Category Archives: Space

The goodness of wood

I stumbled across an old Monty Python sketch the other day that plays with words pleasing to the ear (‘woody’) or displeasing (‘tinny’). I chortled (nice woody word) but then started thinking about wood and science - we don’t often associate the two and we’re culturally conditioned to associate wood with words like ‘old’:

Roe Triplane at Lea Marshes, 1909

Roe Triplane at Lea Marshes, 1909 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

and ‘amateur’;

Man Sawing Wood, 1997

Man Sawing Wood, 1997 (Science Museum/Science & society)

But appearances can be deceptive as the Mosquito aircraft demonstrated. It may have resembled its alloy contemporaries of World War 2 but its sleek exterior cloaked a strong, lightweight structure of balsa, birch and spruce.

And the very obviously metallic masts and aerials of Rugby Radio Station, long standing landmark twixt the A5 and M1, relied on a hidden, cathedral of wood – the Linden or Lime Wood-supporting structure for the transmitter’s tuning coil assembly.

Rugby Radio Station’s Very Low Frequency Tuning Coil Assembly, 2004

Rugby Radio Station’s Very Low Frequency Tuning Coil Assembly, 2004, (Science Museum).

And lest we think of the space age as an era of quintessentially expensive and exotic materials we should remember that Apollo astronauts needed cork to get to the Moon (it lined the boost protective cover that protected their command module and windows should the launch escape system be used),

Apollo Launch Escape System, 1968

Apollo Launch Escape System, 1968 (NASA)

and that China’s Fanhui Shei Weixing reconnaissance satellite had oak in its heat shield to help it ablate (burn away and dissipate the heat of atmospheric re-entry).

England expects…

London is the space insurance capital of the world. If you have a £150m satellite to cover then you’ll probably end up talking to an underwriter based at Lloyd’s in the City.

I was mulling this over as I gazed up at Nelson on top of his column in Trafalgar Square the other day - I’d been taking a small detour to see what was going on in Downing Street – it was the morning after the general election.

Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, under construction, April 1844

Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, under construction, April 1844 (Science & Society)

As I walked on down Whitehall I thought of the words I had read on the floor of Lloyds just two days earlier: ‘England Expects that every man will do his duty’. This immortal prose - a signal sent by Nelson just before the Battle of Trafalgar - is preserved in the logbook of HMS Euryalus, an observing, non-combatant ship now displayed amongst Lloyd’s Nelson Collection.

Nelson’s flagship communicated to the fleet by a system of semaphore flags hoisted from its masts. It is likely (does anyone know for sure?) that related messages, once reaching land, were hastened to the Admiralty via semaphore towers that stretched from Portsmouth to London. I’m old enough to remember the working model of a similar ‘Chappe’ tower in the Science Museum’s old Children’s Gallery.

Children's Gallery and model of Chappe Telegraph, 1954

Children's Gallery and model of Chappe Telegraph, 1954 (Science Museum/SSPL)

Times moved on and optical telegraph gave way to electrical and then radio.

Today the armed forces use satellites with the Skynet series another of the UK’s unsung space technology successes. But such military spacecraft are not insured at Lloyds: the government (i.e. the tax-payer) picks up the bill should anything go wrong!

In space, no one can hear country music

If ‘in space, no one can hear you scream’, as the publicity for the film Alien says, then certainly no one can hear Country music. Except, that is, if they are in a spaceship.

Apollo Ten, 1969 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Outer space is a vacuum and – like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 crew – you can travel through it in a private capsule of sound. Each of the astronauts was allowed to take one tape on the mission, and Country music was the preference of two of them. Cowboy music. Music for opening-up a new frontier.

During the Apollo concert, July 2009 (Gaetan Lee)

Last year, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the moon landings, the Science Museum, with new music promoters Sound & Music, staged the first live performances of Apollo, the score to Al Reinert’s film For All Mankind. The arrangement was by Wujun Lee, and performed by Icebreaker with BJ Cole on pedal steel guitar – and that’s where the Country music comes in. Brian Eno - who created the music with his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois – was very tickled by the astronaut’s choice, and so incorporated slide guitar into the sound.

BJ Cole (BJ Cole)

Apollo 10 Command Module, 1969

Apollo 10 Command Module, 1969 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Afterwards, excited punters paused in our Making the Modern World looking with renewed interest at our Apollo 10 capsule.

Now the Apollo concerts have broken free of the Science Museum’s gravity and have begun to appear in new orbits. Last weekend saw new performances at the Brighton Festival. Apollo will be performed at Camp Bestival (30 July) and Aldeburgh (23 Aug), before going on tour throughout the UK in the autumn.

Up in the air?

Recently I received an email alerting me to the launch of the United States Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane, a winged, unmanned mini-shuttle capable of reaching orbit and then returning autonomously to Earth.

Earlier that day I had been looking at 1960s military wave rider wind-tunnel models at the Science Museum’s main store.

Two waverider wind tunnel configurations trailing pressure sensor cables

Two waverider wind tunnel configurations trailing pressure sensor cables (V. Carroll)

A wave rider is a particular design of aerodynamic wing – for planes and missiles travelling at hypersonic speeds (at least five times the speed of sound) – in which air trapped beneath the vehicle’s underside actually enhances its performance (no classroom jokes, please).

Problem is, such designs – some were incorporated in the massive XB-70 ‘Valkyrie’ bomber, have never really worked that well.

XB-70A bomber used some wave rider features, 1965 (NASA)

Sunday’s paper carried another story, this time about the launch of the United States Defence Advanced Research Project’s Agency’s (DARPA) HTV-2 or Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2:  an unmanned, rocket-launched, manoeuvrable, hypersonic air vehicle that glides through the Earth’s atmosphere at incredibly fast speeds—up to Mach 20.

On the way home last night I dipped into David Edgerton’s ‘The Shock of the Old’ in which he suggests that some of today’s aerospace technologies are little changed from those of forty and fifty years ago… and still not all they are made out to be.

I expect the latest launches from the USAF and DARPA will also fizzle and pop towards cancellation, like many of their predecessors, their high velocity achievements still only inching us forward at incrementally slow rates.

But, if the novel technologies touted – aerodynamic shape… thermal protection structures… autonomous hypersonic navigation guidance and control systems… prove  truly effective then, just perhaps, we are about to enter a new era of prompt global reach and swift access to space with all the implications that holds.

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? I ask with the new ‘United Kingdom Space Agency’ in mind. The ‘muscular’ new space agency was launched with a new punchy logo but, I fear, a rather weak name. We might shorten it to something pronounced UK-SAR or perhaps to a simple abbreviation reading YOO-KAY-ESS-AY.

Back in the 60s a fair chunk of UK space research was carried out at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE – pronounced AR-AY-EE) in Farnborough, Hampshire.

The Science Museum has many examples of the Establishment’s experimental work, which extended well beyond space endeavours like the Skylark rocket:

Skylark rocket launch

Skylark rocket launch (Science & Society)

To aviation research including the Concorde project and high altitude suiting:

Upper half of partial-pressure suit, ca. 1954

Upper half of partial-pressure suit, ca. 1954 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

And on to breakthrough technologies, like the strengthening of carbon fibre:

Oven for making carbon fibre, ca. mid 1960s

Oven for making carbon fibre, ca. mid 1960s (Science Museum/Science & Society)

But back to the RAE name itself, which substituted ‘Air’ with ‘Aerospace’ in 1988 then, as rationalisation and privatisation beckoned, ditched the whole caboodle in favour of DRA (Defence Research Agency), DERA (Defence Evaluation Research Agency) and finally to the present post-privatisation forms of QinetiQ – the company – and DSTL (Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) – a government agency… which brings us back to UKSA.

On April 1st 2010 UKSA takes over from BNSC (British National Space Centre) which had been coordinating the UK’s various space activities for over 25 years. Some say it was doomed because it lacked a dedicated budget or executive powers, but I suspect the main reason it was finally killed off was its lack of vowels: BNSC - try making a memorable acronym out of that…

Whereas NASA – whoa! Consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel, guaranteed to stick in the mind. That’s really how America got to the Moon – by perfecting the art of abbreviating and acronyming. They made a science of it.

Will UKSA achieve the same? Best ask how the following got on with the same letters: United Kingdom Sailing Academy; United Kingdom Skateboarding Academy and United Kingdom & Irish Samba Association … and there’s plenty more where these came from.

Clean eyes, clean rockets

So, what’s the connection between contact lenses and rocket engines? The answer, I probably don’t hear you cry, is hydrogen peroxide and cleanliness.

Blown glass contact lens, 1930s (Science useum/Science & Society)

You see, to clean my newly acquired contacts involves bathing them overnight in a solution of hydrogen peroxide. Peroxide is a pretty powerful chemical agent and disinfects the lenses in 6 hours. If you put your lenses in too soon the still active chemical will turn on your eyeballs and cause them to gush tears like Gordon Ramsay’s head onion peeler. After six hours, though, the peroxide is decomposed and all you are left with is clean and lifeless water.

The lens holder includes a small piece of material (I have yet to identify it) that catalyses the decomposition of the peroxide solution. If it didn’t then the peroxide would remain and, having successfully killed the bugs on your lenses, then do its best to kill the cells of your cornea too. And this is where the rocket engine connection comes in.

The reaction that decomposes the peroxide also produces oxygen – you can see it bubbling off the catalytic material. That same type of reaction, albeit using extremely concentrated hydrogen peroxide, was exploited in the engines of Britain’s Black Arrow space rocket to launch the Prospero satellite into orbit in 1971.

Uprated Black Arrow rocket engine, c. 1970 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

The catalyst used was silver metal gauze and it decomposed the peroxide violently into oxygen and steam, which then ignited kerosene fuel, and so provided thrust to lift the rocket. In fact, earlier rocket engines dispensed with fuel altogether and replied on the thrust of the decomposing peroxide alone.

Oh, and the cleanliness connection? Well, peroxide rocket engines are considered ‘clean’ or green as their exhaust, after all, contains little more than oxygen and steam.

The show must go on

I had decided to write a few lines on a Museum object called Silverbird. On a whim I asked Wikipedia to show me what it could find and I was delighted to learn also of a similarly named passerine bird native to Eastern Africa, a former software label of BT from the mid 1980s and even Leo Sayer’s debut album.

Science Museum’s scale model of Silbervogel

Science Museum’s scale model of Silbervogel. (Science Museum)

Despite such tempting distractions I decided to stick with my Silverbird, or the more accurately named Silbervogel, the Museum’s scale model of a 1930s winged and rocket-propelled, sub-orbital bomber that was designed to climb into space, glide back through the atmosphere and drop its deadly payload on the enemy.

Silbervogel had been the brainchild of Eugen Sanger while a research student in Vienna. He went on to work for the Luftwaffe and in post-war years for the French Air Ministry before returning to Germany to continue his pioneering aerospace research. Just the other day his son popped into the Museum to be filmed alongside the model.

American test pilots by the HL-10 Lifting Body aircraft. (NASA/Science Museum)

American test pilots by the HL-10 Lifting Body aircraft. (NASA/Science Museum)

Silbervogel never flew, but it did influence aviation and space projects during the 1950s and 1960s, including the X-15 rocket plane, the Lifting Body aircraft configuration and the early research on what became the US Space Shuttle. That’s why the Museum’s workshops constructed our model: to provide some historical context to the old Exploration of Space gallery’s Shuttle display case.

First launch of the Shuttle, 1981 (NASA/Science Museum)

First launch of the Shuttle, 1981 (NASA/Science Museum)

Of course, the Shuttle programme itself is now nearing the end of its life and with President Obama cancelling NASA’s plans to go back to the moon it is far from clear where the US will aim for next in space. Leo Sayer’s next song on his Silverbird album is The Show Must Go On. But it’s by no means clear that it will.

Moon Man Nasmyth

While growing up, when I wasn’t busy playing with hammers, I was intrigued by the Moon and I would act out Lego explorations of the Lunarscape. Two interests that that I have in common with engineer James Hall Nasmyth – whose invention of the steam hammer I explored in an earlier post.

Astronomy was one of Nasmyth’s passions and when he retired in 1856, he had more time to devote to scientific investigation.

He used this 20-inch reflecting telescope for looking at the Moon and Sun.

Nasmyth's 20 inch reflecting telescope (Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

I first came across it on a visit to our Blythe House store, and I was drawn to the huge grey iron lump of a telescope amongst a display of slender wood and brass ones. You can really see his history in making industrial machinery.

Nasmyth used his chunky telescope to make detailed drawings and plaster models of his observations, and co-wrote a book with James Carpenter called The Moon, Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite.

It was impossible at the time to photograph all that he could see through his telescope, so instead he photographed his plaster models for use in the book.

Plaster relief model of a portion of the Moon

Plaster relief model of a portion of the Moon by James Nasmyth (Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

So two of our museum objects – a massive hammer and a lumpy telescope – have led to me on a journey through the story of James Hall Nasmyth. I jumped for joy last year when I saw that that same lumpy telescope was taken from storage and put on display as the entrance piece of our new Cosmos & Culture exhibition.

Nasmyth's telescope at the entrance of Cosmos & Culture

Nasmyth's telescope at the entrance of Cosmos & Culture (Science Museum)

Finding Pluto

Eighty years ago today, a young American astronomer discovered tiny Pluto. Clyde Tombaugh was searching for a predicted ‘Planet X’ that might explain oddities in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus.

Tombaugh spent months painstakingly photographing the same sections of sky and studying the images with a blink comparator. On 18 Feburary 1930, he noticed that on photographs taken a few nights apart that January, one ‘star’ had moved, indicating that it was actually a nearby object moving against the fixed background of distant stars. Further observations confirmed the discovery, which was announced to the world that March.

This Lowell Observatory photograph announcing the discovery shows Pluto marked with arrows. (Image: Science Museum)

Despite the fanfare, Pluto turned out not to be Planet X – Tombaugh had just been looking in the right place at the right time. Subsequent observations revealed that Pluto was too small to match the predictions. Eventually, revised calculations of Netpune and Uranus’s orbits removed the need for Planet X altogether.

Things got worse for Pluto by the 2000s, with astronomers discovering a slew of similarly-sized bodies beyond Neptune. Either our Solar System had a lot more planets than anyone had realised, or it was time to rethink what counts as a planet. On 24 August 2006 the International Astronomical Union voted on a new definition, demoting Pluto to ‘dwarf planet’.

‘Save Pluto’ campaigns were quick to follow. This bumper sticker was one of the first products to go on sale.

For ... (Image: Science Museum)

However, it didn’t take very long for someone to come up with a response:

... and against. (Image: Science Museum)

The IAU’s definition of ‘planet’ remains controversial, so there may be hope for Pluto yet. Because it’s so faraway and faint we still know very little about it, but a spacecraft called New Horizons is due to fly by in 2015. It’s carrying some of Tombaugh’s ashes.

You can see the bumper stickers and the photograph in Cosmos & Culture, while a detector for New Horizons is on display in Exploring Space.

Do the maths!

It’s a real privilege to get right up close to an object; being able to read an inscription; noticing the wear and tear; discovering an unexpected little detail. A few years ago I examined the Museum’s Beta 1 – a late 1940s rocket engine – and spotted the letters ‘T STOFF INLET’ inlet stamped on one of the valves.

Beta 1 rocket engine inscription

My discovery on the Beta 1 rocket engine © Science Museum / Science & Society

This British engine was a precursor to those used on the Black Arrow space rocket and I knew of its German ancestry but was still delighted to find clear evidence preserved on the artefact (T Stoff was the German term for hydrogen peroxide oxidiser).

Of course, the problem with many museum objects is that they have to be kept behind glass.

The Apollo 10 command module – one of the Museum’s Centenary icons – is rather fortunately not enclosed but has still to be physically isolated from the visitor with a barrier and from air-born dust by Perspex covers over the hatch and docking port.

Apollo 10 command module, 1969

Apollo 10 command module, 1969 © Science Museum / Science & Society

So for one day only in May of 2009, to commemorate the mission’s 40th anniversary, we sought permission from the spacecraft’s owner – the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum – to VERY CAREFULLY allow people up close to peer inside the spacecraft.

It took a lot of organising, but it was wonderful to see the reactions of the very young visitors who, with help from mum or dad, enjoyed looking in at the truly space age control consoles of the spacecraft.

Computer keyboard, Apollo 10.

Computer keyboard, Apollo 10 © Science Museum / Science & Society

They could just about make out the hurried pencil jottings that the astronauts had made near their computer console. They’d probably been working out some bearings or the timing of a rocket engine burn. As the astronauts say themselves: if you want to be an astronaut you need to work hard at school and do the maths!