Posts Tagged ‘Space Travel’

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

August 4, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Britain and Russia Nearly Cooperated to Develop HOTOL Spaceplane

July 17, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

US Air Force Planned Orbital Warplane 20 Years Ago

July 4, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trump’s Space Force Breaks International Law

June 28, 2020

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

Sharpe writes

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

Pp. 30-1 (my emphasis).

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

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

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

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

International law is no law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NASA Film Explaining Their Plan to Return to the Moon

June 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trailer for AppleTV’s ‘Foundation’ Series

June 24, 2020

Here’s another video that has zilch to do with politics. Apparently, the computer giant Apple has, or is launching, their own TV channel. And one of the shows they’ve made for it is an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s epic Foundation series of books. This is one of the works for which Asimov is best remembered, along with his Robot books – I, Robot, The Caves of Steel and others. I, Robot was filmed a few years ago with Will Smith playing a human detective investigating the suicide of a robotics scientist. Together with the chief suspect, a unique robot with free will and a mind of its own, Smith uncovers a conspiracy to take over the city with a new generation of robots. I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know how faithful the movie was to them. Something tells me that they took a few liberties, but I don’t know.

I haven’t read Foundation either, but I gather it’s an epic about an academic, Hari Seldon, who invents the science of psychohistory. Using its techniques, he predicts that the vast galactic empire that is so ancient, no-one actually knows where Earth is anymore, is about to fall into a new Dark Age. He prepares for this by setting up the eponymous Foundation on a barren planet with the intention of collecting all human knowledge in preparation for the restoration of civilization. It’s one of the major influences behind both Frank Herbert’s Dune and George Lucas’ Star Wars. The heart of the galactic empire is Trantor, a world that has become one vast, planet-wide city. This is the model for Coruscant, the city planet which is the capital of the Republic and then the Empire in Star Wars.

The video shows scenes from the new series along with clips of others as they were being shot. There’s also a comment from the director or one of the producers, who says that Asimov was keenly interested in technology, and so would have approved of Apple making the series. There have been attempts to adapt Foundation before, apparently, but they’ve all failed due to the complexity and immense time span covered by the books. I do remember way back in the ’70s there was an LP version, where it was read by William Shatner. Less reverently, back in the ’90s one of the Oxbridge theatre groups decided to stage a play which combined it and Dr. Strangelove, titled Fundament! This ended with a Nazi scientist shouting, ‘Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!’, just like the end of Kubrick’s movie.

Take a look at the trailer. It looks awesome, though unfortunately there have been movies where all the best bits were in the trailer, and the film itself actually dull. I hope this isn’t the case here. My problem with it at the moment is that it’s going to be on another streaming channel, which will mean having to subscribe to that, rather than getting it with a satellite/cable TV package.

Elon Musk and Tom Cruise to Film Movie on International Space Station

June 23, 2020

Here’s another fascinating video that has absolutely nothing to do with politics. It’s from the YouTube channel Screen Rant, and reports the news that tech mogul Elon Musk and Tom Cruise are planning to film an action movie on location in space. They’re planning to use the International Space Station. Neil Lehmann, who was worked with Cruise before on previous movies, is going to be the director. And no, apparently it’s not a hoax or publicity stunt. NASA’s Jim Bridenstine has announced that the space agency is totally behind the idea, and hopes that it will inspire more people to be interested in space, and to become scientists and engineers.

There aren’t, however, any details yet regarding the movie’s title or what it will actually be about. It won’t be a sequel to Mission: Impossible nor to Top Gun: Maverick. Neither is it connected to another film set in space that starred, or was to star Cruise, Lunar Park. What is certain, however, is that it’s going to be expensive. It cost Musk $90 million to launch his $100,000 Tesla car into space. Another film-maker, Richard Garriott, also spent two weeks in space at the station, where he filmed a five minute short, Apogee Lost. NASA charged $30 million for those two weeks. The station is open to paying guests, who are charged $35,000 per night for their stay.

According to Garriott, the station isn’t the best place to shoot. Because of the weightlessness, anything not stuck down with velcro tends to float away, and he did have trouble with the sets and props he was using floating off the walls. It also gets hot up there, so the station has a multitude of ventilator fans going, whose noise may pose a problem when recording sound.

There’s also a problem in that Cruise, and everyone of the film crew who goes with him, must pass NASA’s stringent astronaut fitness tests. They also have to be proficient swimmers and pass the course on water survival as part of the rigorous astronaut training.

The film is being billed as the first to be shot in space. It isn’t that – that honour belong’s to Garriott’s, but it will be the first full-length movie shot in space. And Screen Rant says that it will be interesting to compare it with other SF films shot on Earth.

The video naturally includes clips from a number of Cruise’s movies, including Top Gun and Mission: Impossible.

I’m particularly interested in this news because I presented a paper at a meeting of the British Interplanetary Society recommending the same idea. 

It was at a symposium at the Society’s headquarters in London on the popular commercialisation space in September 2001. All of the talks presented were really fascinating, but the one that justly received the greatest interest and applause was on how space could be used for sport, especially Harry Potter’s school game, Quidditch. Some of the papers, including mine, were later published in the May/June 2002 issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS). The paper is quite long, so I’ll just put up the abstract:

Space exploration is the subject of intense media interest in a way unparalleled in any other branch of science. It is the subject of countless films and television programmes, both fact and fiction, many using original footage from space. Astronauts have broadcast live from the Moon, and TV journalists have travelled to Mir, similar to the use of exotic terrestrial locations for filming by professional film crews. Although prohibitively expensive at the moment, the next generation of spacecraft may lower launch costs to an affordable level, so that space locations become competitive against computer graphics and model work. The constructions of orbital hotels will create the demand for human interest stories similar to those set in holiday locations like the south of France and Italy made just after the Second World War, at a time when much tourism on foreign holidays was just beginning, aided by the development of large transport aircraft able to cater to the demand for mass flight.

Moreover, special effects and studio artificiality have been eschewed by a new generation of auteur directors in pursuit of cinema verite like the Danish Dogme ’94 group. These directors will prefer to travel to orbit to film, rather than use terrestrial studio locations and special effects. The construction of zero-gravity playrooms in orbital hotels may create new spectator sports which can only be played in low or zero gravity, necessitating sports journalists to travel into space to cover them. The lack of human-rated vehicles for the Moon and the great distance to Mars will rule these out as film locations for the foreseeable future, although journalists may well accompany colonists to Mars, and a native, Martian film industry may develop when that colony matures. (p.188).

I can’t claim that Musk and Cruise stole my idea, as I doubt Musk and Cruise are even aware my article exists, let alone have read it. When I wrote the paper, NASA was testing advanced spacecraft designs using aerospike engines, which they hoped would significantly reduce launch costs. These never materialised due to the repeated failures of the spacecraft leading to the programme’s cancellation. It may be, however, that the development of Musk’s SpaceX rocket, which has just successfully carried a crew to the ISS, may lead to the emergence of further spacecraft vehicles which may do this. NASA is also is also involved in the development of landers for a possible crewed mission to the Moon. Space hotels aren’t a reality yet, but a first step towards them was made in 2016 with the addition of an inflatable section, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the International Space Station. This was launched aboard the Spacex rocket, and was developed by the hotel magnate Robert Bigelow.

Despite the immense costs involved, I hope this movie does get made and that it inspires other film makers to use space as a location. And I also hope they do start building proper space tourist hotels and start playing and broadcasting sports in space. After all, one of the last Apollo crewmen played golf on the Moon.

And if there are other billionaire space entrepreneurs looking for a few ideas to develop, perhaps they might consider another I had, which I discussed in a previous post. I had a piece published in one of the British Interplanetary Society’s magazine’s looking forward to competitive, human-carrying hobby rocketry, similar to hang gliding and microlights in aviation. I’d be delighted to see someone start developing that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adam Savage Hitches Rickshaw to Four-Legged Spot Robot

June 21, 2020

This is another video which has absolutely nothing to do with politics, but I’m putting it up simply because it’s fun. In it, Adam Savage, the engineer and Science Fiction fan behind Mythbusters, builds a joint for Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot so he can hitch a rickshaw he built for himself to it. Boston Dynamics have developed a series of robots, some of which are humanoid and bipedal. They produced another quadrupedal robot, Big Dog, as a carrier for the American army. However, the programme was cancelled because the robot’s electric motors produced too much noise for it to be used in combat, as this would have alerted the enemy to the soldiers’ approach.

Savage says of the rickshaw he built, that it was originally going to be very brightly coloured after the Indian vehicles. When he came to build it, it became darker, and much more European so that it had a Steampunk look. Steampunk is the type of Science Fiction that imagines what would have happened if the Victorians had really developed the kind of technology in the early SF of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and had space and time travel and computers. One of the founding books of this genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which is set in a Britain where Lord Byron has led a revolution and is now the head of government and Charles Babbage’s pioneering early mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title, has been built.

The Spot robot itself is semi-autonomous. As Savage has shown in previous videos, it can be operated by remote control. However, it recognises and avoids obstacles, and so it’s impossible to steer it into a brick wall. It will just stop, or try to go round it. When Savage and two other engineers and technicians are testing how it performs with the rickshaw attached, the robot comes to a halt on a slope. This is because it doesn’t realise that it needs to put in more power to pull the rickshaw up it, and so the two technicians work on its software so that it can correctly assess the force it needs and perform accordingly.

The robot and rickshaw together really do look like something out of Steampunk SF, or the 19th century SF art of the French author, Jacques Robida. Or even a scene from the Star Wars’ galaxy, which similarly mixes high technology – spaceships, robots and landspeeders with very low-tech forms of transport like animals. The fact that this is reality in 2020 shows that we are living in an age of SF.

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.