This Lowell Observatory photograph announcing the discovery shows Pluto marked with arrows. © Science Museum / SSPL

Photographing Pluto

Curator Ali Boyle and Press Officer Will Stanley reflect on our most distant (dwarf) planet, Pluto. 

The successful flyby of Pluto on 14 July 2015 by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft means that humans have now explored (with robotic assistance) every planet in our solar system. New Horizons flew within 7,750m of Pluto, travelling at 31,000mph as it sped past the (dwarf) planet that lies 3 billion miles from our home.

This historic flyby completes a quest that began in the 1960s with NASA’s Mariner and the Soviet Venera missions to Venus. You can see an engineering test model of Venera 7 in our Cosmonauts exhibition from September 2015.

New Horizons is capturing high resolution images and scientific data, but can only send images back to Earth at 1 kilobit per second, fifty times slower than a 56k modem from the 1990s. Even travelling at the speed of light, it takes almost four and a half hours for the data to reach Earth.

As we wait for detailed close up photos of Pluto from New Horizons (others have already been sent back to Earth), we took a look at some Pluto-related objects in our collections.

A CCD (Charge Coupled Device) on display in the Exploring Space gallery. © Science Museum

A CCD (Charge Coupled Device) on display in the Exploring Space gallery. © Science Museum

A device similar to this CCD (Charge Coupled Device), on display in our Exploring Space gallery, will capture the first close up images of Pluto ever taken. Made by British company e2v, the CCD will be used in the PERSI (Pluto Exploration Remote Sensing Investigation) Ralph telescope, with a similar device in the spacecraft’s LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) instrument.

The first discovery photographs of Pluto where taken in February 1930, by a young American astronomer. At the time Clyde Tombaugh was searching for a predicted ‘Planet X’ that might explain oddities in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus.

This Lowell Observatory photograph announcing the discovery shows Pluto marked with arrows.  © Science Museum / SSPL

This Lowell Observatory photograph announcing the discovery shows Pluto marked with arrows. © Science Museum / SSPL

Tombaugh spent months painstakingly photographing the same sections of sky and studying the images with a blink comparator. On 18 February 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. You can see a glass positive of the photograph in our Cosmos and Culture exhibition.

Further observations confirmed the discovery, which was announced to the world in March 1930. 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 Neptune and Uranus’s orbits removed the need for Planet X altogether.

Thanks to New Horizons, Tombaugh has come closer to Pluto than anyone else as some of his ashes are on board the spacecraft.

By the 2000s, astronomers had discovered 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, and these bumper stickers (also on display in the Cosmos and Culture exhibition) were some of the first products to go on sale.

Pluto bumper stickers, currently on display in the Cosmos and Culture exhibition.  © Science Museum

Pluto bumper stickers, currently on display in the Cosmos and Culture exhibition. © Science Museum

The IAU’s definition of ‘planet’ remains controversial, so there may be hope for Pluto yet. Until July 2015 we knew very little about Pluto as it was so faint and far away, but with new images and scientific data we can finally discover the secrets of this (dwarf) planet, three billion miles away.

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Building Bridges – ‘Guardians of the Gallery’ VIP event for students

Anna Fisher, Learning Resources Project Coordinator, shares the latest news from the Building Bridges project.

An amazing VIP late-night event occurred at the Science Museum last week for students involved in the Building Bridges project.  The students have been working with us all year and this special celebration was a chance for them to show off the work they have done to their families, and get involved in a variety of exciting activities such as extracting strawberry DNA, eating ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, testing their tolerance of chillies and getting creative with SM:Art Mechanics.

Liquid nitrogen ice cream tasting © Science Museum

For the past three years the Building Bridges project has been working with schools across London and Reading to expose and engage students with science inside and outside the classroom, and at home with their families. All of the students involved have followed a year-long programme made up of Outreach shows, classroom resources, museum activities, workshops with research scientists and family activities.

The project hopes to use the new resources that have been developed to better engage families in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). All of the resources have been researched throughout the project and we hope that they will help support both informal and formal learning.

This year students have all worked really hard and contributed to their own exhibition, ‘Guardians of the Gallery’, which was showcased at the VIP event. This exhibition showcased objects that the students had chosen to represent how science and technology helps us to solve everyday problems. For example, a dress made from LEDs with a solar-powered handbag was chosen as something that you could wear to a VIP event, a self-driving car was the travel option of choice for one student working out how they were going to get to their holiday destination, and a daylight simulating lamp was suggested by one student as something that would help them get up early.

Guardians of the gallery exhibition © Science Museum

With the help of some incredible teachers, wonderful students and the helpful teams within our Learning department, the Building Bridges project has been able to develop and deliver a number of new, successful activities and events for this year’s programme. We are looking forward to meeting the students taking part in the project next year, and using the research findings to increase science engagement and literacy even further.

If you are looking for exciting activities for your family in the Museum head to our events calendar to see what’s on.  The Learning team run fun free science shows in the Museum every day of the week, with extra workshops, storytelling, drama characters and family-friendly tours at weekends and during the school holidays.

UK backs human space exploration

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

A few months ahead of the launch of the museum’s pioneering Cosmonauts space exhibition, the UK Space Agency has published its first National Strategy for Space Environments and Human Spaceflight.

 

Major Tim Peake visits the Exploring Space gallery at the Science Museum to mark the announcement that Tim Peake is to be first British astronaut in space for more than 20 years.  The Former Apache helicopter pilot will visit the International Space Station © Science Museum

Major Tim Peake visits the Exploring Space gallery at the Science Museum to mark the announcement that Tim Peake is to be first British astronaut in space for more than 20 years. The Former Apache helicopter pilot will visit the International Space Station © Science Museum

The report’s promise of greater involvement in crewed missions shows that Conservative Government thinking has shifted light years since 1987, when Roy Gibson quit as UK space chief after his spending proposals were vetoed, and the then Trade Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, declared the Government did not want to contribute to a mission to put a Frenchman into space.

Until now, the UK has preferred to focus on the commercial and scientific aspects of spaceflight through its satellite-building industry and its membership of the European Space Agency (ESA).

However, at the 2012 ESA Ministerial the UK Space Agency, established in 2010, made the UK’s first contribution to the International Space Station and ESA’s European Life and Physical Sciences Programme.

Last year the Agency pledged £49.2 million, which gives UK researchers access to the $100 billion International Space Station programme.

The new Strategy hints at even greater ambitions for UK manned missions: “The Agency will also consider its role in human exploration missions beyond Earth orbit.”

British ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s maiden voyage, which was announced at the Science Museum, is expected in December of this year and this six month mission will mark the first time that a British astronaut has visited the ISS in what will be a highly-visible demonstration of UK ambition for human spaceflight.

However, Peake will not be the first Briton in space: that honour goes to Helen Sharman, who was launched in 1991to spend a week in the Mir space station.

Dr Helen Sharman OBE PhD, (who became the first Briton in space) and Alexei Leonov prior to his talk in the Imax. In March 1965, Alexei Leonov stepped out of his Voskhod 2 spacecraft and into the history books as the first human to walk in space © Science Museum

Dr Helen Sharman OBE PhD, (who became the first Briton in space) and Alexei Leonov prior to his talk in the IMAX. In March 1965, Alexei Leonov stepped out of his Voskhod 2 spacecraft and into the history books as the first human to walk in space © Science Museum

Sharman was present a few weeks ago for the launch of Cosmonauts by the first spacewalker, twice hero of the Soviet Union, Alexei Leonov.

Cosmonauts opens at the Science Museum on September 18 with the most significant collection of Soviet era spacecraft and ephemera ever assembled in one place, including the single cosmonaut moon lander, which was used for training and was kept secret for many years; the first spacecraft to carry more than one human into space; and the descent module of the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.

Helen Sharman will join me and television presenter Dallas Campbell in the Royal Institution on July 30 to discuss the story of the spacesuit.

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by Zvezda © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

SOKOL space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991, manufactured by Zvezda © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Her Zvezda spacesuit will be among the 150 exhibits on display in Cosmonauts, which celebrates a wide range of space firsts.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age opens at the Science Museum on 18 September 2015.

Unlimited Enhancement Technologies CEO Eve outlines her vision for the future of human enhancement in a dazzling performance. Credit: Science Museum.

Would you be upgraded?

David Robertson reflects on our most recent science festival, You Have Been Upgraded.

Do you want to hear colour? Or exercise direct control over technology with brain implants? How can we, as a society, make choices about a new suite of potential human enhancements that are rapidly approaching as biotechnology improves?

As part of the Contemporary Science team, it’s my job to look at science and technology trends and consider how they’ll affect our lives. Some subjects – like the ethics of emerging biotechnologies – can be tricky to bring to life in an exhibition. So we work with partners like Unlimited Theatre, experts in creating striking live experiences, to craft special events for our audiences.

You Have Been Upgraded was a festival held at the Museum in March 2015. We transformed a large  gallery into a futuristic expo of biotechnology, featuring a constellation of experts and a bold theatrical performance. Unlimited Theatre imagined a world where biotechnologists were elevated to rock star status by a new mega-company. Festival visitors entered a world where the boundaries of what it means to ‘be a normal human’ are broad, flexible and highly personal.

Does that look like an outlandish world? It shouldn’t! The festival only featured current science and technology. 55 experts – including UK and international scientists, DIY biotech enthusiasts, artists and philosophers – converged for four days to talk with our visitors.

Unlimited painted a provocative picture of enhancement, steeped in optimism about the potential for transformation of individuals and society. But, like any technology, there are potential issues and down-sides to human enhancement. We need to discuss these before the technology moves too far to change its path. These issues include access to new technology, to inequality caused by ‘upgrades’, and worries about altering fundamental processes that happen in our bodies and brains.

Cyborg artist Neil Harbisson discusses his experience of hearing colour using technological augmentation. Credit: Science Museum

Cyborg artist Neil Harbisson discusses his experience of hearing colour using technological augmentation. Credit: Science Museum

At the festival, we invited our audience to leave us feedback, in the form of polls on key questions and written comments. Our audience strongly indicated that equality of access and social costs must be considered as this technology continues to be developed.

We’re keen for You Have Been Upgraded to be an informative step in a long-term, society-wide conversation about how we apply biotechnology (you can read the feedback on the festival here). Each subject we featured in the festival could easily spin off further conversations and events – or deep discussions at the pub!

I learned a lot while we created You Have Been Upgraded. The most important message I kept on hearing, and repeating to myself, was not one about science or technology. It was about humanity. Choices made about biotechnology and human enhancement, by individuals, companies and governments, reflect our values and sense of self – so we should all make our voice heard. Science and technology can help us to recognise the diversity already represented in our society. Let’s support, celebrate and expand that diversity.

You Have Been Upgraded forms part of the Who Am I? gallery programme. Who am I? is supported by The Wellcome Trust (Principal Funder), GSK and Life Technologies Foundation (Major Sponsors).

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The Matter Factory: A History of the Chemistry Laboratory

Peter Morris is the Science Museum’s Keeper of Research Projects and has recently published his latest book, ‘The Matter Factory: A History of the Chemistry Laboratory‘.

The laboratory clearly plays an important role in chemistry (and other sciences). Chemists will have received their practical training in the teaching laboratory before spending their career (in many cases) working in a variety of laboratories in academia and industry. Yet this important setting for chemistry has hitherto been little studied. Previous studies of laboratories have almost invariably been an examination of what a chemist or chemists have done in that laboratory rather than the laboratory building itself. And the few papers or books on the design or fittings of the laboratory have restricted themselves to a single laboratory or a specific period.

The Matter Factory

My latest book The Matter Factory is the first book to consider the development of the laboratory over four hundred years. I examine how the early alchemical workshops dominated by the furnace became the standard chemistry laboratory (what I call the classical chemistry laboratory) between the 1830s and 1860s, mostly in Germany and London with its central aisle, benches and bottle racks. This was not just a matter of architectural design or new fittings – it also required the introduction of gas, water and steam into the laboratory and plumbed-in drainage. These changes enabled the development of new fields of chemistry including atomic spectroscopy and organic synthesis as well as the training of an ever increasing number of chemistry students.

New Laboratory in University College, London, 16 May 1846

New Laboratory in University College, London, 16 May 1846.
Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

For many years, well into the twentieth century, this mass training employed inorganic group analysis as a tool. However this group analysis used toxic hydrogen sulphide as a reagent leading to the development of the fume cupboard and even fume boxes on the bench. The classical laboratory spread from its initial home in Germany to other countries, initially Britain and America, then to Japan and France by the 1890s. This type of laboratory was also quickly adopted by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. While the classical laboratory endured for over a century, a new type of laboratory employing a more flexible design has recently been introduced, for example, at Oxford University.

Bunsen's thermostat, 1867.

Bunsen’s thermostat, 1867.
Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

As well as looking at the design and content of laboratories, I have also studied other aspects of laboratory work, such as techniques and apparatus. They have included several items in the Science Museum’s own collections as such the bizarre gas thermostat (1888-307) invented by Robert Bunsen of burner fame and the demonstration apparatus introduced by Wilhelm Hofmann. While the so-called Hofmann voltammeter (to show the splitting of water by electricity) is well-known, he also popularised apparatus to demonstrate other reactions such as the reaction between sulphur dioxide and oxygen (1876-220). I have also argued that the widespread use of the white laboratory coat may be much later than commonly assumed.

Hofmann's apparatus, 1860s.

Hofmann’s apparatus, 1860s.
Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

You can buy The Matter Factory from the Science Museum shop or at our online shop here

Science Museum vine.

Explainer Vines

Eddie, a Science Museum Explainer, on demonstrating science in six seconds.

Are you following the Science Museum Learning team on Twitter? We share lots of interesting facts, ideas and suggestions for teachers (and for anyone else interested in learning about science as well).

We post Vine videos highlighting some of the best experiments and exhibits that we have at the Science Museum. I make these short six second videos, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to share my favourite videos with you.

Alka seltzer rocket

The alka seltzer rocket is part of our Materials demo. The film canister is fired into the air when gas produced by the alka seltzer tablet expands inside. This was quite a tough Vine to film as the launch is a little unpredictable!

Cornflour on speaker

This experiment is part of our Sound demo, although it’s actually an experiment that demonstrates a material phenomenon. This substance is cornflour mixed with water, which is a non-newtonian fluid. When sound travels through the mix, it gives it energy to lock together in a solid shape.

Newton’s Wheel

The Newton’s Wheel is part of out Light Demo, and is one of our most popular Vines to date. This very simple experiment shows how white light is made up of all of the different colours of the rainbow blended together. When the wheel spins around, our eyes can’t differentiate all the different colours, and it appears as white.

Jumping Ring

You can find the jumping ring in Launchpad, in the Magnetism section. The metal ring is launched into the air by a powerful electromagnet at the base of the pole. This experiment needed the help of Explainer Ben to press the button for me, so we could get the jump in shot!

Plasticine Peter

This smashing experiment is part of our Supercool schools event, which is all about heat and its effect on different materials. We use plenty of liquid nitrogen in this show to demonstrate some of these temperature changes, such as letting our friend here, Plasticine Peter, “cool off”. This is my favourite vine that we’ve ever produced.

CO2 in Bubble Mix

When you put solid carbon dioxide into water, it begins to sublime. This means it goes straight from a solid into a gas, without going through a liquid phase. When we sublime it in bubble mix, it makes some incredible CO2 filled bubbles, which in our tube, makes a Bubble Volcano! It also created a bit of a mess on the floor!

We’ve done almost eighty Vines now on the channel, and there’s more on the way, so make sure to stay tuned to @SM_Learn for all the best experiments that the Science Museum has to offer, in six seconds or less.

Vote for Information Age in the National Lottery Awards

Both ambitious in scale and design, our Information Age gallery is a stunning celebration of the breakthroughs in information and communication technology that have transformed our lives over the last 200 years. From the first transatlantic telegraph cable that connected Europe and North America in minutes rather than weeks, to the advanced computing power of the modern smartphone, this gallery brings to life some of the remarkable personal stories behind each of these important technological achievements.

Famously opened by Her Majesty The Queen with her first tweet last October, Information Age has now made it to the finals of this year’s National Lottery Awards for Best Heritage Project (you can vote here).

History is made as HM The Queen sends her first tweet to open Information Age. Image credit: Science Museum

History is made as HM The Queen sends her first tweet to open Information Age. © Science Museum

Over half a million visitors have explored Information Age to date and now all visitors and supporters of the Science Museum have the chance to give the gallery their stamp of approval in this national vote. Voting online is free, takes less than a minute and is open to everyone between 24 June and 29 July. You can vote here and the project with the most votes will win the title of Best Heritage Project 2015.

A gallery shot of Information Age, c. Leon Chew for Universal Design Studio

A gallery shot of Information Age, c. Leon Chew for Universal Design Studio

Featuring more than 800 unique objects from the Science Museum collections and state-of-the-art interactive displays, Information Age is the first museum gallery in the UK dedicated to the history of information and communication technology. We hope all visitors will identify with some of the technology that is on display, but will also be surprised by the scale and elegance of others, and captivated by the stories of those people who invented, operated or were affected by each new invention.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: Science Museum

Head of NASA urges young people to reach for the stars

By Pete Dickinson, Head of Communications.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has told hundreds of young visitors to the Science Museum of his strong belief that extraterrestrial life will be found.

NASA's Charles Bolden takes questions from students at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.

NASA’s Charles Bolden takes questions from students at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum.

The Shuttle astronaut, now head of the world’s largest civil space agency, said “we will someday find other forms of life or a form of life, if not in our solar system then in some other”. But in a question and answer session with children from dozens of schools he pointed out that this life was unlikely to match the alien forms the young people may have seen in sci-fi films.

Asked whether he had always dreamed of being an astronaut, Bolden replied that, as a black person growing up in South California, being an astronaut or a pilot (he also served as a naval aviator) simply wasn’t an option and urged all of the young people in the audience to dream big, work hard and not fear failure. “You can do anything you want,” he said.

After taking questions from this enthusiastic audience for an hour, Bolden was thanked by Science Museum Director, Ian Blatchford, who presented the NASA leader with a book about the museum’s forthcoming blockbuster exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

Bolden then moved on to Engineer Your Future, the museum’s interactive exhibition for young people thinking about their futures, which had been transformed into a Sky News studio for the day. There, the eight-strong panel of Hotseat - a collaboration between Sky News and First News that enables young people to interview notable public figures – put Bolden on the spot with a series of searching questions.


Bolden rejected the suggestion that NASA was in danger of falling behind other countries in the fields of technology, space exploration and earth science. ”Nasa is continuing to lead the world” he said, pointing to its partnerships with 120 countries around the world, among them the UK Space Agency. He also insisted that space didn’t need to be a point of conflict between nations, ”as long as we continue to use models like the International Space Station to show that disparate nations who may not agree on everything can in fact work cooperatively in space….I think if there’s anything that deserves a Nobel peace prize, it’s the International Space Station.”

As the father of one of the children in the audience for the NASA Adminstrator’s visit to the museum, I can attest to his inspirational impact on young and old. “That astronaut is awesome,” she told me, the highest compliment from an eight-year-old. His appearance followed a similarly stirring visit to the museum by NASA’s Chief Scientist, Dr Ellen Stofan. We look forward to NASA’s next trip to the U.K.

Why is Asteroid Day important?

Astronaut Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 Lunar Module Pilot, reflects on the importance of Asteroid Day. You can book tickets to Asteroid Day at the Science Museum on June 30 here.  

This central question deserves some thought and, hopefully, subsequent action. It arises out of the little known but factual claim that future asteroid impacts can be both predicted and prevented, saving lives and property, provided that we, collectively, employ readily available technology to establish this capability.

But who is the “we” in this statement? “Aye, there’s the rub” as Hamlet bemoans in his soliloquy “To be, or not to be…?” There are two very important “we”s involved which are especially relevant in regard to Asteroid Day; the world public, and world governments.

Planetary defense, the prevention or mitigation of asteroid impacts, is public safety writ large.  Millions of asteroids have impacted Earth in its 4.5 billion year history both enabling and shaping life on the planet. The vast majority have been (relatively speaking) small, equivalent to no more than a typical hydrogen bomb or two. But a few have been in the 100 million hydrogen bomb energy category, destroying much of life on the planet virtually instantaneously. This 4.5 billion year old threat continues unimpeded today.


This film, 51 Degrees North, will be screened as part of Asteroid Day at the Science Museum.

What has changed dramatically is that we humans now have the capability to terminate this ongoing process. Yet, generally speaking, it is governments who ultimately have the responsibility for public safety and who must act. But without public recognition and insistence that they shoulder planetary defense responsibility governments will continue to avoid accountability.

While geopolitical coordinating and real politik is challenging, the cost of developing and establishing a planetary defense capability is surprisingly inexpensive. In a formal NASA report it was estimated that developing the initial capability would require only about 1.4% of NASA’s budget for the first 10 years and thereafter approximately 0.4% of it’s budget for maintenance. This is an amazingly small cost for so huge a survival benefit!

Nevertheless until the world public demands that this capability and coordination be developed it will not happen. There is no scientific community to lobby for this… it is not science. There is no industrial complex calling for this… there are no mega-contracts to be issued. We’re talking long-term human survival here… future generations… our children and grandchildren for generations to come.

Asteroid Day is the first attempt to marshal widespread public support for this global issue. Of highest priority is substantially increasing the discovery rate of potentially threatening asteroids. We can technically increase this rate of discovery by 100 fold. What is needed for governments to commit to this is your signature on the Asteroid Day 100x Declaration.

So please, attend the Asteroid day event at the Science Museum on 30 June 2015 (or for your closest event, see asteroidday.org). The event will feature a screening of the film 51 Degrees North.

Later this year, the Museum will open Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition exploring the dramatic story of how Russia turned the dream of space travel into a reality. 

Specially designed appliance was used by Sir Augustus Walker (1912-1986). Credit: Science Museum.

A mysterious object

At a recent LATES evening at the museum, this mysterious object was taken out from permanent storage and presented to members of the public during our regular object handling, “Hidden Gems” event. We asked if anyone knew what the item was and (perhaps unsurprisingly) no-one correctly identified what it was used for, with guesses ranging from a beverage cup holder through to a piece of machinery!  

Although initially enigmatic, this object does in fact contain a fantastic back story of bravery, strength in adversity and even a little bit of sporting prowess…

The object was made by Steeper, a company still in existence today and based in Leeds, England. It was made for, and used by, the distinguished Royal Air Force pilot Sir Augustus ‘Gus’ Walker, a man who rose to the highest military ranks by becoming Air Chief Marshal of the RAF and Deputy Commander-In-Chief of NATO forces in Europe. This would, of course, be a tremendous achievement for any individual; however, Walker’s accomplishments are made all the more remarkable by the fact that in 1942 he lost his right arm below the elbow in an airfield accident.

Image of Sir (George) Augustus Walker, by Hay Wrightson Ltd. From the National Portrait Galleries’ Photograph Collection. NPG x180733

Image of Sir (George) Augustus Walker, by Hay Wrightson Ltd. From the National Portrait Galleries’ Photograph Collection. NPG x180733

Walker was not flying an aircraft at the time of the incident, but was in the control tower when he noticed that a Lancaster bomber was on fire whilst taxiing across the runway in readiness for a mission. He hurried out to warn the pilots, but was caught in the subsequent explosion.

A Lancaster bomber. Credit © Daily Herald Archive/ National Media Museum / SSPL

A Lancaster bomber. Credit © Daily Herald Archive/ National Media Museum / SSPL

Rumour has it that upon leaving the airfield in an ambulance he instructed the doctor to telephone RAF high command and ask if they would welcome back a one armed officer in 2 months’ time. True to his word he was back to work inside 2 months and flying aeroplanes again soon after that!

This object, as Walker’s own unique prosthetic limb attachment, was subsequently made so that he could continue to fly aircraft despite having lost half of one arm. He connected the attachment to the end of this prosthetic arm, tied the leather strap around the joystick and controlled the aircraft with his left hand.

Specially designed appliance used by Sir Augustus Walker (1912-1986). Credit: Science Museum.

Specially designed appliance used by Sir Augustus Walker (1912-1986). Credit: Science Museum.

Walker never let his prosthetic limb limit him, and throughout his RAF career he continued to fly new generations of aircraft including the Canberra and Vulcan jet bombers.

As well as being an excellent military man, Walker was also blessed with enviable sporting talents. He was captain of the RAF rugby team and in 1939 earned two full caps for the England team in matches against Ireland and Wales. Walker’s story emphasises the strong historical links that exist between the military and rugby union; a connection that continues to the present day.

Walker even rose to the highest administrative ranks of his chosen sport, as between 1965 and 1966 he had a spell as president of the Rugby Football Union (RFU).

Many who met and served with Walker described him as an exceptional serviceman, strong leader and a true gentleman. The high esteem in which he was held has not diminished, as in 2006 a blue plaque was erected in Walker’s honour by a local historical society at his former family home in Garforth, West Yorkshire.

Upon his death in 1987 it was commented that the RAF would never see the like of Walker again, and although his custom made prosthetic is initially mysterious to those who encounter it, it is in fact wonderfully emblematic of a truly unique and remarkable individual.