Tag Archives: science fact

[April 22, 1962] “To ride on the curl’d clouds” (ARIEL ONE)


By Ashley R. Pollard

Looking back to October the 4th 1957 when Sputnik was launched, it’s hard to believe that only five years have passed since that fateful day when Russia beat Britain and America into space (perhaps my American readers will say that Britain had no realistic chance of getting into space first, which I would agree with, but for the Western nations to be beaten by the Russians – now that’s the thing.)

With Sputnik, humanity transitioned from flying through the air to moving through the vacuum of space, where no living animal can survive without a pressure suit. The only other time that I can think of when a paradigm shift of this nature took place would be back when the first hot-air balloons were invented. This provoked the discussion, at the time, that this was the invention of travelling through the air.

As I read the history of hot-air balloons, the idea of travelling through air as an invention seems odd to me. But as language evolves over time, so do concepts like invention, which has moved from the original Latin meaning of discovery to the more modern meaning of a process or device. Though by modern I should clarify that I mean “from the fifteenth century,” which is not surprising given the changes that arose from the Renaissance, and everything that came out of rediscovery of the knowledge of the ancient Greeks.

For those who look back on the past with rose-tinted glasses I will remind my readers that the times I’m writing about were surrounded by their own troubles. The Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, for example, which led to a westward exodus of Greek scholars that fuelled the rediscovery of ancient thinking. One can argue that today’s troubles, with West and East facing off against each other, is just part of the story of humanity’s struggle between its biological drives versus its intellectual aspirations.

Almost equidistant (physically, though not ideologically) from the Free and Communist worlds, Britain is about to become Earth’s third nation to practice the “invention” of travelling through space. Admittedly this puts us behind America and Russia, but as the Yanks are wont to say, this still makes us a contender. We are calling our satellite Ariel One, more prosaically referred to as UK-1 or S-55. This program grew out of proposal by the British National Committee on Space Research to NASA that came from a discussion at a meeting of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) to study the Earth’s ionosphere.

What is the ionosphere? It is that layer high up in the Earth’s atmosphere where the sun’s energy strips the thin air of its electrons, creating a charged barrier to radio waves. It is this layer that allows British and American “Hams” to talk to each other across thousands of miles of ocean. Understanding how the ionosphere works not only has practical implications for engineers, but is also vital to modelling the atmosphere as a whole. The rewards to science will be tremendous.

I must confess that while Ariel One may be a British satellite, it was made in America for us by the NASA Goddard Flight Center. Our satellite will launched atop a Thor-Delta rocket aka Delta DM-19, which is a variant of the Thor-Able booster that launched some of America’s first satellites, and is due to be launched on the 26th of April from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Launch Complex 17A.

The Thor rockets were designed for the United States Air Force as intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM), which became redundant for purpose after the introduction of the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). So arguably this is a case of swords being turned into plowshares for science. The Thor-Delta uses a Delta rocket as its upper stage, which has the new AJ10-118 engine, and the upper stage also has cold gas attitude control jets. This allows rockets to be stabilized, and the motors can also be stopped and restarted for more precise orbital insertions than were previously possible.

The Ariel One satellite has six experiments onboard, five of which will examine the relationship between two types of solar radiation and changes in the Earth’s ionosphere, and the other cosmic rays. University College London has two ionospheric experiments aboard Ariel; a Langmuir probe for measuring of electron temperature and density; and a spherical probe for measurement of ion mass composition and temperature. The University of Birmingham has a plasma dielectric constant measurement of ionospheric electron density device, which uses a different method to measure electron density that complements the Langmuir probe.

In addition, University College London has two solar radiation experiments; one will measure Lyman-Alpha ultra-violet emissions; the other will measure X-Ray emissions from the Sun in the 3 to 12A band. The sixth experiment, provided Imperial College London, is a Cerenkov detector, which will measure primary cosmic ray energy spectrum, and the impact of interplanetary magnetic field modulation on this spectrum.

You may be thinking, “These experiments sound familiar. I know that NASA’s Orbiting Solar Observatory, for example has similar detectors. Why do we need another satellite that does the same thing?”

That’s an excellent question. There are three answers:

1) Just as more eyewitnesses create a stronger legal case or journalistic report, so do multiple satellites give a broader, mutually verifiable view of the same phenomena;

2) Different laboratories create subtly different experiment types. Thus, Ariel will look at the Sun with slightly different eyes than OSO;

3) Ariel represents an important first step in British space science, one that lays the foundation for future successes.

To finish this months article I must comment on the name Ariel, which is an interesting choice. Ariel is a Hebrew word found in the Bible. I understand it means either the Lion of God or Hearth of God, depending on interpretation. It is also the name of one of the moons of Uranus (recently visited by other members of the Journey).

But, one can’t help but think of Milton’s Paradise Lost or Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and my guess would be that it’s an allusion to the latter because Ariel was the servant of Prospero – and I have the highest hopes that Ariel One shall be successful in serving British science equally well.

[Mar. 17, 1962]  Our Knights in Shining Armor (Have Space Suit, Will Travel)

[The Journey’s “Fashion Columnist” returns with a timely piece on the latest advancement in sartorial science…]


by Gwyn Conaway

Last month, on February 20th, 1962, John Glenn became the second American to leave behind our earthly constraints for the majesty of space.

Less than one year after Alan Shepard’s historic suborbital flight on a Redstone rocket, John Glenn ascended to low Earth orbit in his spacecraft, Friendship 7. He circled the Earth three times at speeds upwards of 17,000 miles per hour, and persevered through the crushing force of nearly eight times the force of Earth’s gravity Gs at reentry into our atmosphere.

What a time to be alive! We are witness to human history! This is a milestone in a long journey toward chasing the unknown. Never have I been more certain that we are explorers, creatures of adventure. And what better bedfellow to our curiosity than innovation?  For to accomplish his mission, Colonel Glenn required two spacecraft: the bell-shaped Mercury, as well as his formfitting personal capsule – the Mark IV spacesuit.

Our newly beloved Space Age is thanks, in no small part, to a little-known mechanical engineer and designer named Russell Colley at B. F. Goodrich Company. Owing to his career-long devotion to high-altitude pressure suits, Colley has been deemed the Father of the Spacesuit, the First Tailor of the Space Age. Mark my words, his Mark IV spacesuits, with their sleek and futuristic design, will inspire generations of fashion to come.

The Mark IV rides on the coattails of many pressure suits designed by Colley and others over the years. Its evolution is a testament to American doggedness and bears the fruits of the unbridled technological advancements in textiles and garment manufacturing we’ve seen through the past decade.


The Post pressure suit, first flown in 1934. This suit had a skewed visor to favor Wiley Post’s one good eye.

Colley first began his groundbreaking work in 1934 when Wiley Post, the aviator who achieved fame through making the first solo flight around the globe, commissioned him to design the world’s first pressurized suit for high-altitude flight. Later the same year, after two failed designs, Colley built a rubber bladder suit with long underwear and a diver’s helmet on his wife’s sewing machine. This suit launched Wiley Post 50,000 ft into the air and jump-started an evolution over the next thirty years that leads us to our current moment of triumph – the Mark IV spacesuits.


John Glenn being fit for his Mark IV, destined to carry him into orbit last month. What once looked like a diver’s suit has now been transformed into a feat of futuristic design and engineering.

From 1941 to 1954, the David Clark Company designed and built twenty pressure suit models for the U.S. Military.  When David Clark’s funding dried up, B.F. Goodrich, where Colley worked, was offered the contract. Colley himself built seven suits at B.F. Goodrich. They started this contract with the Model H (the 8th letter of the alphabet and their 8th suit design, in case you were wondering). Models H through R were built and tested before the company began the Mark series that would take Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and now John Glenn into space.

By the time B.F. Goodrich won the bid to build their Mark IV spacesuits in 1961, the U.S. Military and NASA had collectively funded more than forty pressure suit designs across three major engineering companies.


The Mercury 7 in a fitting for their Mark IV space suits. Note the sage green option for the suit in the back right.

The Mark IV, in addition to its sleek name, is a marvel to behold, unlike any other piece of flight equipment I’ve ever seen. Each suit is fitted by Colley in Akron, OH, where he attended to each of the Mercury 7 pilots. The gloves alone come in fifteen sizes: five palm sizes, each with short, regular, or long digits. John Glenn had a new feature added to his gloves specifically for his February flight: tiny lights affixed to the tops of each finger so he could read the instrument panels.


John Glenn shows off his finger flashlights. Also visible in this photo are the only two instances of metal bearings in the entire suit: the neck ring and glove attachments.

Space suits have made incredible strides since his Colley’s collaboration with Wiley Post more than thirty years ago. When pressurized, these high altitude suits inflate the interior, pushing in on the human body and out on the suit. This provides the pilot with enough atmospheric pressure to stabilize blood flow to the brain and keeping them conscious during difficult maneuvers. However, once these suits are pressurized, mobility becomes extremely limited, and even bending one’s fingers becomes a task of titanic strength.


Astronauts ‘test’ the Mark IV in a light-hearted ball game. Clearly visible along the outer seams of the arms and legs are Colley’s revolutionary elastic pleating to enhance mobility.

The earliest suits were outfitted with heavy metal hinges at the joints for mobility. In a stroke of genius, Colley departed from metal bearings and joints in the Mark series. Rather, he used adjustable cords and pleats to fold the inflated suit at important junctions. While the cords had originally concerned NASA, they proved invaluable in fittings, where Colley was able to replace the lengths of many of these cords with highly-tailored zippers, elastic seams, and pressure pockets for each pilot.


John Glenn’s waffle-weave long underwear can be seen here as he suits up. The waffling occurs across the back, buttocks, thighs, and biceps in reinforced panels.

It’s a daring, romantic choice. I’m sure I’m not the only one who saw John Glenn walk to his shuttle last month and sigh, “Ah, now there is a knight in shining armor!” I wonder how far into the future Russell Colley’s Mark IV will inspire children, artists, and science fiction? How long will the stamp of America’s Mercury 7 linger on the face of space exploration? Decades? Centuries?

Yuri Gagarin may have beat us to space in April of last year, but the cosmonaut’s orange utility suit will not leave such a glimmer in the eyes of our children. The Russians touched the stars first, but Russell Colley has won the hearts of the people of Earth.

[March 7, 1962] Sunny side up!  (Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO) #1)


by Gideon Marcus

Look up at the night sky, and what do you see?  Darkness and countless points of light.  Maybe a planet or two, brightly untwinkling in the black.  It is interesting that the sky should be black – after all, there are lots of photons (light particles) buzzing around the sky even after the sun has gone down.  You’ve got radio waves and x-rays.  Gamma rays, microwaves, and the shimmering veil of infrared – heat.  And yet, we can’t see any of it.  Just the pinpricks of stars on the night’s sheet.

Part of that is a biological limitation.  Our eyes only see a tiny window of the electromagnetic spectrum: from purple to red, the colors of the rainbow.  Some species of life see a bit further, into the ultraviolet or the infrared.  Only one species has crafted the ability to see beyond this range: humanity.  With our scintillators and geiger tubes and giant dishes, we can see waves of all kinds. 

Well, not quite.  You see, even with these detectors, we are still half blind.  The blanket of air covering the Earth blocks many wavelengths of photons from outer space: X Rays, Cosmic Rays, many wavelengths of Ultraviolet.  To see the truly unseeable, you have to go into orbit.

That’s when we really can look at those points of light.  These are the stars, those busy factories of nuclear fusion, busily turning hydrogen into helium.  There are 100 billion in our galaxy, alone!  And we happen to have a lovely example just 93 million miles away, orders of magnitude closer than Alpha Centauri, the second nearest system.  While we have been observing the sun with our eyes for thousands of years, and with instruments for several hundred, these observations have always been hampered by the screening interference of the atmosphere.

Enter OSO – the Orbital Solar Observatory.  This 200kg spacecraft is the heaviest American science satellite to date, dwarfing all of the Explorer series of probes.  It is the first satellite launched devoted to the long-term study of the sun, in wavelengths you can’t see from the Earth’s surface.

There are 13 experiments on board the (appropriately) solar-powered craft including three X-Ray detectors, four Gamma Ray monitors, an ultraviolet sensor, several particle counters, and a dust sampler.  Not only will OSO be up in orbit for months, but it will be joined by successors in the series such that, for the next 11 years (a complete solar cycle of sunspot maximums and minimums), we will have continuous measurements of our star.  It is an unprecedented experiment, one which will tell us much about the nearest star and, by extension, the rest of the Galaxy’s stars.

Not only that, but we will learn a great deal about solar storms and the hazards of radiation to human spaceflight.  This will give us a better idea of when and for how long it is safe for astronauts to travel in space, on the way to the Moon, for instance (NASA Director, James Webb, says he expects a landing by 1968!)

When will this ambitious project start?  Why…today, March 7, 1962, in fact!  It was launched from Cape Canaveral this morning, and to all indications, it is working flawlessly.  It is the kind of mission that won’t get a lot of press, particularly when compared to the glory that cloaked Glenn’s manned Mercury mission last month.  Nevertheless, I think OSO deserves attention and praise.  It constitutes a genuine leap in technology and it extends the eye of our race far above the clouds in a way no previous satellite has done. 

If they gave out Hugos for unmanned probes, this one would get my vote!

On the other hand, OSO-1 has plenty of competition for that award, and it’s sure to get much more.  Tiros 4, the fourth weather satellite, joined its still-functioning older brother (#3) last month on the 8th, and there have been a few mystery military launches since then.  The President has clamped down on Air Force flights as of the beginning of the year, so I don’t know much about them save that two were Discoverer film-based spy sats and one was a Samos live-TV spysat.  Another launch happened just today, but it was classified, and I know nothing else about it.  (It’s ironic that the reason for the information clamp-down is that the Soviets accused us of employing surveillance satellites, and we’re trying to hide it; I’m afraid the cat’s already out of that bag!)

So stay tuned…there’s more yet to come!

[February 20, 1962] American Made (John Glen and the flight of Friendship 7)


by Gideon Marcus

And the Free World exhales.  At long last, an American has orbited the Earth.  This morning, Astronaut John Glenn ascended to the heavens on the back of an Atlas nuclear missile.  He circled the globe three times before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

It is impossible to understate what this means for us.  The Soviets have been ahead of us in the Space Race since it started in 1957: First satellite, first lunar probe, first space traveler.  Last year, the best we could muster was a pair of 15 minute cannonball shots into the edges of space.  For two months, Glenn has gone again and again into his little capsule and lain on his back only to emerge some time later, disappointed by technical failure or bad weather.  Each time, the clock ticked; would the Soviets trump us with yet another spectacular display of technological prowess?

But this morning, everything was fine – the weather, the booster, the spacecraft, and the astronaut.  As I went to sleep last night, Glenn woke up.  He had the traditional low residue breakfast of orange juice, toast, eggs over-easy, fillet mignon, and Postum, before suiting up and entering the capsule.  That was at 5 AM his time (2 AM mine).  For five hours, the patient Colonel waited as his Atlas rocket, only recently tamed sufficiently for human use, was prepared and tested for flight.

At 9:47 AM his time, at last we saw the fire shoot out from beneath the missile, saw the Atlas and its black-painted cargo lift off, leaving its support gantry shrouded in white smoke.  For several minutes, the flight of mission Mercury-Atlas #6 was a strictly aural affair, the TV cameras’ only subject being the now-empty launchpad.  But we heard the confident communication between Alan Shepard on the ground and Glenn hurtling skyward, America’s first and American’s latest spacemen, and we knew everything was still going well.

The sky went quickly from blue to black as Glenn struggled against six times his normal weight.  First, the Atlas’ two side engines exhausted their fuel and detached.  A few minutes later, the central sustainer engine’s job was complete, and the Mercury capsule, dubbed Friendship 7 by Glenn, flung itself from its empty booster.  Glenn was now in orbit, weightless, and cleared for his full three-orbit, five-hour mission.

For the first time, an American flight was long enough for the public to contemplate, to be worthy of news flashes.  And even though the last Soviet flight had spanned a full day, it was shrouded in secrecy until after its completion.  Glenn’s mission was, on the other hand, entirely open.  Cockpit chatter was broadcast in the clear; each success and potential failure was presented for the world to hear.  Space travel had become a spectator sport.

The world participated.  Indeed, it had to.  An orbital mission requires global tracking.  Glenn’s flight was monitored as he passed over exotic locales like Zanzibar, Woomera, Hawaii.  The citizens of the west Australian city of Perth turned their lights on for the astronaut’s passage, providing a virtual streetlamp as he whizzed overhead at 18,000 miles per hour. 

Three sunsets and three sunrises greeted Colonel Glenn, though he was given precious little time to appreciate them, so crowded was his schedule with experiments and ship operations.  As the Mercury spacecraft’s functions began to degrade in its third orbit, the value of an experienced human pilot became evident.  Glenn manually configured and trimmed the vessel to make the most of the journey and ensure the mission could be completed. 

Glenn’s biggest challenge came at the end of the mission.  Sailing backwards over the Earth, the astronaut prepared to fire the ship’s retrorockets, a blast of fire that would slow the craft such that it could break out of orbit and back toward ground.  But an indicator suggested that the Mercury’s heat shield was loose.  If that were true, then there could be no returning for the astronaut – he would burn up on reentry. 

Was there anything the astronaut could do about the situation?  Well, the retrorocket package was held tight against the bottom of the bell-shaped craft (and thus, its heat shield) by a series of straps.  Normally, the retrorockets would be discarded before reentry.  This time, on the advisement of ground control, Glenn left the retrorockets strapped in.  The hope was that the straps would keep the shield attached, if it was indeed loose.

What a terrifying display that must have been for the pilot, watching flaming chunks of the retrorockets fly past his window as he tore through the white-hot outer layers of the atmosphere.  Glenn had plenty of other things to worry about.  The “G” forces spiked as the craft decelerated, and the ionization of the air cut off radio contact.  We all waited, white-knuckled, for some sign that the astronaut had survived the journey…or had been vaporized.

Then his voice crackled over the air again, the Mercury’s striped parachutes were deployed, and we began breathing again.  A ship of the recovery fleet, the little destroyer called the U.S.S. Noa, was already close at hand when Friendship 7 touched down in the waves.  Once the capsule was hoisted aboard, the astronaut popped the side hatch, the one that had exploded prematurely for second astronaut Grissom.  An overheated but grinning Glenn stepped out of the Mercury, and into history.

Mercury’s primary mission, to orbit and safely return a human, has been completed.  Nevertheless, there is obviously much life left in the bird.  Three more three-orbit flights are planned to shake out the bugs that plagued the latter portion of Glenn’s flight.  Then 12, 24 hour, and perhaps multi-day flights are slated. 

Of course, the Soviets may soon respond with a flight that trumps ours, perhaps even a two-person mission.  But for now, the hour rightfully belongs to the West.  The democracies of the world at last have their emissary to the stars. 

Godspeed, John Glenn!

[February 19, 1962] February Thaw (tales from the British fan)


By Ashley R. Pollard

This month’s theme is anticipation.

For instance, the anticipation of the coming spring that will soon relieve the winter blues, signaled by the mornings and evenings getting lighter.  I no longer get up in total darkness and leave work as darkness descends because now the winter sun sets around five.  Instead, I now walk over Westminster Bridge in the gathering twilight.  The gloam of the day brightened as Elizabeth Tower illuminates, and the sound of Big Ben asserts the official time with all the authority that its chimes can muster.


https://www.flickr.com/photos/trainsandstuff/31074517774

However, it’s still too cold for my liking, with the winds from the East chilling one to the bone.

As I write this piece, I’m also anticipating another birthday, which I will have celebrated by the time this article is published.  Not a significant number this time round as that was last year.  But I’ve taken another step into the future, a future that is bright with the possibilities of exciting new things to wonder at.  I am confident that tomorrow, despite the series of postponements, America will launch John Glenn in his Friendship 7 capsule.  I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to have the weight of expectations on one’s shoulders combined with the feeling of disappointment from having to wait yet another day or more before being able to go into space.

However, the anticipation of success is palpable.  The future is bright, and mankind will one day go to the stars, where no one has gone before.  These are, in my mind, the most exciting of times to be alive in.  Of course I say no one has gone before, but perhaps aliens are already travelling among the stars.  Perhaps they’ve already visited us, though I think that’s unlikely, despite the recent profusion of “saucer stories.”

Speaking of unlikely things, while meandering up Charring Cross Road, perusing the secondhand bookshops for science fiction books, I found a copy of Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision.  This fanciful (but seriously presented) account of the formation of our solar system, has acquired a strong cult following of late.  It had been shelved in the science fiction and fantasy section, next to a copy of George Adamski’s the Flying Saucers Have Landed.

This I believe says a lot about how members of the book trade or general public view science fiction and fantasy fans.  I will not rant on about society’s inability to keep up with the changes going on all around us.  It is, arguably, human nature to find change unsettling.  Here in the twentieth century our old ways and beliefs are being challenged by new discoveries, and our understanding of the cosmos expands.  Nevertheless, we fans can tell the difference between science, science fiction, and works like Velikovsky’s and Adamski’s, which best belong with the fairy tales.

Still, as a follower of Fortean apocrypha, I find Velikovsky’s ideas a fertile ground for strange and whacky ideas.  So much so, I wrote a short story inspired by them.  Whether the story will ever see the light of day is another matter.  Perhaps in future, say in fifty years or so, it will bring a smile or even a chuckle or two to those that get to read it.

Back to anticipation — I’m anticipating the coming weekend.  Not for the usual reason of shooting arrows (the literal kind; I am an archer – for fun, not profit), even though I have new limbs for my bow that my partner bought me for my birthday.  Instead we are attending a one day convention run by the students of The Imperial College science fiction and fantasy society.  I understand from my partner that several authors have been invited to speak and be on panels.  It will be a chance for fans old and new to mingle, chat.  Also, there are book dealers in attendance.  So I’m looking forward to going to the convention and who knows what I might find?  Stay tuned.

And, as a sort of end to an anticipation, there are news reports of a shocking discovery made on the 14th of February.  A French patrol of troops found the mummified remains of William N. ‘Bill’ Lancaster in the Sahara desert.  He disappeared in April 1933 while attempting to beat the world speed record for a flight between Britain and South Africa.  His mummified body was found near the wreckage of his aeroplane, an Avro Mark VIA Avian called Southern Cross.  They found his journal, and the reports say he lived for seven days after the crash before dying of thirst while waiting to rescued.  There’s a story in there for sure.

So that is it for another month.  March will bring more news of science fiction in Britain, and I hope you will join me again.

[February 1, 1962] Silver Lining (January Space Race round-up!)


by Gideon Marcus

January has been a frustrating month in the Space Race.  We are no closer to matching the Soviets in the manned competition, much less beating them, and our unmanned shots have been a disappointment, too.  That said, it’s not all bad news in January’s round-up: stick to it through the end, and you’ll see cause for cheer!

Quintuplets fail to deliver

The Air Force has been playing around with combined launches for a while now.  After all, if you’re going to spend millions of dollars to throw a booster away, you might as well get multiple bangs for your buck.  Sadly, the latest attempt, a Thor Ablestar launch on January 24 dubbed “Composite 1,” failed when the top stage tumbled in orbit and failed to separate from its payloads.

What we lost: SolRad 4, for measuring solar X-rays (only visible above the curtain of the atmosphere); Lofti 2, which would have examined the effects of Earth’s ionosphere on Very Low Frequency radio transmissions; Surcal, a strictly military probe designed to calibrate the navy’s communications net in orbit; the wholly civilian Injun 2, which would help map the Van Allen belts (see below); and Secor, a big balloon that would have helped the Army with their ranging equipment.

Copies of these probes will end up at some point, either launched together on a big rocket or separately on little ones.

Moon Miss-ion

It’s been a bad run of luck for NASA’s latest moon program, Project Ranger.  After the failure of the first two Ranger missions, designed to test the probe’s engineering and return sky science, there were high hopes for the lunar flight, launched January 26. 

Things went badly from the beginning.  Ranger 3 was pushed into a bad trajectory by a faulty guidance system.  Not only did it rush past the moon, failing both to hit the target or end up in orbit, but it was pointed the wrong way the entire length of the journey.  No useful data or pictures were obtained.  That nifty seismometer that makes up Ranger’s Rudolph nose went completely unused. 

Ranger 4, a carbon copy of #3, should launch in the next few months.  Hopefully, they’ll have the kinks worked out by then.  This is one of those clear places where the Communists are ahead in the space race, having pioneered both lunar orbit and the moon’s surface several years ago.

A rain check for Mercury

The third time turned out also not to be the charm for Major John Glenn.  His orbital Mercury mission has now been postponed three times.  It’s a good thing the Marine is so good-natured; I know I’d be frustrated.

The first delay happened on January 22 when there was a failure in the spacecraft’s oxygen system.  Definitely something I’d like working on a five hour flight!  On the 27th, cloud cover prevented the launch, and just today, there was a problem with the temperamental Atlas booster.  The next opportunity to launch won’t come until February 13.

So much is riding on this flight.  The Soviets have already launched two of theirs into orbit while we flutter futilely on the ground.  Newspapers and talking heads are already opining that we’ll have a Red-staffed space station and a Red-dominated moon before long if we don’t hurry to catch up. 

Explorer 12: Reaping the harvest

Here’s the good news: I’ve said before that the most exciting thing about a satellite is not its fiery launch but the heap of data it returns.  That’s where the taxpayer gets one’s money’s worth and where the scientist sees the payoff.  Explorer 12 was the latest in the series of probes (starting with America’s first, Explorer 1) sent into orbit to probe the hellish fields of charged particles that circle the Earth.  The spacecraft is still up there, though it went silent in December.  However, in its four months of life, it learned a great deal about the furthest reaches of our planet’s influence.

For one, Explorer 12 found that the outer of the two “Van Allen” belts around our planet is made mostly of protons rather than electrons (though there are still plenty of the latter — enough to make hanging around a dangerous proposition for astronauts).  Those protons, particularly the less energetic ones, have been linked to solar magnetic storms, which result in spectacular auroras on Earth.

Perhaps even more interesting is that the probe found the edge of the Earth’s magnetosphere.  “What’s that?” you ask.  Well, our planet is a giant magnet, probably the result of a dense iron core that spins deep inside the Earth.  These magnetic lines of force extend far beyond the Earth’s crust and 70,000 kilometers into space where they trap the wind of high energy particles from our sun.  This keeps them from scouring away our atmosphere. 

Where our magnetic field meets the field carried on the solar wind, called the magnetopause, there is an area of turbulence and disorganized magnetism. It is now believed that the sun’s wind smashes against the Earth’s field, creating a bow shock – the kind you’d see when a blunt body is smacked by a supersonic gas.  Moreover, the Outer Van Belt “breathes” inward and outward, responding to waves in the solar wind.

And speaking of magnetic fields, NASA scientists just released findings from the intentionally short-lived Explorer 10 found a magnetic “shadow” behind the Earth.  Specifically, the solar wind seems to hit our planet’s magnetosphere and deflect around the Earth, but the magnetic field acts as kind of an umbrella, shielding a large portion of near-Earth space. 

The general contours of Earth’s magnetic environment have thus been mapped.  Neat stuff, eh?

[December 17, 1961] XMAS COOL (UK report and Drake’s Equation)


By Ashley R. Pollard

I find December, in fact all the winter months, a tad difficult because it’s dark in the morning when I get up to go to work, and dark when it’s time to come home.  To add to the misery it’s cold too.  However, a piece on the misery of Christmas is, I feel, not congruent with the general feeling of excitement and good cheer that emanates from seeing people shopping, and of course the switching on of the Oxford Street lights.  A tradition that started in 1954 and seven years later is still going strong.

In other good cheer, our Health Minister the right honourable Enoch Powell (not my favourite member of parliament because he’s too clever for his own good) gave British women an early Christmas gift by making birth control pills available from the National Health Service.  It may not sound like much, but it’s all part and parcel of women’s emancipation, which in my opinion is a good thing.  Having the means to give women some control of their bodies about when they want to get pregnant is certainly a sign that the future is here.

Thinking back to when I was a child, a tablet like this would’ve been something right out of a science fiction story.  Not that I can readily think of any science fiction stories where the woman are in control of when they become pregnant.

A part of me thinks that birth control may have some unintended second order consequences.  The positive part is freedom to choose, and it will certainly address the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, where he postulates that unchecked population growth is exponential while the growth of the food supply was expected to be arithmetical, with catastrophic consequences for humanity.  His solutions having had provided authors with a raft of apocalyptic story lines over the years.

Speaking of the Age of Enlightenment, I have access to the 1753 Cyclopædia: or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences by Ephraim Chambers.  This was one of the first ever encyclopaedias published.

Imagine my delight and surprise when reading through it to find a definition of the word interstellar,

“is a word used by some authors to express those parts of the universe that are without and beyond our Solar system; in which are supposed to several other systems of planets moving around the fixed stars as the renters of their respective motions: and if it be true, as it is not improbable, that each fixed star is thus a sun to some habitable orbs, that move round it, the interstellar world will be infinitely the greater part of the universe.”

This is the stuff of science fiction before science fiction existed as a genre.

But it invites a question, if there are habitable planets out there, do they have life?  Are there aliens in the universe?  Countless stories have been written by science fiction authors about aliens — some lurid, some frightening, some optimistic — but now Dr. Frank Drake has come up with an equation to allow mankind to estimate the probability of the existence of aliens in the universe.

His equation arose out of an article published in 1959 by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison in the journal Nature called Searching for Interstellar Communications.  Cocconi and Morrison thought radio telescopes were now sensitive enough to pick up any transmissions being broadcast by civilizations orbiting other stars, and they went on to posit that these transmissions would be sent using the frequency of neutral hydrogen, a logical landmark in the radio spectrum.

A couple of months later Professor Harlow Shapley from Harvard University opined that the universe had ten million, million, million suns, and if one in a million has a planet around it, and if only one in a million of those has a planet that supports life as we know it, then there would be 100 million worlds where life could evolve.

This article spurred Dr. Drake to start the first systematic search for signals from extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations, which has not been successful in finding in finding said signals.  However, undeterred Dr. Drake hosted a meeting to discuss the search for extraterrestrial intelligence using radio signals at the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope.  Out of that meeting has come his equation defining the parameters needed to make an estimate of the number of alien civilizations that might exist.

What it doesn’t do is give an answer per se; it only defines what we must know for us to arrive at an answer.  But now that mankind is venturing into space we may be able to start collecting the data necessary to plug figures into the equations: for example things like the number of stars with planets around them, which given we haven’t got proof that there are other planets around other stars, is a big step.  After that, determining how many planets might be habitable will be another hurdle scientists will have to overcome.  But, the hope that we may one day know the answer to the question, which was first propounded in the 1753 edition of Chambers Cylopaedia, is what makes mankind’s future bright.

So one day, in another time and galaxy, we may well be celebrating the changing of the seasons with beings from other worlds.  On that note, allow me to wish all the readers of Galactic Journey a very merry time, and my best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year.  I’m sure 1962 is going to be even more exciting than 1961. 

Thank you all for reading.

[Dec. 10, 1961] By Jove! (Jupiter, the fifth planet)


by Gideon Marcus

An alien cataloging our solar system for an Encyclopedia Galactica might summarize our home in this brief sentence:

“Solitary yellow dwarf, unremarkable, with a single planet of note; also, a few objects of orbiting debris.”

That may strike you as an affront given the attachment you have to one of those pieces of debris (the Earth), but from a big-picture perspective, it’s quite accurate.  Of all the masses whirling around the sun, the planet Jupiter is by far the biggest.  It is, quite simply, the King of Planets.

As we stand on the precipice of planetary exploration, it is a good time to summarize what we know about this giant world, especially in light of recent discoveries made by ground telescopes.  Thus, here is the fourth in my series on the planets: Jupiter.

Let’s start with the name.  Why did the ancient Romans choose to identify Jupiter with the King of Gods?  Certainly not based on its mass – how could they know that?  Jupiter is, however, one of the brightest objects in the sky.  It also is visible more often than the slightly brighter Venus.  Because it so dominates the night, it is not surprising that it got an imposing name.

For thousands of years, very little was known about Jupiter beyond its brightness and its motion among the stars – the latter being what flagged it as something that wasn’t a star.  Then, around 1600, a fellow named Galileo built himself a telescope and aimed it at the planet. 

What a surprise that was!  Suddenly, this bright point of light was a disc.  More than that, it was blemished: alternating bands of light and dark defaced its face.  The biggest surprise?  An indisputable quartet of smaller bodies orbited the planet.  This was solid evidence that Earth was not the center of the universe.  So shocking was this discovery that it shook the very foundations of the Catholic Church, and Galileo’s findings were suppressed.

Luckily for us, Rome was not the center of the universe, either.  The last three and a half centuries have seen hundreds of astronomers turning their ‘scopes eagerly at the King of Planets, scribbling down their discoveries.  Here are a few:

Based on the motion of Jupiter’s moons, we know its mass to be about 320 times that of the Earth.

Jupiter seems to be made mostly of hydrogen, like the sun, but without the size needed to fuse the stuff, like a star. 

There is a giant red spot on Jupiter that has been in existence at least since we started looking at the planet.  It appears to rotate, and not in a uniform manner.  It is probably some kind of atmospheric phenomenon.

The planet seems to have a day of about 10 days (based on the movement of what appear to be its clouds).

Jupiter has an axial tilt of just 3 degrees.  It essentially has no seasons in its twelve year trek around the sun.

Measuring the timing of the eclipses caused by the four “Galileian Moons” led to the first determinations of the speed of light.

Eight moons beyond those found by Galileo orbit the planet, though none of them are as big.  The latest was found just a decade ago, in 1951. 

There are stable points one sixth of the way ahead and behind Jupiter in its orbit (actually, such points of stability exist with all planets as part of their gravitational dance with the sun, but Jupiter’s are the most pronounced as it is the biggest planet).  Inhabiting these points are swarms of asteroids that drifted in there over time and were trapped.  These bodies are named after heroes of the Trojan War, one point bearing Greeks and the other, Trojans.  As a result, these areas of gravitational stability are called the “Trojan Points.” 

We still do not know if Jupiter has a solid surface.  Are there oceans of methane or ammonia floating around inside that huge volume, enough to swallow 1300 Earths?  Or does the hydrogen simply get denser and denser until it becomes liquid?  Is there a dense core in the middle?

Until we are able to send probes to Jupiter (and scientists are just starting to dream up missions involving the new, giant Saturn rocket), many of the planet’s mysteries will remain unsolved.  But not all of them…

In the last ten years or so, a brand new way of looking at Jupiter has been developed.  Light comes in a wide range of wavelengths, only a very small spectrum of which can be detected by the human eye.  Radio waves are actually a form of light, just with wavelengths much longer than we can see.  Not only can radio be used to communicate over long distances, but sensitive receivers can tell a lot about the universe.  It turns out all sorts of celestial objects emit radio waves. 

Jupiter is one of those sources.  After this discovery, in 1955, astronomers began tracking the planet’s sporadic clicks and hisses.  It is a hard target because of all of the local interference, from the sun, our ionosphere, and man-made radio sources.  Still, scientists have managed to learn that Jupiter has an ionosphere, too, as well as a strong magnetic field with broad “Van Allen Belts.”  It also appears to be the only planet that broadcasts on the radio band.

Using radio, we will be able to learn much about King Jove long before the first spacecraft probes it (perhaps by 1970 or so).  It’s always good to remember that Space Age research can be done from home as well as in the black beyond.  While I am as guilty as the next fellow of focusing on satellite spectaculars, the bulk of astronomy is done with sounding rockets and ground-based telescopes – not to mention the inglorious drudgery of calculations and report-writing, universal to every science. 

So just you wait, Jupiter. By hook or by crook, we’ll soon figure out what makes you tick.  And click.  And hiss.

[November 30, 1961] Man vs. Machine (November 1961 Space Round-up)


by Gideon Marcus

November 1961 been an exciting month for space buffs with several sequels to exciting missions as well as one brand new satellite. 

For instance, the fourth Transit navigational satellite went up on November 15.  Not only did it carry a little nuclear reactor for power, but it also had a piggyback pal.  Called Transit Research and Attitude Control (TRAAC), it’s a little research probe designed to try a new method of stabilization.  You see, an object launched into orbit will have a tendency to tumble.  There are active methods to right a satellite, like engines or gyroscopes.  TRAAC uses a passive method, employing just its shape and the tidal force of the Earth.  It’s an exciting experiment.

The Air Force was two for three this month with their reconnaissance programs.  Discoverer 34, on November 5, and Discoverer 35, on November 15, were sent into space to spy on the Soviet Union.  Each had a little camera on board and a capsule for sending film back to Earth.  Both craft made it into orbit, and at least the latter mission’s payload was recovered in a daring (but now routine) mid-air catch by a plane.  Only the boys in blue know whether the targets were a Soviet base or skinny dippers on the Black Sea.  Samos 4, launched November 22, failed to orbit.

By the way, it’s going to get harder for me to give you the skinny on military missions.  While Eisenhower was rather cavalier about letting the Soviets know what we’re up to, probably to show off, President Kennedy has put a lid on spy flights.  Newspapers aren’t covering them much anymore, and the details we do get are sketchy.  Just be aware that, at any given time, there are robot shutterbugs in orbit, taking snapshots of Nikita.  And maybe of you.

On to the civilian world: the second Moon probe Ranger probe was a bust, just like the first.  It’s a shame because these two missions, comprising the first iteration of the probe known as “Block 1,” were designed to do some excellent sky science.  They weren’t aimed at our celestial neighbor.  Rather, they were to be flung into high orbits for engineering tests and cosmic investigation.  The next mission, a Block 2 lunar impactor, is planned for January 1962.

But the real NASA news this month involves a little primate named Enos.  Yesterday, for the second time, an Atlas booster roared into the orbit from Cape Canaveral with a Mercury capsule at its tip.  Unlike the last one, however, Mercury-Atlas #5 (the first three had been suborbital missions) carried a passenger.  The 37.5 pound chimpanzee circled the Earth twice before safely splashing down some 255 miles southeast of Bermuda.

Just as the launch of a chimp presaged Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in May, so Enos’ jaunt paves the way for astronaut John Glenn to be the first American in orbit in just a few weeks (weather permitting).  Now, the flight was not entirely flawless.  A roll reaction jet failed, and one of the components of the electrical system overheated.  As a result, Enos’ capsule returned to Earth after just two of the planned three orbits.  But, had a human been on board, he could have compensated for these issues, easily. 

That’s the bigger story, to me.  I know some people wonder why we bother to send people up into space when electric implements have proven capable enough, and cheaper.  And there is certainly a segment of the flyboy population that snickers at the thought of test pilots relegated to following in the furry shoes of ape predecessors. 

Yet, in MA-5, we have the reason.  No monkey and, as yet, no machine can react with the speed and intellect of a human.  Moreover, no machine can think creatively, adapting to an evolving situation beyond a few set scenarios programmed into its core.  Imagine if an astronaut were flying the Discoverer missions.  He’d have the discretion of choosing the targets to photograph.  He’d be able to bring a film capsule home with him rather than relying on complicated automatic systems and aerial recovery planes. 

When John Glenn flies, he will return far more information about the universe than any experiment or animal could, not just scientific, but about the human condition.  For 270 minutes, he will be an outpost of the Free World in space.  What will it mean to him, to all of us, his three circuits of the globe? 

We can’t know until he gets there, but I’m betting it will be profound.

[Oct. 31, 1961] A is for Atomic (UK TV Sci-fi… and the Tsar Bomba)


By Ashley R. Pollard

A is for atomic and apocalypse, and this month also for Andromeda.  Of the three, the most entertaining is the new TV series on the BBC, called A for Andromeda, written by Frederick Hoyle and John Elliot.  Hoyle is an astronomer and noted cosmologist who also wrote the science fiction novel The Black Cloud, while Elliot is novelist, screenwriter and television producer.

Andromeda gripped me from the very first episode, called The Message, the opening sequence being an interview with Professor Reinhart, explaining the project as something that had happened in the past.  The story cuts to the professor and his research assistants, Jason Fleming and Dennis Bridger, working at the new radio telescope at Bouldershaw Fell…in 1970.  If that’s not a hook that grabs your attention then I don’t know what is.  The episode title gives the gist of the plot — alien message — and the series title tells you where the aliens are from — Andromeda.

The second episode, The Machine, builds on the message and we discover it is the plans to build a better computer, which the British government decide to do at a military base in Thorness, Scotland.  Here the plot starts to twist and turn with Dennis Bridger selling the information to a slightly sinister corporate conglomerate called Intel (a clever name; someone should put it to good use).

The third episode, The Miracle, moves the story into Hoyle’s special area of interest: life from space.  You may have heard of his famous stellar nucleosynthesis paper of 1954 — Frederick Hoyle is one of the foremost scientists of his generation and a populariser of the philosopher Anaxagoras theory of panspermia, a controversial theory.  The story introduces Madeline Dawnay, a biologist, who joins the team to help with the creation of a synthetic life-form that the computer instructions have given them.  Dennis Bridger’s betrayal is discovered, and he gets his just desserts while fleeing justice…when he falls off a cliff.

In last week’s episode, The Monster, the story has moved forward to 1971, where we bear witness to the creation of a protoplasmic life form named “the cyclops.”  Fleming, our hero of the series, is skeptical of the machine’s agenda and worried that it can affect the minds of those who come into close proximity to the machine.  We are left wanting more, and next week’s episode title, The Murderer, certainly leaves us something exciting to look forward to!

However, this time, reality has the jump on fiction, excitement-wise.  It comes in the shape of what the press is calling the Tsar Bomba or Kuz’kina Mat’ — Russian for “Kuzma’s mother” — a reference to Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s promise to show the United States the true might of Soviet power during the United Nations General Assembly earlier this month.

Or more simply, the mother of all bombs.

The Russians turned their premier’s statement into a demonstration of their nuclear might at 11.32 Moscow time on October the 30th by detonating a 50 megaton bomb over the Mityushika Bay the Soviet nuclear testing range.  For those of you whose geography is a little hazy, this is just north of the Arctic Circle over the Novayo Zemlya archipelago.  The shock wave from the blast is reputed to have circled the Earth four times.  Reports of seeing the explosion came from a nearly thousand kilometres away from the blast site.

The size of the explosion is almost beyond comprehension.  The only way I can get my head around it is knowing that it’s the equivalent to ten percent of all the nuclear bombs detonated to date or ten times the combined energy from all the bombs dropped during the second world war.  Such numbers are frightening and make the threat from aliens trying to take over the Earth pale into insignificance by comparison.

Perhaps it is because the threat to all life on Earth becoming extinct is an existential one, now that we live in the atomic age, that we enjoy such outrageous fare as Andromeda.  When we consider such matters, our minds are overwhelmed by prime emotions, which reduce our reasoning to that of the hominids we’re descended from.  I would argue that science fiction allows us to discuss that which is too frightening to comprehend.

So whether A is for atomic, apocalypse or Andromeda is really not the question.  Rather, our need to tell stories to understand ourselves is the way we face the end of life.