British lunar lander, 1954

BIS lunar lander

The picture above shows a comparison between an Apollo-style lunar lander, on the right, and the more traditional idea of a “spaceship” on the left. More technically, the comparison is between the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous approach used by Apollo and the competing methods of Direct Ascent (going all the way from the Earth to the Moon with a single vehicle) and Earth Orbit Rendezvous (ditto, but with the vehicle first being constructed or refuelled in Earth orbit). You might guess the picture dates from circa 1962, when NASA surprised the world by selecting LOR over the (previously much more likely) other two options. Actually it comes from a book printed in 1954.

That’s the date on my copy of the book, which is the second edition of one originally published in 1952 (I don’t know if the same picture was in the first edition). It’s called Development of the Guided Missile, by Kenneth W. Gatland – a member of the British Interplanetary Society, which was the source of the lunar landing concept depicted here. In the text the lander is designated “Type B”, while the counterpart of the Apollo CSM is Type A: “The Types A and B operate together as a composite vehicle; the former acts as the propulsion component for the Type B and remains in the terminal orbit of the destination planet whilst the smaller rocket descends to the surface.”

The most famous member of the British Interplanetary Society was Arthur C. Clarke, and he touched on the same subject in his “science-fictional autobiography” Astounding Days:

We discussed many types of rendezvous and space-refuelling techniques, to break down the journey into manageable stages. One of those involved the use of a specialized “ferry” craft to make the actual lunar landing, while the main vehicle remained in orbit. This, of course, is the approach in the Apollo project – and I am a little tired of hearing it described as a new discovery. For that matter, I doubt if we thought of it first; it is more likely that the German or Russian theoreticians had worked it out years before.

Actually the concept in Gatland’s book is a mixture of Earth Orbit Rendezvous and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, since the Type A spacecraft (which is powered by a nuclear-thermal rocket) is first constructed in Earth orbit, using smaller unmanned rockets (Type C) and a winged shuttle (Type D) to ferry the astronauts to and from Earth orbit. The whole ambitious concept is illustrated in the picture below – it strikes me as extraordinarily sophisticated for a book published in 1954!

British Interplanetary Spacecraft

Cold War research

Cold War books

Having thoroughly enjoyed doing the research for my book on Pseudoscience and Science Fiction last year (see a selection of research materials here and here), and then The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon earlier this year (see my Lunar Research blog post) I’ve been wondering what to do next. One idea that occurred to me is something about the Cold War … so I’ve been dutifully immersing myself in research on the subject, as you can see from the picture above.

The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon

Telescopic Tourist Guide to the Moon
Hot on the heels of Destination Mars, here’s another book of mine that’s new out this month – The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon, published by Springer. I actually wrote it several months after the Mars book, but Springer have a very fast system compared with more traditional publishers so it caught up!

This is the second book I’ve done with Springer, following Pseudoscience and Science Fiction last year. That one was in a series called Science and Fiction, and in fact there’s quite a lot of SF in this new one too (as you might guess from my earlier blog post about lunar research). However, this book actually belongs to a different series – the Patrick Moore Practical Astronomy Series. Here’s the blurb:

Have you ever been inspired by stunning images from the Hubble telescope, or the magic of sci-fi special effects, only to look through a small backyard telescope at the disappointing white dot of a planet or faint blur of a galaxy? Yet the Moon is different. Seen through even a relatively cheap telescope, it springs into life like a real place, with mountains and valleys and rugged craters. With a bit of imagination, you can even picture yourself as a sightseeing visitor there – which in a sense you are.

Whether you’re interested in visiting Apollo landing sites or the locations of classic sci-fi movies, this is the tourist guide for you! It tells you the best times to view the Moon, the most exciting sights to look out for, and the best equipment to use, allowing you to snap stunning photographs as well as view the sights with your own eyes.

It probably goes without saying, but The Telescopic Tourist’s Guide to the Moon is available from all good bookshops, as well as online retailers such as Amazon.com and Amazon UK.

Three stars from the BBC

Sky at Night magazine August 2017I don’t often buy the BBC’s Sky at Night magazine, chiefly because of its ridiculously high cover price (more on which later). I do, however, regularly exercise my democratic right to browse through its contents in W. H. Smith’s. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the latest issue contains a prominently placed review of my book Destination Mars. I was less happy that the reviewer only gave it 3 out of 5 stars, but it was enough to prompt me to buy the magazine anyway.

Actually it’s not a bad review. The reviewer (who works for the European Space Agency, and hence presumably knows a lot more about the subject than I do) doesn’t make any really negative points – it’s more like one of my school reports that always seemed to say “could do better”. The three-star rating is defined as “average” – which I guess means 50% of all the books ever written are better than mine and 50% are worse. So I can’t really complain (though I like four star reviews better).

In any case, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. This is only the second time anything of mine has been reviewed in print, following the review in Fortean Times earlier this year. And the Sky at Night magazine has almost 10,000 more readers than FT (source).

There’s another point I ought to bring to your attention. The BBC magazine costs £5.20 per issue, which strikes me as extortionately high for something that only has 100 pages and is packed with advertisements. My book has 160 pages (and the only advertisement is for another book in the same series), yet its cover price is only £7.99. If you follow this link to its Amazon page, you’ll find that some sellers have it even cheaper than that.

Out now – Destination Mars

Destination Mars

My book Destination Mars: The Story of Our Quest to Conquer the Red Planet is published today. As mentioned a few weeks ago, it’s the first title in a brand new series from Icon Books called Hot Science, edited by Brian Clegg. Brian is one of Britain’s top popular science writers, and he gave me some really helpful pointers on the style and content of the book. Hopefully that means it turned out almost as slick and professional as one of Brian’s own books!

With a list price of just £7.99, Destination Mars is available from all good bookshops, as well the usual online retailers such as Amazon UK and Amazon.com.

To whet your appetite, here is a quick summary of the book’s contents:

  • Preface: From Science Fiction to Science Fact
  • Chapter 1: The Lure of the Red Planet
    Our Solar System neighbour – Another Earth? – The Real Mars
  • Chapter 2: How to Get to Mars
    Rocket science – Action and reaction – The long way round – Landing on Mars
  • Chapter 3: Martian Robots
    Fifty years of Mars exploration – Lost in space – Anything a human can do?
  • Chapter 4: From a Small Step to a Giant Leap
    The race to the Moon – Mars is harder – Risk management
  • Chapter 5: Big Plans
    Visionaries vs politicians – Mars Direct – One step at a time – Roadmap to Mars
  • Chapter 6: Private Enterprise
    Commercial space flight – Making life multiplanetary – Human interest
  • Chapter 7: Living on Mars
    Colonisation – Martian sustainability – Terraforming
  • Chapter 8: The New Space Race
    The contenders – A wild card – Mars fever
  • Recommended Resources
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Index

Seventy years of UFOs

Fortean Times 355

Today marks the 70th anniversary of Kenneth Arnold’s seminal UFO encounter, on 24 June 1947. That was the event that gave rise to the term “flying saucer”, and kicked off a media frenzy that led to copycat sightings around the world … and a whole new subgenre of science fiction. As such I devoted several pages to Arnold’s sighting and its repercussions in my book Pseudoscience and Science Fiction last year.

The Kenneth Arnold sighting also provides the central theme of the latest issue of Fortean Times, pictured above (FT355, July 2017). To my surprise, I received three extra copies of this last week – something that puzzled me until I looked at the contents and discovered there was a six-page article by myself in it. I actually wrote this (and submitted it to FT) at the beginning of last year, before I’d even had the idea of writing the Pseudoscience and Science Fiction book. In fact it was while writing the article – about the pulp magazine editors Ray Palmer and John W. Campbell, and the way they blurred the boundary between science fiction and fortean-style non-fiction speculation – that I realized I could write a whole book on that sort of thing. Although the magazine article (called “Astounding Science, Amazing Theories!”) took such a long time to appear, it does fit the theme of this particular issue very neatly – including a couple of references to the Kenneth Arnold sighting and Ray Palmer’s role in publicising it.

The main Arnold-related article, however, is not mine but one by Nigel Watson. Called “Was it a bird? Was it a plane?”, this focuses on other potential explanations of the sighting besides the extraterrestrial hypothesis – in particular the possibility that the objects Arnold saw were saucer-shaped or flying-wing style military aircraft. Arnold was flying a light aircraft himself at the time, and Jenny Randles has a one-page piece in her “UFO Casebook” column about other similar aircraft-based UFO sightings. The Kenneth Arnold links don’t stop there, either. The magazine’s lead feature, by Brian J. Robb, is about the conspiracy theorist Fred Crisman – who had connections with Kenneth Arnold, Ray Palmer … and the hollow-Earth theorist Richard Shaver, who also features quite prominently in my own article. In passing I also mention L. Ron Hubbard (who started out as a protégé of Palmer’s upmarket rival, John W. Campbell) – and there’s a link there, too, since the “Building a Fortean Library” column in this issue happens to feature a classic biography of Hubbard.

So there are plenty of reasons to buy this month’s issue of Fortean Times – and my article is just one of them!

Hot Science

Hot Science - Destination Mars
Icon Books’ Autumn catalogue includes the first two titles in a new series called Hot Science. I’m very pleased (and honoured) that one of these is by me – Destination Mars, pictured above. The other title is Big Data, pictured below, by Brian Clegg.

As the catalogue says, “Hot Science is a new series exploring the cutting-edge of science and technology … for popular science fans who like to go that little bit deeper.”

Here is the back-cover blurb from Destination Mars:

When the Apollo astronauts walked on the Moon in 1969, many people imagined Mars would be next. Half a century later, only robots have been to the Red Planet and our astronauts rarely venture beyond Earth orbit.

Now, Mars is back. With everyone from Elon Musk to Ridley Scott and Donald Trump talking about it, interplanetary exploration is back on the agenda and Mars is once again the prime destination for future human expansion and colonisation.

In Destination Mars, astrophysicist and science writer Andrew May traces the history of our fascination with the Red Planet and explores the science upon which a crewed Mars mission would be based, from assembling a spacecraft in Earth orbit to surviving solar storms. With expert insight he analyses the new space race and assesses what the future holds for human life on Mars.

Destination Mars is published on 6 July 2017, followed by Big Data on 3 August 2017.

Hot Science - Big Data

Freaky Times

Freaky Times
If there really was a magazine called Freaky Times, I’d buy it – especially if it only cost £1.50, which is the price tag on the one pictured above. Actually this is a screenshot from a recent video game called Barrow Hill: The Dark Path , which I bought after seeing a full-page advertisement for it in last month’s Fortean Times (a magazine that bears an uncanny stylistic resemblance to Freaky Times – or perhaps it’s the other way around).

The original Barrow Hill game came out ten years ago, and I found it enjoyable to play but nothing really special. That’s essentially my verdict on this belated sequel, too. It’s probably slightly more fun than the original, with more immersive graphics and more interesting characters. The style is reminiscent of Jonathan Boakes’s Dark Fall series, or Daniel Peach’s Corrosion: Cold Winter Waiting which I wrote about last year . But those games have fascinatingly original storylines and vast, intriguing settings to explore, while the Barrow Hill games are shorter, with more mundane locations and a plot not too different from a hundred other games you can find on Steam. But if you like first-person adventure games (as I do) and wacky New Age weirdness (as I do) then you’ll enjoy playing Barrow Hill: The Dark Path anyway.

The main developer behind the Barrow Hill games is Matt Clark of Shadow Tor studios, but Jonathan Boakes’s name also crops up several times in the end credits. In fact he seems to have been the one behind the Freaky Times mock-up pictured above (and there’s another shot of it below). After a bit of Googling I found this post on his blog, which describes the design as “a little nod to the Fortean Times”. And right at the bottom of the cover he’s slipped in a reference to the “Dowerton ghosts”, from his own Dark Fall games!

Freaky Times

Shortwave Nostalgia

Lafayette HA-350
Here is one of the most prized possessions of my high-school years – a Lafayette HA-350 amateur band receiver. In the days before home computers, amateur radio was a popular pastime among nerdy teenagers – right up there with reading comic-books (in fact, early issues of Marvel Comics featured occasional appearances by a group of young “radio hams” called the Teen Brigade). Nowadays, amateur radio is recognized as a valid educational activity – with, for example , astronauts on the ISS regularly using it to make contact with schools all round the world. That’s an opportunity I would have loved to have had – but as it was, teachers in those days tended to look down on amateur radio, just as they did on comic books, as a waste of kids’ time.

I didn’t have enough perspective at the time to dispute that view. In hindsight, however, it really is a very educational pastime. I had a map of the world on my wall with pins in it showing all the countries I’d listened to – giving me a much better understanding of geography than most teenagers have. I didn’t have a licence to transmit – you had to understand Morse code for that – but I was an avid listener and a member of the International Short Wave League (my membership ID was G-14007 – I was very pleased with the “007” part). Amongst other things, the ISWL ran a QSL bureau, through which radio hams would send you cards acknowledging reception reports you sent them.

Here are a few examples. To start with, four countries I bet most teenagers in 1972-3 wouldn’t even have been able to find on a map – Monaco, San Marino, U.A.E. and Oman:

QSL cards Monaco Oman etc
Now for some DX (i.e. long-distance) countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Australia and Malaysia (in these days of satellites and the internet, it’s easy to forget that radio waves normally travel in a straight line – so hearing someone on the other side of the planet is an impressive feat):

QSL cards DX
In geopolitical terms, the period we’re talking about was the height of the Cold War – but as a shortwave listener, I had no difficulty hearing both sides of the east-west divide. Here are two cards each from the USA and the USSR:

QSL cards USA USSR
It was in the context of shortwave listening that I first saw my name in print – with an SWL report in the September 1973 issue of Practical Wireless magazine (reproduced below). The YV5 prefix that appears three times in this list refers to Venezuela, while 4X and 4Z are both Israel. The last two are from Africa – 5U is Niger and 6W is Senegal. In the course of 1973 I heard no fewer than 303 different prefixes – as you can see from my entry in the “ladder” printed in Short Wave Magazine in March 1974.

SWL magazines 1973

Lunar Research

Moon books and films
About a year ago I did a couple of posts on my old blog (here and here) showing some of the books and DVDs I had the pleasure of “researching” for my Pseudoscience and Science Fiction book. Now I’m working on the follow-up. It’s not really a sequel, except that it’s for the same publisher and involves a similar mix of science fiction and real science (though no pseudoscience this time).

The general subject will be easy enough to guess from the “research” materials pictured above. My book is going to have a Unique Selling Point … but I don’t want to divulge that until its finished!