Author Archives: Doug Millard, Space Curator

From Vulcan to UAV

The Farnborough Air Show is a biennial jamboree that’s actually more market place than show. It’s where you come to buy aircraft or satellites or spare parts or just about anything you might need if your business is about flying high. 

Crowds watching Vulcan XH558 landing at the Farnborough Air Show, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Crowds watching Avro Vulcan XH558 landing at the Farnborough Air Show, 2010 (Doug Millard)

But this year I abandoned the trade halls to watch the Avro Vulcan XH558 bomber take off – its Olympus engines howling like no other jet, and then land, having thrilled the crowds with a beautiful, graceful and yes – awesome flying display – the only Vulcan that is airworthy. 

Vulcan XH558 soars overhead at Farnborough, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Vulcan XH558 soars overhead at Farnborough, 2010 (Doug Millard)

I got talking to Michael Trotter, Business Development Manager of the ‘Vulcan to the Sky’ Trust whose volunteers had made XH558 airworthy once more. He was interested in the Science Museum’s Blue Steel stand-off bomb – as carried by Vulcans during the Cold War. 

Blue Steel

Trial Version of Blue Steel now in the Science Museum's Collections (Science Museum/Science & Society)

I was thinking of this the other day while reading an RAF Defence Studies booklet on UAVs – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. According to its historical preamble the Blue Steel – which separated from the aircraft before accelerating to its target – would be classed as a form of UAV – after all, it was unmanned. But UAVs usually return to their owners – which the nuclear-tipped Blue Steel certainly wasn’t designed to do. 

Phoenix UAV shortly after launch, ca. 1990 (BAe Systems)

Phoenix UAV shortly after launch, ca. 1990 (BAe Systems)

The Phoenix UAV was designed to return – by parachute – having reconnoitred the battlefield, and the Museum recently acquired one to add to its small squadron of historic UAVs. 

The paper I was reading predicted an ever-increasing use of UAVs in the years to come. There were certainly plenty on static display at the Farnborough market place this year: 

Global Hawk, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Global Hawk, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Fire Scout,2010 (Doug Millard)

Fire Scout,2010 (Doug Millard)

Phantom Ray, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Phantom Ray, 2010 (Doug Millard)

 I wonder whether today’s market is likely to be tomorrow’s show?

Space Debris

X3/Prospero thermal surfaces experiment

X3/Prospero thermal surfaces experiment (Doug Millard, 2005)

This box contains a flight spare set of experimental surfaces for the Prospero satellite that was launched in 1971. They were designed to tell scientists more about how different satellite materials and finishes – matt, shiny etc, would behave in the temperature extremes of space.

It has always reminded me of a much larger experiment flown by NASA (LDEF - which stands for Long Duration Exposure Facility) that was covered with all sorts of equivalent surfaces.

LDEF satellite during its six year stay in orbit

LDEF satellite during its six year stay in orbit (NASA)

The LDEF was brought back to Earth in the Shuttle and scientists discovered that its surfaces were covered with impact craters from micro-meteoroids.

Micro-meteoroid impact crater on the LDEF satellite

Micro-meteoroid impact crater on the LDEF satellite (NASA)

That was back in the 1980s but if the mission were to be repeated now it would almost certainly suffer many more collisions from the bits of space debris that we have put up there. There are thousands upon thousands of pieces of rocket and spacecraft circling Earth and it is becoming a big problem for satellite operators.

Computer representation of just some of the debris pieces orbiting Earth

Computer representation of just some of the debris pieces orbiting Earth (NASA)

At a meeting last week Air Commodore Stuart Evans RAF, Head of Joint Doctrine, Air and Space, DCDC, pointed out that ‘all nine sectors of the UK’s critical national infrastructure (communications, emergency services, government and public services, finance, energy, food, health, transport and water) all rely, to a greater or lesser degree, on space.

What to do about the debris problem, then? There is no simple answer at the moment and all the space players can do is ensure as little new debris is created as possible.

Prospero is still in orbit and next October scientists hope to re-contact it for its 40th anniversary. They won’t be able to examine those experimental surfaces but if they could I wonder what state they would be in now!

Birds’ Eye Views

I wonder if the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) had a little-known sub-section devoted to pigeon fanciers.  A branch, perhaps (or a wing)? How else to explain the preponderance of interesting  features high up on old buildings that are indistinct at street level but – presumably – clear as bread crumbs to passing pigeons?

I was mulling this over yesterday as I squinted at the figures and details of The Treasury’s Whitehall pediment, and then again while attempting to make out the features on one of Imperial College’s older buildings, just around the corner from the Science Museum.

Relief of the globe on the old Chemistry building of Imperial College

Relief of the globe on the old Chemistry building of Imperial College (Doug Millard, 2010)

Albertopolis, as this corner of South Kensington has often been referred to, is awash with such elevated and hard-to-make-out architectural treats. Yesterday I was struggling to read the inscriptions on the other Albert Memorial, the one round the back of the Albert Hall and at the top of the steps (where Michael Caine fought Oliver MacGreevey in ‘The Ipcress File’).

Memorial to Albert and the Great Exhibition of 1851

Memorial to Albert and the Great Exhibition of 1851 (Doug Millard, 2010)

It’s a hugely important monument, commemorating as it does the Great Exhibition of 1851 – the proceeds of which paid for many of the buildings of Albertopolis (the educational institutions, the museums and, of course, the Hall) – and the man behind it, Albert Francis Augustus Charles Emanuel, The Prince Consort.

Harrison's Power Loom, 1851

This loom can be seen in the Science Museum's 'Making the Modern World' gallery but was first displayed in the 'Machinery in Motion' part of the Great Exhibition in 1851 (Science Museum/Science&Society)

But the exhibition itself was in Hyde Park and save passing references to its location on the maps at the Park entrances there is no monument at or near to where Paxton’s gigantic ‘Crystal Palace’ once stood.

Site of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park

Site of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park (Doug Millard, 2010)

I wonder if, with the recent dry weather revealing ancient disturbances of the ground, it is the pigeons that once again are best placed to appreciate, I would argue, the under-recognised site of one of London’s most significant cultural events.

FM: No Static At All

Our car is still fitted with a cassette player. Albums from long ago (Steely Dan and Beatles are current favourites) provide regular entertainment on journeys and are also enjoyed by the younger members of the family. I suppose we should have moved over to a CD player or something more exotic still, but somehow it seems unnecessary while the cassettes hold out (now 25 years old plus and still working fine!)

8-Track audio tape

8-Track tapes like this one dominated the American in-car market between the 1960s and 1980s but were then killed off by the improved audio quality of the handy cassette. (Science Museum/Science & Society)

I suppose the same can now be said of the car’s FM radio, given government Culture Minister Ed Vaizey’s announcement last week that the digital radio switch-over will happen, but only when a vast majority of listeners have voluntarily adopted digital radio over analogue.

He went on to highlight in-car radio as one of the biggest challenges facing the digital switch-over. This because of the difficulty in receiving digital signals while moving at speed. Once again, why bother to spend money on new technology when the old still works just fine.  He threw down the gauntlet to the car manufacturers to work towards some solutions.

But, although we choose perhaps to forget it, this tendency to delay novelty in favour of that which already works is by no means uncommon.

Smoothwell electric iron, 1935

Smoothwell electric iron, 1935 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Take another domestic technology – the electric iron: it’s changed little over at least 70 years. Neither, by and large, has the basic form of the bicycle, now well into its second century of pedalling.

Rover 'Safety' Bicycle, 1885
Rover ‘Safety’ Bicycle, 1885 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

And at the other end of the cost spectrum – we still use rockets adapted from 1950s inter continental ballistic missiles to launch satellites and probes into space – they exist, we know lots about them, they do the job – why fix things that aren’t bust?

A Delta 2 Rocket launches the Kepler space observatory in 2009

A Delta 2 Rocket launches the Kepler space observatory in 2009 (NASA/Regina Mitchell-Ryall, Tom Farrar)

So novelty is no guarantee of successful innovation. Maybe Steely Dan had something to say about it in one of the songs we were listening to in the car: ‘FM – No Static at All.’

No Laughing Matter

A Scientific Lecture, 1802

Gilray's 'A Scientific Lecture', 1802, depicts Humphry Davy 'bellowing' laughing gas

What have Humphry Davy, Mike Melvill and my dentist got in common? Answer: They’ve all exploited the chemistry of nitrous oxide, popularly known as ‘laughing gas’.

Davy experimented with euphoria-inducing properties of the gas with his friends Samuel Taylor Coleridge and James Watt. Davy was working at the Pneumatic Institution, set up by Thomas Beddoes to investigate the medical properties of inhaled or ‘factitous airs’. Davy pursued his experiments – part scientific, part recreational – with his normal con brio and was fortunate not to have seriously damaged his and others’ health.

Lucy Baldwin's Analgesic Apparatus, 1955-80

Lucy Baldwin's Analgesic Apparatus, 1955-80, mixed oxygen and nitrous oxide during midwifery (Science Museum/Science & Society)

My dentist, alongside doctors and medics, has long employed nitrous oxide as an analgesic, to relax patients and as a prelude to anaesthesia.

And Mike Melvill? Well, as pilot of SpaceShipOne, the world’s first privately developed spacecraft, he depended on its ability to oxidise rocket fuel for the thrust that carried him spaceward on his pioneering sub-orbital flight of 2004.

Dobson Ozone spectrometer, 1926

Dobson Ozone spectrometer, 1926. Dobson's technique for detecting ozone led to the discovery of the ozone hole over Antartica in 1985. (Science Museum/Science & Society)

So nitrous oxide has a variety of uses but it also has a dark side. Whether produced naturally or by industrial activity it leads to ozone depletion of the upper atmosphere. This lets in more of the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet radiation which the ozone molecules normally absorb. Plus, nitrous oxide acts as a particularly effective greenhouse gas, trapping the heat re-radiated from the Earth’s surface and causing global temperature rises.

No laughing matter indeed.

Blame the Satellite

Blame the manager, the ref, the team… I blame the satellite. Before the space age and communications satellites there was no live TV coverage of the World Cup and we could all get on with our work and jobs around the house and garden.

Robomo lawnmowing machine, 1966

Robomo lawnmowing machine, 1966 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

It was just another international sporting event covered by radio, recorded television reports and on the back pages of the newspapers. There was less tension, less hype and, to put it bluntly, less interest. Oh, how times have changed.

Master Football Game, 1945-60

With no live World Cup football on TV until the 1960s slot machines like this Master Football Game were popular, 1945-60 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Telstar relayed the very first TV pictures by satellite in 1962. The event was a technological triumph, a harbinger of near-real time global culture and, not least, the inspiration for one of the most distinctive pop records ever made.

First live TV transmission by the Telstar 1 satellite, 1962

Fred Kappel of AT&T speaks to a trans-Atlantic audience during the first live TV transmission by the Telstar 1 satellite, 1962

Telstar 1 Satellite (replica), 1962

Telstar 1 Satellite (replica), 1962 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Telstar, though, occupied an orbit that made continuous broadcast impossible. After a while the satellite would dip below the horizon and the signal it was relaying would be lost.

The development of more powerful space rockets allowed satellites to be launched to the far higher geostationary belt around the Earth’s equator. At an altitude of 36,000m, the satellites’ orbital rates match that of the Earth’s rotation so ‘anchoring’ them at fixed points above the horizon.

Today’s World Cup is being brought to our homes by a fleet of such communications satellitest that collect and distribute the action from South Africa to countries around the world.

BSkyB satellite receiving antenna

BSkyB satellite receiving antenna, 2010 (Doug Millard).

 This can then be beamed back up to a set of Direct Broadcast Satellites (DBS), also occupying the geostationary orbit, which relay them down to the satellite dishes that adorn our walls and roofs.

It is the DBS industry that has invested in the English football league and especially the Premiership, so helping make it the most successful domestic football league in the world. But that’s still no guarantor of success on the pitch…

Space and Ti(e)me

It’s been an astronomical few days: The Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society appeared on the radio to talk about all the big scientific truths that, apparently, ‘we’ll never know’, we celebrated the Summer Solstice, we saw Dr Who at Stonehenge, and - last Thursday - the Director of the Taipei Astronomical Museum came to the Science Museum.

As a parting gift he presented me with a tie depicting the Sun and planets. I had come to work in suit and open collar shirt so I was able to don it immediately much to his delight.

Ties (left to right) Japanese Space Agency, HOTOL project, Hubble Space Telescope, Taipei Astronomical Museum, European Space Agency, Huygens mission

Ties (left to right) Japanese Space Agency, HOTOL project, Hubble Space Telescope, Taipei Astronomical Museum, European Space Agency, Huygens mission (Doug Millard, 2010)

I’ve acquired several space ties over the years and worn all of them but, like other items recently discussed on this blog, there is also good reason for adding them to the Museum’s collections.

Wearing or giving a tie makes a social statement. Many a historian of science argues that we can understand the scientific process better by studying the social world of the scientist, so why shouldn’t this include studies of their tie-wearing world?

The tie in 21st century science tends to be reserved for official occasions with most practising scientists working in open-neck shirts and tops. Wearing a ready-made noose in the laboratory or workshop might not be the best plan…

Scientist sporting tie (and pipe), 1970

Scientist sporting tie (and pipe), 1970 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

I discovered we do already have some neckties in the Collections including those worn by staff members of the Royal Train, one made especially to mark the third Millennium which is adorned with stars, space rockets and a quote from Einstein: (‘I never think of the future. It comes soon enough’).

Millennium Tie with Einstein Quote

Millennium Tie with Einstein Quote (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Maybe we should acquire one of Dr Who’s bow ties too, despite the Astronomer Royal reminding us that the time machine will likely remain forever fiction.

Tempestuous Times

The other day I caught part of a short play on the radio. Prospero, Ariel, Reith and Gill told the story – partly imagined – of sculptor Eric Gill’s contretemps with BBC Director General John Reith in 1932. The occasion was the unveiling of Gill’s Ariel and Prospero on the edifice of Broadcasting House, the BBC’s newly built headquarters.

Prospero and Ariel, Broadcasting House, London.

Prospero and Ariel, Broadcasting House, London (Doug Millard, 2010).

Prospero and Ariel are leading characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest but their names were also used for two of Britain’s earliest satellites. Ariel 1 was launched in 1962 as the world’s first international spacecraft: the United States provided the satellite structures and launching rocket, Britain designed the on-board experiments. A further five Ariel satellites were launched with Ariel V one of the most successful early X-ray observatories.

Ariel 1 flight spare (now at The Royal Society) in the Science Museum, 1990

Ariel 1 flight spare (now at the Royal Society) in the Science Museum, 1990 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

The Prospero satellite, on the other hand, was an entirely British affair with Britain also providing the launch vehicle – Black Arrow – to boost it into orbit in 1971. Its successor – Miranda (daughter of Prospero) – was launched in 1974 by a US Scout rocket, Black Arrow having been cancelled.

Prospero satellite flight spare on its Black Arrow third stage motor, 2000

Prospero satellite flight spare on its Black Arrow third stage motor, 2000 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Shakespeare’s original characters endure turbulent times before Prospero renounces sorcery and releases the spirit Ariel from the magical bondage he had cast it into.

Britain’s Ariel 1 satellite did not enjoy quite such a happy outcome as much of its successful scientific capability was lost just three months after launch following the test detonation of a high-altitude nuclear bomb.

Prospero, which will continue to orbit throughout the century – may yet exhibit a flicker of life when scientists attempt to make contact with it next year during its 40th anniversary.

Corrosive Atmosphere

A few days ago I drove past the ‘umbilical’ tower for NASA’s new (but now postponed) Ares rocket programme.

Ares launch tower at Kennedy Space Centre, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Although smaller it is reminiscent of the far taller structures of project Apollo.

Apollo 13's Saturn V and tower, 1969

Apollo 13's Saturn V and tower, 1969 (NASA)

Both Ares and Saturn were ‘mated’ to their respective towers inside the vast Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and then rolled out on a ‘crawler’ to launch pad 39 A or B at the stately rate of 1 mph. The towers for the soon to be terminated Shuttle programme, on the other hand, were permanent fixtures at each of the two pads with a Shuttle, standing alone on its launch platform, brought ever so carefully the 3 1/2 miles to its designated pad.

Space Shuttle Endeavour 'crawls' to its launch tower at Pad 39A, 2010

Space Shuttle Endeavour 'crawls' to its launch tower at Pad 39A, 2010 (NASA)

Why did NASA revert to bringing Ares vehicle and tower out to the pad for each launch before returning the vacated tower to the VAB? Rust.

The Kennedy Space Centre is situated on the Florida coast and is therefore permanently doused in salty, moist air. The Shuttle launching structures required near constant attention to deal with the corrosion problem. Rusting is an electro-chemical process so, by definition, generates electricity – the first wet cell batteries exploited the principle.

Bichromate cell, 1876

Bichromate cell, 1876 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

And this signals another headache NASA had to deal with when the mighty VAB itself was being constructed. The building is enormous, comprising almost 100,000 tonnes of steel work, and still one of the largest by volume in the world (it had to be to be able to enclose the 363’ tall Saturn V rocket).

Construction of the VAB, 1964

Construction of the VAB, 1964 (NASA)

But its steel pile foundations have to reach down some 50 feet to solid bedrock… through a salty solution – perfect conditions for electro-chemistry to do its rusty worst! NASA realised that if they did not protect the steel piles they would not only have corroded the steel beams and piles but also, in effect, turned the whole VAB into ‘the world’s largest wet cell battery’.

Making Space

Office move time again: sorting, listing, boxing, chucking… all a bit of a chore. But then you come across something a little out of the ordinary – like a Destination Mars Regenerative Life Support Challenge.

Destination Mars Kit (Doug Millard)

Destination Mars Kit (Doug Millard)

This is a school kit put together by the Museum of Science in Boston, Lockheed Martin and NASA back in 1998. It contains all sorts of goodies to teach youngsters about how people might survive on Mars. It even includes a pack of seeds flown on Shuttle mission STS-86 in 2007.

There was a time when such items would not be considered for the Science Museum’s Collections: they would have been classed as ephemera and used only in support activities like talks and workshops. But Destination Mars should be formally accessioned now because  it can tell stories about current and future space exploration, the scientific and technological challenges of going to Mars, space education and, of course, a specific Shuttle mission (that also happened to return a British born astronaut – Michael Foale from the Mir space station in 1997).

Shuttle orbiter Atlantis completes mission STS-86

Shuttle orbiter Atlantis completes mission STS-86, 1997 (Nasa)

We are told we live in a digital world (this blog does support the argument) but I think there will long be a role for physical things like the Destination Mars kit. There’s something about the artefact that appeals, and particularly to the young as they explore and make their way in life. Sometimes it stimulates a life-long interest, maybe points towards a future career.

Finding the kit reminded me of something else in the office that should also go into the collections: Touchdown on the Moon.

Touchdown on the Moon pack

Touchdown on the Moon pack (Doug Millard)

I remember buying one of these packs from North Finchley WHSmiths in 1969. ‘This Spacecraft Commander’s Kit puts you inside Apollo to share every hour of flight and lunar exploration’, it says. It did that and - come to think of it -  help steer me towards that office which is now, just about, cleared and ready for the next occupant.