Posts Tagged ‘Spacecraft’

Video of Trevithick’s Steam Carriage in Bristol

March 14, 2021

I’ve an interest in the real, Victorian technology that really does resemble the ideas and inventions in Steampunk Science Fiction. This is the SF genre that, following Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and other early writers, tries to imagine what it would have been like had the Victorians had cars, aircraft, robots, spaceships, computers and time travel. And at certain points the Victorians came very close to creating those worlds. Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, set in the Victorian computer age, was a piece of speculation about what kind of society would have emerged, if William Babbage’s pioneering computer, the Difference Engine of the title, had been built. And also if the 1820s Tory government had fallen to be replaced the rule of Lord Byron. The 19th century was a hugely inventive age, as scientists and engineers explored new possibilities and discoveries. George Cayley in Britain successfully invented a glider, in France Giffard created a dirigible airship, flying it around the Eiffel Tower. And from the very beginning of the century scientists and inventors attempted to develop the first ancestors of the modern car, run on coal and steam, of course.

One of these was a steam carriage designed by the Cornish engineer, Richard Trevithick, in 1801. This was built, but wasn’t successful. This did not stop other engineers attempting to perfect such vehicles, and steam cars continued to be developed and built well into the 20th century. The most famous of these was the American Stanley Steamer of 1901.

I found this short video on Johnofbristol’s channel on YouTube. It shows a replica of Trevithick’s vehicle being driven around Bristol docks. From the cranes and the building over the other side of the river, it looks like it was shot outside Bristol’s M Shed museum. This was formerly the site of the city’s Industrial Museum, and still contains among its exhibits some fascinating pieces from the city’s industrial past. These include the aircraft and vehicles produced by Bristol’s aerospace and transport companies.

Modeller’s Magazine on Building Kits of Real Spacecraft

December 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

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



Video of Ion-Driven Plane in Flight

November 27, 2018

A few days ago I put up a piece about an article in the I, which reported that scientists at MIT had successfully built and flown a plane propelled by ions. These are charged particles. The plane had a series of electrically charged wires running in front and behind it. These turned the air running between them into a stream of charged particles, which were directed around the plane to propel it through the air.

I found this video of it in flight from the Sci-News channel on YouTube. There’s a brief explanation of the principle behind it, which describes the ionized air which gives the plane thrust as an ionic wind. It then shows the plane moving a short distance without the power switched on. This is then followed by the plane flying a far greater distance using the ionic power system. The video calls it the first solid-state propulsion system, and then describes it as ‘flight without propulsion’. Which sounds like the line about travelling through folding space in Dune: ‘Travelling without motion’. The explanatory blurb for the video states that the system could be used to create cleaner, quieter planes.

It’s a fascinating form of aircraft propulsion, and as I blogged about it the other day, it’s similar to the nuclear thrust engines used on some spacecraft. These use a grid of electrically charged filaments to direct a flow of ions away from the craft to generate thrust, although in this case the charged particles come from a nuclear reactor.

However, I am slightly alarmed by the possibility that this will be used to create silent drones, as mentioned in the I article and by one of the commenters on this video on YouTube. The last thing this planet needs is more refined killing machines, especially drones which are being used to kill civilians, including children – dubbed ‘fun-sized terrorists’ by the American drone pilots. And there is a real dehumanizing effect in using drones in combat. The drone operator is remote, miles away from the carnage they’re inflicting, and so the killing can seem unreal. As one angry trainer remarked when he hauled one operator from the controls for going way to far, ‘This isn’t a computer game’.

Hopefully this technology will be used to produce cleaner, greener, more efficient aircraft, rather than yet more engines of destruction.

Scientists Invent Ion-Driven ‘Star Trek’ Plane

November 23, 2018

This is a fascinating piece from yesterday’s I newspaper, for the 22nd November 2018. It reports that Dr. Steven Barrett and his team at MIT have built an airplane that flies through channeling air underneath its wings using electrically charged wires hung below them.

The article, by John von Radowitz, on page 13, reads

A revolutionary electronic aircraft propulsion system inspired by Star Trek has been tested on a working model for the first time.

The five-metre wingspan glider-like plane has no propellers, turbines or any other moving parts, and is completely silent.

Instead, an “ionic wind” of colliding electrically charged air molecules provides the thrust needed to make it fly.

In the tests, the battery-powered unmanned aircraft, that weighs just five pounds, managed sustained flights of 60m at an average height of just 0.47m.

But its inventors believe that, like the early experiments of the Wright brothers more than 100 years ago, such small beginnings will eventually transform the face of aviation.

In the near future, ion wind propulsion could be employed to power quiet drones, the team predicts.

Further down the line, the technology could be paired with more conventional propulsion systems to produce highly fuel-efficient hybrid passenger planes.

Lead researcher Dr. Steven Barret, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, said: “This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system.

“This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions.”

He revealed that he was partly inspi9red by the TV sci-fi series Star Trek. He was especially impressed by the show’s futuristic shuttle crafts that skimmed through the air producing hardly any noise or exhaust. “This made me think, planes shouldn’t have propellers and turbines,” said Dr. Barrett.
“They should be more like the shuttles in
Star Trek that have just a blue glow and silently glide.

The test aircraft, described in the journal Nature, carries an array of thin wires strung beneath the front end of its wings. A high-voltage current passed through the wires strips negatively charged electrons from surrounding air molecules.

This produces a cloud of positively charged ionized air molecules that are attracted to another set of negatively charged wires at the back of the plane.

As they flow towards the negative charge, the ions collide millions of times with other air molecules, creating the thrust that pushes the aircraft forward.

The article also said that

Test flights were made across the gymnasium at MIT’s duPont Athletic Centre, the largest indoor space the scientists could find.

The article also carried this diagram of the aircraft and its engine.

The illustration is entitled ‘How It Works’, and shows picture of the plane, with an arrow saying ‘Battery in fuselage’. There’s also a diagram of the electrically charged particles and the wires connected to the battery that the plane uses instead of a conventional engine.

The illustration’s notes read

Thin wires are strung under the front of the wing and thicker wires under the rear. When connected to a high voltage battery they act as electrodes. The thin positive electrode takes negatively charged electrons from air molecules, creating positive ions. The ions are attracted to the negative electrode at the rear and, as they flow towards it, they collide with neutral air molecules, creating thrust.

The plane reminds of me of the atmospheric aircraft in one of Alistair Reynold’s SF novels, Revelation Space, which fly through heating up the air below them. The propulsion system’s also related to the nuclear electric propulsion used, or proposed, for some spacecraft. This also uses an electrically charged grating to channel and increase the thrust of charged particles generated by a nuclear reactor. As I understand it, the amount of thrust generated by this type of rocket engine is small, but because it’s constant it can eventually build up over time so that the craft is flying at quite considerable speed.

An ion-driven plane is a fascinating concept, though it won’t be powering passenger craft just yet. But you wonder how many UFO sightings will be generated by the experimental and prototype craft which will be designed and built after this.

Pat Mills Going Underground on Class and Politics on Comics

September 19, 2017

This is another video to add to the two others I’ve posted in which Pat Mills, one of the great creators of modern British comics, talks about industry and the political dimension to his work. In this video, he talks to Afshin Rattansi of RTUK’s Going Underground.

Mills starts by talking about how, when he first got into comics, he was frustrated and it was only when he started to look back on it and analyze it that he realized he was annoyed by the lack of working class role models in comics. They were all members of the upper middle classes. It’s why in 2000 AD he wanted to include working class characters and heroes, and why he liked Jeeves in the Jeeves and Wooster books, because here was a working class character, who makes a complete mockery of his master. But what brought home to him how the system is so completely opposed to working class heroes was his attempt working on a story for Dr. Who. He wanted to include a working class spaceship captain. The spaceship itself was to be a kind of abattoir in space, and he based the captain’s character on a real person, the captain of dredger. This would have made it realistic, and the captain of such a vessel would not have been like Richard Todd. But he was told by the script editor that this was unacceptable, and he could not have a working class spaceship captain.

When Rattansi asks him whether this censorship is internal or imposed from outside, he remarks that it’s a good question, and he believes it to be a bit of both. In the case of anti-war stories, it’s imposed from outside. That was brought home to him when he was involved in an exhibition on anarchy and comics. He wanted to include Charley’s War, the anti-war strip from Battle, as there was nothing more anarchist than that. But this was refused, just as the centenary of the outbreak of the First World. It was why TV never showed any of the great anti-war programmes and films about it, like Blackadder Goes Forth or the Monocled Mutineer.

He also comments on the massive influence the American military exerts over the film and TV industry. The Pentagon and the armed forces, including the CIA, have acted as advisors on 500 films and 800 TV programmes, from Meet the Parents to the Incredible Hulk and Iron Man. Mills has said that he has always disliked superheroes as he feels that they are corporate characters, standing for the values of the system. They are there to show people that you can’t be heroic unless you’re a tycoon or an arms manufacturer, who goes out at night to beat up members of the working class. He doesn’t think the military were involved in the last Judge Dredd film, as that was made by an independent, which is probably why it was so good. Rattansi replies that Dredd is still upper middle class, as he’s a member of the judiciary. Mills states in turn that he’s a footsoldier, and that part of the attraction of the character is that he’s also partly a villain. Villains are often more interesting to watch than heroes, who can be quite boring.

He also talks about an incident in which the Board of the Deputies of British Jews objected to one of the strips in Crisis. This was based on a real situation, which Mills had heard about from talking to a Palestinian. In the story, the IDF caught and beat up a Palestinian boy in protest, leaving lying on the ground with all his limbs broken. The Board complained because they thought the lad’s body had been deliberately arranged so that it resembled a swastika. Well, replied Mills, it wasn’t, as comics writers and artists aren’t that clever to sneak those kind of subliminal messages in. And what left him dismayed was the Board was not concerned about what was going on Israel, and which is still going on in Gaza. The incident was also somewhat ironic, in that the Board complained to the comic’s publishers, which at that time was Robert Maxwell, the corrupt thief of the Mirror pension fund. The Board’s complaint fell on deaf ears, and Cap’n Bob ‘told them to get knotted’.

Mills also observes in the interview that they were able to get away with much more in 2000AD as it wasn’t real, it was science fiction. Things are all right if they occur In A Galaxy Far, Far Away. But as soon as it’s real people, the censorship is imposed.

It’s always interesting hearing Mills’ views on comics and the subversion he put into his stories. He also told the story about the Beeb’s rejection of a working class spaceship captain for Dr. Who before, at the conference on Marxism organized by the Socialist Workers’ Party. The producers of Going Underground in the clip state that they contacted the Beeb to check the story, but the BBC had not replied by the time the programme was broadcast.

Mills is wrong in claiming at Jeeves is working class. He isn’t. He’s upper middle. Butlers are ‘a gentleman’s gentleman’, and Jeeves himself makes it very clear in one of the episodes of Jeeves and Wooster that he ‘and the working class are barely on speaking terms’. This is when the Fascist leader, Spode, tries to recruit him, saying that his wretched band need working class people like him. Nevertheless, the broad point remains true: Jeeves is an attractive character for the same reason another fictional butler is, Crichton, in the Admirable Crichton. He’s a servant, who is more knowledgible, intelligent and capable than his master.

I’ve commented in previous blog posts that I think the reason that the authorities don’t want to see any anti-War material broadcast during the centenary of the First World War, is because we still have ambitions of being an imperial power, backing the Americans in their wars around the world and particularly in the Middle East. The Beeb would also probably argue that to broadcast such material as Blackadder would be ‘disrespectful’, or some other spurious excuse.

I was aware that the American military was influencing Hollywood as advisors, but I had not idea how extensive it was. Back in the 1990s the American army advised the director Paul Verhoeven on his adaptation of Starship Troopers. This was an adaptation of the book by Robert Heinlein, who really did believe that only those, who had served in the armed forces should have the right to vote. It’s a notoriously militaristic book, and provoked a very anti-military response from a range of other SF writers, including Harry Harrison, who wrote Bill the Galactic Hero to send up Heinlein. Verhoeven wasn’t impressed with Heinlein’s militarism either. He’s Dutch, and grew up during the Nazi occupation. Thus, while the film can be enjoyed as a straightforward adventure, it also contains a very strong element of satire, such as modelling the uniforms on those of the Nazis.

I was disappointed to hear that the army had collaborated with the producers of The Hulk, as this comic was genuinely countercultural. In the comic, Banner becomes the Hulk after being exposed to the nuclear blast of an atomic bomb test saving Rick, a teenager, who has wandered into test zone. Rick is a classic disaffected teenager with more than a little similarity to the alienated kids played by James Dean. In the 1970s the comic was very firmly anti-military. The Hulk fought the army across America. Banner’s personal enemy was the general in charge of the forces sent to tackle the force, who was also the father of his girlfriend. And while the Hulk was a raging behemoth, what he really wanted was to be left alone. Some of the subversive character of the Hulk came across in Ang Lee’s film, which I actually like, even though no-one else does. But it’s still disappointing to read that the American armed forces were involved.

There’s a touch of irony to Mills speaking on the programme, as ‘Going Underground’ was the first of the two ‘Comic Rock’ strips to appear in 2000AD, the other being ‘Killerwatt’, which introduced Nemesis the Warlock and his struggle against Torquemada, the Fascist grand master of Termight, Earth in the far future. The story, set in the underground maze of rapid transit tunnels within Earth’s vast subterranean network of cities, took it’s title from the track by The Jam.

A Real ‘Steampunk’ Toy: Pre-World War I Clockwork Monorail Train

August 13, 2017

A little while ago I put up a series of posts about real, 19th century inventions, which now seem like the weird machines of Steampunk Science Fiction. This is a subgenre, which imagines what the world would have been like, if the Victorians had invented spacecraft, time travel, interdimensional travel and other elements of Science Fiction, or had completed and fully developed real inventions like Babbage’s mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, steam carriages and dirigible aircraft, like that flown by the French aviator Giffard in 1854.

One of these real Steampunk inventions was the monorail. A steam-driven monorail system was designed by an American inventor and entrepreneur. This astonished me, as I always associated the monorail train with the technological optimism of the 1960s and ’70s. It was an invention for a technological age that never happened. After writing the article, a reader posted a comment on the piece kindly pointing out that a steam monorail system had been built in Eire. the track and its train have been restored, and are now a tourist attraction. The commenter included a link, and if you go to that website, you’ll see the train in question. It is very definitely an Irish train, as its been decorated very patriotically in green.

This hasn’t been the only example of such trains I’ve found. They even existed as miniature toys. Looking through the book Mechanical Toys: How Old Toys Work by Athelstan and Kathleen Silhaus, with photos by Nelson McClary (New York: Crown Publishers 1989) I came across the illustration below of a toy monorail train, stabilized with a gyroscope and powered by a single wheel. It was produced by the Ely Cycle Co., of Britain, in 1912. It was first patented in Britain in 1908, and then in Germany in 1911, where it was also manufactured by Suskind. The text notes that it was stabilized by a gyroscope long before Sperry used it in aircraft and ocean liners.

The use of a single wheel is also like the various Science Fictional vehicles that similarly have only one of these, like the monocycles in Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat. This toy, and others like it, show a whole world of Victorian and Edwardian invention that seemed to anticipate a technological future that never quite happened, as well as the immense inventiveness of the manufacturers.

The Fantastic Space Art of Angus McKie

April 21, 2017

I found this great video showing some of the space art of Angus McKie, one of the artists, whose depictions of spaceships and future worlds was used by Stuart Cowley as the basis for his Spacecraft 2000-2100 and Great Space Battles books.

The poster, Martin Kennedy, describes McKie and his career in the following blurb:

Angus McKie is best known as an English science fiction illustrator whose work appeared on the covers of numerous science fiction paperback novels in the mid-1970s and 1980s, as well as in Stewart Cowley’s Terran Trade Authority series of illustrated books. His illustrations often present highly detailed spacecraft against vividly colored backgrounds and high-tech constructions as demonstrated by his pioneering work on The Dome: Ground Zero for DC Comics imprint Helix in 1998. Like Peter Elson, Tony Roberts, Chris Foss and some other artists of the period, he influenced an entire generation of science fiction illustrators and concept artists. This lasting influence is probably visible at its best, about twenty years later, in the visual look developed for the Homeworld videogame.

In 1993 he wrote and drew the first 2 parts of a science fiction comic published by Dark Horse entitled “The Blue Lily”, based on Dave Weir’s short story. As of 2011, McKie was reportedly working on the last 2 parts of the work in his spare time. He also wrote and illustrated a story entitled “So Beautiful and So Dangerous” for Heavy Metal magazine, which later became a segment in the eponymous movie Heavy Metal. (Source:…)

7 Earthlike Worlds Discovered Around Star Trappist-1

February 25, 2017

More awesome space news! This week, NASA announced that their Spitzer telescope had discovered a system of seven worlds orbiting the ultra-cool red dwarf star, Trappist-1. The star takes its name from the Belgian operated observatory, which found it. Astronomers from Liege university discovered two of these worlds. Three of these rocky worlds lie in the planet’s habitable zone, which means they could have life, and all of them have temperatures which would permit liquid water to exist. Because of the star’s small size and extremely cool temperature, they are closer to their star than Mercury is to the Sun. This video from the Kepler Telescope Channel also looks forward to the development of spacecraft that will be able to reach something like lightspeed, so that humanity may at some point in the future be able to expand into space. And at just 39 light years away, Trappist-1 and its worlds are a suitable nearby target for exploration. The scientists, who made the discovery, also say that the planets are so close together, that you’d be able to see all of them from the surface of one of the planets. They would loom larger than Earth’s Moon, and it would be possible to see even clouds and geological features on their surface.