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Doug was the senior curator for the 'Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age' exhibition (2015) and editor of the associated publication. He has written a history of the British Black Arrow rocket and his book 'Satellite: Innovation in Orbit' was published by Reaktion Books early 2017. He is currently researching new space exhibitions for the Museum.

The other day I caught part of a short play on the radio. Prospero, Ariel, Reith and Gill told the story – partly imagined – of sculptor Eric Gill’s contretemps with BBC Director General John Reith in 1932. The occasion was the unveiling of Gill’s Ariel and Prospero on the edifice of Broadcasting House, the BBC’s newly built headquarters. Prospero and Ariel are leading characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest but their names were also used for two of Britain’s earliest […]

A few days ago I drove past the ‘umbilical’ tower for NASA’s new (but now postponed) Ares rocket programme. Although smaller it is reminiscent of the far taller structures of project Apollo. Both Ares and Saturn were ‘mated’ to their respective towers inside the vast Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and then rolled out on a ‘crawler’ to launch pad 39 A or B at the stately rate of 1 mph. The towers for the soon to be terminated Shuttle programme, […]

Office move time again: sorting, listing, boxing, chucking… all a bit of a chore. But then you come across something a little out of the ordinary – like a Destination Mars Regenerative Life Support Challenge. This is a school kit put together by the Museum of Science in Boston, Lockheed Martin and NASA back in 1998. It contains all sorts of goodies to teach youngsters about how people might survive on Mars. It even includes a pack of seeds flown […]

I set out to the National Physical Laboratory the other day and on my way down Exhibition Road passed an elephant. Some 250 of these colourful models are being positioned across London to raise awareness and funds for the plight of their living cousins. A little later something niggled at the back of my mind – as though that elephant was trying to tell me something – but I thought no more of it and caught a train for Teddington and […]

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’: and ‘amateur’; 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, […]

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. As I […]

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. 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 […]

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 […]

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. 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 […]

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. Despite such tempting distractions I decided to stick with my Silverbird, or the more accurately named Silbervogel, the Museum’s scale […]

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. This British engine was a precursor to those used on the Black Arrow space rocket and I knew of its German ancestry […]