Archive for April, 2011

A little self-promotion

April 21, 2011

Last week, on Yuri’s Day, I announced on my blog It Doesn’t Have To Be Right… that I would be editing a hard science fiction anthology for Mutation Press. It will be called Rocket Science and will be published in 2012. There is a website here with full details.

This week, I created a blog for the anthology – Rocket Science News. On it, I plan to write about anything relevant which takes my fancy. I’ve already posted a short piece on spaceplanes. And another on a touchstone work I’m currently reading. News about the anthology will also be posted there.

So, if you’re interested in submitting to Rocket Science – and I’m taking non-fiction as well as fiction – or would like to purchase a copy when it’s published next year, keep an eye on Rocket Science News.

Happy Gagarin Day

April 12, 2011

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin‘s historic flight. On 12 April 1961, aboard Vostok 1, Gagarin became the first human being in space. He madeone orbit of the Earth, in one hour and forty-eight minutes. In order to claim the FAI world record, the pilot has to be in the spacecraft when it lands, but Gagarin actually ejected seven kilometres above the ground and descended by parachute. This only came to light after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It does not not in any way invalidate Gagarin’s achievement.

Today is also the thirtieth anniverary of the launch of Columbia, the first Space Shuttle to reach orbit. Sadly, Columbia was lost on 1 February 2003 when it broke up on re-entry after sixteen days in orbit, killing all seven of its crew.

Gagarin’s flight ushered in over a decade of astonishing achievements in space, by both Soviet cosmonauts and US astronauts. The Apollo Moon landings were, of course, the pinnacle. The Space Shuttle programme – with a design resulting from a series of unwise compromises – never made travel to orbit as routine as NASA had hoped, but after two decades of political vacillation it did finally gives us the International Space Station. It could also be argued that the Shuttle has restricted humanity to Earth orbit for the foreseeable future. The rest of the Solar system, the really exciting missions, now belongs to robots. And now the Shuttle is to be retired. Only two are still flying, and both will be decommissioned later this year.

It would be a shame if the achievements of the last fifty years in crewed space travel were to prove an historical aberration. Yuri Gagarin led the way, and each year we should honour that by doing more in space, by putting into effect plans to take us beyond the Moon, out to where the future of our race truly lies.

The Space Station, Kent Alexander

April 9, 2011

One of the interesting aspects of reading books about the Space Race and space exploration is discovering past space programmes that might have been. Perhaps in some alternative universe, they do indeed exist, the decisions which scuppered the projects in our history having gone differently. The Space Station by Kent Alexander is a relatively late – historically speaking – entry into this genre as it describes the plans and intentions of the US programme during the 1980s for a manned space outpost.

At that time, of course, the Soviet Union still existed and remained the West’s implacable foe. Indeed, The Space Station does not mention Salyut at all, names Mir only in passing, and incorrectly identifies Alan Shepard as “the first man to venture into space”. But then the book does read in place like more of a propaganda piece, declaring in the final chapter that “if the United States is to be the leader in improving the general well-being of humankind on Earth and in space beyond the twentieth century…” In the twenty-three years since the book was published, the USA can hardly be said to have successfully implemented that particular policy.

When The Space Station is not celebrating the US, it is celebrating NASA and its ambitions. NASA’s achievements are passed over quickly in an introductory chapter. The second chapter opens with Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address of January 1984, and his call in it for “NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and do it within a decade” (the speech is not quoted in The Space Station), before discussing the numerous studies and reports on space stations put together by astronauts, scientists and administrators at NASA. The book is copiously illustrated – with artists’ impressions and mock-ups – of space station concepts by US aeronautical companies. One chapter is titled ‘International Participation’ and discusses the role the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan would play in the US space programme. No mention, of course, of Russia – despite the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of thirteen years earlier. Much is made of the projected costs of the proposed space station – an initial estimate of $8 billion was revised upwards to $13 billion (and to $30 billion in 1989). With each new price-tag came a diminishment in the space station’s capabilities. It was these two factors which eventually led to the demise of the project. Incidentally, though the space station described by The Space Station is Space Station Freedom (as was), it was not given the name until June 1988, after the book was written.

Ironically, the International Space Station, which grew out of Space Station Freedom, has to date cost some $100 billion.

The Space Station describes an interesting might-have-been, which means it is of debatable usefulness as a history of the US space programme or US space stations. Its failure to look outside the USA also counts against it. While the illustrations in the book are interesting, the real world has turned too much of its contents into alternative history. This gives the book little more than curiosity value. A much better book on space stations is Roger D Launius’s Space Stations: Base Camps to the Stars (see here).

The Space Station, Kent Alexander (1988, Gallery Books, ISBN 0-8317-7940-3, 134pp + ‘Further Reading’ and index)