Posts Tagged ‘Space Travel’

Britain Aims for Communications Contract for Moon Space Station

July 14, 2019

Yesterday’s I, for Saturday 13th July 2019, also carried from encouraging space news in an article page 13, ‘UK seeks to play key mission role’ by Jamie Harris. This reported that Britain is trying to get the communications contract for a space station around the Moon. The article ran

Britain hopes to provide essential communication between the Moon and scientists back on Earth as multinational plans to build a new space station get under way.

The UK Space Agency is bidding for a slice of key activity on the proposed Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway, which is intended to serve as laboratory and short-term accommodation post for astronauts.

In November, the next round of funding decisions will be determined by the European Space Agency, of which Britain is a member.

Guildford-based SSTL is bidding to be technology provider for communications, allowing astronauts and rovers on the Moon to send data.

Sue Horne, the head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency, said: “We’d like to do the communications system and the refuelling element. On the refuelling, it is probably fifty-fifty. We have a much better chance of getting the communications.”

News that the space authorities are considering building a lunar space station were revealed last week by the head of Human Resources for the British Space Agency in Swindon on The One Show. The show was doing an item on women in space, presented by Carol Vorderman. It was part of the season of features celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landings. The programme discussed women’s contribution to the American space programme. It was a female engineer, who devised the rocket fuel that allowed the Americans to launch their first space probe, Explorer 1, successfully. It was a female nutritionist, who came up with the idea that astronauts should eat good, nutrious, tasty and varied meals. That’s obviously important, because for people working in isolated, dangerous environments, like the poles, meal times can become the highlight of the day and they’re important in keeping up morale. The programme also mentioned that the number of female employees at NASA has grown from a handful when it began, to 40 per cent now.

The HR head added that the British space programme was set to expand, and stated that there were plans to build a lunar space station. Which is why the British equivalent of NASA, based in Swindon, was expanding. And they were looking for all kinds of people, not just scientists and engineers.

So, with luck, there could be some fascinating and inspiring careers in space research for some people! 

The item did not, however, mention some other instances where women, including those from ethnic minorities, were involved in the American space programme. Like the ladies, who trained as Mercury astronauts before the Agency decided that they weren’t going to send women into space, or the group of Black female mathematicians, who did the calculations for the Moon landings. These ladies must have been absolutely brilliant, because the maths behind space travel can be terrifyingly hard. Let’s face it: it is rocket science! But I guess these pieces were left out as there have already been a number of books and features about them already. There has even been a female about the Black lady mathematicians.

I’m extremely encouraged by the news that humanity is planning to return to the Moon, fifty years after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and co. set foot, and I really hope that this time Britain will be there also in some capacity.

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Astronauts Could Live in Moon Caves

May 22, 2019

Bit of science news now. Monday’s I, for 20th May 2019, carried an article by Francis Blagburn, with the same title as this article, on page 22, reporting that an American lunar scientist, Daniel Moriarty III, has suggested that astronauts to the Moon could live in its caves. The article ran

Astronauts could make use of the Moon’s nature cave structures to live inside small, natural shelters, according to Nasa.

The novel approach could see astronauts making camp in tunnel-like chambers on the surface of the Moon left by molten activity.

Dr Daniel Moriarty III, a post-doctoral lunar scientist, was speaking as part of an “ask me anything” session on social networking website Reddit when he discussed the concept.

“I think it makes sense to work within some of the structures and resources that are already there,” he wrote.

“It could be interesting to set up shop within a pre-existing lava tube, which could provide shielding from temperature variations and incoming solar radiation.”

Nasa’s next bout of lunar exploration is the Artemis mission, due to be launched in 2024. President Donald Trump has backed the plans and embraced space travel as a theme. “I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6bn so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!,” he tweeted last week.

It’s a good idea, but not as new as the paper believes. Scientists have argued for some time that future explorers of the Moon and Mars would have to build their bases underground in order to shelter from the ambient cosmic radiation. It’s why the lunar base in Kubrick’s class 2001 is underground, and the Martian city in Paul Verhoeven’s ’80s’ version of Total Recall is built into the sides of a canyon. As are many of the Martian cities in Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic trilogy charting the colonisation of the Red Planet, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars. And the British space scientist, Duncan Lunan, suggested that future colonists of the Moon would live in the caves there in his book, Man and the Planets, published in the early 1980s. He drew on science fiction for some of the ideas discussed in the book, and the SF work he used for that suggestion had the colonists walking about in conditions of near nudity in lunar caverns. Well, I suppose the engineers would keep it at a constant, regulated temperature, so you wouldn’t have to worry about getting cold, except perhaps in an emergency when these systems failed. But that idea now seems very dated now in contemporary, post-AIDS culture. The idea clearly reflects the changing attitude towards nudity and sexual morality of the late ’60s and ’70s rather than a realistic prediction of future lunar fashions.

I am very solidly behind these proposals for humanity’s return to the Moon, whether done by NASA with the Artemis project or their private competitors, Jeff Bezos and co. Hopefully it won’t be too long at all before we see people living in lunar and Martian caverns for real. Though more suitably dressed for television reports back to Earth.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Plans to Take Us Back to the Moon

May 12, 2019

One of the other interesting pieces in yesterday’s I for 11th May 2019 was David Parsley’s article, ‘Amazon tycoons furthest delivery – putting people back on the Moon’. As the headline says, this is about the plans by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for a crewed mission to the Moon within the next five years. The article runs

The man who made billions from sending parcels around Earth is taking one giant leap towards the Moon.

The world’s richest man and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos aims to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024, 55 years after Neil Armstrong took his first small step.

Mr Bezos said his space company Blue Origin will initially land an unmanned robotic ship about the size of a small house, but would also help Nasa to meet its target to put humans back on the surface of Earth’s satellite in five years’ time.

“We can help meet that timeline but only because we started three years ago,” said Mr Bezos. “It’s time to back to the Moon, this time to stay.”

Known as Blue Moon, the reusable lunar lander is capable of carrying four rovers and uses a newly designed rocket engine powerful enough to carry up to 6.5 metric tons of cargo on the 238,000-mile journey.

Mr Bezos, who is worth £100bn, unveiled a model of one of Blue Moon’s proposed rovers, which was roughly the size of a golf cart, and presented a new rocket engine called BD-7 which can blast 10,000 lb of thrust.

“We have been given a gift – this nearby body called the Moon,” Mr Bezos added.

In March, US Vice President Mike Pence called on Nasa to build a space platform in lunar orbit and put American astronauts on the Moon’s south pole by 2024 “by any means necessary”, four years earlier than planned.

Blue Origin said the group would “share our vision of going to space to benefit Earth”. Based in Kent, Washington, the group is also developing the New Shepherd rocket for short space tourism trips and a heavy-lift launch rocket called New Glenn for commercial satellite launches. It is aiming to deliver the New Glenn rocket by 2021, while launching humans in a suborbital flight later this year aboard New Shepherd.

Elon Musk also develops plans to take humans to Mars with his company SpaceX. He previously set the first cargo-carrying Mars mission for 2022 and a crewed mission for 2024.

Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson achieved Virgin Galactic’s first manned flight last year and plans to launch the first space tourism flights later this year. (p. 13).

This is very exciting, and I’m really looking forward to Bezos to take humanity back to the Moon, and Musk to send us to Mars. But I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for Branson to take tourists into space, as he’s been promising that ‘soon’ or ‘next year’ for decades.

However, I’d like Bezos to pay his Amazon workers a living wage first. From what I gather, the peeps working at his warehouses really are paid starvation wages. Which, I ‘spose, is how he get to be worth £100 billion. But he can afford to earn a little less, and workers a lot more. Sending people into space does not mean ignoring or exploiting the folks back on Earth. If he gives his workers a proper wage, then I’ll be behind him and his plans to take humanity to the planets 100 per cent.

The Flightless Bird So Good It Evolved Twice

May 12, 2019

Another fascinating piece of news in yesterday’s, for 11th May 2019, was about the discovery by evolutionary scientists that a type of flightless bird had evolved twice on the same Indian Ocean atoll. It reappeared the second time thousands of years after it had first come extinct, in a process biologists call ‘iterative evolution’. The article, ‘Evolution strikes twice for flightless bird on isolated atoll’, by Ben Mitchell, reads

A flightless bird that became extinct when its home island became flooded by the sea “came back to life” when a similar species evolved in the same location, scientists have discovered.

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the Natural History Museum found that a species of rail colonised an isolated atoll called Aldabra in the Indian Ocean on two occasions separated by tens of thousands of years. On both occasions, the white-throated rail evolved independently to become flightless. The last surviving colony of the flightless rails is still found on the island.

A University of Portsmouth spokesman said: “This is the first time that iterative evolution – the repeated evolution of similar or parallel structures from the same ancestor but at different times – has been seen in rails. 

The co-author of the study in the Zoological Journal of Lennean Society, Professor David Martill of the University of Portsmouth, said: “We know of no other example that demonstrates this phenomenon so evidently.”

How fascinating! It sounds similar to the phenomenon of parallel evolution, in which unrelatedly creatures develop similar features through occupying similar ecological niches. One example is the way penguins have evolved features similar to other marine creatures like whales and fish, with their wings becoming flippers. Another example is the thylacine, the marsupial wolf, otherwise known as the Tasmanian tiger. This creature is, unfortunately, now extinct, as it was hunted down as a pest by the Australian farmers. Although it was a marsupial, and had evolved independently in Australia over millions of years, it was remarkably like a European wolf. There was speculation at one time that the different human races were also the result of parallel evolution around the world, each evolving separately from common hominid ancestors. This has since been rejected, not least because it’s considered to be more than a little racist, somehow suggesting that the different varieties of modern humanity are biologically different species.

The palaeontologist Simon Conway-Morris has been so impressed by parallel evolution, that he considers that humans would have evolved anyway, even if the dinosaurs had not been wiped out by the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretacious Period 64 million years ago. He also believes that this means that other, extraterrestrial alien races, would also be humanoid. The final chapter of one of his books describes an alien spacecraft landing in southern England. When the aliens leave their ship to make contact with us, they are a humans. So much so that when asked if they want food, not only do they say yes, but they also ask for water for their dog.

Conway-Morris’ views are extreme, and not shared by other biologists. And some researchers into extraterrestrial life, like Seth Shostak, believe that aliens would be radically different from us.

Even so, this piece of science news is fascinating, and makes you wonder about the other possibilities of similar species evolving parallel or iteratively.

 

Africans Build Passenger Carrying Drone

December 15, 2018

This is great stuff! It’s from Stiv M’s channel on YouTube, and shows a group of Kenyan engineers testing what they hope will be the first passenger-carrying drone in Africa. It’s a large vehicle powered by four small propellers, rather like fans, mounted at each corner. To test its ability to carry weights, the crew load it with bags of sugar.

To my mind, this shows the immense creativity that’s locked away in the African people. At the moment, the continent’s poverty and lack of technological development is stifling the immense potential that’s clearly there. If the continent was as developed as the industrial north, who knows what they could achieve?

The British newsreader, George Alagiah, grew up in Ghana. He says in his autobiography that at the time he was there, it was confidently expected that the first non-western nation in space would be Ghana, not India. Sadly, it hasn’t happened. But the spirit and inventiveness is clearly there.

Two of the Candidates for the Fifty Pound Note: Alan Turing and Thatcher

November 27, 2018

Mike today put up a piece about the two candidates the government is considering sticking on the back of the fifty pound note. They are Alan Turing, the wartime mathematical genius, who broke the enigma code and helped shorten the war. One of the machines Turing designed, or helped design to break the code was programmable, and Turing is respected as one of the founders of modern computing.

He was, however, gay at a time when it was very much against the law. He was convicted of gross indecency, and chemically castrated, which led to him taking his own life.

Thatcher, on the other hand, is the woman whose policies have inflicted nothing but misery on this planet for nearly forty years. She started the Tories’ and New Labour’s privatization programme, including that of the NHS, the destruction of the welfare state and deliberately made signing on for unemployment benefit as humiliating as possible, in order to deter the poor from doing so. She was also determined to break the unions, manufacturing a strike by the NUM through the gutting of British coalmining, purely to break the union that had brought down Heath’s government years before. And she used the police has her army to attack and beat the miners, aided by a complicit media, including the Beeb. These ran the footage of the strike at Orgreave colliery backwards to make it appear that the miners were attacking the police, while it was the other way round.

Exactly as the great peeps on Twitter, whose comments Mike quotes in his piece about it.

Ah, but Thatcher was a chemist! She worked for Walls, inventing the process that injects air into ice cream to make it appear that there’s more of it than there is.

Well, if the government wants to put scientists, and especially women scientists, on the fifty pound note, I’ve got a few suggestions of my own. Female scientists they could choose include:

Dorothy Hodgkin. She’s the woman who should have got the prize for discovering the structure of DNA, as Crick and Watson were looking completely in the wrong direction until they walked past the door of her lab, and heard her talking about her work. She lost the Nobel to them, but did get another prize for another great discovery she made. If she hasn’t been already, it’s the right time to have her commemorated on our folding stuff.

Jocelyn Bell Purnell. She was the astronomer, who discovered pulsars. These are tiny, dense stars at the end of their lives, which send out a radio signal. They spin very quickly, so that the signal sweeps across the sky, so that they appear as a regular beat. At first it was believed that they might be signals from an extraterrestrial civilization. Some astronomers also believe that, while they’re natural, space-traveling aliens could use them as lighthouses to navigate their way across the Galaxy.

Helen Sharman. She’s another chemist, though at Mars, rather than Walls. But she is know for being the first Brit into space when she joined the British-Russian space mission to Mir in the 1980s. Since then, she’s been something of a science educator, appearing at events to encourage children to take up science.

Caroline Herschel. She’s the brother of John Herschel, and daughter of William. She and her brother were astronomers in 18th century Bath, making telescopes and discovering new stars.

I’m sure there are many others. These are all astronomy and space related, because that’s the area I’m interested in and know most about. All of these ladies have a better claim to be on the Fifty pound note than Thatcher.

But if you want another bloke, how about Dr. Jacob Bronowski. He was another mathematician working during the War. He was also the presenter of the 1970s Beeb science blockbuster, The Ascent of Man. He was also a Fabian socialist with a hatred of war. In The Ascent of Man he makes his view of armed conflict very clear by saying: ‘War is theft by other means’. It’s parody of Clausewitz’s famous phrase ‘War is politics by other means’. Bronowski’s description of war is very true, especially now when we’ve seen that the humanitarian interventions in the Middle East have all been about conquering them in order to despoil their oil reserves, loot their state industries and stop any kind of Arab and Islamic support for Israel. And Iran appears to be next on the hit list.

However, I do like the suggestion of Raab C. Brexit that it should be the sage of Govan, Rab C. Nesbitt on the notes. Having his mug staring out at them might just put a few of the really filthy rich off when they get it out to pay for their bottle of Krug.

Remember, it was Nesbitt who predicted that there’d be a war between the Toffs and the Scum. The Toffs would win initially, because they’ve got the army. But the Scum would be the victors, because they have all the Rottweilers.

See also Mike’s article at: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2018/11/27/whose-face-do-you-want-on-the-back-of-the-50-note-alan-turing-or-margaret-thatcher/

Astronomers Discover ‘Super-Earth’ around Barnard’s Star

November 15, 2018

Interesting little snippet in the I today. According to the paper, scientists have discovered a ‘super-Earth’ orbiting Barnard’s Star. The planet’s frozen, but they speculate there may nevertheless be water under its ice cap. The article runs

A frozen “super-Earth” has been discovered orbiting Barnard’s Star, the closest single star to the Sun. Despite temperatures of -150 degrees C, scientists believe there could be pockets of liquid water beneath the i8ce capable of harbouring life. Barnard’s Star is six light years from Earth and three times bigger. (p. 2).

Barnard’s Star is a red dwarf, a small, cool star smaller than the Sun. As a result, the ‘goldilocks’ zone around it, in which the temperatures are right for organic life as we know it, is also smaller and closer to the star. Way back in the 1960s one astronomer also believed he had detected two planets, about the size of Jupiter or bigger, orbiting it, but his findings were not confirmed by other astronomers.

Nevertheless, Barnard’s Star was selected as the destination for an interstellar mission by the BIS in the 1970s. Their Project Daedalus was the design for a two-stage, robotic starship using Helium-3 as fuel, mined from the atmosphere of Jupiter. They considered that the ship would be built in the 15th century, and would be able to make the trip in 50 years. This would mean that scientists, who started work on the programme in their twenties would still be alive when the ship finally reached its destination.

In the realm of Science Fiction, the Russian SF author Valentina Zhuravlyova chose it as the setting for her story, ‘The Astronaut’. This is the tale of Captain Alexei Zarubin, the captain of a doomed mission to a planet orbiting the star. In order to combat the terrible boredom experienced by space crews during long, largely automated voyages, each crewmember is required to have a hobby. Zarubin’s is painting. There’s an accident, so that the ship is unable to return to Earth unless one of them stays behind. Zarubin volunteers. Years later, another mission arrives at the Star in order to investigate what happened to him. They don’t find him, but he has left behind his paintings, showing the red-lit frozen wastes of the planet on which he was marooned. The story was included in the anthology Science Fiction Stories (London: Octopus Books 1979), Tom Boardman Jr., ed., pp. 267-84.

Of course, to fans of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Barnard’s Star is where the Galactic Hyperspace Development Council but the plans for the construction of a new hyperspace bypass going through the solar system, which would require the demolition of Earth. Just like the terrestrial council put the plans for the demolition of Arthur Dent’s house in a locked filing cabinet in a disused basement marked ‘Beware of the Leopard’.

While future centuries may see the construction of real spaceships heading to Barnard’s Star and its world, fortunately there seems very little likelihood of the Vogon Constructor Fleets appearing in our skies to demolish our world.

An Argument for Industrial Democracy from the Mars of SF

November 5, 2018

I’m currently reading Blue Mars, the last of a trilogy of books about the future colonization of the Red Planet by Kim Stanley Robinson. Written in the 1990s, this book and the other two in the series, Red Mars and Green Mars, chronicle the history of humans on Mars from the landing of the First 100 c. 2020, through full-scale colonization and the development of Martian society to the new Martians’ struggle for independence from Earth. In this future, Earth is run by the metanats, a contraction of ‘metanational’. These are the ultimate development of multinational corporations, firms so powerful that they dominate and control whole nations, and are the real power behind the United Nations, which in theory rules Mars.

As the Martians fight off Terran rule, they also fight among themselves. The two main factions are the Reds and the Greens. The Reds are those, who wish to preserve Mars in as close to its pristine, un-terraformed condition as possible. The Greens are those on the other side, who wish to terraform and bring life to the planet. The Martians are also faced with the question about what type of society and economy they wish to create themselves. This question is a part of the other books in the series. One of the characters, Arkady Bogdanov, a Russian radical, is named after a real Russian revolutionary. As it develops, the economy of the free Martians is partly based on gift exchange, rather like the economies of some indigenous societies on Earth. And at a meeting held in the underground chamber of one of the Martian societies – there are a variety of different cultures and societies, reflecting the culture of various ethnic immigrant to Mars and the political orientation of different factions – the free Martians in the second book draw up their tentative plans for the new society they want to create. This includes the socialization of industry.

Near the beginning of Blue Mars, the Martians have chased the Terran forces off the planet, but they remain in control of the asteroid Clarke, the terminus for the space elevator allowing easier space transport between Earth and Mars. The Martians themselves are dangerously divided, and so to begin the unification of their forces against possible invasion, they hold a constitutional congress. In one of the numerous discussions and meetings, the issue of the socialization of industry is revisited. One member, Antar, is firmly against government interference in the economy. He is opposed by Vlad Taneev, a biologist and economist, who argues not just for socialization but for worker’s control.

‘Do you believe in democracy and self-rule as the fundamental values that government ought to encourage?’
‘Yes!’ Antar repeated, looking more and more annoyed.
‘Very well. If democracy and self-rule are the fundamentals, then why should people give up these rights when they enter their work place? In politics we fight like tigers for freedom of movement, choice of residence, choice of what work to pursue – control of our lives, in short. And then we wake up in the morning and go to work, and all those rights disappear. We no longer insist on them. And so for most of the day we return to feudalism. That is what capitalism is – a version of feudalism in which capital replaces land, and business leaders replace kings. But the hierarchy remains. And so we still hand over our lives’ labour, under duress, to fee rulers who do no real work.’
‘Business leaders work,’ Antar said sharply. ‘And they take the financial risks-‘
‘The so-called risk of the capitalist is merely one of the
privileges of capital.’
‘Management -‘
‘Yes, yes. Don’t interrupt me. Management is a real thing, a technical matter. But it can be controlled by labour just as well by capital. Capital itself is simply the useful residue of the work of past labourers, and it could belong to everyone as well as to a few. There is no reason why a tiny nobility should own the capital, and everyone else therefore be in service to them. There is no reason they should give us a living wage and take all the rest that we produce. No! The system called capitalist democracy was not really democratic at all. That’s why it was able to turn so quickly into the metanational system, in which democracy grew ever weaker and capitalism every stronger. In which one per cent of the population owned half of the wealth, and five per cent of the population owned ninety-five per cent of the wealth. History has shown which values were real in that system. And the sad thing is that the injustice and suffering caused by it were not at all necessary, in that the technical means have existed since the eighteenth century to provide the basics of life to all.
‘So. We must change. It is time. If self-rule is a fundamental value. If simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere, including in the work place where we spend so much of our lives. That was what was said in point four of the Dorsa Brevia agreement. It says everyone’s work is their own, and the worth of it cannot be taken away. It says that the various modes of production belong to those who created them, and to the common good of the future generations. It says that the world is something we steward together. That is what it says. And in our years on Mars, we have developed an economic system that can keep all those promises. That has been our work these last fifty years. In the system we have developed, all economic enterprises are to be small co-operatives, owned by their workers and by no one else. They hire their management, or manage themselves. Industry guilds and co-op associations will form the larger structures necessary to regulate trade and the market, share capital, and create credit.’
Antar said scornfully, ‘These are nothing but ideas. It is utopianism and nothing more.’
‘Not at all.’ Again Vlad waved him away. ‘The system is based on models from Terran history, and its various parts have all been tested on both worlds, and have succeeded very well. You don’t know about this partly because you are ignorant, and partly because metanationalism itself steadfastly ignored and denied all alternatives to it. But most of our micro-economy has been in successful operation for centuries in the Mondragon region of Spain. the different parts of the macro-economy have been used in the pseudo-metanat Praxis, in Switzerland, in India’s state of Kerala, in Bhutan, in Bologna, Italy, and in many other places, including the Martian underground itself. These organization were the precursors to our economy, which will be democratic in a way capitalism never even tried to be.
(pp. 146-8).

It’s refreshing to see a Science Fiction character advocate a left-wing economics. Many SF writers, like Robert A. Heinlein, were right-wing. Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, about a rebellion on the Moon, contains several discussion in which Heinlein talks about TANSTAAFL – his acronym for There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lunch.

Praxis is the fictional metanational corporation, which supplies aid to the colonists against the rest of the terrestrial super-corporations. I don’t know about the references to Switzerland, Kerala, Bhutan or Bologna, but the Mondragon co-operatives in Spain certainly exist, and are a significant part of the country’s economy. They were set up by a Spanish priest during Franco’s dictatorship, but managed to escape being closed down as he didn’t recognize such enterprises as socialist.

I don’t know how practical it would be to make all businesses co-operatives, as there are problems of scale. Roughly, the bigger an enterprise is, the more difficult proper industrial democracy becomes. But co-operatives can take over and transform ailing firms, as was shown in Argentina during the last depression there a few years ago, when many factories that were about to be closed were handed over to their workers instead. They managed to turn many of them around so that they started making a profit once again. Since then, most of them have been handed back to their management, however.

But the arguments the Vlad character makes about democracy being a fundamental value that needs to be incorporated into industry is one of that the advocates of industrial democracy and workers’ control, like the Guild Socialists, made. And we do need to give workers far more power in the work place. Jeremy Corbyn has promised this with his pledge to restore workers’ and union rights, and make a third of the directors on corporate boards over a certain size elected by the workers.

If Corbyn’s plans for industrial democracy in Britain become a reality, perhaps Britain really will have a proper economic system for the 21st century, rather than the Tories and Libertarians trying to drag us back to the unfettered capitalism of the 19th.

The Sky At Night Looks at Britain in Space

October 19, 2018

I just managed to catch the weekday repeat a day or so ago of this month’s Sky at Night, in which presenters Maggie Aderin-Pocock and British astronaut Tim Peake looked at the history of Britain in space, and forward to the country’s future in the deep black. The programme’s changed a bit over the past few years in the case of its presenters. It was famously presented by Sir Patrick Moore from its beginning in the 1950s until he passed away a few years ago. This made the programme the longest-running show presented by the same person. Aderin-Pocock joined it before Moore’s departure. She’s a black woman scientist, with a background in programming missile trajectories. She’s obviously very intelligent, enthusiastic and very definitely deserves her place on the show. But I wish she’d done a job that didn’t involve the military use of rocket technology, however much this is needed as part of national defence.

Aderin-Pocock was speaking to one of the management officials from Orbex, a new, British company, which has developed a rocket launcher and intends to open a spaceport in one of the more deserted areas of Scotland. The rocket will stand about 17 meters tall, using propane and High Test Peroxide as fuel. High Test Peroxide is a highly concentrated version of the hydrogen peroxide used by hairdressers to bleach peoples’ hair. The use of propane is particularly important, as it’s lighter than conventional rocket fuels, meaning that the rocket doesn’t have to carry as much fuel to lift off into space. Advances in satellite design have also allowed the rocket to be smaller than other spacecraft used elsewhere. British universities have succeeded in developing microsatellites – satellites that are much, much smaller than some of the satellites put into orbit, but which can perform the same functions. As these satellites are smaller and lighter, they only need a relatively smaller, lighter rocket to launch them.

The Scottish launch complex also wasn’t going to be as big as other, larger, major launch complexes, such as those of NASA, for example. I think it would still contain a launch tower and control buildings. As well as the official from Orbex, the show also talked to a woman representing the rural community in the part of Scotland, where they were planning to build it. She admitted that there would be problems with building it in this part of the Scots countryside. However, the community was only going to lease the land, not sell it to Orbex, and care would be taken to protect the farms of the local crofters and the environment and wildlife. Like much of rural Britain, this was an area of few jobs, and the population was aging as the young people moved away in search of work. She looked forward to Orbex and its spaceport bringing work to the area, and creating apprenticeships for the local young people.

The programme went on to explain that this would be the first time for decades that a British company was going to build a British rocket to launch a British satellite. From what looked the British space museum in Manchester, Time Peake stood under the display of Britain’s Black Knight rocket and the Prospero satellite. He explained how the rocket launched the satellite into space from Australia in 1975. However, the project was then cancelled, which meant that Britain is the only country so far which has developed, and then discarded rocket technology.

But Black Knight wasn’t the only space rocket Britain developed. Peake then moved on to talk about Skylark, a massively successful sounding rocket. Developed for high altitude research, the rocket reached a maximum of altitude of 400 km in the few minutes it was in flight. At its apogee – its maximum distance from Earth – the vehicle briefly experienced a few minutes of zero gravity, during which experiments could be performed exploring this environment. The Skylark rocket was used for decades before it was finally cancelled.

Aderin-Pocock asked the official from Orbex how long it would be before the spaceport would be up and running. The manager replied that this was always an awkward question to answer, as there was always something that meant operations and flights would start later than expected. He said, however, that they were aiming at around the end of 2020 and perhaps the beginning of 2021.

Orbex are not, however, the only space company planning to open a spaceport in Britain. Virgin Galactic have their own plans to launch rockets in to space from Cornwall. Their vehicle will not, however, be launched from the ground like a conventional rocket, but will first be carried to a sufficiently high altitude by an airplane, which would then launch it. I’m not a betting man, but my guess is that of the two, Orbex is the far more likely to get off the ground, as it were, and begin launching its rocket on schedule. As I’ve blogged about previously, Branson has been telling everyone since the late 1990s at least, that Virgin Galactic are going to be flying tourists into space in just a few months from now. This fortnight’s Private Eye published a brief list of the number of times Branson had said that, with dates. It might be that Branson will at last send the first of his aspiring astronauts up in the next few months, as he claimed last week. But from his previous form, it seems far more likely that Orbex will start launches before him, as will Branson’s competitors over the pond, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

When asked about the company’s capability of perfecting their technology, Orbex’s manager not stressed the skill and competence of the scientists, technicians and engineers working on the project. This included not just conventional space scientists, but also people, who had personally tried and failed to build their own spacecraft. He said that it was extremely important to fail to build rockets. He’s obviously referring to the many non-professional, hobby rocketeers out there trying to build their own spacecraft. He didn’t mention them, but one example would be the people at Starchaser, who started out as a small group of enthusiasts in Yorkshire but have gone on to create their own space company, now based across the pond in America. I think it’s brilliant that amateurs and semi-professionals have developed skills that the professionals in the industry find valuable. And the failures are important, as they show what can go wrong, and give the experience and necessary information on how to avoid it. I don’t think the rocket will be wholly built in this country. The manager said that some of it was being constructed in Copenhagen. This sounds like Copenhagen Suborbitals, a Danish team of rocket scientists, who are trying to put a person into space. They’re ex-NASA, I believe, but it’s a small, private venture. They have a webpage and have posted videos on YouTube, some of which I’ve reblogged. They’ve also said they’re keen for people to join them, or start their own rocket projects.

I’d been looking forward to that edition of the Sky at Night for the past week, but when the time came, it slipped my mind that it was on. I’m very glad I was able to catch it. If Orbex are successful, it will be the first time that a British satellite will launch a British satellite from here in Britain. And it sounds really optimistic. Not only will Britain be returning to space rocket development, but the Scots spaceport sounds like it will, hopefully, bring work to a depressed area. I’m also confident that the local environment there will also be preserved. The launch complex around NASA is necessarily so remote from other buildings, that it’s actually become a wildlife haven. So much so that it’s now a location for birdwatching.

When it was announced that they were planning to build a new spaceport in Scotland, I assumed it would be for Skylon, the British spaceplane. There had been articles in the paper about the spacecraft, which stated that it would be launched either from Scotland or Cornwall. It seems I was wrong, and that it’s Orbex’s rocket which will be launched there instead. But nevertheless, I wish Orbex every success in their venture, and hope that sometime soon Skylon will also join them in flight out on the High Frontier.

Mars as Communist Utopia in Pre-Revolutionary Russian SF

June 7, 2018

I thought this might interest all the SF fans out there. One of the books I’ve started reading is Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet, edited by Mark Ashley (London: The British Library 2018). It’s a collection of SF stories written about the Red Planet from the 19th century to just before the Mariner and then Viking probes in the ’60s and ’70s showed that rather than being a living planet with canals, vegetation and civilised beings, it was a dead world more like the Moon. It’s a companion volume to another book of early SF stories from about the same period, Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures, also edited by Mike Ashley. The Martian book contains stories by H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury – from The Martian Chronicles, natch – Marion Zimmer Bradley, E.C. Tubb, Walter M. Miller, and the great novelist of dystopias and bug-eyed psychopaths, J.G. Ballard. It also contains pieces by now all but forgotten Victorian and early Twentieth writers of Scientific Romances, W.S. Lach-Szyrma, George C. Wallis, P. Schuyler Miller and Stanley G. Weinbaum.

Both books are also interesting, not just for the short stories collected in them, but also for Ashley’s introduction, where he traces the literary history of stories about these worlds. In the case of the Moon, this goes all the way back to the Roman satirist, Lucian of Samosata, and his Vera Historia. This is a fantasy about a group of Roman sailors, whose ship is flung into space by a massive waterspout, to find themselves captured by a squadron of Vulturemen soldiers from the Moon, who are planning an invasion of the Sun.

The history of literary speculation about Mars and Martian civilisation, is no less interesting, but somewhat shorter. It really only begins in the late 19th century, when telescopes had been developed capable of showing some details of the Martian surface, and in particular the canali, which the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli believed he had seen. The Italian word can mean ‘channels’ as well as ‘canal’, and Schiaparelli himself did not describe them as artificial. Nevertheless, other astronomers, like Percival Lowell of Flagstaff, Arizona, believed they were. Other astronomers were far more sceptical, but this set off the wave of novels and short stories set on an inhabited Mars, like Edgar Rice Burrough’s famous John Carter stories. I remember the Marvel adaptation of some these, or at least using the same character, which appeared as backing stories in Star Wars comic way back in the 1970s.

It’s also interesting, and to contemporary readers somewhat strange, that before H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the vast majority of these stories about Mars assumed that the Martians would not only be far more scientifically and technologically advanced, but they would also be more socially and spiritually as well. Just like the Aetherius Society, a UFO new religious movement founded by George King in the 1950s, claims that Jesus was really as Venusian, and now lives on that world along with Aetherius, the being from whom they believe they receive telepathic messages, so there were a couple of short stories in which Christ was a Martian. These were Charles Cole’s Visitors From Mars, of 1901, and Wallace Dowding’s The Man From Mars of 1910.

Other utopias set on the Red Planet were more secular. In Unveiling a Parallel, by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant, of 1893, the Martians are handsome and intelligent, and their women totally liberated. Another feminist utopia was also depicted by the Australian writer Mary Moore-Bentley in her A Woman of Mars of 1901.

And in Russia, the writer Alexander Bogdanov made Mars a Communist utopia. Ashley writes

While the planetary romance theme was developing there were other explorations of Martian culture. The Red Planet became an obvious setting for a communist state in Krasnaia Zvesda (‘Red Star’, 1908) and its sequel Inzhener Menni (‘Engineer Menni’, 1912) by Alexander Bogdanov. Although reasonably well known in Russia, especially at the time of the revolution in 1917, and notoriously because of its reference to free love on Mars, it was not translated into English until 1984. Kim Stanley Robinson claimed it served as an influence for his own novel, Red Mars (1992), the first of his trilogy about terraforming the planet. Although the emphasis in Bodganov’s stories is on the benefits of socialism, he took trouble to make the science as realistic as possible. The egg-shaped rocket to Mars is powered by atomic energy. His Mars is Schiaparellian, with canals that have forests planted along their full length, explaining why they are visible from Earth. He also went to great lengths to explain how the topography of Mars, and the fact that it was twice as old as Earth, allowed social evolution to develop gradually and more effectively, with planet-wide communication and thus a single language. (Pp. 11-12).

So five years before the Revolution, Mars really was the ‘Red Planet’ in Russian literature. I’m not surprised it wasn’t translated into English until the 1980s. British publishers and censors probably disliked it as a piece of Communist propaganda, quite apart from Anglophone western Puritanism and the whole issue of free love. No naughtiness allowed on the side of the Iron Curtain, not even when it’s set on Mars. Russian cinema also produced one of the first SF films, also set on Mars. This was Aelita (1922), in which Russian cosmonauts travel to the Red Planet to start a revolution, though at the end it’s revealed that it’s all been a dream.

Meanwhile, Mars as a planet of mystery continues in the French SF series, Missions, shown at 10.00 Thursdays on BBC 4. This has French spationauts and their American rivals landing on the Red Planet, only to find a mysterious altar constructed from lost Atlantean materials described by the Romans, and Vladimir Komarov, a Soviet cosmonaut, who has been turned into something more than human with three strands of DNA. In reality, Komarov died when the parachutes on his spacecraft failed to open when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Tragically, Komarov knew it was a deathtrap, but went anyway because Khrushchev wanted another Russian space achievement to show up the Americans, and Komarov did not want his friend, and first man in space, Yuri Gagarin to go. It’s a tragic, shameful waste of human life on what was a purely political stunt, and Komarov is, because of his desire to save his friend, one of the great heroes of the space age.

But Missions shows not only how much people really want us to travel to Mars – to explore and colonise – it also shows how the Red Planet still remains the source of wonder and speculation about alien civilisations, civilisations that may not be hostile monsters intent on invading the Earth ‘for no very good reason’, as Douglas Adams described the motives of those aliens, who wanted to take over the universie in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One of the French spationauts, Jeanne, has dreamed of going to Mars since being shown it through a telescope by her father when she was a little girl. Electromagnetic scans of the area, when developed, give a picture of her face, and ‘Komarov’ tells her he has been waiting millions of years for her, and she is the true link between Mars and Earth.

Yes, it’s weird. But different. And it shows that Mars is continuing to inspire other forms of SF, where the Martians aren’t invaders – or at least, not so far-but benevolent guides waiting for us to come to them and make the next leap in our development. Just like Bogdanov in 1912 imagined that they would be ahead of us, and so have created a true Communist utopia.