Category Archives: Space

Space Oddity

A guest post from Kate Campbell-Payne, Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

Chris Hadfield is part of a very exclusive group – he is one of only 194 people in the history of our planet to have walked in the space around it. He’s spent 166 days outside our atmosphere and even recorded an album at 431km above the Earth.

On 9 December 2014, he’s landing at the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester for an on-air chat with BBC Radio 5Live’s Afternoon Edition to discuss his unique career and his stunning new book of photographs, You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.

You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.

You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.

The title refers to the time it takes for the International Space Station to orbit the earth, 16 circumnavigations a day taking around an hour and a half each, offering a different perspective to its small band of inhabitants every time. As he writes in the introduction ‘…I never tired of looking out of the window. I don’t think any astronaut ever has, or will. Every chance we have, we float over to see what’s changed since we last went around the Earth.’ In the process he took around 45,000 photographs, capturing the surface of where most we live from a place hardly any of us will ever see.

Hadfield began posting his images on Twitter and soon garnered over 1 million followers. His desire to share his experiences in space with others has meant that he’s become a bit of a social media celebrity with a popular Tumblr blog and YouTube channel (over 24 million people have watched his rendition of Space Oddity performed while floating in space). During a period where space travel has dropped off most people’s radar, Hadfield has reignited the ‘every man’ sense of wonder about space. Rather than focussing on the technology, he has, once again, shown us just how cool being an astronaut really is.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield. Credit: NASA/VICTOR ZELENTSOV

Astronaut Chris Hadfield. Credit: NASA/VICTOR ZELENTSOV

Hadfield’s interview with Dan Walker and Sarah Brett on Afternoon Edition will take place in MOSI’s historic 1830 Warehouse, part of a complex built around the terminus of a very different type of transport, the first passenger railway. He’ll be chatting in front of 50 year 10 students from local schools and answering their questions on life in space. Though retired, Hadfield remains a popular figure with a unique perspective on life.

In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, he revealed one of his philosophies: ‘… if someone is willing to teach you something for free, take them up on it. Do it. Every single time. All it does is make you more likely to be able to succeed. And it’s kind of a nice way to go through life.’ This is great advice, especially with so many fantastic museums nearby. Just like seeing one of Hadfield’s tweets, visiting museums can be a discovery point, a place to see something you’ve never seen before. Who knows where that might lead? Maybe even outer space.

If you love Chris Hadfield’s incredible photos from space, you can send a postcard of one for free (for a limited time via Facebook) by clicking here http://bit.ly/1CZk8IC.

Human Spaceflight Enters a New Era

Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper of Technology and Engineering, reflects on Orion’s maiden voyage in space and NASA’s first step on the Journey to Mars.

THE ORION spacecraft that could loft humans to Mars in coming decades has made its maiden flight.

The conical craft, which looks Apollo on steroids, was launched on a Delta rocket out of Cape Canaveral in Florida on a short test flight in which it reached a height of 3,600 miles—15 times higher than the International Space Station and the farthest anyone has sent a human-spaceflight capsule since Apollo 17 returned from the Moon in 1972—and orbited the Earth twice.

The craft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, where it was recovered with help from the US Navy.

The launch marked the first mission of its type for almost half a century and will test key technologies to ensure that Nasa can send astronauts into Earth orbit and beyond – to the Moon, asteroids and ultimately to Mars.

Nasa’s chief scientist, Ellen Stofan, outlined Nasa’s vision during a talk in the Science Museum last month.

Currently the United States has no operational human-rated space launch system; astronauts are launched to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets.

Engineers installing the heat shield on NASA’s Orion spacecraft prior to its maiden space flight.  Orion is similar to the Apollo capsule design but larger, heavier and capable of carrying four astronauts – one more than Apollo could.  Image Credit:  NASA/Daniel Casper

Engineers installing the heat shield on NASA’s Orion spacecraft prior to its maiden space flight. Orion is similar to the Apollo capsule design but larger, heavier and capable of carrying four astronauts – one more than Apollo could. Image Credit: NASA/Daniel Casper

Orion, built by Lockheed Martin, will be a successor to the Shuttle, which acted as NASA’s human-rated launch system for 30 years but could not go beyond Earth orbit. Nasa administrator Charlie Bolden called the Orion test “a giant day for us.”

The Orion craft it is clearly an enlarged and improved Apollo command module, as on display in the Science Museum (Apollo 10) – the blunt-bodied ballistic capsule the took the first humans to the Moon and which was launched atop of a rocket and, at the end of its mission, hurtled back to Earth for a splash down.

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (l) in front of Apollo 10. Credit: Science Museum

Astronaut Eugene ‘Gene’ Cernan with curator Doug Millard (l) in front of Apollo 10. Cernan was Lunar Module Pilot on the Apollo 10 mission and flew also on Apollo 17 as commander and the last man to walk on the Moon. Credit: Science Museum

Orion’s first manned mission is planned for 2021 – a rendezvous with a captured asteroid  as part of a plan to identify, capture and redirect a near-Earth asteroid to a stable orbit around the moon.

The last time Nasa launched a flight of this significance was in November 1967, when it launched the very first Saturn V rocket and with it the Apollo 4 command module on a very similar mission.

That pioneering sixties mission was a great success with both the rocket and spacecraft performing largely to plan. Within a year, Nasa had launched the Apollo 7 mission – the first crewed flight of a command module.

One of the key differences between the two programmes is the rate of development: Apollo had billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of personnel all working frantically to meet President Kennedy’s commitment of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth before the end of the 1960s.

Orion has no such political underpinning and still less the huge amounts of money Apollo was granted. Progress is and has to be slower, and it may be that a momentum of successive missions will be hard to maintain.

And yet, if humans are to have a future in space such large, state-directed programmes will almost certainly have to continue, even if they are extended over many more years than the decade or so invested in project Apollo.

Asteroid Day Declaration at Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, writes about the launch of Asteroid Day at the Science Museum.

Asteroid Day was unveiled last night in the Science Museum, as part of a global news conference lead by Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former trustee, and the astrophysicist and Queen guitarist Dr Brian May.

 Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, Director Grigorij Richters and Dr Brian May, astrophysicist and guitarist from Queen took part in the launch event at the Science Museum.

Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, Director Grigorij Richters and Dr Brian May, astrophysicist and guitarist from Queen took part in the launch event at the Science Museum. Image: © Max Alexander

Launching an international awareness day and accompanying declaration the organisers hope to draw more attention to the threat posed by the million or so asteroids in our solar system that have the potential to destroy a city. To date, we have discovered around one per cent, fewer than 10,000.

The event in the museum’s Cosmos and Culture gallery, chaired by organiser Grigorij Richters,  was linked to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco where astronauts Tom Jones, Ed Lu, and Apollo 9 Astronaut Rusty Schweickart addressed the meeting.

A focus was the release of the “100x Declaration”, read out in the museum by Lord Rees, calling for a 100 fold increase in the detection and monitoring of near Earth asteroids that threaten human populations.

Lord Rees said: “We must make it our mission to find asteroids before they find us.”

“The human race has been living on borrowed time,” added May, who said he was honoured to be in the museum. “Nobody knows when the next big one will hit. It takes just one. We have a huge bridge to cross. But we do have all the technology to avert disaster.”

They urged the adoption of Asteroid Day on June 30, 2015 – the anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska  explosion, caused by an impact which destroyed 800 square miles, the equivalent size of a major metropolitan area,  in Russia.

The 100x Declaration was signed by more than 100 noted figures from 30 countries, including Richard Dawkins, Anousheh Ansari, Stewart Brand, investors Shervin Pishevar and Steve Jurvetson, Alan Eustace and Peter Norvig of Google, Peter Gabriel, Jane Luu and Jill Tarter.

There were also many who had links with the Science Museum including Brian Cox, Kip Thorne (through Interstellar), and Helen Sharman.

The declaration was signed by around 40 astronauts and cosmonauts, such as Chris Hadfield and Jim Lovell. “We have the technology to deflect dangerous asteroids through kinetic impactors and gravity tractors but only if we have years of advance warning of their trajectories,” stated Dr Ed Lu, Shuttle astronaut, designer of the gravity tractor and cofounder of the Sentinel Mission, a space-based infrared survey mission to discover and catalogue larger asteroids.

The point, he said, was not to push any one particular technology or project but rather to raise awareness and encourage the discovery of asteroids in any way possible.

Currently, governments around the world spend up to $50 million per year toward this end, and scientists find about 1,000 near earth objects annually, said Lu.

Rusty Schweickart, who with Lu co-founded the B612 Foundation as part of their mission, said the magnitude of the threat dawned in the wake of the pioneering work of Profs Luis and Walter Alvarez, who linked an impact 65 million years ago to the demise of the dinosaurs, and when Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9  broke apart and collided with Jupiter in July 1994. “We need to accelerate the discovery of these objects.”

Press conference attendees in London and San Francisco listen to ‘Science Guy’ Bill Nye, live from New York.

Press conference attendees in London and San Francisco listen to ‘Science Guy’ Bill Nye, live from New York. Image © Max Alexander

Meanwhile, Bill Nye, the Science Guy and CEO of the Planetary Society, joined the event via Google Hangout from New York.  He told the meeting: “Let’s get going.

A Journey to Mars

A guest blog post from Nancy Williams, CaSE

Last Friday evening (14 November 2014), Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, gave the Campaign for Science and Engineering’s 24th Annual Distinguished Lecture (listen here). In front of a packed IMAX theatre at the Science Museum, Ellen took us through some of the extraordinary advances in science, technology and engineering resulting from exploration of space, and the challenges even now being worked on by scientists across the world driven by NASA’s journey to Mars.

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: CaSE

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: CaSE

One of the great unknowns for us here on Earth is whether we’re alone in the universe – NASA’s Journey to Mars mission is working to get closer to the answer. Why Mars? The obvious answer would be that it is our planetary neighbour but what makes it an exciting prospect in the search for life beyond earth – is water. Mars is marked all over with signs that water once persisted on the surface – the ragged surface on the red planet could be compared to some of the great geological masterpieces shaped by bodies of water over millennia here on Earth – and then in 2008 the Phoenix lander took a sample of ice.

How do we begin such a search? What next steps do we need to take?

Ellen began by highlighting the importance of international co-operation in order to achieve this grand goal of going to Mars. She outlined tremendous work already achieved through combined efforts – particularly noting the extraordinary Philae landing this month as well as the ongoing work through the International Space Station, saying that in her view such a collaboration is worthy of a Nobel Prize. Although they are extraordinary, exploration by rovers and landers is very slow and limited – having scientists on Mars would dramatically change the scope of exploration and the timescale of discoveries.

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, talks at the Science Museum. Credit: CaSE

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, talks at the Science Museum. Credit: CaSE

We heard of the science, engineering and technology challenges that NASA has mapped out and how they, along with international and commercial partners, are going about finding answers. Getting people safely landed on Mars (and back again!) is not possible, yet – but Ellen said she expects it to happen in the 2030s. To get there, the challenges range from how to safely land a heavy craft in a thin and changing atmosphere, and how to keep Mars clean from contamination by microorganisms from earth, to ensuring that astronauts not only survive the eight month journey and landing but are healthy and able to work once they arrive – for instance combatting the muscle wasting and bone density loss that usually occurs in microgravity.

Another challenge is making the mission as efficient as possible – mass affects everything. NASA astronauts are already able to recycle 80% of the water they use, but as Ellen said – don’t think about that for too long. Other challenges you might not think about straight away – such as making sure dust from Mars isn’t brought into the spacecraft. But when you think about it, at zero gravity dust could cause havoc! But perhaps the dust could be put to good use – with the developments in 3D printers a next step being investigated as part of the ‘in situ resource utilisation’ research is how to use Martian rock to manufacture spare parts, rather than having to transport powder manufactured on Earth.

In the post-lecture Q&A one of the questions was on the timescale of decisions on future missions and investments. This highlighted the disconnect between the short-term, politically driven timescales of public funding and the long-term nature of NASA projects – a challenge not unfamiliar to UK scientists.

And of course in order to achieve NASA’s mission to Mars, and meet the many other great challenges faced closer to home, we need young people with creativity and ambition to become the next generation scientists and engineers. Ellen was animated about importance of inspiring young people about science and certainly did her bit on Friday (I saw one little girl grinning ear to ear holding a shiny new NASA badge)!

It is hard to do justice to the inspirational talk given by Dr Stofan in the awesome IMAX theatre at the Science Museum, so I recommend listening to the audio recording of the lecture itself (here) and you will have to imagine it is accompanied by wonderful images that are 17m tall and literally out of this world.

The Science of Interstellar

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum, explores the physics of Hollywood blockbuster Interstellar. Book tickets here to see Interstellar in full 70mm IMAX quality.

Black holes are thought to lie at the heart of most, possibly all, galaxies. So it should come as no surprise that a particularly striking black hole lurks at the heart of the galaxy of Hollywood stars—Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, Casey Affleck and John Lithgow— in the blockbuster Interstellar.

What is truly remarkable is that Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic spins around Gargantua, the most accurate black hole ever simulated, the fruits of a remarkable collaboration between a leading scientist, Kip Thorne, and a team led by Oscar winning visual effects wizard, Paul Franklin, who will help present the film with me in the Science Museum’s IMAX Theatre on Saturday (8 Nov 2014).

Interstellar’s plot, which started out being developed by Nolan’s brother Jonathan, relies on the monster black hole to explore the theme of time dilation, through which clocks can tick at different rates for different characters.

This is an idea that appeals deeply to Nolan. He used it in his mind-bending hit Inception, in which time moved at different speeds depending on the dream state of his characters. The extraordinary computer generated visions of Nolan’s dream worlds would win Franklin an Oscar.


Black holes are so dense that their gravitational pull prevents anything from ever escaping their grasp. At their heart is what physicists call a singularity, a point of effectively infinite density where the existing laws of physics break down (the laws of quantum gravity are thought to take hold in its core but we don’t understand them at all well). Around the black hole space-time itself bends to the point where even light can’t escape.

This extreme bending of space-time means that as you approach a black hole time will slow down noticeably for you relative to the outside world. An astronaut who managed to navigate into the closest orbit around a rapidly-spinning black hole – without falling in – could, in a subjectively short period, view an immensely long time span unfold.

Nolan was adamant that for Interstellar he wanted to explore ‘real possibilities’, not pure fantasy. Enter Kip Thorne, the 74-year-old Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at Caltech, who was the inspiration for the character played in the movie by Michael Caine.

Thorne is one of the world’s leading experts on general relativity, the theory of gravity that Albert Einstein unveiled almost a century ago, and he once helped Carl Sagan with interstellar travel in his novel and movie Contact. Nolan brought Thorne together with Paul Franklin, along with his 30 strong team at the British visual effects company, Double Negative.

To make Gargantua scientifically plausible, Franklin asked Thorne to provide him with equations that would guide their visual effects software in precisely the way that Einstein’s physics models the real world.‘This is the first time that a movie’s black-hole visualisation started with Einstein’s general relativity equations,’ says Thorne.

Franklin and the Double Negative team, notably Eugénie Von Tunzelmann (CG Supervisor) and Oliver James (Chief Scientist), used a “render farm”, consisting of thousands of computers running in parallel, to trace light beams around the black hole. Some individual frames for the movie took up to 100 hours to create this way and, in all, the movie manipulated an eye-watering 800 terabytes of data.

Christopher Nolan filming on the set of Interstellar. © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

Christopher Nolan filming on the set of Interstellar. © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

The resulting Gargantua black hole looks like “a great lens in the sky with a dark heart,” says Franklin. And there is no way better to enjoy this, the most accurate depiction of a black hole created to date, than on one of the handful of 70 millimetre IMAX cinemas in the UK, notably at the Science Museum in London and the National Media Museum in Bradford.

Physics modelled by the film includes one of Einstein’s most famous predictions: that the path of a light beam can be warped by the gravity of a massive object, such as a star. When light from distant bodies passes through the gravitational field of much nearer massive objects, it bends by an effect known as “gravitational lensing,” providing extra magnification akin to a natural telescope and, as Thorne puts it, “image distortion akin to a fun-house warped mirror.”

This modelling of warped space around Gargantua creates a curious, compelling and surprising feature of the gravitational lensing of the star-studded sky along with the simulated accretion disc, the matter swirling into the hole at speeds approaching in the speed of light, which glows brightly.

‘This is the first time that a movie’s black-hole visualisation started with Einstein’s general relativity equations.’

At first they thought that there was a bug in their programming but when it persisted in the Double Negative simulations Thorne became convinced that the unexpectedly complex halo near Gargantua’s shadow was real and not an artefact. He expects at least two papers to emerge from the new details they found lurking in Einstein’s equations: one in the British journal Classical and Quantum Gravity for astrophysicists and one for the computer graphics community.

Thorne’s long term scientific collaborator and friend, Stephen Hawking, has argued that the long-term survival of our species depends on us developing interstellar travel. This is the central theme explored in Interstellar but, of course, to visit another star without spending thousands of years on the journey is not easy.

As one example of the distances involved, it takes light itself some 25,000 years to reach Earth from the gaping maw of the black hole that sits at the heart of our own galaxy, one with a mass of around three or four million times that of the Sun but 30 times smaller than Gargantua.

Physics forbids travel that is faster than the speed of light but might possibly allow for radical shortcuts: wormholes – hypothetical tunnels through space-time – predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity that can connect remote parts of the universe.

Their inception dates back decades to 1916 work by Ludwig Flamm at the University of Vienna, and later work in the 1930s by Einstein himself and Nathan Rosen in Princeton. Flamm, Einstein and Rosen discovered a solution of Einstein’s general relativity equations that describes a bridge between two places/times (regions of what scientists call space-time). This so called ‘Einstein-Rosen bridge’ – what we now call a wormhole - could pave the way to the possibility of moving colossal distances across the universe, even time travel.

It turned out that an Einstein-Rosen wormhole could not exist for long enough for light to cross from one part of the universe to the other. In effect, gravity slams this interstellar portal shut. This was a headache when the late astronomer Carl Sagan decided to write a science fiction novel, Contact, to travel from Earth to a point near the star Vega.

In 1985, when the book was in page proof form and Sagan’s attempt at interstellar travel relied on a black hole, he approached Thorne at Caltech, whom he had known since 1970. Indeed, Sagan had even set up Thorne on a blind date with Lynda Obst, who later became the producer of the film Contact (and of Interstellar). Thorne said a wormhole, not a black hole, was what was needed and enlisted the help of his students to work out what flavours of matter and energy would be needed to enable this feat of interstellar travel.

Thorne, Michael Morris and Ulvi Yurtsever speculated that with the help of fluctuations in quantum theory – one aspect of the bizarre theory that governs the subatomic world in terms of probabilities, not certainties – it might be possible to travel between different places and times.

In 1987, they reported that, for a wormhole to be held open, its throat would have to be threaded by some form of exotic matter, or some form of field that, because of quantum fluctuations, could exert negative pressure or negative energy and thus have antigravity associated with it. Thorne suggested that only an advanced civilization could make and maintain a traversable wormhole, “if it is even allowed by the laws of physics.”

At Hawking’s 60th birthday celebrations in Cambridge in 2002, Thorne told me that the laws of physics probably forbid ever collecting enough of exotic matter inside a human-sized wormhole to hold it open, but the final story was not in. There were still researchers studying whether it is possible to stuff enough exotic matter into the maw of a wormhole to maintain its gape – and there still are today.

So wormholes, while likely forbidden by physical laws, are still the subject of serious and respectable scientific study, and hence also of serious science fiction. Thorne has now written a book to accompany Nolan’s movie, The Science of Interstellar, in which he tackles wormholes, black holes and much more. With Interstellar we have another remarkable example, along with Contact and Gravity, of where the dreams and imagination of Hollywood thrive on real science.

See Interstellar in the Science Museum’s IMAX Theatre from 8 November 2014.Book tickets here.

Dogs in Space

By Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper of Technology and Engineering and Julia Tcharfas, Curatorial Assistant.

On this day (3 November) in 1957, just one month after the launch of Sputnik, a dog called Laika became the first living creature to orbit the Earth. But sadly, with no means of returning her safely to Earth, she was on a one-way mission. Enough reserve supplies were prepared for Laika to survive one week in orbit inside the Sputnik 2 satellite, but she overheated and died only a few hours after launch.

Dog spacesuit and ejector seat used on suborbital rocket flights launched from Kapustin Yar, Soviet Union, c. 1955. Credit: Zvezda Research, Development and Production Enterprise, photo by Rosizo.

Dog spacesuit and ejector seat used on suborbital rocket flights launched from Kapustin Yar, Soviet Union, c. 1955. Credit: Zvezda Research, Development and Production Enterprise, photo by Rosizo.

Laika’s flight followed earlier stratospheric flights with dogs as crew. These sub-orbital missions were crucial for gathering knowledge of what happens to living creatures in space, as well as testing the equipment, ejection and parachute landing systems that would later be used by cosmonauts. The space dogs were used all the way up until the first manned space flight and after, flying in Vostok-type spacecraft.

On 22 July 1951, after six months of training, two small dogs nicknamed Tsygan and Dezik were launched from the site of the first Soviet cosmodrome in a region called Kapustin Yar. At a height of 110 km, the head of the rocket containing the dogs separated and began to free-fall back down to Earth. They experienced intense G-forces during descent, but after a heavy jolt from the parachute, the cabin containing the two four-legged pilots slowed and touched down safely. The trip, which lasted 15 minutes from start to finish, made Tsygan and Dezik the first animals to experience space flight and to emerge from the craft unharmed.

The completely new field of space biology was asking many questions about whether humans and other animals could survive an extended trip into outer space. The scientists involved needed to test the boundaries of endurance on actual living creatures. Was it possible to survive the extreme accelerations and decelerations of launching and landing? How could basic life-support needs – such as air, water and food – be supplied away from the home planet? And finally, would the experience of weightlessness inside a small capsule be harmful? Scientists needed to test life-support equipment, develop a training regimen for crews and perform tests in space. All of this had to be completed before human crews could embark on space exploration.

By the time of the first Soviet space dog crew, American scientists had attempted a number of launches using monkeys in V2 and Aerobee rockets, and all of them ended in the death of the animals. But the information collected during the flights demonstrated that the animals could cope with the intense G-forces and stresses of the rocket launches.

Chief Designer Sergei Korolev decided that the Soviet space programme would, on the other hand, work with dogs. The choice of dogs, ‘man’s best friend’, over monkeys, among our closest genetic relatives, was based on rational reasoning springing from emotional attachment. The Russian scientists believed they could build stronger bonds with the animals and so ensure their obedience. They also believed that the dogs eking out an existence on the harsh streets of Moscow would possess a survivalist temperament.

Belka and Strealka in the arms of Oleg Gazenko, following their day-long space flight, 1960. Credit: Institute of Biomedical Problems, Moscow.

Belka and Strealka in the arms of Oleg Gazenko, following their day-long space flight, 1960. Credit: Institute of Biomedical Problems, Moscow.

There were strict criteria for scouting the first star squad of dogs. They had to be female, because the specialised clothing and toilet technology was easier to tailor to them. And they needed to be small in size: 6 to 7 kg each to accommodate the strict weight limit for the rocket. These dogs also needed to have light-coloured fur, in order to show up clearly in front of the on-board camera. The scientists had even attempted to bleach the fur of one of their favourite darker dogs without success.

In the six years of stratospheric dog flights only a few launches ended in tragedy. But through these sacrifices enough information was gathered on whether living beings were likely to survive a trip into space. After the launch of an untrained puppy called ZIB (a quick replacement for a runaway dog), Chief Designer Korolev was ecstatic. At the landing site, when greeted by the happy puppy, he announced to his colleagues:

‘Space travellers will soon be flying in our spaceships with state visas – on a holiday!’

These early tests, conducted in secrecy, culminated in the final question: could a living creature survive a prolonged stay in zero gravity?

The most successful canine mission was perhaps the one performed by Belka and Strelka in 1960, who completed 18 orbits and returned to Earth in perfect health. They were greeted by an international press corps at a news conference in Moscow and their friendly faces were broadcast around the world. Belka went on to have a litter of puppies, one of which was given to the American first lady Jacqueline Kennedy by Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev.

White House dog Pushinka, a puppy of the Soviet space dog Belka. Credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

White House dog Pushinka, a puppy of the Soviet space dog Belka. Credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

At the time of this gift, Korolev already knew the name of the cosmonaut who would be the first to fly into space. By the time of Gagarin’s flight, 48 dogs had been to space and 20 had perished.

Discover the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, opening soon.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: Grandfather of Soviet Space Travel

Ulrika Danielsson, Content Coordinator for the Cosmonauts exhibition, reflects on the life of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the grandfather of Soviet space travel, 157 years after his birth.    

Look closely at this picture from the Russian module of the International Space Station and you will see two images of a man with a white beard. Known as the grandfather of Soviet space travel, this man dreamt of international space stations as early as the 1890s and cosmonauts still pay homage to him today. Born on this day (17 September) in 1857, the man’s name is Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

Aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Tsiolkovsky’s contribution to the science of space travel is diverse and astonishing, with his work ranging from robust science to science fiction. Citing the work of Jules Verne as a personal  inspiration, Tsiolkovsky believed science fiction was a valuable tool in advancing and popularising  serious scientific ideas. Subsequently, Tsiolkovksy himself produced three sci-fi novels, and towards the end of his life acted as technical advisor on the production of the Soviet sci-fi film ‘Cosmic Voyage’ (1936).

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Sciences

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Sciences

However, Tsiolkovksy’s prominence in the field of space travel is due to his work on the mathematics and mechanics of  how to reach outer space. He famously calculated the possibility of doing so by using liquid-propellant rockets. In addition to developing concepts on launch and orbital dynamics, Tsiolkovksy considered devices that would allow a human being to survive in space, including space suits and space food.

Drawing by Tsiolkovksy for the film ‘Cosmic Voyage’ showing a cosmonaut exiting a rocket via an airlock, 1932. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Science

Drawing by Tsiolkovksy for the film ‘Cosmic Voyage’ showing a cosmonaut exiting a rocket via an airlock, 1932. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Science

Tsiolkovsky’s achievements are even more extraordinary in light of his circumstances. Growing up in a large family of limited means and suffering from severely impaired hearing after contracting scarlet fever as a child, Tsiolkovsky was self-educated. After a brief period in Moscow where he taught himself mathematics, physics, astronomy and chemistry using public libraries, Tsiolkovsky returned to the provinces to become a school teacher and start a family.

Fleeing a bleak existence, he immersed himself in a world of inventions, struggling to get his work published – he was essentially founding a new field of science – but doggedly self-publishing when possible and gaining local followers intrigued by his ideas of metallic air ships, extra-terrestrial life and the colonization of other planets.

Tsiolkovsky’s work was driven by the idea that space travel would allow the human race to abandon Earth in the face of overpopulation and natural catastrophes, thereby securing the continued existence of humanity. He envisioned a species of super humans, a form of eugenics drawing on the likes of Nietzsche that does not tend to sit comfortably with those eulogizing his life and work in modern times. These super humans would use Earth as a source of energy and raw materials and cosmic evolution would eventually allow them to shed their physical “shells” and develop into energy, becoming immortal and boundless.

Despite receiving minor recognition from the state following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Tsiolkovsky’s situation remained relatively unchanged until he neared the end of his life in the 1930s when he was officially hailed as a hero.

Following the launch of the Soviet space programme in the 1950s, he went on to achieve cult status. To this day, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky remains a key inspirational and spiritual figure in the cosmonautical movement, alongside Chief Designer Sergei Korolev and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.

Discover Tsiolkovsky’s story and the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, which opens soon.

V2 rocket on launch pad in Germany, 1945.

V-2: The Rocket that Launched the Space Age

This week (8 September 2014) marks 70 years since the first V-2 rocket attack on London. Curator Doug Millard reflects on the rocket that helped start the space age.  

On 8th September 1944 Professor Jones and his colleague turned suddenly to each other in their Whitehall office and in unison said, ‘That’s the first one’. London had experienced four years of explosions from Luftwaffe bombs so this latest blast was hardly remarkable. But what they had noticed was the second bang following immediately after the first: a double detonation.

For over a year Jones, as Assistant Director of Intelligence (Science) at the Air Ministry, and his team had been assembling evidence for the existence of a new type of German weapon – one quite unlike anything developed before.

The bombs dropped during the blitz had been carried by manned aircraft; more recent attacks came from pilotless planes nicknamed doodlebugs or buzz bombs (on account of their leisurely flight across the sky and the staccato drone they made). Both could be detected on the way to their targets and warnings issued for the populace to seek shelter.

The new weapon gave no such warning: its exploding signalled that it had already arrived. It was a rocket that dropped from the sky at twice the speed of sound: one explosion was the warhead detonating; the other the sonic boom of the rocket’s arrival.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum's Making the Modern World gallery.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. Credit: Science Museum

It had been developed at the Peenemunde research establishment on the Baltic coast line of Germany. Designated the Aggregat 4 or A4, it was the latest in a series of new rockets designed by the German Army. It stood 14 metres high and weighed twelve and a half tonnes. It had a range of over 300 kilometres and touched space as it climbed to a height of 88 kilometres before dropping in a ballistic path on to its target. Joseph Goebbels renamed it Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Vengeance Weapon 2), which was later abbreviated to V-2.

Thousands of V-2s were launched during the war, most aimed at central London. They steered themselves and could not be jammed with radio signals. So even when a rocket’s launch was spotted by allied forces there was nothing that could be done to counter its flight. The V-2 was the harbinger of the Cold War’s missile age and the four minute warning.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

The V-2’s guidance was innovatory – it employed a system of gyroscopes that registered any deviation in flight – but by today’s standards the missile’s accuracy was very poor. Most landed kilometres off target. Nevertheless, it was clear to many that this new weapon represented a future of strategic warfare; one in which far more powerful missiles mated to nuclear warheads would cover intercontinental distances on the way to their targets. To others it signalled the dawning of a space age when still bigger rockets would counter the pull of gravity and place satellites in orbits around the Earth.

After the war the Allies acquired the V2 technology and many of the rocket programme’s leading scientists and engineers. The Soviets constructed their own version at the start of a research programme that led eventually their own R-7 rocket which put Sputnik – the world’s first artificial satellite – into orbit.

The Americans took many surplus V-2s along with the rocket programme’s technical director Wernher von Braun. The Redstone rocket that launched the first American into space was von Braun’s derivative of his V-2. Eight years later his massive Saturn V rocket launched astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Moon.

The missile Jones heard had come down in Chiswick, west London. It killed three people and destroyed a row of houses. Over the next months many more were launched with most falling in south-eastern England and killing thousands of people (a map of V-2 rocket strikes across London and surrounding counties can be seen here). In a grotesque irony the V-2 killed many more in the course of its manufacture by slave labour from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in central Germany.

The final V-2 landed south of London in Orpington on March 27, 1945 killing one person – the last civilian fatality of the war in mainland Britain.

For more information, visit the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, where a full size V-2 rocket can be seen on display.

This photograph, the first taken from the surface of another planet, was taken by the camera on board the Venera 9 descent module shortly after it landed on Venus on 25th October, 1975. The foreground is littered with flattened rocks and the horizon is just visible at the tops of the top corners. Credit: NSSDC Photo Library

How to land on Venus

On the anniversary of Venera 7’s launch – the first spacecraft to successfully land on Venus – curator Doug Millard reflects on the challenge of exploring other worlds.

Over a 20-year period from the mid-1960s, Soviet scientists and engineers conducted one of the most successful interplanetary exploration programmes ever.

They launched a flotilla of spacecraft far beyond Earth and its Moon. Some failed, but others set a remarkable record of space firsts: first spacecraft to impact another planet, first controlled landing on another planet and the first photographs from its surface. The planet in question was not Mars – it was Venus.

Our knowledge of Venus at the time had been patchy. But as the Soviet probes journeyed down through the Venusian atmosphere it became clear that this planet – named after the Roman goddess of love – was a supremely hostile world. The spacecraft were named Venera (Russian for Venus) and the early probes succumbed to the planet’s immense atmospheric pressure, crushed and distorted as if made of paper.

Venera 3 did make it to the surface – the first craft ever to do so – but was dead by the time it impacted, destroyed by the weight of the air. Venera 4 was also shattered on the way down, but it survived long enough to return the first data from within another planet’s atmosphere. The engineers realised, though, they would have to reinforce still further the spacecraft’s titanium structures and silica-based heat shield.

The information coming in from the Venera probes was supplemented with readings from American spacecraft and ground-based observatories on Earth. Each added to an emerging picture of a hellish planet with temperatures of over 400 °C on the surface and an atmospheric pressure at ground level 90 times greater than Earth’s.

Spacecraft can only be launched towards Venus during a ‘window of opportunity’ that lasts a few days every 19 months. Only then do Earth and Venus’ relative positions in the Solar System allow for a viable mission. The Soviets therefore usually launched a pair of spacecraft at each opportunity. Venera 5 and 6 were launched on 5 and 19 January 1969, both arriving at Venus four months later.

There had not been time to strengthen these spacecraft against the unforgiving atmosphere, so instead the mission designers modified their parachutes so that they would descend faster and reach lower altitudes, sending back new data before their inevitable destruction.

Venera 7 descent module, (engineering model, scale 1;1), 1970  This descent module with parachute lanyards clearly visible was used for drop tests on Earth in 1970

This Venera 7 descent module (engineering model) with parachute lanyards clearly visible, was used for drop tests on Earth in 1970. Credit: Lavochkin Association/Photo: State Museum and Exhibition center, ROSIZO

Launched on 17 August 1970, Venera 7 made it intact to the surface of Venus on 15 December 1970 – the first probe ever to soft land on another planet. Its instruments measured a temperature of 465 °C on the ground. It continued to transmit for 23 minutes before its batteries were exhausted.

Venera 8 carried more scientific instruments which revealed that it had landed in sunlight. It survived for another 50 minutes. Venera 9, the first of a far stronger spacecraft design, touched down on 22 October 1975 and returned the first pictures from the surface of another planet. It too showed sunny conditions – comparable, the scientists reckoned, to a Moscow day in June.

This photograph, the first taken from the surface of another planet, was taken by the camera on board the Venera 9 descent module shortly after it landed on Venus on 25th October, 1975. The foreground is littered with flattened rocks and the horizon is just visible at the tops of the top corners. Credit: NSSDC Photo Library

This photograph, the first taken from the surface of another planet, was taken by the camera on board the Venera 9 descent module shortly after it landed on Venus on 25th October, 1975. Credit: NSSDC Photo Library

The surface was shown to be mostly level and made up of flat, irregularly shaped rocks. The camera could see clearly to the horizon – there was no dust in the atmosphere, but its thickness refracted the light, playing tricks and making the horizon appear nearer than it actually was. The clouds were high – about 50 km overhead.

The Soviet Union now had a winning spacecraft design that could withstand the worst that Venus could do. More missions followed, but then in the early 1980s the designers started making plans for the most challenging interplanetary mission ever attempted.

This photograph was taken by the Venera 13 camera using colour filters. It shows the serrated edge of the Venera 13 decent module gripping the soil on the rocky surface of Venus.  Credit: NASA History Office

This photograph was taken by the Venera 13 camera using colour filters. It shows the serrated edge of the Venera 13 decent module gripping the soil on the rocky surface of Venus.
Credit: NASA History Office

Scientists around the world were keen to send spacecraft to Halley’s Comet, which was returning to ‘our’ part of the Solar System on its 75-year orbit of the Sun. America, Europe and Japan all launched missions, but the Soviets’ pair of Vega spacecraft were the most ambitious, combining as they did a sequence of astonishing manoeuvres, first at Venus and then at Halley’s Comet.

Both craft were international in their own right, with many nations contributing to their array of scientific instruments. They arrived at Venus in June 1985.

Each released a descent probe into the Venusian atmosphere. Part of it released a lander that parachuted down to the surface while the other part deployed a balloon, with a package of scientific instruments suspended underneath that first dropped and then rose through the atmosphere to be carried around the planet by winds blowing at well over 200 miles per hour.

Meanwhile, the main part of each Vega spacecraft continued on past Venus, using the planet’s gravity to slingshot itself towards an encounter with Halley.

A little under a year later both arrived a few million kilometres distant from the comet. Both were battered and damaged by its dust, but their instruments and cameras returned plenty of information on the ancient, icy and primordial heavenly body.

A golden age of Russian planetary exploration had come to an end.

Russia plans to return to Venus, but meanwhile its Vega spacecraft, their instruments long dead, continue to patrol the outer reaches of the Solar System, relics of the nation’s pioneering days of space exploration.

Discover the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our upcoming exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

The First Woman in Space

Ulrika Danielsson, Content Coordinator for the Cosmonauts exhibition, reflects on the first woman to travel into space.  

On this day (16 June) in 1963, the spacecraft Vostok-6 thundered off into space, joining Vostok-5 in orbit. Shortly afterwards, the commander of Vostok-6 could be heard excitedly calling out over the radio:

“Ya Chaika, Ya Chaika [I am Seagull]! I see the horizon [...] This is the Earth; how beautiful it is. Everything goes well.”

26-year-old Valentina Tereshkova from the Soviet Union had just made history by becoming the first woman in space.

Tereshkova became an instant celebrity as images of her on board Vostok-6 were transmitted to Earth. In fact, due to the mission being shrouded in secrecy, Tereshkova’s own mother only found out about her daughter going to space when seeing the television broadcast.

Tereshkova on-board Vostok-6

Tereshkova on-board Vostok-6, credit: Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation

Returning to Earth after 2 days, 22 hours and 50 minutes in orbit, Tereshkova was feted as a heroine. Her spacecraft, kept for posterity, will be displayed in the exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age which opens at the Science Museum in November 2014.

The mission was not a flawless success but this was hushed up by Soviet leaders who recognised her propaganda value. Joining a small group of flown cosmonauts, Tereshkova soon travelled the world as a cultural ambassador and political spokeswoman.

Within the Soviet Union the cosmonauts were idealised as heroes of a new era that the population should seek to emulate, while abroad they became the public face of the regime. Consequently their schedules were gruelling, and their image and behaviour carefully controlled; private lives ceased to be private.

Tereshkova, fellow Cosmonauts and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow

Tereshkova, fellow Cosmonauts and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow

Like the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, Tereshkova wanted to fly again but was considered too important as a propaganda tool. Gagarin and Tereshkova’s value partly lay in qualities identified already at their initial selection; both came from modest backgrounds, were diligent students, model workers, politically loyal and personable. They were now celebrated as the communist dream come true.

Tereshkova’s public image differed from Gagarin’s however and was strictly gendered. While Gagarin was portrayed as a military hero in uniform, Tereshkova was shown with immaculate hair and make-up, wearing feminine dresses and high heels. In this way she came to embody the civilian, peaceful aspect of space travel.

In the early 1960s Soviet women were also encouraged to combine good work ethics and political commitment with femininity and a sense of style. Official accounts of Tereshkova consequently tried to reconcile her aptitude for science and technology with being feminine and chic.  To quote R.P. Sylvester, “[...] drab was out and Dior was most definitely in”.

Tereshkova and Gagarin

Tereshkova and Gagarin, credit: RIA Novosti

While Tereshkova’s accomplishment was held by many as living proof of gender equality under Communism, it soon became apparent that there was a lack of real commitment to continued female participation on the Soviet space program. Not until 1982 would another woman make it into orbit.

Over 50 years after her own space flight, Valentina Tereshkova describes it as the most bright and wonderful experience of her life, and maintains that given the opportunity she would fly into space again.

Discover the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, opening soon.