Posts Tagged ‘Space Shuttle’

Sketch of American Astronomer, Space Scientist and Activist Carl Sagan

December 3, 2022

I’ve put up this sketch of Carl Sagan began he was one of the major figures in space research as well as a committed Humanist and political activist. He was also a major populariser of astronomy and science, most notably through his blockbusting TV series and its accompanying book, Cosmos. This was also notable for its soundtrack, composed by Vangelis, who also composed the music for Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and 1492: The Conquest of Paradise. According to the blurb on Cosmos’ back cover, Sagan was

‘(t)he director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Studies at Cornell University. He played a leading role in the Mariner, Viking and Voyager expeditions to the planets, for which he received the NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service, and the international astronautics prize, the Prix Galabert. He has served as Chairman of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, as chairman of the astronomy section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as a President of the Planetology Section of the American Geophysical Union. For twelve years, he was Editor-in-Chief of Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted to planetary research. In addition to 400 published scientific and popular articles, Dr. Sagan (was) the author, co-author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Intelligent Life in the Universe, The Cosmic Connection, The Dragons of Eden, Murmurs of Earth and Broca’s Brain. In 1975 he received the Joseph Priestly Award “for distinguished contributions to the welfare of mankind,” and in 1978 the Pulitzer Prize for literature.’

It was Sagan who suggested that Black Holes could be used as interstellar subways so that spaceships from one part of the universe could use them to travel faster than light to another part of the cosmos connected by the wormhole passing between the Black Hole and its White Hole. He also suggested that Venus could be terraformed into a living, habitable world through the introduction of genetically engineered bacteria that would consume its toxic carbon dioxide atmosphere and replace it with breathable oxygen. He also noted that Mars had a large instability in its rotation, and that this could have resulted in its current, millions-year long period of lifelessness. But it was possible that in time its rotation would return to a more hospitable position and the planet would once more bloom into life. He was also a staunch advocate of the view that the universe was inhabited by intelligent alien civilisations and that one day we would contact them. He also wrote a later book, Pale Blue Dot, after the view of the Earth from space.

He was also a fierce opponent of what he considered to be superstition. He was one of the founders of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal along with the stage magician James Randi. They were formed in response to the publication of Gauqelin’s research suggesting there really was a link between the star sign under which people were born and their later careers. He was alarmed by the rise of Creationism and the New Age, and expressed his fears about them in his book, The Demon Haunted World. He was afraid that this would lead to a new Dark Age in which people would wake up every morning to anxiously look through their horoscopes.

He was also greatly concerned with the environment and global warming and the threat of nuclear war. In the 1980s he also proposed the idea of nuclear winter. This was the idea that a nuclear war would send millions of tons of dust into the atmosphere, blocking out the sunlight and causing temperatures to plunge. This has since been rejected by scientists, but I have seen it suggested as one of the causes for the extinction of the dinosaurs. In this case it was the dust thrown up by the asteroid’s impact 65 million years ago that blocked out the sun’s light, after the initial holocaust caused by its impact.

During the inquiry following the Challenger disaster, Sagan claimed that it had occurred because the Shuttle was poorly designed, the result of a compromise between NASA and the military. The Shuttle was originally intended to be fully reusable and smaller. However, the armed forces insisted on it becoming larger so that it could carry military satellites into space. The result was that it was larger, and only partially reusable as it required an external tank to carry the extra fuel it needed to reach orbit. This was jettisoned after its fuel was consumed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

He also wrote the SF novel, Contact, later filmed with Jodie Foster playing the lead. This was about a female astronomer, who makes contact radio contact with aliens, a method Sagan himself strongly advocated. Following their instructions, she constructs an artificial wormhole portal that transports her across space so she can finally meet them. I remember coming across the book in the Cheltenham branch of Waterstones in the 1980s and was rather put off by its blurb. This boasted about it challenging and refuting racism, sexism and so on. All good stuff, of course, but a bit too PC for me.

Many of these themes appear in Cosmos. This was his personal view of the history of science, and while I loved it at the time, I have serious issues with some of the claims now. One of the problems is that he accepts what we were all told at school, that the Greek philosophers were scientists. He believed that if Greek science had progressed, we would have had space travel by now. The ancient Greeks were certainly responsible for laying the foundations of western science, but they were not quite scientists in the modern sense. They used deduction rather than the scientific method of induction. Deduction meant that they observed a phenomenon and then invented an explanation. In induction, devised by Francis Bacon in the 16th/17th century, the scientist observes a phenomenon, comes up with an explanation, and then devises an experiment to disprove it. If the explanation passes the test, it is tentatively accepted as true until a later observation or experiment disproves it. The ancient Greeks didn’t do much practical experimentation.

Sagan also followed the popular explanation of the evolution of the brain, in which there is a lower, animal brain with the higher faculties evolving later, so there’s a primitive reptile brain and a more advanced mammal brain. But Victorian scientists found that both types of brain structure were present in the earliest, most primitive animals. He also followed the standard, accepted narrative that the Roman Catholic church had suppressed scientific knowledge and experimentation during the Middle Ages. This has since been rejected by historians of science. To many such historians now, the Middle Ages after the 8/9th centuries were an age of innovation and discovery. Jean Gimpel’s book proposing the idea was called The Medieval Machine, after the invention of the clock, to symbolise the period’s belief in a universe governed by law, discoverable by human reason under the light of the divine. And rather than the revival of classical learning in the Renaissance leading to a new enlightened, rational order, it had the potential to do the opposite. The medieval philosophers and theologians were Aristotelians but were very aware of the flaws in Aristotelian science and had modified it over the centuries in order to conform more closely to observed reality. But the Renaissance Humanists would have dumped all this, and so we would have been back to square one with no further scientific advances than what was permitted through a rigid adherence to Aristotle’s thought.

There’s also an anti-Christian element in Cosmos too. He describes how Hypatia, the late Neoplatonist female philosopher was murdered by a group of Christian monks in the 4th century. Hypatia has symbolised for a long time to radical atheists the fundamentally anti-science, and to feminists, the misogyny in Christianity. But by this time Neoplatonism was a mixture of science and mystical speculation, forming what has been called ‘the mind’s road to God’. The real motives for her murder weren’t that she was some kind of pagan threat, but more from a power struggle between the authorities in that part of the Roman world.

Sagan is also critical of western imperialism and describes the horrors the Conquistadors inflicted on the Aztecs and other peoples of the New World. He’s right and this section is clearly a product of its time, with the rise of anti-colonial movements among the world’s indigenous peoples, the Black Civil Rights movement in the US and the horrors of the Vietnam War, as well as Reagan’s new Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust. But looking at this 40 years later, it’s also one-sided. Europe wasn’t the only expansionist, brutal, imperialist culture. Islam was also militaristic and expansionist, and at the time the Spaniards conquered South America, the Turkish empire was expanding and subjugating parts of Europe, while Muslim pirates were raiding the continent as far as Iceland for slaves.

It’s also dated from an archaeological standpoint. At one point Sagan discusses the Bronze Age collapse of the societies of the Ancient Near East, showing how it was characterised by a series of crises, similar to the process of the fall of other, later civilisations into Dark Ages, but that these aren’t causes in themselves. It’s Systems Analysis, which was popular at the time, but which I think has also become subsequently passe.

All that said, Sagan was right about global warming, whose devastating effects he illustrated with the example of the planet Venus. This has also suffered catastrophic heating due to its greater nearness to the Sun. This released massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a runaway greenhouse effect so that it is now a hell planet of burning temperatures and sulphuric acid rain. He also wasn’t wrong about the threat of renewed militarism and nuclear war and was a welcome voice against Reagan’s strident belligerence.

As a science populariser, his influence has also been immense. Cosmos was a bestseller, and I think it prepared the way for other bestselling works by astronomers and scientists like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. And I certainly was not surprised when Brian Cox, the scientist, not the actor, said in an interview in the Radio Times that he was a massive admirer of Sagan. That came across to me very strongly from his numerous TV series about space and the planets.

Vangelis’ Theme from Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’

September 10, 2022

Here’s something which I hope will be a bit lighter after the last two day’s solemnity. It’s a video of the theme music to the 1980s blockbuster science and space documentary series, Cosmos, presented by Carl Sagan, which I’ve taken from Nedsrubiquitous’ channel on YouTube. Cosmos was one of the great space and science fact shows of the 1980s, and its accompanying book became a bestseller. Sagan himself was a Humanist and an opponent of militarism, imperialism and nuclear weapons, as well as sexism and racism. Later in the decade he presented evidence to the international authorities that a nuclear war would result in a global winter that would destroy life on this planet. Well, whatever survived the nuclear holocaust, I suppose. When NASA was holding its inquiry into the causes of the Challenger disaster, Sagan stated that the design of the Space Shuttle had been severely compromised in the interests of the military. He said that initially the Shuttle was to be smaller and completely reusable, but the armed forces objected as they wanted something big enough to put military spy satellites into space. Hence the Shuttle was only partly reusable through the addition of a fuel tank that was jettisoned and left to burn up. He also wrote a Science Fiction book, Contact, about a female scientist who establishes contact with aliens. It was later filmed with Jodie Foster. I don’t agree with Sagan’s atheism, but he was an inspirational science communicator. I wasn’t surprised when Prof Brian Cox said that he had been inspired by Sagan, because after all the space and science series Cox had done it seemed to be glaringly obvious.

The music for the series was composed and performed by the awesome Vangelis, responsible for the theme to Chariots of Fire, The Conquest of Paradise and Blade Runner. I think the music was an important element in the show’s popularity and was one of a number of themes collected in the album Space Invaded. If I remember correctly, that is. Sagan died a few years ago of prostate cancer, but still remains one of the giants of astronomy and explaining difficult concepts to a mass audience.

The video features pictures and quotes from the man himself and NASA, as well as beautiful photographs of space and the space telescopes that capture them.

Britain and Russia Nearly Cooperated to Develop HOTOL Spaceplane

July 17, 2020

The news today has been partly dominated by reports that the Russians have been trying to steal secrets of a possible vaccine for Coronavirus. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t remotely surprise me if this was true. Way back in the 1990s the popular science magazine, Focus, did a feature on espionage which stated that most of it was industrial with competing corporations trying to steal each other’s secrets. And I think that during the Cold War the Russians were spying on British companies trying to steal technology. But during the ’90s there was a period when it seemed that Britain and Russia would work together to develop the British spaceplane, HOTOL.

HOTOL would have used a mixture of air-breathing and conventional rocket engines to get into orbit, taking off and landing on ordinary airstrips. It would have been initially unmanned, designed to carry payloads of 7,000-8,000 kilos into low Earth orbit. Crewed missions would be carried out by converting by converting the cargo compartment into a pressurized cabin. The project was cancelled because there were problems developing the air-breathing engines. It was hoped that the Europeans would be interested in supporting it, but they refused on the grounds of the possible cost. However, this resulted in plans for the plane to be adapted to take off from a Russian transport plane. The entry for ‘Spaceplanes’ in the book Space Exploration in the series of Chambers Encyclopedic Guides (Edinburgh: W&R Chambers 1992) says of this

In response to this, an interim HOTOL, using conventional rockets instead of the original air-breathing engines, has been proposed. The interim HOTOL, which has a shorter, fatter fuselage, would be carried to high altitude on the back of the huge Soviet-developed Antonov An-225 transport aircraft and then released. Once clear of the aircraft, HOTOL would fire its rocket motor to climb the rest of the way into orbit. If development were to be authorized it is believed that the first flight of the interim HOTOL could be in 2005. (p. 207).

This entry also contained the following artist’s impression of the HOTOL spaceplane taking off from the back of the Soviet transport plane.

I think this would have been an eminently practical project. The American X-15 rocket plane, which achieved orbit, was launched from a specially-equipped conventional aircraft, as were the various lifting bodies that led to the development of the Space Shuttle. If Britain and Russia had cooperated on it, then we and the Russians would be boldly going into space together 15 years ago. Obviously politics and doubtless costs intervened. I dare say that there was also concerns about technology transfer and the Russians acquiring British aerospace secrets.

But it’s an example of yet another opportunity to expand onto the High Frontier being missed. Nevertheless HOTOL has now been superseded by Skylon, which is almost complete and which should fly. If it gets the backing it needs to put Britain back in orbit.


















Modeller’s Magazine on Building Kits of Real Spacecraft

December 21, 2019

Like many children in the ’70s I was into plastic model kits. I was particularly into air- and spacecraft, and so spent some of my free time and pocket money gluing together and painting kits of the Apollo Lunar Module and the mighty Saturn V rocket that took men to the Moon, the Space Shuttle, and a spaceship from the Science Fiction film and TV series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. I was therefore pleased to find looking through W.H. Smith’s magazine shelves that not only had the hobby not died out, but that manufacturers were producing models of contemporary spacecraft. You can find plastic model kits on sale at some hobby shops and in Waterstone’s, but these tend to be of military aircraft, usually, but not exclusively from the Second World War II, tanks, and high performance modern jet fighters. Spacecraft seem to be dominated by Star Wars. So it was a real surprise when I found Scale Modelling: Real Space.

The kits built and described are those of the International Space Station; the Retriever Rocket, designed in the 1950s by Werner von Braun as part of the original concept for the Moon Landings which was then abandoned; the early Redstone rocket which launched some of the first Mercury capsules; the American Skylab space station; the Chinese ‘Celestial Palace’ space station, formed from their Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1 spacecraft; the French Ariane 5 rocket; the Russian Buran orbiter, their answer to the American Space Shuttle, which has been built but never flown; the Titan IIIC launcher; NASA’s Space Launch System heavy lifting rocket.

Interspersed with these are articles on some of the real spacecraft themselves, written by NASA scientist David Baker. These are on the history of the ISS, how the final Saturn V launch for Skylab was very nearly a disaster, and the station became a success, and the Space Launch System rocket and its Orion capsule.

The very last model kit of a real spacecraft I built was of the Jupiter C way back in the 1990s. This was one of the early rockets that launched one of America’s first satellites into orbit. I’m very glad that people are still enjoying the hobby and building models of the real spacecraft which are carrying men and women into orbit. I was very pleased indeed when James May in one of his programmes on boy’s hobbies of the past, tried to revive interest in plastic model kits for a new generation of boys and girls a few years ago. As part of it, he built a full-scale replica of a Spitfire as a plastic model kit, complete with a dummy pilot, whose face was his own. It was cast by the artist Esther Freud, using the same techniques used to create creature masks for SF/Fantasy/Horror movies.

This issue of the magazine celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings with these kits. As NASA, ESA, India, and China again discuss plans for a return to Earth’s airless companion world, I hope the magazine and the kits encourage and inspire more children to become interested in space and the great vehicles that take us there. 



Secret American Spaceplane Returns to Earth

October 31, 2019

The Americans do have a secret space programme using the X-37B spaceplane. I very much doubt it involves anything as exotic as contact with extraterrestrials or uses back engineered alien technology. However, while the Americans have admitted the existence of the craft, they won’t reveal just what it’s doing up in the Deep Black. Yesterday, 30th October 2019, the I reported that the plane had returned to Earth after a record-breaking mission. The article by Marcia Dunn, ‘Secret space plane finishes 780-day mission’, ran

The US Air Force’s mystery space plane is back on Earth, following a record-breaking two-year mission.

The X-37B landed at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida early on Sunday. The craft looks like a space shuttle – but is a quarter of the size, at just 29ft (8.8m) long.

The US Air Force is quiet about what the plane did after launching aboard a SpaceX rocket in 2017. The 780-day mission sets a new record for the reusable test vehicle.

Tight-lipped officials will say only that the mission successfully completed its objectives and that experiments from the Air Force Research Laboratory were aboard. It was the fifth spaceflight by a vehicle of this kind.

Barbara Barrett, the US Air Force Secretary, said: “Each mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.

Although the exact nature of X-37B missions are classified, air force officials have dropped hints about the type of experiments.

One was the launch of an advanced structurally embedded thermal spreader, an experiment designed to “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies”, according to an air force statement.

The plane flew to a higher orbit than previous X-37B flights, suggesting it had new experiments or technology tests. Air force officials said it carried multiple experiments and smaller satellites into orbit.

My guess is that some of those are almost certainly spy satellites.

A few years ago the X-37B docked at the International Space Station, but the US wouldn’t say what it was doing up there either.

‘I’ Newspaper: NASA Planning Permanent Return to the Moon

February 12, 2019

Before the deep political stuff, a piece of space news. According to yesterday’s I for 11th February 2019, NASA is planning to go back to the Moon and found permanently manned bases. The article by Clark Mindock, ‘NASA wants to station humans on the Moon’ on page 23 ran

NASA is planning to send astronauts to the Moon again, but this time it wants to keep them there.

The US space agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, called yesterday for “the best and brightest of American industry to help design and develop human lunar landers”, in response to what he said was a clear mandate from President Donald Trump and Congress to once again get astronauts out of Earth’s orbit.

In a post detailing Nasa’s lofty goals – to return astronauts to the Moon, and one day send them to Mars for the first time in human history – Mr Bridenstine said that the US was playing for keeps this time.

“I am thrilled to be talking once more about landing humans on the Moon,” he wrote on the Ozy website.

“To some, saying that we are returning to the Moon implies that we will be doing the same as we did 50 years ago. I want to be clear – that is not our vision.

“We are going to the Moon with innovative new technologies and systems to explore more locations across the surface than we ever thought possible. This time, when we go to the Moon, we will stay.”

Mr Bridenstine said that the ambitious plans would begin later this week, with partners from private industry and elsewhere invited to NASA headquarters in Washington DC to discuss the next generation of lunar landers.

So far, Nasa has already co-operated with nine companies to send cargo tot he Moon, with the ultimate goal being to develop landers that can take astronauts back there.

As a space fan, all I can say is that it’s about time. Way back in the 1970s and 1980s space experts and commenters, like Sir Patrick Moore, the presenter of the Sky At Night, were predicting that we’d have bases on the Moon and elsewhere in solar system by now. But that was before space budgets were drastically cut and NASA instead concentrated on the Space Shuttle. This was supposed to open space up to just about anybody who could afford the cost of a ticket and was in reasonable health. Its crews experienced 3Gs at lift-off, but this was considered to be so low that a 70-year old man could tolerate it. Unfortunately the Shuttle was massively overengineered and the Challenger disaster put the programme on hold while its causes were investigated and corrected. Even then its use remained risky, as we saw a few years ago when one disintegrated during re-entry over America and the programme was subsequently cancelled.

There were plans in the 1990s for a private, commercial return to the Moon, according to Focus Magazine, but that didn’t seem to get anywhere.

My guess is that NASA is finally getting round to putting a permanent human presence on the Moon not just because Trump fancies going back to the glory days of the Cold War space race, but because the EU and the Chinese are also planning the serious exploration of the Moon. A little while ago ESA – the European Space Agency – announced they were planning to put people on the Moon, while last week the Chinese successfully landed a probe on the Moon’s far side. The Chinese are putting such effort into their space programme that the quantum physicist and SF writer, Stephen Baxter, predicted back in the 1990s that the first person on Mars would probably be Chinese sometime in the next decade. Under Reagan, one of the big aerospace conglomerations and think tanks published a report arguing that America needed to develop its space technologies and industries, and move out onto the High Frontier, in order to secure its place as world leader. It’s likely that this is the same thinking behind this announcement by NASA.

As for exploring the next generation of lunar landers, I wonder if they’ll be able to use any data or blueprints remaining from the original lunar modules that landed Armstrong, Aldrin and co all those years ago. After the Apollo programme was cancelled, the massive Saturn 5 rockets were broken up, with the exception of those on display at the Kennedy Space Centre, and the plans destroyed. This has outraged many space scientists like John S. Lewis, the author of Mining the Sky, who compared it to the destruction of Chung He’s fleet by the Chinese eunuchs in the 14th century. Chung He was a Chinese admiral, who led a fleet of ships on an exploratory mission to the outside world, going as far as the Bight of Benin in West Africa. However, when he returned the eunuchs at the imperial court had his fleet destroyed and further exploration banned because they feared that opening the country up to foreign contact would have a destabilizing effect on its society. The result of this was that the country remained isolated and stagnated until it fell prey to foreign colonialism in the 19th century, most famously through the Opium Wars.

Hopefully NASA’s announcement will mark the beginning of a new, serious wave of interplanetary exploration which aims to put people on the Moon and other planets, as space scientists, engineers and SF fans and writers have been dreaming about and working towards since before the great German director Fritz Lang made his epic movie Die Frau im Mond (‘The Woman in the Moon’) about a German moon landing back in the 1920s.

Flying Replica of Messerschmitt Komet Rocketplane at German Airshow

October 16, 2018

I found this little video of a modern, flying replica of the Messerschmidt 163 Komet over on YouTube, put up by Knight Flight Video. From the some of the speech you can hear, it seems that it was filmed at an airshow in Germany. The Komet was developed by the Germans during the Second World War to intercept allied bombers. Unlike conventional aircraft at the time, it was powered by a rocket engine. However, this also made it a virtual deathtrap to fly. The engine was a liquid fuel rocket motor. The fuels used were hypergolic, which meant that they automatically ignited when mixed together without needing a separate ignition system. However, they were also highly acidic, and so would cause severe burns if spilled onto the pilot. I’ve also got a feeling that once the fuels started burning, they were difficult to put out as the fuel contained its own oxidizer. Which was another serious hazard to the pilot. It also had a very short burn time – about four minutes. By the end of that very brief interval, the plane would have shot past the allied bombers it was supposed to shoot down. It would then have to glide back to Earth. I think the vehicle had originally been developed as a glider for service in one of the Nazi schemes to get German boys interested in flying, and then eventually joining the Luftwaffe as pilots – a sort of Nazi Air Cadets. The rocket engine was added to the design later. The commenters on this video also state that the absence of a conventional tail meant that the plane was difficult to land. It also lacked wheeled undercarriage, and landed on a skid instead. This resulted in many of its pilots breaking their backs on landing.

The replica plane is also painted red, whereas I think most of the Komets that were actually flown were painted standard German military grey. However, its red colour probably comes from a suggestion of one Luftwaffe officer or Nazi apparatchik that the planes should be painted ‘Richtofen red’, after the plane from by Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron, during the First World War. The person, who made this suggestion believed that it would serve to terrify the allied airmen, but others have pointed out that if the Germans had followed his advice, it would immediately mark them out as targets and result in the planes getting shot down sooner by the RAF.

Looking at the video, it appears to me that the replica plane is really glider being towed by the Dornier aircraft that precedes it, although I can’t see a wire between the two. It clearly isn’t using a propeller, and it is very definitely not using a rocket engine. If it was, it would be moving so swiftly that I doubt there’d be much time to see it before it was a small dot in the sky. Plus the fact that I doubt very many pilots would wish to risk their lives in a fully accurate, working replica using the original rocket engine.

For all its horrendous faults, this was a significant advance in the use of rocket technology and in aircraft design. I think the Komet was produced as part of German aircraft engineers’ research into delta wing designs. After the allied victory, this research was seized by the allies, including British aircraft engineers and designers. They developed it further, leading to the creation of the Vulcan bomber, Concorde, and possibly the Space Shuttle.

‘Sky At Night’ on Sunday on Britain in Space

October 9, 2018

Next Sunday’s edition of Sky at Night, for 14th October 2018, will be looking at the history of the British space programme and its possible future. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

Space Britannia

The future of Britain’s space programme, examining plans for the first UK spaceport in Scotland and the potential launch of revolutionary micro-satellites over the next decade. Guest presenter Tim Peake looks at the history of British space exploration.

The programme’s on BBC4 at 10.00 pm.

Britain did have a very successful space programme from the 1950s to about 1975. The UK developed a number of very successful sounding rockets, like Skua, which were used by meterologists for the exploration of the upper atmosphere. Development of the Blue Steel missile, intended as the launcher for Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, resulted in the creation of the Black Knight rocket, which successfully launched a British satellite, Ariel, into orbit in 1975 from Woomera in Australia. And then the British launcher programme was cancelled, as civil service mandarins felt it would be more economical to have our satellites launched by the Americans.

We were also part of the ESRO programme in the 1960s until that finally fell to pieces in the 1970s. This was a European programme to produce a common launch rocket for European satellites We were to produce the first stage, and the French, Germans and Italians the others. Our part of the rocket worked perfectly, but there were problems with the other stages. This led to the programme’s cancellation as costs mounted. The French, however, continued developing rockets, leading eventually to the launch of Ariane, which has been immensely successful. We were left behind as the launch of our satellites depended on the Americans’ own plans and launch priorities. And the suspension of the space shuttle programme after the Challenger disaster, I believe, did result in Britain losing that as a launch vehicle for the duration.

Black Arrow, another British Rocket

There have been a number of plans to develop British spaceplanes, like MUSTARD in the 1960s and then HOTOL in the 1980s. HOTOL was cancelled because of difficulties getting the airbreathing engines to work. However, work on the plane continued after its official cancellation. The problems have been ironed out, and a new spaceplane developed, Skylon. It’s not a crewed vehicle, so it doesn’t look like any British astronauts will be going into space direct from Blighty just yet. Nevertheless, things are looking very optimistic for the British space programme, as there were reports in the papers a few months ago that the plane would be all set and ready to fly in the very near future, like 2020. I certainly hope so, and will look forward to seeing what this programme has to say about it all.

Al-Jazeera on the First Test Flight of India’s Space Shuttle

September 19, 2018

In this short clip, just over two minutes long, from Al-Jazeera, posted two years ago in 2016, Tariq Bezley reports on the first test flight by the Indian Space Agency of their space shuttle. The shuttle was launched into space on top of a rocket fired from India’s launch facility north of Chenai. The craft separated from the rocket at an altitude of 70 km and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, which heated it up to 2,000 degrees.

A female scientist speaking for the Observer Research Foundation, Rajeswari P Rajagopalan talks on the video about how it was necessary to test the shuttle’s heat shield.

Besley states that so far only the US, USSR, Japan and Europe have launched reusable shuttles. He states that NASA’s Space Shuttle flew 135 missions in 30 years before it was finally decommissioned. It has been replaced by the US air forces X-37B test vehicle. This unmanned vehicle was on its third mission, and had been up there for a year. However, the secrecy surrounding its missions have provoked speculation that it is a spy satellite, or is being tested to deliver weapons from space.

He then goes on to discuss the Dreamchaser, the spaceplane being developed by the private Sierra Nevada firm to service the International Space Station. Its first flight is planned for 2019. India’s space shuttle is in a much earlier stage of development, and it’s estimated that it’ll be 10 or 15 years before it is ready to fly.

Besley also discusses how India successfully put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars in 2014, becoming the first Asian nation to do so.

Rajagopan states that China has flourishing military space programme, which is a direct challenge to India, and India has to respond if it is not to be left lagging behind.

Further tests will be carried out on the Indian spacecraft, including on the supersonic scramjet engine which the Indians hope will one day power the spaceplane. The Indians say that their Mars mission cost a tenth of that of other missions to the Red Planet. Besley concludes that if their space shuttle can achieve the same savings, space travel will become much more affordable for all.

A number of countries have developed plans for different spaceplanes. The Russians had their own version of the Space Shuttle, Buran, which looked exactly like the American. It has been mothballed since the Fall of the USSR and has never flown. The French designed a small spaceplane, Hermes, which was to go on top of their Ariane rocket in the 1990s. This was very much like the American Dynosoar spaceplane proposed in the 1950s, but never actually built. The Germans also designed a spaceplane, Sanger, named after one of their leading rocket scientists. This would consist of two craft, a larger plane acting as a first stage, which would piggy-back a second plane into orbit.
And then there was the British HOTOL project of the 1980s which also used airbreathing ramjet engines to take the plane into space. This was never completed because of problems with those same engines. The technology has since been perfected, and a new British spaceplane, Skylon, has been developed. It has been forecast that it will come into service sometime in the next few years, possibly flying from spaceport launch sites in Cornwall or Scotland.

The video shows how sophisticated India’s space programme is, and I’ve no doubt that their entry into space will lower launch costs significantly. While the American shuttle was an amazing piece of engineering, it was massively expensive. It only became competitive as a launch vehicle against Ariane and the other rockets because it was heavily subsidized by the American government.

I look forward to the development of India’s spaceplane and that country joining the US and Russia in launching manned space missions. Perhaps if more countries develop reusable spacecraft, humanity will at last enter a real age of crewed space exploration and colonization.

Paintings of British Spaceplane MUSTARD

December 28, 2017

This is awesome. It’s another couple of piccies from the SF art page, 70sscifiart, and it’s one of the entries for the 18th June 2017. They’re illustrations from a book on space about the MUSTARD spaceplane, a reusable space vehicle designed in 1964 by the British Aerospace Corporation. The scientists and engineers, who designed it realised that it was wasteful and expensive to build rockets that would last only for a single mission, before being mostly discarded.

Their solution, MUSTARD, effectively consists of three spaceplanes linked together. There’s the main craft, which flies into space, and two supporting planes, which serve to provide fuel to the main craft, helping it reach orbital velocity. When their fuel was used up, they broke away from the main plane, and flew back to Earth.

I first came across the MUSTARD project in an issue of the space/ science fiction magazine New Voyager back in the early 80s. This described the project, and interviewed some of the scientists and engineers involved. I think the problem with it is that it was probably far too far ahead of its time. I can remember reading that they estimated that the vehicle would start breaking even after 50 journeys. Now, looking at the economics of the space shuttle, that’s probably acceptable today. The only way the Space Shuttle remained competitive compared to the other launch vehicles developed by the Russians, the Europeans, India, China and Japan is because its subsidized by the American government. If you left it to market forces, it’d be uncompetitive. It’s another example of the way market forces are absolutely wonderful, but only so long as they don’t hurt big business and the ‘national interest’.

There were also probably political reasons for its cancellation as well. Britain at the time was also developing its own space rocket, Black Arrow, which successfully launched a satellite into space in 1975, to date the only British satellite that’s been launched by a British rocket. At the time Britain was involved in a European project to build a space rocket, with various stages built by the French, British and Germans. All of the other stages were failures with the exception of the British, and the project eventually fell apart. The civil servants in charge of British space research did not feel that there was a sufficient market to support an independent British rocket launcher, and instead decided that we’d piggy-back on the Americans.

The French, on the other hand, persevered, and developed their massive successful Ariane rocket, which is actually much more economical and performs better than the US space shuttle did. Which shows how farsighted the French can be when it comes to developing new technologies. Unlike our politicos, who seem to want to get everything cheap from someone else.

Tragically, the space shuttle was beset with problems, which resulted in a series of horrific catastrophes. The best known of these is probably the Challenger disaster, which led to the programme being suspended for years while the Shuttle was being examined and redesigned. Then there was that terrible incident a few years ago where the Shuttle exploded just when it was re-entering the atmosphere, breaking up over the US. This has led to the Shuttle being cancelled, and America reliant for manned spaceflight on the Russians.

I don’t doubt that the design for MUSTARD was sound, and it would have been way ahead of the other competing spacecraft if it had been built. Unfortunately, economics, politics and the will to do it weren’t there.