Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Space junk: collection is easy, direction is hard to find.

My Twitter friend Stuart Palmer alerted me to this space junk song I didn't know about! It's a good one too. The Bats are a New Zealand band who have been around since the 1980s.

Here are the lyrics, which I have transcribed myself for your pleasure. Apologies if I have got some of them wrong. The cruisy tones sometimes made words difficult to distinguish!

Space junk is flying
And I'm goin' to go and get me some
It will be so easy
And I'll have a beautiful pile

Collection is easy
Direction is hard to find
Time is the healer

Somewhere I'll hide it
Maybe on the mellow moon
Someday I'll go and find it
Sell it for a fortune back home

Collection is easy
Direction is hard to find
Time is the healer

In the end of course I never made it
Cos I could never find a hollow moon
Space junk junk is still flying
And I'm waiting just for you to be

Collection is easy
Direction is hard to find
Time is the healer

And I'm still stuck out here
Searching for a better world

And I'm still stuck out here
Searching for a better world

And I'm still stuck out here
Searching for a better world

The song draws on the idea that space junk is collectible and valuable, just like the pieces of Skylab which scattered itself over Western Australia in 1979. It's junk in orbit, but a precious souvenir of space back on Earth. 

This makes me think about the definition of space junk and how it varies depending on where the fragment or defunct satellite is located between Earth and Earth orbit. For example, a returned spacecraft in a museum is not seen as junk because it is performing a function - communicating space science to the public.  A collected piece of junk also has a function for the person who owns it. It's a physical object that evokes the vastness of space and makes the person feel connected to it. Anything spaceflown has a magical pull for the Earthbound.

In the song, the space junk is also a compass for finding one's way in the universe. It's come to a final resting place, and its collector looks to it to provide a thread to the sky where perhaps a better world awaits. The space junk can't fulfil this role, though.

I like the way the song moves from the slightly facetious idea that a fortune can be made from selling space trash to the more melancholy reflection of being stuck on Earth still searching for a path.

I've been humming this song for days. Go Bats!

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

'Some people don't worry, baby': Skylab blues and space junk anxiety

I do love the music inspired by the re-entry of the US space station Skylab in 1979. This one is by Grimsdell, a person or band about which I can find out almost nothing. Like several other space junk songs, it is rather grim, focusing on junk falling on people and houses. Skylab is almost drawn into some kind of karmic economy - it is coming for YOU, as if the guilty will die and the virtuous be saved. Or perhaps it's that virtue won't save you, and this is what's most frightening. Be apathetic, like the couch-potato Coors-sippers, or don't; it won't matter when the end comes.

You could also say that Skylab here is just a metaphor here for a general apocalypse, standing in for nuclear devastation

They say Skylab's fallin' out of the sky
They say some people may have to die
Could fall on my house, could fall on yours

Some people don't worry baby
They just sit back, watch TV, sip on their Coors
But each day now that passes by
Death and destruction come closer from the sky

They say it'll rain tons of scientific trash
The camera vault, a one mile-crater it'll mash
One supersonic bolt or one supersonic screw
May be fallin' out of orbit straight for you

But each day now that passes by
Death and destruction comes closer from the sky
They say the scientists don't know where it will fall
But people you know, it's gonna fall on y'all

They say there's no place, no place to run
They say there's no place, no place to hide
When it's all over baby, don't you know,
Many people gon' die

But each day now that passes by.
Death and destruction come closer from the sky

Skylab blues
Skylab blues
Skylab blues
Skylab blues

Monday, September 03, 2018

Flying dreams and the human relationship to gravity

From time to time, I have flying dreams. Standing on my feet, just a tiny movement will launch me into the air, and I go soaring above the ground with my arms outstretched, as effortlessly as a bird, delighting in the freedom.

When I think about these dreams, they have certain elements in common. It's always sunny with a blue, blue sky - maybe a couple of white fluffy clouds. There is green, even grass below me. The ground is flat or gently undulating at most. There's always a house. Not a familiar house, more like a greeting-card house or a children's book illustration. There are no houses nearby, just the house on a wide green lawn. I fly above the house at a certain height. I can see trees and often there's a Hills Hoist clothesline in the garden. No fences, though. It's much lower than aeroplane height, and the view is always of the immediate environment of the house.

It's a domestic dream, and perhaps a child's dream, when your whole world revolves around the house and the extent of space is a concept you've yet to fully grasp.

When I wake up from a flying dream, I often still feel the lack of gravity. The sensation that I can just will myself into the air and fly stays with me until I put my feet on the ground and realise how heavy I am, and how adhesive gravity is. I feel intense sadness at this moment. Being heavy seems such a burden. After a few steps, the residues of the dream evaporate and I'm fully awake.

Thinking about these dreams has led me to a curious thought. What if they are part of a pre-adaptation to space?

Now it's true that the human body is not well adapted to microgravity, and we know a fair bit about this because of astronauts' experience in Earth-orbiting space stations. Blood pools in the upper body, muscles atrophy, bones lose their calcium and weaken. We probably don't really know enough yet about the long term health affects of living in space either - a year is a long, long time in space, and only a few people have spent that long up there.

Despite this, humans seem to have an urge to defy gravity, whether it's aeroplanes or rockets. This starts very early. Remember how you loved being thrown up in the air and caught when you were a little kid, and how it made you laugh? The thrilling sensation of a centrifuge, when an adult or older child held your hands and swung you around in a circle? And just how much fun swings in the local park were? Even little tiny babies love these things.

Swimming is fun because we can also defy gravity in water, moving in any direction we want with a twist and flap. In the water, our feet are not stuck to the clay of the Earth. There's nothing beneath them and our personal space expands to a sphere rather than a dome. It's just a shame that water exerts a drag that's absent in the air. Also, there are things that can bite you in water.

My desire to fly doesn't mean I'm drawn to sky-diving, or hang gliding, because that's not what this is about. It's about flight being in one's body, not a result of technology.

Having said that, I also have a slightly concerning desire to throw myself off heights just to experience the exhilaration of falling through the air. Maybe this is like Douglas Adams' 'learning to throw yourself at the ground and and miss'. I'm not afraid of heights, just afraid that if there isn't a barrier, the compulsion might become too great to resist. My lack of fear frightens me because I know logically that hitting the hard ground at acceleration is not going to have a good outcome.

I've learnt that this is called the High Place Phenomenon. One person described it thus: 'It was the opposite of vertigo. It was the urge to fly'.

I wonder how old this urge is, and if the much-vaunted 'urge to explore', when applied to space, is really just echo of a flying dream.

Collage by Pilar Zeta.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Outer space hats: inspiration for a drab Monday.

Who knew space millinery was a thing?

Below are two 'outer space hats' by the French designer Hubert de Givenchy (who died in March 2018). They're less space hats than space agey, though.

Image courtesy of  Conde Nast

Pierre Cardin loved a space hat. This one was made in 1965 and exhibited in Paris Refashioned 1957-1968, at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

According to the exhibition catalogue,
Molded felt hats that resembled space helmets became a signature of Cardin’s work during the 1960s, yet the designer had introduced the style as early as 1958. Vogue described a hat from that year as 'a unique Cardin projection into outer space,' underscoring the couturier’s early interest in futuristic design.
These Pierre Cardin sun and moon helmets are pretty groovy too.

Pattie Boyd and  Celia Hammond model the helmets. Photo by John French.

What, I wonder, is space fashion for the era of commercial and private space?

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Seven reasons to love French aerospace

One of the happiest months of my life was when I rented an apartment in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, so that I could do some work in the archives of the Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace at Le Bourget. Every morning I'd go down to the boulangerie on the ground floor of my apartment building for fresh pain and delight in the simple pleasure of perfect bread and butter. I may not have spent quite as much time in the archives as I intended, but what the hell.

Here are a few reasons to love French aerospace.

1. Asterix 1

Asterix 1. Image source: unknown.
When France launched Asterix 1 on a Diamant rocket from Algeria in 1965, it became the third nation in space. Asterix 1 is named for the plucky Gallic bande dessinee character who successfully holds the Roman invaders at bay against all the odds. His namesake, the sub-conical striped-and-antennaed satellite, is quite simply super-cute, and one of my all-time favourites.

Image source: author.

2. Alexandre Ananoff

While working in the archives, I became aware of an influential French space visionary. The name Alexandre Ananoff (1910 - 1992) came up over and over again. He wrote about the mechanics of spaceflight, the kinds of spaceships we might see in the future, and social aspects of space exploration. This article, by Pierre-Francois Mouriaux and Philippe Varnoteaux, appraises his contribution to French space exploration. They say:
A. Ananoff was a real ambassador for astronautics and a pioneer in space education for the general public—probably the first one in France.
In addition, he advised Herge about aspects of spaceflight for the two Tintin volumes where the boy adventurer goes to the Moon.

3. Tintin walks on the Moon

Image source: Tintin.com
To be honest, I wasn't interested in Tintin as a child, and don't have any memory of the books being around. But when I became aware, as an adult, that Tintin had travelled to the Moon, that was a different story! Objectif Lune and On a marche sure la Lune (Objective Moon and We have walked on the Moon) tell the story of Tintin and Co's encounter with rocket scientists and spies at the central European launch site in the mythical country of Syldavie and their journey to the Moon on a very V2-like rocket. As far as I can tell, it's one of the earliest depictions of footprints on the Moon.

4. Kourou

Image source: Guyane Evasion
Kourou, in French Guiana, is where the launch site of the European Space Agency is located. It has an excellent museum and a huge amount of spaceflight history. I spent a week there in 2005, also working in the archives. I touched a rocket in the assembly building, and perhaps a tiny portion of my DNA survived launch and is now in space! (Stop having a conniption, this was not a clean room situation). I also visited the famous Iles de Salut, where best-selling author and escapologist Papillon was incarcerated. I didn't see an actual launch, although I did sit in the control room viewing area and imagine the hum and chatter when it was full of people. Every day I sipped Ti-punch and thought, read and talked space.  It was fabulous.

5. Cool space words

One day, as my plane descended into Adelaide airport, I noticed a plane without wings lying in the grass near the runway. Oh, I thought, it looks like a rocket. Then I realised. Fusee - the French word for rocket -  is the same root as fuselage, commonly used to describe the body of a plane. D'oh.

The cool wordage doesn't stop there, though. My friend Alexandre Ananoff has a word for spaceship: Astronef. This, I think, it the same root as navy, and the French word for space shuttle is navette.

Scaphandre is space suit, also used for diving suit. To me, it has a Homeric ring. Or it could be a character in Aeon Flux

French has a word for landing and taking off FOR EACH PLANET AND MOON. This is beyond cool, a new galactic level of cool. You've possibly heard the terrestrial version of these words if you've flown a French airline - aterrissage. Terre is Earth, and aterrissage is landing on the Earth. Alunissage is landing on the Moon, and amarsissage is landing on Mars. In a future multi-planet solar system economy, the precision of these terms could be very useful. 

6. Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace, Paris

Just check out these babies. Image source: Capcom Espace
This museum, located at Le Bourget in Paris, is amazing. I don't pay much attention to the aeroplane side of it, to be honest, but as well as all the aerospace you could want, there are BALLOONS. Yes, balloons. This is not a Monty Python drill: you can learn all about the golden age of French ballooning right here. Asterix 1 is there too. And there's all the French animals in space: spiders, kittens, rats. One of the things I love about this museum is that we're so used to seeing US-dominated space material culture. It really is striking when you see another national style of technology, and a useful reminder to remain critical of US space hegemony.

7. Le Petit Prince

By Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Continuing the entanglement of air and space, this classic work of children's literature was published in 1943 and is still a favourite with kids across the world. It's really a moral tale, but it has the enchanting conceit of tiny planets or asteroids which grow roses. It was illustrated by the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. 

The little prince says:
I love listening to stars at night. It sounds like a hundred million bells.