of its predictions are scientifically plausible. It’s one of only two scientific works included in Mike Ashley history of British SF in 100 stories. This notes that, among other inventions, it suggested that people would live on the inside of spherical space colonies containing up to 10,000 people. These have been named Bernal spheres after Bernal. He also proposed space elevators carrying spacecraft to orbit, which have since become associated with Arthur C. Clarke through his book The Fountains of Paradise. Clarke said on reading Bernal’s book that he was amazed how many of the ideas he thought were his were actually Bernal’s, though the idea of space elevators was actually first invented by a Russian.

Bernal also suggested that humanity would merge with machines, and so predicted cyborgs, although he doesn’t use that term for them. This was invented by NASA scientists in the ’60s. He also suggests that robots could be networked together and linked to a human operator to form a kind of hive mind, although he doesn’t call it that either. Hm. Cyborgs linked together so that they form a collective intelligence? That sounds very much like the Borg, one of the villains from Star Trek. These are a race of cyborgs, who have done exactly that, crushing all individuality in the process. They consider themselves superior to all other races, whom they forcibly assimilate, uttering the chilling words: ‘We are Borg. Resistance is futile. Your biological and technological distinctiveness is at end. You will service us.’ It struck me that the Borg is partly a metaphor for Communism, its extreme levelling and the reduction of the individual under its mass society to drones, apart from the more obvious fear of an alien threat coming to destroy and enslave us. I don’t know whether the writers of Star Trek ever read Bernal’s book. I doubt it, and it seems to me that they created them independently. But Bernal does seem to have got there first with the concept of a group of robots or cyborgs with a single, collective mind.

The Borg, Star Trek’s cyborg villains. From Michael Westmore and Joe Nazzaro, Starlog Presents The Official Magazine Star Trek The Next Generation Makeup FX Journal (New York: Starlog 1992).

Sketch of Legendary Astronomy Author and Presenter Patrick Moore

December 3, 2022

Moore was for many years the face of astronomy on television in the UK, thanks to him presenting The Sky at Night from the 1950s almost to his death. He was known as much for his eccentric appearance as his subject, so there were plenty of jokes about him wearing the same rumpled suit down the decades. He was sent up on programmes from The Two Ronnies to Dead Ringers, who spoofed him as ‘Old Moore’, a fairground fortune teller. But he remained dedicated to his subject, publishing a plethora of popular books on the subject. This included a series of Sky at Night books, one of which I found in the school library when I was a lad, as well as editing the annual Yearbooks of Astronomy. He also collaborated with the amazing British space and science fiction artist David A. Hardy on books such as The Challenge of the Stars. He also wrote at least two books on Mars. I found one in the central library in Bristol in the 1980s. A decade later, during the excitement about the series of probes NASA and other countries were sending to the Red Planet, he published Patrick Moore on Mars. Its title invites all manner of jokes along the lines of ‘best place for him.’ He also wrote a series of children’s science fiction books about a boy space explorer, Scott Summers. These were hard SF based on the science of the time and what was expected to develop later. They’re now obviously very dated. In one of these, Wanderer in Space, Summers flew to intercept an antimatter asteroid that was threatening Earth aboard an ion driven rocket, clearly anticipating developments in such propulsion that haven’t materialised. Ion drives exist, but they aren’t being used for manned space missions. Another of these was about a human colony on Mars, living in a glass dome. This ends with the colonists looking forward to one day emerging and living free on its surface. This one has been superseded by Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy of books about the settlement and terraforming of Mars. As well as these books, he also contributed to a string of popular science and astronomy magazines like Astronomy Now, New Voyager and Focus.

I think he was one of those scientists, with Arthur C. Clarke, who worked on radar during the War but I’m not sure. He never had a formal qualification in astronomy but was always strictly amateur. He was, however, granted an amateur doctorate by one of the universities. I’m sure, however, that at the level he was active in astronomy he would have probably easily passed a university degree in the subject. His maps of the Moon were so good that they were used by NASA in selecting landing sites for the Apollo missions. He never married because his sweetheart was killed during the War in an air raid. In his personal politics he was extremely right-wing, founding the One Country party, which was later merged with another small, extreme right-wing group. I can also remember him appearing on one of the chat shows and remarking that we’d be ‘in the cart’ without Maggie Thatcher. Like many people who have genuinely been through a war, he was deeply critical of it. In one of the chapters in The New Challenge of the Stars, about a possible hostile encounter between an asteroid ark and the inhabitants of an alien planet in whose system it has appeared, Moore makes a sharp comment about man’s folly of war entering a new battleground in space. He was also a staunch opponent of fox hunting. Back in the 90s he was a guest on the comedy programme Room 101, in which guests compete to have various useless and irritating objects or people consigned to the room made famous by Orwell’s 1984. In the vast majority cases, this is just light-hearted fun. But Moore was absolutely serious about sending fox hunting there and talked about how he’d written to various authorities to get it banned. Away from astronomy he also taught himself to play the xylophone and composed numerous pieces for the instrument. One of these was published in a classical music magazine. This did not translate into a career in music, however. He got very annoyed when his planned concert at the Hippodrome was cancelled due to lack of interest.

As well as serious, professional and amateur astronomers Moore talked to during his long career, he also met and talked to various eccentrics, including UFO contactees. One of those he interviewed on the Sky at Night was a man who believed he was in contact with peaceful aliens, and could speak four of their languages, including Venusian and Plutonian. This gentleman demonstrated it by saying the greeting, ‘Hello, space brothers’, in one of them. And although Moore persistently denied it, it seems he was one of the hands behind a hoax book by ‘Cedric Allingham’ about how he encountered an alien spacecraft and its inhabitants during a walking tour of the Scottish Highlands. This was during the first wave of UFO encounters in the late 40s and 50s. When people wrote to the publisher hoping to contact Allingham, he could not be traced. One excuse was that he was off walking in Switzerland. Computer analysis of the text reveals that it was probably written by Moore and revised by someone else in order to disguise his authorship. Moore remained very willing to meet ordinary members of the public and talk to them about his subject even in his retirement. He publicly gave out the address of his home in Herstmonceux, Sussex and said if people had questions or wanted to talk to him, they could drop in, shrugging off the obvious dangers of theft, burglary and so on.

Moore belonged to an age when popular science broadcasters could be real characters, often with eccentric mannerism. There was Magnus Pike, who was famous for waving his arms around while speaking, and the bearded dynamo of Botanic Man himself, David Bellamy, sent up in impressions by Lenny Henry. Since then, popular science programmes have been presented by people who are younger and/or a bit more hip. One BBC programme on astronomy a few years ago was presented by Queen guitarist Brian May, who had studied astrophysics at university before getting caught up in his career as an awesome global rock star. May had just handed in his astrophysics thesis after decades of touring the world with Mercury, Deacon et al. His co-presenter was the comedian Dara O’Brien, who had tried to study maths at university but had dropped out because of its difficulty. The Sky at Night is now presented by about three different hosts, including Black woman Maggie Aderin-Pocock. And I think the face of astronomy and cosmology now is probably Brian Cox after all his series on the subject. But for all this, I prefer the science presenters of a previous generation with all their quirks and foibles. These people were enthusiastic about their subject and were able to communicate their enthusiasm without trying to be too slick to connect with a mass audience. And they succeeded.

The 1984 Yearbook of Astronomy and What’s New in Space, just two of the books edited and written by Moore.

Trek Culture on the Discovery of Nano-Scale Warp Bubbles

December 10, 2021

Some fascinating and optimistic news for peeps looking for real warp drives a la Star Trek. Trek Culture is a Star Trek fan site, but in this video host Sean Ferrick talks about a possible scientific breakthrough for the development of a real warp drive. Dr. Harold G. ‘Sonny’ White, a scientist at the Limitless Space Institute, observed the formation of a real warp bubble while researching Casimir cavitation. The warp bubble was on the nanoscale, so very, very small indeed. Nevertheless, his paper has been passed by peer review, and Dr. White hopes to follow this up with an experiment with a microscopically small sphere of a few micromillimeters which produce a similarly small cylindrical warp bubble around it.

Real scientific interest in warp drives began with the 1994 paper by the Mexican physicist Dr Marcel Alcubierre, but this was also widely discounted because it would have needed an extreme amount of energy plus a very exotic form of matter. If I remember correctly, the exotic matter involved may be one in which the force of gravity repulses rather than attracts. Since then scientists have been working to refine his theories. One recent physicist has suggested that it may be possible to create a warp field using a mass ten times the size of Jupiter, which is many times smaller than the masses needed to create such a bubble in Alcubierre’s original calculations. It’s still far beyond any practical application or construction, at least with present technology, but there are hopes that further work will cut the masses needed down still further until warp drives hopefully become possible. I think the Casimir force is a force that squeezes the vacuum energy – the virtual particles zipping into and out of existence at the level of the cosmic foam – out of any empty space at the nano level when two plates are set up sufficiently near each other. Years ago in the 1990s one of the British science programmes reported that it would be possible to use the effect to create a metre-sized wormhole. The drawback was that the plates used would have to be the size of Jupiter. It looks like White was researching similar effects when he discovered the formation of a real warp bubble.

While this is very optimistic, Ferrick stresses that it will be a very long time before we see the creation of a real warp drive. This is so far off that it’s Science Fiction. This is correct. There are problems scaling this such effects up from the nano to the macro scale. Wormholes are believe to form and disappear constantly at the level of the cosmic foam at the smallest level of reality. One method of FTL travel that has been proposed is to create such a wormhole and then enlarge it. However, wormholes are unstable, and so its mouth would have to be kept open with the gravity-repulsing exotic matter. I don’t think anyone know how to make it, nor do I think scientists know how you could realistically enlarge such as wormhole so that it becomes a practical method of interstellar travel. Nevertheless, Ferrick states that a line has been crossed, albeit a microscopically small one, towards making warp drives like those in Star Trek a reality.

This is fascinating news, and even if the creation of a real warp drive is decades off, I hope this will lead to their creation. As Captain Picard used to say in Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘Number One, make it so!’

And just to remind everyone what has helped to inspire many people’s dreams of space exploration, here’s the titles of the original series:

Mind you, I think if they ever create a real warp drive and test it in space, it’ll be hit by a solar flare, opening up a wormhole that will cast the spaceship and its astronaut into a far distant corner of the universe. He’ll be taken on board a living spaceship, full of escaped prisoners, and pursued by an insane military general, while just trying to find a way home.

Sorry. Wrong series – that’s Farscape.

Star Trek has helped to inspire millions not just with its vision of humanity expanding out among the stars to explore strange new worlds, and find new life forms and new civilisations, but also through its idealistic view of future society. It’s a world where racism and sexism have been banished, there is no starvation or want, and people work to better themselves, not because they need to. The late, great comedian Bill Hicks also looked forward to a similar human future. He used to end his gigs with ‘the Vision’, in which he pointed out that the if the world spent what it does on guns and armaments on peaceful activities, we could solve world hunger. Not one person would starve. And we could colonise space, in peace, forever.

Amen to that. RIP Gene Roddenberry and Bill Hicks – great visionaries and entertainers.

Quinn Discusses Possible Screen Adaption of ‘Hyperion’

November 9, 2021

This interesting little snippet comes from the ‘Quinn’s Ideas’ YouTube channel. Quinn’s a Black American fantasy/ SF writer and graphic novelist with a taste for galaxy-spanning SF that tackles the big metaphysical ideas, like power, responsibility, suffering, the nature of humanity and the possibility of alien life and truly sentient AI. He’s a big fan of Frank Herbert’s classic Dune, which has now been filmed by Denis Villeneuve and has been playing in cinemas around the country. Quinn’s put up a series of videos about Dune, which are well worth watching, as well as other great SF works like Asimov’s Foundation. In this video he talks about the news that there are plans to adapt Dan Simmon’s Hyperion, but it’s not known yet whether this would be for the cinema or TV. He hopes it’s TV.

Hyperion is another of his favourite books, and he’s also posted videos about it. It, too, is another SF classic. It set in a future in which humanity has expanded throughout the galaxy, united into a type of interstellar UN called the Hegemony. Outside the Hegemony are the Oustlers, a society of nomadic humans, who have adapted themselves to space, who attack and raid vulnerable Hegemony worlds. Also outside the Hegemony is the Technocore, a society of intelligent AIs, who rebelled against their human creators centuries ago and fled into space. Their whereabouts is unknown, but they have established apparently friendly relations with humanity offering advice and technology. Earth was destroyed hundreds of years ago by accident in an attempt to create an artificial Black Hole. Although the humans have FTL spaceships, these are still quite slow compared to the cosmic spaces they traverse, so that it can take months or years to travel from one planet to another. These transit times are offset for the crew and passengers of such ships through a form of relativistic time dilation, so that the subjective time they experience in flight is shorter than that in the outside universe. A more immediate form of travel are the Farcasters, technological portals that allow the user to pass instantaneously across space from one world to another.

Hyperion itself is a sparsely populated agricultural world, threatened with attack from Oustlers. It is home to the mysterious Time Tombs, strange monuments that have appeared to have travelled backwards in time. Haunting them is the Shrike, a gigantic humanoid killing machine, whose body is a mass of cruel spikes and blades. In this future, Christianity has declined to the point where it’s a minor sect that survives on only a few worlds. Among the new religions that have replaced it is the Church of the Final Atonement, centred around the Shrike. Six pilgrims are periodically selected to go to Hyperion, journey to the Tombs and meet the Shrike. It is believed that although the creature will kill five of them, it will grant the wish of the survivor. The novel follows six pilgrims, who entertain each other by telling their stories on their way to meet the creature.

The pilgrims include a former Roman Catholic priest, sent to investigate the disappearance of a fellow former cleric while conducting an anthropological study of the Bikura, a mysterious human tribe; a female gumshoe from a heavy gravity world, investigating the murder of the biological and cybernetic reconstruction of the poet Keats; a Jewish academic from a farming world, desperately seeking a cure for his daughter’s condition. An archaeologist investigating the Time Tombs, she has started to age backwards after a mysterious event until she reaches infancy. There is also a noted galactic poet and writer of trash historical fantasies about the last days of Earth, a Palestinian Martian colonel and a Templar master. The Templars are another new religion, which worships trees, and the Templars have converted some of the vast trees on their homeworld into spacecraft.

The book’s influenced not just by Keat’s poem ‘Hyperion’, but also by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I therefore think Quinn’s right in that it would be better as a TV adaptation, as each tale could constitute an individual episode within the overarching story. At the heart of the book is the problem of evil, how the universe can contain such immense pain and suffering. It’s an issue that has challenged philosophers and theologians down the centuries. Hyperion is a Science Fictional attempt to examine the problem, as exemplified by the Shrike.

Hyperion was the first in a series of novels completing the story: The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion and the Rise of Endymion, all of which I found similarly worth reading. It would be great if Hyperion was adapted for screen, but I’m afraid that, like some of the Dune adaptations, some of the central ideas which make the book an SF classic might be lost. If, that is, the book’s ever adapted at all. Things seem rather tenuous and it may all come to nothing. We shall have to wait and see.

Arthur C. Clarke Helped to Bring the Benefits of Space and High Technology to the Developing World

October 18, 2021

Last week there was a bit of controversy between William Shatner and Prince William. As the man behind Captain Kirk went with a party of others to the High Frontier aboard Jeff Bezos’ SpaceX, the prince declared that such space tourism was a waste and a threat to the environment. I think here the prince was thinking about the extremely rich and their private jets, and the damage that the carbon emissions from mass aircraft travel are doing to the environment. I respect the prince’s commitment to the environment and the Earthshot prize he launched last night, but believe that on this issue he’s profoundly wrong.

If space tourism was only about letting extremely right people go into space aboard highly polluting spacecraft, as it seems the prince believes, then I’d certainly be inclined to agree with him. But it isn’t. Way back at the beginning of this century I gave a paper at a British Interplanetary Society symposium on the popular commercialisation of space. Many of the papers were about space tourism. The one that real down a real storm, far better than my own, was from a young chap who suggested that space was the ideal venue for sports that would be impossible on Earth. Because of the complete absence of gravity, you could play something like Harry Potter’s Quidditch for real.

The hope with space tourism is that it will help open up the High Frontier to further space commercialisation. This includes lowering launch costs so that eventually they’ll become affordable and people will be able to move into space to live and work, building true communities up there. And with that comes the hope that industry will move there as well, thus relieving some of the environmental pressures down here on Earth. Gerard O’Neill, who put forward concrete plans and designs for these colonies, believed that this would be one of the benefits of space colonisation and industrialisation. For one thing, the industrialisation of space may be able to provide clean, green energy instead of the carbon emitting fossil fuel power stations that we now use. Solar energy is abundant in space, and it has been suggested that this could be collected using vast solar arrays, which would then beam the power to Earth as microwaves.

The late, great SF writer Arthur C. Clarke was a very strong advocate of space colonisation and industrialisation. An optimist about humanity’s future in space and the benefits of high technology, Clarke not only argued for it but also tried to help make it a reality. Space and other forms of high technology offer considerable benefits to the Developing World, which is one of the reasons India has invested relatively large amounts in its space programme. And so has Clarke’s adopted country of Sri Lanka, with the assistance of the Space Prophet himself. I found this passage describing the work of such a centre, named after Clarke, in Sri Lanka in Brian Aldiss’ and David Wingrove’s history of Science Fiction, Trillion Year Spree.

“Clarke is, moreover, actively engaged in bringing about that better world of which he writes. From his base in Colombo, Sri Lanka, he has become directly (and financially) involved in a scheme to transfer modern high-technology to the developing countries of the Third World.

The Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies, sited at the University of Moratuwa, outside Colombo, embraces numerous high-tech disciplines, including computers and alternate energy sources, with plans to expand into the areas of robotics and space technologies. The main emphasis, however, is on developing a cheap communications system tailored to the agricultural needs of the Third World.

Such a project harnesses expensive space technologies in a way which answers those critics who have argued that it is immoral to waste funds on the romantic gesture of spaceflight when problems of poverty, illness and hunger remain in the world. That advanced technology would eventually benefit all of Mankind has always been Clarke’s belief-perhaps naive, but visionaries often function more effectively for a touch of naivety about them. One has to admire this benevolent, aspiring side of Clarke; it is the other side of the coin to L Ron Hubbard.” (P. 402, my emphasis).

It has never been a simple case of space exploration going ahead at the expense of human suffering here on Earth. Space tourism, at present confined to the extremely wealth like Shatner, is part of a wider campaign to open up the High Frontier so that humanity as a whole will benefit.

And the late comedian Bill Hicks also used to look forward to an optimistic future of world peace and the colonisation of space. He used to end his gigs with his own vision. If we spent used the money the world currently spends on arms for peace instead, we could end world hunger. Not one person would starve. And we could colonise the universe, in peace, forever.

It’s an inspiring vision. As another Star Trek captain would say:

Make it so!’

And here’s a bit of fun I found on YouTube. It’s a video of a man in Star Trek costume, playing the theme to the original series on the Theremin. Engage!

The Almaz – The Soviet Union’s Armed Spy Space Station

June 26, 2021

This is another fascinating little video from the military historian Mark Felton. I’ve put up a couple of his videos demolishing the stories about Nazi UFOs and space/time travel. But some real aerospace and military technology comes very close to Science Fiction. In this video, he talks about the Almaz armed spy stations launched by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. They were manned spacecraft, designed to photograph NATO military targets during the tense days of the Cold War. They were launched under the cover of a civilian space programme, Salyut. And to protect them from western attack, each station was armed with a rapid fire aircraft gun. It’s an idea close to the Bond film, Moonraker, in which Bond tackles Hugo Drax and his minions aboard their own space station.

The Almaz, ‘Diamond’, stations consisted of three sections. There was the main, piloted station module, a cargo section for resupply, and a launch and return craft. The stations were launched using a Proton rocket, and carried a two-three man crew, in space for 20 to 30 days before returning to Earth and being replaced by the next crew. They were armed with 25 mm Rikhtor guns, a modified version of the tail canon used on the Tupolev Tu-22 Blinder Russian bomber. The Russians were afraid that vibrations from the canon might damage the spacecraft, and so arranged a test firing. Salyut 3 (Almaz 2) was due to come to the end of its life in July 1974, and so was selected as a suitable test vehicle. After the last crew left on the 19th of that month, the station was remotely operated so that it targeted and shot down a defunct Soviet satellite. The Almaz station, the satellite, and the spent rounds were all burned up when they re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere afterwards. To date, Russia is the only country that has fired a weapon in space, but this may change.

I remember the Salyut space programme. It was always presented as just civilian research into living in space, and people were impressed by the lengths of time the Russians were able successfully to keep crews in orbit. However, these achievements were never as spectacular or interesting as the Moon landings. Now it’s been revealed that they were military spy missions, a fact that has almost certainly been revealed as a consequence of the Fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War.

It’s not just with the Bond film Moonraker that the Almaz stations have a similarity. In Kubrick’s and Clarke’s classic SF film, 2001, the world is on the brink of a nuclear war. After the first section, which shows a group of primitive hominids being led to intelligence by the black monolith on the prehistoric Earth, the film cuts to space, showing various satellites gliding in orbit while the Orion space shuttle makes it complex maneuvres to dock with the wheel-like space station. Although their purpose isn’t obvious, as Kubrick didn’t want people to think his film was repeating the themes of his Cold War nuclear satire, Dr Strangelove, these satellites are actually orbiting nuclear weapons platforms. Real killer satellites like them, but using ‘pop-up’ lasers to destroy nuclear missiles, were designed as part of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, or ‘Star Wars’ programme. There have been a number of books written about possible future wars in space, such as The Shape of Wars to Come, and a year or so ago former president Donald Trump called for the creation of an American space force. Which I think has provided the subject matter for a comedy on Netflix or one of the other streaming channels.

The arming of the Almaz stations shows how terrifyingly close the threat of war in space is to reality. I hope that for the sake of the world we manage to halt the militarisation of space and keep space exploration and, hopefully, colonisation, peaceful. Although this may be difficult given rising tensions between the West, Russia and China.

Egyptians Issue Polite Invitation to Musk to See that Aliens Didn’t Built the Pyramids

August 4, 2020

Here’s a rather lighter story from yesterday’s I, for 3rd August 2020. Elon Musk, the billionaire industrialist and space entrepreneur, has managed to cause a bit of controversy with Egyptian archaeologists. He’s a brilliant businessman, no doubt, but he appears to believe in the ancient astronaut theory that alien space travellers built the pyramids. He issued a tweet about it, and so the head of the Egyptian ministry for international cooperation  has sent him a very polite invitation to come to their beautiful and historic country and see for himself that this is very obviously not the case. The report, ‘Musk invited to debunk alien pyramid theory’, by Laurie Havelock, runs

An Egyptian official has invited Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX tycoon, to visit the country and see for himself that its famous pyramids were not built by aliens.

Mr Musk appeared to publicly state his support for a popular conspiracy theory that imagines aliens were involved in the construction of the ancient monuments.

But Egypt’s international co-operation minister corrected him, and said that laying eyes on the tombs of the pyramid builders would be proof enough.

Tombs discovered inside the structures during the 1990s are definitive evidence, experts say, that the structures were indeed built by ancient Egyptians. On Friday, Mr Musk tweeted: “Aliens built the pyramids obv”. which was retweeted more than 84,000 times. It prompoted Egypt’s minister of international co-operation Rania al-Mashat to respond: “I follow your work with a lot of admiration. I invite you & SpaceX to explore the writings about how the pyramids were built and also check out the tombs of the pyramid builders. Mr Musk, we are waiting for you.”

Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass also responded in a short video in Arabic, posted on social media, saying Mr Musk’s argument was a “complete hallucination”.

Hawass used to be head of their ministry of antiquities, and a very senior archaeologist. He was on TV regularly in the 1990s whenever there was a programme about ancient Egypt. And he doesn’t have much truck with bizarre theories about how or why the pyramids were built. ‘Pyramidiots – that what I call them!’ he once declared passionately on screen.

The idea that the ancient Egyptians couldn’t have built the pyramids because it was all somehow beyond them has been around for some time, as have similar ideas about a lost civilisation being responsible for the construction of other ancient monuments around the world, like Stonehenge, the Nazca lines and great civilisations of South America, Easter Island and so on. Once upon a time it was Atlantis. I think in certain quarters it still is. And then with the advent of UFOs it became ancient astronauts and aliens. One of the illustrations Chris Foss painted for a book cover from the 1970s shows, I think, alien spacecraft hovering around the pyramids.

There’s actually little doubt that humans, not aliens, built all these monuments, and that the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids for which their country’s famous. Archaeologists have even uncovered an entire village, Deir el-Medina, inhabited by the craftsmen who worked on them. This has revealed immensely detailed records and descriptions of their daily lives as well as their working environment. One of the documents that has survived from these times records requests from the craftsmen to their supervisors to have a few days off. One was brewing beer – a staple part of the ordinary Egyptians diet – while another had his mother-in-law coming round. I also distinctly remember that one of the programmes about ancient Egypt in the 1990s also proudly showed a tomb painting that at least depicted the system of ramps the workers are believed to have used to haul the vast stones into place. And the great ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, in his Histories, states very clearly that the pyramids were built by human workers. He includes many tall tales, no doubt told him by tour guides keen to make a quick buck and not to worried about telling the strict truth to an inquisitive foreigner. Some of these are about the spice and rich perfumes traded by the Arab civilisations further west. He includes far-fetched stories about how these exotic and very expensive products were collected by giant ants and other fabulous creatures. But no-one tried telling him that it wasn’t people, who built the pyramids.

On the other hand, the possibility that aliens may have visited Earth and the other planets in the solar system isn’t a daft idea at all. Anton ‘Wonderful Person’ Petrov, a Russian YouTuber specialising in real space and science, put up a video a few weeks ago stating that it’s been estimated that another star passes through the solar system once every 50,000 years. A similar paper was published by a Russian space scientist in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society back in the 1990s, although he limited the estimated to a star coming within a light-year of Earth. That’s an incredibly small distance, and if there have been other, spacefaring civilisations in our Galaxy, they could easily jump off their solar system to visit or explore ours. We can almost do it ourselves now, as shown by projects that have been drawn up to send light-weight probes by solar sail to Alpha Centauri. In addition to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence using radio telescopes to comb the skies for a suitable signal, there is also planetary SETI. This advocates looking for the remains of alien spacecraft or visitors elsewhere in our solar system. It’s advocates are serious scientists, though it suffered a major blow to its credibility with the furore over the ‘Face on Mars’. Which turned out not to be a face at all, but a rock formation as its critics had maintained.

Aliens may well have visited the solar system in the deep past, but it was definitely very human ancient Egyptians, who built the pyramids. Because, as Gene Roddenberry once said about such theories, ‘humans are clever and they work hard.’ Wise words from the man who gave us Star Trek.

Let’s go out in space to seek out new life and new civilisations by all means, but also keep in mind what we humans are also capable of achieving on our own down here.

US Air Force Planned Orbital Warplane 20 Years Ago

July 4, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


































































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.


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’.