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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 […]

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. 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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

A big hello from SFTS to astronaut  Dr. Nicholas Patrick, who’s aboard the current Shuttle mission to the International Space Station. He’ll be carrying out three spacewalks during the mission, helping to fit new modules including the station’s snazzy new observation dome. Nick officially opened our revamped Space gallery a few years ago – here he is with our replica of the Apollo 11 lunar module. Astronauts are allowed to take some personal items with them. Nick has chosen some memorabilia of Captain Cook, […]

With President Obama’s new NASA budget proposals to slash the Constellation programme, it might be a while longer before someone adds their footprints to the last left on the lunar surface by Gene Cernan in 1972. But in the meantime, here’s a virtual journey to the Moon, via our collections. One of the reasons given for cancelling Constellation was lack of design innovation. Perhaps NASA’s engineers should take inspiration from this ingenious method of transport from 1648: However and whenever they get there, […]

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