Posts Tagged ‘Space Travel’

Chinese Scientists Working on Zero-Carbon Plasma Jet Engines

May 7, 2020

Here’s an interesting piece of science news, courtesy of yesterday’s I, for 6th May 2020. According to the article by Madeleine Cuff, ‘Plasma jet engine could be used for zero-carbon passenger flights’, Chinese scientists are working on a new type of jet engine in which conventional aircraft fuel would be replaced by plasma – ionized gas. The article on page 28 runs

Scientists have designed a new kind of jet engine that may be able to fly planes halfway around the world without using fossil fuels.

The prototype, dreamed up by Chinese engineers, relies on thrusters powered by compressed air and electricity to create a zero-carbon flight.

Flying is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers have spent years hunting for low-carbon technologies to cut aviation’s carbon footprint, but finding a clean fuel source powerful enough to support a full-sized passenger jet has proved elusive.

A team at Wuhan university believes the answer lies in something called microwave air plasmas.

Beyond solid, liquid and gas, plasma is the fourth state of matter. It is a form of electrically charged gas, which – when activated – can cause surges of energy. 

Certain kinds of plasma jet thrusters have been used before to power Nasa probes in space, but they were not powerful enough to fuel flight within the Earth’s atmosphere.

The team believes it has solved this problem by designing a thruster that creates plasma from air mid-flight by compressing air into high pressures and using a microwave to charge it. If scaled up, it can create enough thrust to match a commercial jet engine, the team claims.

“Our results demonstrated that such a jet engine based on microwave air plasma can be a potentially viable alternative to the conventional fossil fuel jet engine,” said the study’s author, Dr Jau Tang.

More work is needed to improve the prototype’s efficiency before it can be tried in a full-sized jet and getting enough electricity to the engine to create plasma could also present a significant challenge.

But if it can work on a large scale, it could usher in an era of guilt-free flying.

The research is published in the journal AIP Advances.

I wonder how the engineers intend to force air into the jet engine at sufficient pressure that it can be ionised and used to generate thrust. At the moment conventional jet engines solve the problem of obtaining enough air to mix with the fuel through using powerful turbines that suck the air in. If this engine uses something similar and its powered by conventional aircraft fuel, although its carbon footprint will be low it still won’t be zero. Or perhaps the turbines would use extremely powerful electric motors.

It seems to me that the basic concept is sound, as last year a group of American aerospace engineers showed that ionized air around a plane could be used to provide extra lift and make the vehicle travel further. They did this by stringing electrically charged wires above and below the wings of a miniature aircraft, which was then launched into the air. The model did actually fly further than it normally would using conventional propulsion.

Obviously these plasma drives are still a long way off from coming into service and need a lot of development, but they do show a great deal of potential. Hopefully they will prove practical, and will usher in an age of air transport, where the carbon emissions will be greatly reduced, if not zero.

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Piracy, Murder and Revenge in the Far Future

March 15, 2020

Alastair Reynolds, Revenger (London: Orion 2016).

And now for a bit of good Science Fiction. Julian, one of the great commenters on this blog, asked me to write a review of Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger a couple of months ago. Well, it’s taken me a little bit of time to get round to it, but here it is.

Reynolds has a doctorate in astronomer and was a scientist for the European Space Agency before becoming a full-time writer. He specialises in hard SF, the type of Science Fiction written by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. This is based, more or less, in known science, although obviously this can be stretched to a greater or lesser degree. Hard SF tends of avoid Faster Than Light Travel and concentrates on creating worlds and futures that are scientifically plausible, given the present state of knowledge.

Revenger, however, is set in the very far future when the Earth and the other planets have long been broken up to create a plethora of habitable, artificial space environments like the space colonies advocated by the late Dr. Gerald O’Neill’s L5 Society and other space colonisation groups. There are about 20,000 such worlds, collectively referred to as ‘the congregation’. The Earth is no longer even a memory, and the Solar System has been subject to successive waves of colonisation, known as occupations. The present period in which the book is set is the twelfth. These occupations have spanned lasted thousands of years, with vast periods in between, so that the Solar System is very ancient indeed. And not all the colonising civilisations that have risen and fallen have been human.

Some of these lost civilisations were extremely advanced, far more so than the present state of humanity. They have vanished, but stashed pieces of their technology in the baubles, tiny artificial worlds sealed off from the rest of the universe. Although tiny, these have their own artificial gravity provided by swallowers located in their centres. Chemical rockets and ion engines are known and used, but the chief method of flight between the worlds of the congregation is the Solar Sail. This is limited to sublight speed and the inhabitants of the Solar System are themselves unable to reach the other cultures of the ‘Swirly’, as the Galaxy is called. Nevertheless, there is evidence that some of the ancient ships with which the Congregation was settled came from outside the Solar System, and there are a number of alien species from outside doing business there. Chief among these are the Clackers, who act as humanity’s bankers, and who have a mysterious, intense interest in the ancient discs used as currency. There is also a trade in the lost technologies contained in the baubles with ships, whose crews specialise in raiding them for their wonders.

The book’s the story of Arafura ‘Fura’ Ness, a rich young woman, and her quest to rescue her sister, Adrana, and avenge her murdered crewmates after the ship she and her sister join is attacked by the pirate queen, Bosa Sennen. The sisters come from a rich family that has fallen on hard times. Determined to restore the fortunes of their widowed father, they sign on as bone readers with one such ship plundering the baubles, Monetta’s Mourn under Captain Rackamore. The bones are a strange communication device, ancient alien skulls containing mysterious circuitry, or fragments of them, into which an especially sensitive human can jack to send and pick up messages from other vessels. There are also more conventional forms of communication like 20th century radio and television. After their ship has successfully plundered one bauble, it is attacked by Sennen. Ness is hidden from Sennen by the previous bone reader, a young woman driven mad by the bones. This woman and Adrana are taken by Sennen, who needs new bonereaders. She ruthlessly tortures and kills the other crewmembers, before departing the wrecked ship.

Ness and another woman, Prozor, manage to survive and make their way back to civilisation. Ness is ambushed by an agent for her father in a bar, and taken back to her home on Mazarile, where she is drugged and kept as a virtual prisoner. With the aid of her robot, Paladin, she escapes, rejoins Prozor, and the two make plans to join a suitable ship they can use to rescue Adrana and destroy Sennen and her evil crew.

Although set in the far future, the congregation and its worlds are nevertheless based on real scientific speculation. They’re a Dyson cloud/ swarm – I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the precise term. It’s a form of Dyson sphere. The physicist Freeman Dyson suggested that advanced, space-travelling civilisations would break up the planets of their solar systems and use the material to build solid spheres around their suns in order to harness all the stars’ light and energy, with the civilisations then living on the inside of the spheres. However, there are problems with such a concept. For example, the gravity generated by centrifugal force would be stronger at the Sphere’s equator, and disappear at the poles, making these areas difficult for civilisations to occupy. Larry Niven dealt with this problem by suggesting that they would only build an inhabited ring around the star, hence his masterpiece, Ringworld. Dyson, however, believed that such spheres would not be solid, and would in fact be composed of a cloud of tiny worldlets arranged in suitable orbits. This is the idea that Reynolds has used as the basis for this book.

As advanced as technology is in Revenger – limbs can be removed, replaced and traded quickly and painlessly in shops like items in a pawnbrokers – the society of the congregation is very much like that of 19th century Europe. Their doesn’t appear to be any system of public, state education, so that many people are unable to read, and the sisters are initially somewhat resented because of their moneyed background. The sexes are equal in this future, with women and men performing the same jobs. But the Ness sisters’ father is a recognisable Victorian patriarch determined to do whatever he can to hold on to his daughters. The technology has changed so that the ships are driven by the light from the Sun rather than the terrestrial wind, but they’re still sailing ships. And the baubles with their treasures locked away are the interplanetary equivalents of desert islands and their buried treasure. The book therefore reads almost like something Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, would have written after an evening drinking with Jules Verne and the two knew about quantum physics, solar sails and Dyson Spheres. Reynolds is good at creating credible future worlds, and the Congregation and its worldlets are very convincingly depicted as places where people live and work. 

While not everyone likes or reads SF, and this may not be to every SF fan’s taste, it is a good, rattling yarn which successfully marries far future Science Fiction with 19th century pirate fiction. So avast, ye planet-lubbers, and hoist the mainsail to catch the wind from the Sun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Radio 4 Next Monday on Possible Extraterrestrial Life

March 11, 2020

Next Monday, 16th March 2020, at 11.00 AM, Radio 4’s Out of the Ordinary is covering the subject of what aliens are probably like. The programme, ‘Aliens Are the Size of Polar Bears (Probably), has this brief description in the Radio Times:

Jolyon Jenkins concludes his series by hearing from astronomer Fergus Simpson, who predicts that if aliens exist they will be living on small, dim planets in small populations, have big bodies and be technologically backward.

This looks like a different take on the question of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Way back in the 1990s some of the astronomers involved in the hunt for it, such as SETI’s Seth Shostak, considered that aliens, if they exist, would probably be small, the size of Labradors. It’s also been an assumption of the search for intelligent aliens that the universe is old enough for alien civilisations to have arisen many times over, colonising space. Simpson’s suggestion that the aliens, if they’re out there, are probably technologically backwards, sounds like a solution to the Fermi Paradox. This was first proposed by the Italian-American physicist, Enrico Fermi, and runs: if the universe is old enough to have produced intelligent aliens, then why haven’t we found any? There are several solutions to the problem. One is that they don’t actually exist. Others are that space travel may be difficult, or that aliens don’t feel any need to expand into space. Or that advanced, technological civilisations destroy themselves in catastrophes like nuclear wars before they move outward across the Galaxy. Another solution is that they’re there, but keeping very quiet in case there are other, malign intelligences out there intent on their extermination.

This last solution is explored by the SF writer Alistair Reynolds in his novels Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. In this trilogy, humanity has expanded into space, only to be threatened by an ancient extraterrestrial menace – the Inhibitors. This is a machine culture that exists solely to destroy spacetravelling civilisations. Their reason is that millions of years ago, the Galaxy suffered a prolonged series of devastating wars as different species moved out into the Galaxy to claim territory from their rivals. In order to prevent further such wars occurring, the Inhibitors embarked on a long-term campaign of eradicating such civilisations. They aren’t enemies of intelligent life per se. Indeed, the whole policy is in order to protect such life, provided it remains confined to its home planet or solar system. But once it moves out into interstellar space, it becomes a target for eradication. And the Inhibitors themselves are quiet, dormant and so undetectable, until they discover their next prey, and wake up.

If aliens do live on small, dim planets, then they’d be difficult to discover with present astronomical techniques. Planets are too small for telescopes to detect normally, as they’re lost in the glare of their star, although some may later be seen through extremely high-power telescopes using very advanced optical techniques. And the planets that have been the easiest to discover are large worlds orbiting close to their suns. They’ve been detected because their gravitational pull has caused their stars to wobble as they orbit around them. Small planets further out would exert less force, and so caused smaller wobbles that may be difficult to detect. And if they’re technologically backwards, we would not be able to detect signs of their industrial and other activities, like radio or television transmissions, for example. If spacefaring civilisations do exist, at least close to us, then we should have detected signs of them by now. There was a paper in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society suggesting that a light sail used within 30 light years of Earth would produce so much gamma radiation that we would be able to detect it. The fact that we haven’t may mean that such civilisations don’t exist. Simpson’s suggestion for the possible nature of extraterrestrial life is therefore one solution to the problem of the Fermi Paradox.

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.

Collection of Science Fiction Stories Tackling Racism

January 18, 2020

Allen De Graeff, ed., Human And Other Beings (New York: Collier Books 1963).

Science Fiction, it has been observed, is more often about the times in which it was written than about the future. Quite often it’s been the ‘literature of warning’, in which the author has extrapolated what they feel to be an ominous trend in the present to show its possibilities for the future if left unchecked. Thus H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine presented a nightmarish far future in which capitalist elites and the working class had diverged into two separate species. The Eloi – descendants of the elite – were small, dreamy creatures, with no industry of their own. They were the food animals instead of the Morlocks, descendants of the working class, who had been forced into lives of underground toil by the late Victorian and Edwardian class system. Other SF stories have tackled the problems of overpopulation – John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar, the catastrophic over-reliance on mechanisation for, well, just about everything – E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, or the horrifying potential of genetic engineering and mass psychological conditioning, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and so on. I borrowed this colllection of SF stories from a friend. It’s interesting because it uses the theme of contact with alien and other non-human intelligences to criticise and denounce the very real, present issue of racism. The book’s blurb begins with the quotation ‘”Everything that diminishes human dignity is evil,”‘, and continues

With this timeless truth as his theme, Editor Allen DeGraeff has collected a group of superbly told science fiction tales that support it with horror or humor. Other planets, other centuries, living beings of shapes and colors other than “human” are the imaginative ingredients. Shock, surprise, and sympathy are the emotions they act upon.

  • Would you join the Anti-Martian League? Or, like Sam Rosen, would you fight it?
  • Would the gentle Adaptoman – four arms, two brains, three eyes-arouse your hostility if he worked in your office?
  • Could you live as a Professional in a world of Categoried Classes if there were also people known as Wipers, Greasers, and Figgers?
  • Would you marry an Android, a person physically just like you, but artificially “Made in the U.S.A.”?
  • Would you mock or make a friend of Narli, the charming fur-bearing exchange professor from Mars?
  • Could you serve with a soldier Surrogate, a human being reclaimed from the dead with biological techniques of the future?

In settings ranging from the Second Battle of Saturn to Earth 2003 and shining blue-green globe Shaksembender, these authors portray the ideas of human dignity.

The authors, whose work is collected in the volume include some of SF great masters – Ray Bradbury, William Tenn, Leigh Brackett, Frederick Pohl, both alone and with his frequent collaborator, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley and Eric Frank Russell.

The stories were written at a time when the Civil Rights movement was gaining power, although still bitterly opposed by a viciously racist, conservative state apparatus and politicians. A number of other SF writers were also using the genre to denounce racism. Sometimes that was through metaphor, such as in Cordwainer Smith’s ‘The Ballad of Lost C’Mell’. This tale’s titular heroine is a young woman genetically engineered from cats. She is a member of an oppressed servile class of similarly genetically engineered animals. These creatures are denied all rights by their human masters, and humanely killed by euthanasia is they are unable to perform their functions. Through telepathic contact with another such creature, a dove of immense intelligence and wisdom, C’Mell is able to persuade a human board of inquiry to grant her people human rights. Other SF writers tackled racism directly, such as Harry Harrison in his 1963 story, ‘Mute Milton’. This was his angry reaction to a comment by a redneck southern sheriff’s response to the news that Martin Luther King was highly respected in Sweden and Scandinavia, and had been awarded the Nobel prize. The sheriff responded that King might be popular in Norway, but back in his town he would be ‘just one more n***er’. Harrison’s story is about a Black American college professor, who comes to a southern town on his way to another university to present his invention: a radio that runs on gravity. A stranger to the racial repression of the Deep South, he falls into conversation in a bar with a wanted civil rights activist while waiting for his bus out of town. The Black activist tells him what it’s really like to be Black in the South. The sheriff and his goons burst into the bar looking for the activist. He escapes out the back. The sheriff and his men shoot, but miss him and shoot the professor instead. When one of the goons tells the sheriff that they’ve killed an innocent man, he just shrugs it off as ‘another n***er’.

Racism has since gone on to be a major topic of much SF. It’s been explored, for example, in Star Trek, both recently and in the original 60’s series. It also inspired Brian Aldiss 1970s short story, ‘Working in the Spaceship Yards’, published in Punch. This was about a man with a Black friend having to come to terms with his own feelings about androids as they started working alongside them in the spaceship yards of the title, and going out with human women. It’s a satire on the racial politics of the day, when many White Brits were, as now, concerned about Black and Asian immigrants taking their jobs. And specifically anti-Black racism was tackled in an episode of Dr. Who written by award-winning Black children’s writer, Mallory Blackman. In this tale the Doctor and her friends travel back to the American Deep South to make sure Rosa Parks makes her epochal bus journey against the machinations of White racist from the future determined to stop Blacks ever gaining their freedom.

Not everyone is satisfied with the metaphorical treatment of racism pursued by some SF. I can remember arguing with a friend at college about Star Trek, and how the series explored racial tension and prejudice through Mr Spock. Despite being half-human, Spock was still an outsider, distrusted by many of his human crewmates. My friend believed instead that the series should have been more explicit and specifically explored anti-Black racism. More recently there has been the rise of Black SF writers, who use their work to address issues of race and the Black experience. An anthology of their work was published back in the 1990s as Dark Matters, a pun on the dark matter of astronomy, that is supposed to give the universe its missing mass.

Even if not explicit, the metaphorical approach allows writers to say what otherwise may not be said, as in the former Soviet Union. There, writers such as the Strugatsky brothers used the ‘Aesopian’ mode – SF as fable – to attack conditions in the Communist state, which would have been subject to censorship and severe punishment if said openly. Over in the capitalist world, the political situation was much freer, but there were still limits to what could be portrayed. Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss, between Kirk and Lt. Uhuru in the episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, but the network faced deep opposition from broadcasters in the Deep South. An indirect treatment also allows people to think about or accept ideas, which they would have rejected through a more straightforward treatment of the subject. Some readers may have been more receptive to anti-racist ideas if presented in the form of aliens than through an explicit treatment of colour prejudice against Blacks and other races.

This anthology, then, promises to be very interesting reading both through the tales themselves, and what they have to say about the times in which they were written. Times in which Science Fiction was joining the other voices denouncing racism and demanding equality and freedom for all, human and non-human. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Astronomer Vladimir Firsoff’s Argument for Space Exploration as a Positive Alternative to War

December 2, 2019

Vladimir Firsoff was a British astronomer and the author of a series of books, not just on space and spaceflight, but also on skiing and travel. He was a staunch advocate of space exploration. At the end of his 1964 book, Exploring the Planets (London: Sidgwick & Jackson) he presents a rather unusual argument for it. He criticises the scepticism of leading astronomers of his time towards space exploration. This was after the Astronomer Royal of the time had declared that the possibility of building a vehicle that could leave the Earth’s atmosphere and enter space was ‘utter bilge’. He points out that the technology involved presented few problems, but that ordinary people had been influenced by the astronomers’ scepticism, and that there are more pressing problems on Earth. Against this he argued that humanity needed danger, excitement and sacrifice, the emotional stimulation that came from war. Space exploration could provide this and so serve as a positive alternative, a beneficial channel for these deep psychological needs. Firsoff wrote

The traditional planetary astronomy has exhausted its resources. No significant advance is possible without escape beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The orbital observatories to come will reveal much that is now hidden about the other planets. Space travel is a short historical step ahead. The basic technical problems have been solved, and the consummation of this ancient dream is only a matter of a little effort, experiment and technical refinement. When Bleriot flew the Channel the Atlantic had already been spanned by air lines. And so today we have already landed on Mars – even Triton and Pluto have been reached.

But do we really like to have our dreams come true?

Possibly that happy extrovert the technologist has no misgivings. He sees the Solar System as an enlargement of his scope of action, and has even suggested preceding a descent on Mars by dropping a few bombs, “to study the surface” (this suggestion was widely reported in the press). Yet the astronomer does not relish the prospect of leaving his ivory tower to become a man of action. He is troubled by this unfamiliar part, and a small voice at the back of his mind whispers insidiously that his cherished theories and predictions may, after all, be false. The dislike of space travel is psychologically complex, but there is no mistaking its intensity among the profession.

The general public shares these enthusiasms  and apprehensions, more often than not without any clear reasons why. The Press (with a very capital P) feeds them with predigested mental pulp about what those ‘wonderful people’ the scientists have said or done (and not all scientists are 12 feet tall). At the same time the scientist is a ‘clever man’, and the ‘clever man’ is traditionally either a crank or a scoundrel, and why not both? Whatever we do not understand we must hate.

Of such promptings the fabric of public opinion is woven into varied patterns.

“Space flight is too expensive. We can’t afford it”… “What is the point of putting a man on the Moon? It is only a lifeless desert.”… “We must feed the backward nations, finance cancer research” (= in practice “buy a new TV set and a new care”)…

Wars are even more expensive and hugely destructive, and cars kill more people than cancer and famine put together.

And yet before 1939 Britain ruled half the world, her coffers were stuffed with gold, she also had 5 million on the dole, slums, an inadequate system of education, poverty and dejection. Came a long and terrible war, a fearful squandering of resources, the Empire was lost, and in the end of it it all the people “had never had it so good”, which for all the facility of such catch-phrases is basically true. Not in Britain alone either-look at West Germany, look at the U.S.S.R.! One half of the country devastated, cities razed to the ground, 30 million dead. BHut in Russia, too, the “people had never had it so good”.

In terms of ‘sound economics’ this does not make any sense. 

The reason is simply: ‘sound economics’ is a fraud, because Man is not an economic animal, or is so only to an extent. He needs danger, struggle, sacrifice, fear, loss, even death, to release his dormant energies, to find true companionship, and-oddly-to attain the transient condition of happiness … among or after the storm.

That German soldier who had scribbled on the wall of his hut: “Nie wieder Krieg heisst nie wieder Sieg, heisst nie wieder frei, heisst Sklaverie” (No more war means no more victory, means never free, means slavery) was a simple soul and he may have survived long enough to regret his enthusiasms among the horrors that followed. Yet the idea, distorted as it was, contained a germ of truth. For heroic endeavour, which the past enshrined as martial valour, is as much a necessity as food and drink. We must have something great to live for.

Hitler’s ‘endeavour’ was diabolical in conception and in final count idiotic, but it cannot be denied that it released prodigious energies both in Germany and among her opponents, and we are still living on the proceeds of this psychological capital.

What we need is a noble uplifting endeavour, and even if we cannot all take direct part in it, we can yet share in it through the newspapers, radio and television, as we did, say, in the epic rescue operation during the Langede mining disaster. It became a presence, everybody’s business-and I doubt if it paid in terms of £ s.d…

You will have guessed what I am going to say.

Mankind needs space flight. Let us have space ships instead of bombers, orbital stations instead of ‘nuclear devices’. The glory of this great venture could do away with war, juvenile delinquency and bank raids. It could be cheap at the price.

It is a fallacy to imagine that money spend on developing spaceflight is lost to the nation; it is only redistributed within it, and it is much better to redistribute it in the form of real wages than in unemployment relief. Besides, real wealth is not in a ledger; it is the work and the willingness to do it.

Yet if we go into space, let us do so humbly, in the spirit of cosmic piety. We know very little. We are face to face with the great unknown and gave no right to assume that we are alone in the Solar System.

No bombs on Mars, please.

For all that they are well meant and were probably true at the time, his arguments are now very dated. I think now that the majority of astronomers are probably enthusiasts for space flight and space exploration, although not all of them by any means are advocates for crewed space exploration. The Hubble Space Telescope and its successors have opened up vast and exciting new vistas and new discoveries on the universe. But astronomers are still using and building conventional observatories on Earth. Despite the vast sums given to the space programme during the ‘Space Race’, it did not solve the problems of crime or juvenile delinquency. And it was resented because of the exclusion of women and people of colour. Martin Luther King led a march of his Poor Peoples’ Party to the NASA launch site to protest against the way money was being wasted, as he saw it, on sending White men to the Moon instead of lifting the poor – mainly Black, but certainly including Whites – out of poverty. And as well as being enthused and inspired by the Moon landings, people also grew bored. Hence the early cancellation of the programme.

And people also have a right to better healthcare, an end to famine and a cure for cancer. Just as it’s also not wrong for them to want better TVs and cars.

But this isn’t an either/or situation. Some of the technology used in the development of space travel and research has also led to breakthroughs in other areas of science and medicine. Satellites, for example, are now used so much in weather forecasting that they’re simply accepted as part of the meteorologists’ tools.

But I agree with Firsoff in that space is an arena for positive adventure, struggle and heroism, and that it should be humanity’s proper outlet for these urges, rather than war and aggression. I think the problem is that space travel has yet to take off really, and involve the larger numbers of people in the exploration and colonisation space needed to make it have an obvious, conspicuous impact on everyone’s lives. There is massive public interest in space and space exploration, as shown by Prof. Brian Cox’s TV series and touring show, but I think that to have the impact Virsoff wanted people would have to feel that space was being opened up to ordinary people, or at least a wider section of the population than the elite scientists and engineers that now enjoy the privilege of ascending into Low Earth Orbit. And that means bases on the Moon, Mars and elsewhere, and the industrialisation of space.

But I think with the interest shown in the commercial exploitation of space by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, that might be coming. And I certainly hope, with Firsoff, that this does provide a proper avenue for the human need for danger and adventure, rather than more war and violence.

New ‘Space Hopper’ Device Allows Astronauts to Spend Less Time Exercising in Space

November 21, 2019

This is another story from yesterday’s I, this time about a new development in space research. At the moment astronauts have to spend over an hour a day exercising in order to combat the harmful effects of zero gravity. Without the pull of the Earth’s gravity, their muscles waste, including the heart. They also have to take care to try to prevent the loss of calcium from their bodies, which weakens their bones. But now inventor John Kennett has invented an exercise machine that allows them to do many of the exercises at once, thus cutting down drastically the amount of time they need trying to maintain a level of fitness. The article by Tom Bawden, ‘Astronauts jump at chance to use ‘space hopper’ to get fitter quicker’ runs

Keeping healthy in space is so vital that astronauts typically spend up to 90 minutes a day doing vigorous exercises.

But that could be about to change thanks to a new “jumping machine” that will gie them the same physical benefit in three or four minutes, according to its inventor.

Without effective exercise, astronauts’ fitness would quickly decline and their muscles and bones would lose strength.

At the moment, they spend much of their space-day running, cycling and doing strength training – on equipment that takes up a lot of valuable room and can take up to an hour to set up and dismantle.

According to the inventor John Kennett, his machine replaces the existing regime with a smaller, all-in-one device that boosts muscle and bone strength and provides cardiovascular exercise at the same time. it is 1.3 metres long and 20 centimetres thick when folded to be stowed.

The bed has a board that presses up against the bottom of the astronaut’s feet. This exerts a force that replicates the motion of jumping and is a highly effective form of exercise that can be varied to work different parts of the body.

“This piece of equipment has the potential to change the way astronauts travel through the solar system,” Mr Kennett said.

“The equipment they use at the moment is based on being in the gym – things like dead lifting or bench pressing. This is good but, when you jump, you do something incredible effective to the muscle and the tendons because you’re absorbing the landing force and then pushing away,” he added.

The device, known as the High Frequency Impulse for Microgravity, has been specially designed to eliminate vibrations and forces that would normally apply to exercise equipment but have the potential to damage spacecraft.

There’s also an additional snippet reporting that the UK space agency has given St Mary’s University in Twickenham a grant to conduct further research on Kennett’s invention after initial tests proved promising.

This is really interesting, and could be a great step forward. But I’ve heard rumours of breakthroughs in tackling the effects of Zero G on the human body before. About twenty or so years ago I went to see the British expert on space medicine, Dr. Kevin Fong, talk about the some of the problems space causes on astronauts’ physical and mental health. He believed that these problems were near to being solved through a device, a vibrating plate, that astronauts would stand on. I haven’t heard anything about this since, so I presume it didn’t work. But the inclusion of a fixed plate for the bottom of the astronaut’s feet in this decision also suggests that the previous invention made have played a role in the development of this device. And if this does prove effective in combating zero G, it will be a great help in allowing humans to cope better with the long interplanetary voyages necessary to open up and hopefully colonise the solar system.

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.

Canadian Space Medic Celebrates International Cooperation in Space

October 27, 2019

As I discussed in an article last week, the I carried several stories about the Asgardia conference in its edition for Wednesday, 16th October 2019. Asgardia is an international organisation dedicated to the colonisation of space, and its establishment as a new, independent nation on the High Frontier. It’s somewhat like the artificial nation created by Laibach and their parent artistic collective, NSK earlier this century. Fans of the group were encouraged to join, receiving a special passport identifying them as citizens of the new state when they did.

The organisation was founded by Igor Raufovich Ashurbekli, the former director of one of the Russian state armament companies. However, Asgardia seems to aim at the peaceful, civilian conquest of space. At the conference Ashurbekli denounced Trump’s intention of establishing a military Space Command, pointing out that this violated the 1967 international treaty against the militarisation of space.

One of the other speakers at the conference was a Canadian medical doctor and astronaut, Dr. Robert Thirsk, who had conducted research in space and hailed space research’s role in bringing people of different, competing nations together in peace. This was reported in an article by Michael Day, ‘Space has to be for everyone’, in the same edition of the newspaper. This ran

As an astronaut who s pent six months on the International Space Station, Canadian medic Dr Robert Thirsk, achieved major medical breakthroughs in zero gravity and survived the thrill of take-off and re-entry. But his greatest satisfaction was working in harmony with colleagues from states that were once Cold War foes.

“I still think that the ISS is a research platform with no earthly peer,” he told Asgardia’s Paving the Road to Living in Space Conference.

“It’s brought together former Cold War enemies to pursue a common vision of extending human capability in space and of inspiring the public to take on some of these tough social problems that we still face today.”

The Asgardia micro-nation, which aims to swell to 150 million citizens within 10 years, is committed to including all nations in the development of space. It’s leaders note that only 20 nations now have space capability.

“At the moment you either have to be a billionaire, friendly with a major space agency or you join Asgardia,” said the space nation’s parliamentary speaker, the former Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik. “Space has to be for everyone.”

As a medical researcher, owrking with American, Russian, Japanese and German colleagues on the ISS, Dr Thirsk achieved breakthroughs in protein chemistry that could lead to new treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and robotic advances that have helped hundreds of cancer patients.

Britain’s first female astronaut, Dr Helen Sharman, made the same comment back in the 1990s after her historic mission with the Russians to their space station, Mir. The Russian station’s name translates as ‘world’ or ‘peace’ in English. Her mission was intended to be a landmark breakthrough in international space cooperation following Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign and the attempts to end the Cold War.  In an interview following her mission, Dr Sharman drew attention to the positive benefits of space research in fostering peaceful cooperation between countries. Because of this, astronauts were the least racist people.

It’s interesting to see that Lembit Opik is now Asgardia’s parliamentary speaker. It’s fitting. Opik was not only a Lib Dem MP before losing his seat a few years ago, he’s also the grandson of an Estonian astronomer and himself has an intense interest in space. He was one of the many space experts concerned about the threat of world destruction from asteroid strikes. I met him well over a decade ago at an event on ‘Asteroid Armageddon’ at the Cheltenham Festival of science. He was part of a panel of astronomers and representatives of space corporations, who made it very plain that the threat to our world from rogue asteroids is very real. However, Opik’s justified concern was a source of amusement to the press, who naturally dubbed him ‘the minister for asteroids’. He’s clearly moved into space activism after he lost his seat. I don’t know if he’s still a member, but he’s probably better off with Asgardia than with the Lib Dems, who are now transforming themselves into the Europhile wing of the Tory party.

I also found a plea for the peaceful exploration of space as an alternative to war in a book I read on space technology years ago. This stated that space research provided an outlet for the desire for danger, competition and sacrifice without the mass carnage of conflict. This is true, and regardless of what you make of Asgardia, it has helped bring nations together, and its should be open to everyone, of all nations, in the world.

We don’t need Trump’s – or anyone else’s – dangerous and idiotic space command. We need more peaceful cooperation and the opening up of space and its immense resources and opportunities for all humanity.