The Plastic Hippo

December 17, 2015

Ignition sequence start

Filed under: Environment,History,Media,Science,Transport,World — theplastichippo @ 4:00 am
The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

In a relatively short space of time, an awful lot of flying things happened in the years separating the Wright Brothers from Yuri Gagarin. Exactly 112 years ago, on December 17th 1903, Orville and then Wilbur took to the air each making two controlled, powered flights in a machine constructed of spruce timber, muslin and string. The first flight by Orville covered 120 feet and the fourth flight by Wilbur went for 852 feet. The average altitude was 10 feet and the average airspeed was 6.8 miles per hour.

Less than 58 years later, on April 12th 1961, Yuri Gagarin left the ground at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and achieved a geocentric low earth orbit after 10 minutes. The orbit`s perigee was 91 nautical miles and the apogee was 177 nautical miles. Airspeed is not applicable as there is no air in a free fall orbit. Gagarin circumnavigated the planet in 108 minutes from launch to landing.

Given that Homo sapiens have been trying to fly since we fell out of the trees some considerable time ago, this rate of aeronautic evolution is nothing short of astounding. A person born on July 20th 1903 would have celebrated their 66th birthday witnessing men walking on the moon. There are, of course, specific drivers that led to this rapid development, not least two major global conflicts and a later and continuing threat of nuclear annihilation. In a race to design and manufacture aircraft capable of flying higher, faster and further with increasing payloads, government money was no object. After the Apollo moon landings, however, funding for manned space exploration became less of a priority than funding for unmanned space “defence”.

Earlier this week, just about 54 years since Gagarin blasted off into history, another spacecraft left Baikanur. Interestingly, the Soyuz launcher (derived from the earlier Vostok rocket) shares the same basic design and engineering as Gagarin`s mode of transport and the procedures for attaining orbit and for re-entry are remarkably similar. The difference is that this latest craft is taking a six month detour via the International Space Station.

Although there have been 82 missions transferring crews to and from the ISS, the UK media worked itself up into something of a frenzy over this latest fairly routine rotation of crew. It was almost as if humanity had boldly gone into space for the very first time. This sudden interest in spaceflight seems to be a result of a crew member sporting the Union Flag on the arm of his spacesuit. Some elements of the media became so carried away that they suggested that Major Tim Peake was “the first Briton to fly into space.”

In 1991, Helen Sharman spent 11 days on the Mir space station selected and funded by the Russian scientific space mission. She later applied to become a European Space Agency astronaut but was apparently rejected. Three other Britons became US citizens in order to join NASA. Michael Foale completed six space flights, Piers Sellers three and Nicholas Patrick two. There are two other British born NASA astronauts but they don`t count because they had American parents. When challenged, the UK media grudgingly clarified that Tim Peake is the first Briton to deploy to the ISS and, more importantly, is the first truly British astronaut because he is paid for by the UK government.

Tim Peake image via AP

Tim Peake image via AP

There can be no doubt that Tim Peake, apart from being a skilled pilot and flight engineer, seems to be a thoroughly nice chap. Which of us did not experience a trembling lower lip at seeing him and his children touching either side of the coach window just before he was conveyed to the launch pad? Only a heartless cynic would not have experienced a “something in the eye moment” as his excited six year-old son waved and shouted “bye bye Daddy” as his father was propelled away from the planet on top of a massive tube filled with high explosive.

British television carried the launch and subsequent docking with the ISS live, which was nice of them, but the inane and shambolic commentary was only redeemed by the expert presence of Commander Chris Hadfield, a veteran of missions to the ISS. With authority, knowledge, humour, enthusiasm and common sense, he probably saved the reputations of presenters who definitely do not display the calibre of Raymond Baxter and James Burke when covering live space exploration.

Astronauts like Hadfield and now Tim Peake exemplify the future of space travel. The image of a fearless, steely-eyed Dan Dare or Flash Gordon ready to save the planet from death rays and alien invasion has subtly changed. Money was no object for those with the right stuff at the start of space exploration but now things have changed. It`s not enough to be a former test pilot in possession of extraordinary levels of courage and both physical and mental resilience; astronauts now need to be scientists and educators as well.

Hadfield, Peake and their colleagues are all these things and are heaven sent in terms of public relations. If the interest and enthusiasm for science, engineering, exploration and international cooperation generated by these missions – especially in children – can be sustained, then playing a guitar in space, smiling a lot and giving a thumbs up at every opportunity might just save the planet.

Some of us, after being allowed to stay up all night to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, were convinced that in another 46 years we would be on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise heading for Alpha Proxima. Sadly, the money was spent on bombs rather than exploration. If another generation is not to be disappointed, then governments need to invest in science and education and stop digging the heart out of the planet to pay for more bombs.

If not, then the ignition sequence has started.

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