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!
When I first started reading about space travel, as a child in the 1960s, it was “common knowledge” that Britain would be the third country to launch a human into orbit, after the Soviet Union and the United States. In hindsight, I guess this extrapolated from the fact that we were the third to explode an atom bomb (in 1952) and a hydrogen bomb (in 1957). But when it came to spaceflight, the British government just wasn’t in the same kind of rush it was with nuclear weapons.
We did manage to launch an unmanned satellite using purely indigenous technology – the Black Arrow rocket, which put the Prospero satellite into orbit in October 1971. But that wasn’t third, behind just the Soviets and the Americans – it was sixth, after the French, Japanese and Chinese as well. And it was a one-off – the next Black Arrow to come off the production line never left the ground. It’s on display in the Science Museum in London, as you can see in the above photograph (the picture shows just the upper stage and payload shroud – the latter being partially open, which is why the rocket looks slightly bent).
Several British-born astronauts have been into space, starting with Helen Sharman in 1991. But until very recently, they all did so with the blessing (and investment) of someone other than Her Majesty’s Government. It was only in December 2015 that the first truly British-sponsored astronaut – Major Tim Peake of the European Space Agency – made it into orbit. Of course, that doesn’t detract from the fact that Major Tim is a true British hero (or a true European hero, if the word “British” is too jingoistic these days). He’s even set to get a couple of mentions in my next book. I’ll provide more detail about it in a future blog post, but for the moment I’ll just say that it’s on a spaceflight-related subject, and it’s due to be published by Icon Books this summer.
As of last month, the Soyuz capsule that carried Tim Peake to and from the International Space Station is also on display in the Science Museum, on the same floor as the Black Arrow rocket. I went to see it yesterday, and a couple of views of it can be seen in the picture below. This wasn’t the first time I’d come face to face with a Soyuz re-entry module – I saw one at the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow in 1997. But I’d forgotten how tiny (and vaguely Victorian-looking) they are!
Here are two items I bought in W. H. Smith’s recently. The first is a special (and very expensive) issue of the BBC Sky at Night magazine about the Apollo missions, and the second (a much better deal at the same price) is a repackaging of a 2008 Discovery Channel series about NASA spaceflights from Mercury to the Shuttle, together with another magazine. Presumably both items were put out for the Christmas gift market – mainly as a nostalgic treat for people of my generation, I guess, although it would be nice to think some youngsters are interested in the subject too.
I learned quite a lot from both items, particularly about the earlier and later missions. Although I was always interested in space, it was only in a vague, general way up until the Apollo 8 mission. That happened shortly after my 11th birthday, and it was the first one I really got drawn into – in the sense that I knew the astronauts’ names and avidly followed every little phase of the mission. This really intense awareness continued through Apollos 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13, but then started to get murky again after that point.
Not for the obvious reason, though. You might think, “well, of course, everyone lost interest in the later Apollo missions” – but that wasn’t it at all. I’ve got files of newspaper clippings I carefully cut out about Apollos 14 to 17, as well as Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz test project. I’ve got some photos and fact sheets about Skylab that I sent off to NASA for (as well as another batch about Apollo from a few years earlier). But I never absorbed the huge amounts of information about those later missions that I did for Apollo 8-13 – for the simple reason that the information just wasn’t there to be absorbed.
In the early 70s Britain only had three TV channels, and they were all in the “general entertainment” category. There were no purely factual channels, no 24-hour news channels … and of course no internet. The TV gave blanket coverage to things like Apollo 8 and Apollo 11, but later missions had to compete for airtime with soap operas, sports, comedy shows and the like. Key space events were still covered – live – but they had a frustrating tendency to happen when you were at school, or otherwise indisposed. People didn’t have video recorders in those days.
So it’s an over-simplification to say that “everyone lost interest in the later Apollo missions”. It was the mainstream media that lost interest – and in the 1970s, that was the only kind of media there was. We’re so much luckier today!