Sunday, January 17, 2021

Between the house and the stars: the life of Varvara Sokolova who married Konstantin Tsiolkovsky


One day I realised that I had been writing a lot about Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, but it had never occurred to me wonder about his wife or partner. Was she involved in his work? What was her life like?

Most of the sources in English merely mention that he married Varvara Yevgrafovna Sokolova (or Sokolovaya). He met her in the town of Borovsk, 70 miles south of Moscow, where he was a teacher. Varvara is described as the daughter of a local preacher or priest (eg French and Burgess 2007: 21). They got married in Borovsk in 1880 (French and Burgess 2007:21). The number of children reported from their marriage varies from two to seven. This is pretty much all you'll see in most English language sources. 

More frequently, Varvara Sokolova is not mentioned at all or is written out of the story altogether. In the 1957 film 'The Road to the Stars', Tsiolkovsky is represented as a bachelor. He sleeps alone in a single bed. This is an ancient trope where women are associated with the flesh and the weakness of the body, and hence are inimical to rationality and the work of the mind. 

Was there more to her story? Of course I am somewhat hampered by lack of access to the Russian literature, but it turns out there are quite a few resources in translation, as well as scholarly work. All the same, we have to read Varvara Sokolova into the spaces of the house and the gaps in the narratives which centre around her husband. Seeing her is a work of feminist enquiry.

Old Believers in Borovsk

Varvara Sokolova was born in 1857 and lived in the town of Borovsk in Kaluga province, with her father Evgraf Nikolayevich Sokolov.  Her mother had died and she had no siblings. Probably, after leaving school, Sokolova kept house for her father. They lived by the Protva river. According to Anatoly Zak, Borovsk was a provincial backwater, with 
a reputation as a town of truck farmers and traders, whose drunken fistfights and belief in witchcraft made them the laughingstock of the neighboring towns.  
It was also a stronghold of Old Believers, and Varvara's father was an Old Believer priest (Shubin 2016:25). These were people who rejected the changes made by the Patriarch Nikon to the rituals and liturgy of the Orthodox Church in the mid-1600s, and continued to practice the old rites. While Old Believers were initially persecuted, Catherine the Great passed an Act in 1762 allowing them to practice freely, although they could not work in the civil service until 1905 when Tsar Nicholas II introduced an Act of religious freedom. 

It's likely that a priest did not earn much. To supplement their income, the Sokolovs rented out rooms in their house on the river. 

The town of Borovsk (image from Wikipedia)

Varvara completed high school, but does not seem to have trained for any profession. At 22, she was living with her father when Tsiolkovsky (also born in 1857) arrived in 1880 to take up a teaching post. He needed somewhere to live and he wanted to be by the river. 

Aleksandr Romanovich Belyaev, a science fiction writer know as 'Russia's Jules Verne',  recorded interviews with Varvara later in her life. She described the young man who would propose to her and the day of the wedding  (Shubin 2016: 234):

This is Tsiolkovsky's account of the marriage:

It was time to marry, and I married without love, hoping that such a wife would not turn me around, would work, and would not prevent me from doing the same. This hope was justified. Such a friend could not drain my strength: firstly, she did not attract me, and secondly, she herself was indifferent and unemotional. So she retained strength and ability to mental activity until she was old. I attached only practical value to marriage. We went to marry for four miles, on foot, did not dress up, did not let anyone into the church. Then returned - and no one knew anything about our marriage. On the wedding day, I bought a lathe from a neighbor and cut glass for electric cars.
Tsiolkovsky promised Varvara a life full of hard work with few social pleasures. He refused a dowry, saying his earnings would be enough for them to live on. Soon after marrying, they moved from Varvara's father's house to their own place in Borovsk. It cannot have been a boring life. The young married couple may not have held parties, but visitors regularly came to the house to look at Tsiolkovsky's toys and experiments, which brought him a level of notoriety. According to Tsiolkovsky, 
In my house, electric lightning flashed, thunders rang, bells rang, paper dolls danced ... Visitors admired and marveled at the electric octopus, which grabbed everyone with its feet by its nose or fingers, and then it got hair stood on end and sparks popped up from any part of the body. As if alive, he wandered from room to room, following the air currents, rising and falling.
Presumably Varvara saw her father regularly and perhaps she attended church. In 1881, she gave birth to their first child, a daughter they named Lyubov, meaning 'love'. This may have represented the intensity of feeling that this tiny being evoked in them, as it does not seem to have been a symbol of their marriage. Lyubov was two years old when her brother Ignaty was born in 1883. Two more sons followed, Alexander in 1885 and Ivan in 1888. Eight years after their marriage, Varvara was managing a household with a laboratory and four children, and with several house moves in between as well.

The Kaluga years 

In 1892, Tsiolkovsky took up a new teaching position in the provincial capital city of Kaluga (French and Burgess 2007:21).  In one of their early houses in Kaluga, Tsiolkovsky built one of the first wind tunnels in Russia in 1897 for aerodynamic experiments (Gorbushin and Volobuyev 2014). The scientific installations in all of the Tsiolkovsky households must have provided a backdrop for the children to dream and imagine, and a project for Varvara to manage as she went about the day's duties of cleaning, cooking, washing and child rearing.

After initially living in town, Eduard and Varvara took a log house on the outskirts of the city in 1905. After this there were no more house moves; the family stayed in the same house until 1933.

According to Anatoly Zak at Russian Space Web, the house was a two story wooden cottage which was purchased in 1905. It has a small garden. Inside, it had white walls and simple wooden furniture.  A large chimney on the ground floor was covered in traditional decorated Russian tiles. From the hallway, there was a steep staircase (later dubbed the 'space stairway' by visiting cosmonauts). It led to a trapdoor. On the other side was his workroom and laboratory. Elena Timoshenkova, a granddaughter of Tsiolkovsky and Varvara, told Zak that 
His children knew when this door was closed, nobody could go upstairs to bother him. He was very strict with his children, but became much softer with the grandchildren.
The Tsiolkovsky 'log cabin' in Kaluga.
Image courtesy of

Life continued to be austere, as Tsiolkovsky spent all his money on furthering his research. As Belyaev says, 'The amount of his income that he dedicated to his experiments was a sacrifice he made on behalf of heaven' (Shubin 2016:235). In one account, Tsiolkovsky divided his salary in half, giving Varvara one half for the children and household and keeping the rest to finance his experiments. As the number of children grew, making ends meet must have been a challenge for Varvara.

Three more children followed in Kaluga: Leontiy in 1892, Maria in 1894, Anna in 1897. Now there were seven children (but we don't know about miscarriages, stillbirths or other children who did not survive).  Lyubov was 11 when they moved to Kaluga, and 16 by the time Anna was born. In different ways, it seems all the children were co-opted into being spectators, helpers and servants in their father's pursuit of the stars. The children all attended local schools. When Lyubov completed school, she studied to become a teacher like her father. She also acted as her father's secretary. An unknown source  describes Varvara and Lyubov as 'his first and faithful helpers'. 

Leontiy lived for just a year. He was the first child in the family to die, in August 1893, on his birthday it seems. Ivan and Anna were also 'sickly', a commonly-used term for children who were constantly ill and did not thrive.  This could mean respiratory illnesses, or even tuberculosis. 

Tsiolkovsky was very pleased by Ignaty who was interested in maths and physics. Lyubov, in her memoirs, says that Ignaty was very aware of how the family was struggling financially, and started to earn money when he was 16. Ignaty worked every summer as a tutor to save enough money to support his own university studies. While at university in Moscow in 1902, he committed suicide by taking potassium cyanide. He sent the remainder of the money to his father, who gave it to Lyubov so she could continue her studies to become a teacher. Tsiolkovsky blamed himself for the death (Costin 2020) but there is no record of how Varvara felt about the death of a second child.

Ivan had some chronic condition from childhood. He completed school, and studied accounting, but his illness made him incapable of work. Instead, according to Lyubov, he helped Varvara with the household chores; perhaps this was the first time the children's labour was diverted to help her rather than their father. But Ivan also became his father's lackey along with Lyubov. He ran errands to the post office and the printers, proof-read, and helped with experiments. Tsiolkovsky wrote that he 'was an active and meek employee of my family' (Kostin 2020). 

As the eldest, Lyubov was immediately drawn into her father's work, becoming an assistant and secretary. She was no doormat, though. In 1911, when she was 30, she was arrested for revolutionary activities. Her memoirs must have much more detail, but clearly she was released and able to return to her family. 

In a letter to Maria, Anna gave a snapshot of daily life in the Kaluga house in the spring of 1914. 'In our house, as always after dinner, silence. Dad sleeps in the dining room. Mum in the middle room by a window embroiders on a hoop'. In 1915, she wrote "Dad reads, Mum is standing by a couch in the middle [room] and talking to me, textbooks are open on the table around me, we just had dinner' (Kostin 2020). It was a quiet, domestic scene, even as events hurtled towards revolution and civil war.

The Russian Revolution, from the abolition of the monarchy in 1917 to the establishment of the Soviet republic in 1923, brought more hardship to the family. The disruption of food production and distribution caused by the Revolution led to widespread hunger culminating in the famine of 1921-1922. Ivan died in 1919 of food poisoning from bad sauerkraut. 

The tragedies continued. There was not enough money for Alexander to go to university so he studied to become a teacher. He married, moved to the Ukraine, and committed suicide in 1923 (Costin 2020). Anna had married a Communist party member in 1920, but became ill with tuberculosis and died at the age of 24. 

Maria became a teacher, married, and went to live in a village near Kaluga. During the civil war, she and her husband sent assistance to Tsiolkovsky and Varvara. In 1929, Maria and her family moved in with her parents to help them. She took over the financial and household management, as well as raising her six children (Kostin 2020). The house was filled with children again, but this time Varvara was not bearing most of the burden herself. A photo which is sometimes presented as Tsiolkovsky with Varvara and the children is more likely to be Maria and her six children, taken during this period..

Varvara, Eduard and Maria's family. Image courtesy of Science Photo Library.

Tsiolkovsky and Varvara lived in the wooden house until 1933, when they were given a newly repaired house by the Kaluga Soviet (Maksimov 2007:327). Maria moved to the new house too with Lyubov to manage the finances, visitors and enquiries. 

After Tsiolkovsky's death in 1935 at the age of 78, Varvara was awarded a substantial government pension. Perhaps now she had money to spend on herself for the first time in her married life.  But the shades of war were gathering over Europe. Varvara died in 1940 (Shubin 2016:233) so she missed the invasion of Kaluga. The Soviet army were forced to retreat and Kaluga fell to the Nazis on October 13 1941. Less than three months later they were expelled, but not before burning many houses in their retreat. Fortunately, the Tsiolkovsky house on the edge of town survived.

Representing Varvara

In the biographical information, there seems to be an investment in Varvara being a simple Russian housewife with few interests. Belyaev notes that she had completed high school, but expressed herself in 'elementary' language. He further says Tsiolkovsky's work was 'interesting to her, a novelty' (Shubin 2016: 235). Perhaps there are other interpretations to be derived, however. In Belyaev's quotes, cited in Shubin 2016, Varvara seems much more perceptive and humorous (see below). Belyaev also says that the entire family was included in Tsiolkovsky's space aspirations, and he discussed his research with Varvara (Shubin 2016: 235). She offered advice and was clearly engaged with his work, much more than a mere domestic servant.

In a eulogy for Tsiolkovsky written by Belyaev five years after and in the year of Varvara's death,  Varvara is described as his 'faithful companion' as if she were a dog. Belyaev said, 
Her death forces us to remember the private and family life of the Tsiolkovskys, which is very informative. Much depended on his personal life, including so much of his scientific work.  His family home was also his study, office, laboratory and workshop' (Shubin 2016: 233).
This is a nice acknowledgement that the 'lone genius' did not exist in a vacuum; despite the privations of their life, Tsiolkovsky's capacity to create was supported by the hard work of Varvara and the devotion of the children. The family portrait (above) shows Vavara as careworn and dour, a diminutive figure swamped by husband and grandchildren. Her life is unremarkable for a woman of her time, expected to subordinate her identity to the needs of others.  

The contrast between male and female, Heaven and Earth, and body and mind were also appealing to commentators on their life. As Belyaev said, 
She was concerned with domestic matters and daily chores, while at the same time her husband lived in outer space among the stars (Shubin 2016:234)
Any intellectual contribution that Varvara may have made is elided in the element of drama provided by this contrast. But perhaps we can see her influence at places in his work. In one of his discussions about life in a microgravity space habitat, he mentions that women's skirts might be impractical as they would float up; and he talks about how awful conditions in the latrines would be. Perhaps these snippets came from dinner time conversations, Varvara offering her thoughts with the wry humour we see in her oral history with Belyaev. If so, Tsiolkovsky was impressed enough with her insights to include them in his book.

A dispassionate life

Although Tsiolkovsky was determined not to be distracted by sex and passion, most of the sources I have cited above lead one to believe that there was still much love and respect in the family. A different story is told by Michael Hagemeister:
Tsiolkovskii’s private life was grey and monotonous. He described his choice of wife, Varvara Evgrafovna Sokolova, the daughter of a priest, as ‘unfortunate’ (neudachno) and their offspring as ‘deplorable’ (pechal’nye). The children were sick and two sons committed suicide. Tsiolkovskii fled from the depressing confinement, the feeling of humiliation and material worries into his world of inventions and creations and into the dreams of flying and eternal human happiness. On the other hand, he was indifferent towards his family, as long as they did not disturb his work. In his youth, he already regarded himself as a genius (‘I am such a great man as has never been before, nor will ever be’).  (Hagemeister 2008:28)
Tsiolkovsky had an ideal of married life, but reality did not align with it through the unfortunate fact that women are human and men are too:
The biblical ‘legend’ of the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary was also interpreted by Tsiolkovskii as an ‘ideal of the future woman, who will provide children, but will not be subject to animal passions’ (Hagemeister 2011:31). 
The sources for this are 'Tsiolkovsky's autobiographical recordings, held in the archive of the Academy of Sciences, as well as a personality study, written in 1937 by the famous neurologist Samuil Blinkov' (Hagemeister 2011: 36). More of the autobiography is quoted here
Was it good: marriage life without love? Is marriage just enough respect? Who gave himself to higher goals is good for that. But he sacrifices his happiness and even the happiness of the family. I did not understand the latter then. But then it showed up. From such marriages, children are not healthy, successful and joyful, and all my life I lamented the tragic fate of children. 
I put the blessing of the family and loved ones on the forefront. All for high. I did not drink, did not smoke, did not spend a single extra penny on myself: for example, on clothes. I was always almost starving, poorly dressed. I moderated mysefl in everything to the last degree. My family also suffered with me ... I was often annoyed and maybe made the life of others difficult, nervous.

In this passage, he acknowledges that the austere and passionless marriage he embraced was not a recipe for either his happiness, or that of Varvara and the children. I don't think we should be expecting a coherent or consistent view, though; and perhaps we can't also assume that Varvara experienced anything in the way Eduard imagined.

Despite his apparent belief that sexual passion sapped the intellect, Tsiolkovsky clearly was not willing to forgo the experience. Contraception was not an option in 19th century Russia. The ages of the Tsiolkovsky children indicate that the couple had an active sex life from the time of their marriage in 1880 for at least sixteen years afterwards. Tsiolkovsky pretended that neither he nor Varvara were interested,  but clearly at least one of them was. We don't know what Varvara thought, but Tsiolkovsky's inner conflicts must have been another aspect of her complex tasks of household and laboratory management, along with the sick and depressed children. It was a hard life indeed.

How much of Tsiolkovsky's views about relationships and sex were shaped by his Cosmism? Tsiolkovsky was already a Cosmist by the time he arrived in Borovsk, having been influenced by Nikolai Federov who worked in the library where Tsiolkovsky spent most of his time in Moscow. Fedorov had an idea about 'positive chastity', which was 'the redirection of sexual energy towards the restoration of life to the dead' (Hagemeister 1997:193). The seven Tsiolkovsky children are firm evidence that Tsiolkovsky did not embrace this idea to the extent that Federov disciple Alexander Gorsky, who did not consummate his marriage, did.

But my aim here is not to get bogged down in Russian cosmism; I'm only interested in it to the degree Tsiolkovsky's beliefs affected Varvara's life. Clearly there is much more to be explored here.

Eyes in the Sky

Varvara is not silent or forgotten. The artist Anna Hoetjes made a film installation in 2018 for which Varvara was the narrator. In an interview, Hoetjes said:
Hardly any information can be found on her. My interest wasn’t so much to reconstruct her real life, but rather to create a fictional life for her. To introduce her as an authority, an eye witness, an explorer, adventurer and pioneer. To let her act out the hypothetical theories of her husband, who no doubt relied on his wife’s labour in some way or another while creating his visions. People who see Eyes in the Sky often assume that Varvara’s narrative is based on existing diaries or interviews, no matter how far fetched, fictional and body-horrific her experiences in my piece are. 

 She explains further:

The fact that women carried out endless calculations at the beginning of the 20th century, but were never included in the fantasy of an actual space journey, became so problematic for me that I started designing my own female space pioneer. In this work the wife of the 'Kosmist' and space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Varvara, is the first person to travel into space, where she leave behind her eyes.
Still from Eyes in the Sky by Anna Hoetjes, 2018.

As a feminist space scholar, my job is to interrogate the deeper story behind commonly accepted accounts. This is only a start: if only Lyubov's memoir were translated! I'd also like to re-read Tsiolkovsky's works to find more traces of Varvara. No doubt I have got much wrong in this account. All the same, the first step has been taken simply by centring Varvara in the story. Taking inspiration from Anna Hoetjes' work, I imagine evenings when Varvara escaped outside the house to gaze at the stars and dream her own dreams. 


Costin, A.V. 2020 Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky. A Short Biography.

French, Francis and Colin Burgess 2007 Into that silent sea: trailblazers of the space era 1961-1965. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press

Gainor, Chris 2008 To a Distant Day. The Rocket Pioneers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press

Gorbushin, Anton and Valery S. Volobuyev 2014 The first aerodynamic balances in Russia. AIAA

Hagemeister, Michael 2011 The Conquest of Space and the Bliss of the Atoms: Konstantin Tsiolkovskii. In  Eva Maurer, Julia Richers, Monica Rüthers and Carmen Scheide (eds) Soviet Space Culture. Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies. Palgrave MacMillan pp 26-41

Hagemeister, Michael 1997 Russian Cosmism in the 1920s and today. In Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, ed. The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture., pp 185-202.  Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press

Maksimov, A.J. 2007 150th anniversary of K.E. Tsiolkovsky. Founder of Cosmonautics. Thermophysics and Aeromechanics 14(3): 317-328

Shubin, Daniel H. 2016 Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky. The Pioneering Rocket Scientist and His Cosmic Philosophy. New York: Algora Publishing

Sunday, November 22, 2020

A space junk bestiary: yo-yo de-spin weights

Among the oldest pieces of space junk in Earth orbit are de-spin weights from the US series of TIROS weather and TV satellites. I've been noticing them in debris catalogues for years, and decided it was time to find out what they were really all about.  

TIROS 1 was launched in 1960 - just three years after Sputnik 1. The satellite is now 60 years old! TIROS stands for Television Infrared Observation Satellite Program. One aim of the satellite was to see if Earth observation from space would work, and could be used for weather reporting and prediction. The other was to test television broadcast potential - so you can see that it is one of the progenitors of two very significant satellite-based industries today.

The satellite was a cylindrical drum covered in solar panels with short, angled antennas. It returned one of the earliest pictures of Earth from outside.

Image courtesy of NASA

There were 10 satellites in the first TIROS series, after which they continued as TIROS-N in collaboration with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Of these 10, five are still in Low Earth Orbit as pieces of space junk.

So what about these de-spin weights?

When rockets are launched, a key consideration is keeping them stabilised so that they don't pitch, roll or yaw, and end up in a crater in the ground instead of in orbit. One way to stabilise them is to spin them perpendicular to their long axis. This method of stabilisation was frequently used for the launch of small, lightweight spacecraft (Cornille 1962:1). The problem with that is when the satellite is released, it has the same spin as the rocket, which is generally too high for it to function. So you have to reduce the spin and reset the satellite. This is what the de-spin weights are for. There might be one or two weights. Two weights are called yo-yo weights, and one is just a yo-weight. 

Fortunately, I did not have to figure this out all by myself, as the Practical Engineer has done a pretty great job of explaining the principles, as you will see in the video.

This is a description of the mechanism from Fedor (1961:1):

The yo-yo de-spin mechanism is essentially two pieces of wire with weights on the ends ...  These wires are symmetrically wrapped around the equator of the satellite and the weights are secured by a release mechanism. At a pre-selected time after satellite spin-up and release from the launching vehicle, the weights are released, thus discarding enough momentum to reduce the spin of the satellite to the desired value.

The weights are not only released, but discarded as mission-related debris. This kind of discard is now discouraged in guidelines for mitigating space debris. 

Something I wonder about is whether the weights still in orbit belong to the TIROS satellites remaining in orbit, or whether they belong to a re-entered TIROS? Did the de-spin weight tend to re-enter with corresponding satellite? Is the orbit an indicator? 

So many questions! Did the USSR use this mechanism for satellite stabilisation? There are certainly no USSR de-spin weights catalogue from this period that I could find.

And what did they look like? Those illustrated in Fedor (1961) look (from the grainy image) to be rectangular, maybe about an inch long. Fedor (1961) also uses a unit of measurement called the slug-ft/2 and I don't even know what it is. OK, I looked it up and this is what it is.

Where else can we find de-spin weights? The Explorer series used them. Here is a marvellous illustration of them working on Explorer 11, launched in 1961 (from Cornille 1962).

This is a de-spin weight from 1962 British satellite Ariel 1. Note that this one doesn't have a rigid cord, but a tightly coiled spring (also from Cornille 1962). The 'stretch' yo-yo design was patented by Cornille and Fedor in 1970. This example has, to my mind, a rather sinister snake-like aura as if it might suddenly spring to life and start seeking you out with its eyeless head and whipping tail.


The Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres, launched in 2007, used de-spin weights, as the launch rocket's 3rd stage was spin-stabilised. I wanted to know where the weights ended up. Fortunately my friend Ady James knew where to look for them and located this blog post by Dawn Mission Director and Chief Engineer Marc Rayman for me:

After the third stage has finished firing, it remains securely attached to Dawn for another 4 minutes 50 seconds. Although the stage is stabilized by spinning, the spacecraft does not operate that way; yet by this time, they would be spinning together at 46 rpm, too fast for the latter’s control system. Therefore, starting 5 seconds before separation, the third stage activates a surprisingly simple system to slow its rotation rate. Wrapped around the Delta are two cables, each 12.15 meters (39 feet 10 inches) long. At the end of each is a 1.44-kilogram (3-pound-3-ounce) weight made of aluminum and tungsten. When the cables are released, the spin causes them to unwind. As they carry the weights farther and farther out, the spin slows down because of the same principle that makes an ice skater spin faster by pulling her arms in or slower by extending them to her sides. After 4 seconds, when they are fully unwound, the cables unhook from the spacecraft. With their weights still attached, they enter independent orbits around the Sun; perhaps one of them will be studied by a future solar system archeologist.

Well there you go, he was right as that's exactly what I'm doing! This post adds some interesting details. The weight is let go by releasing the cable, so the cable is still attached to it. I wonder if it remains taut after release? The cables are 12 metres, more than the length of two tall women end-to-end. No information about the shape of the weights, but we do have materials - aluminium and tungsten. Why tungsten, a metal in short supply on Earth? There is no need to make these weights durable as their only purpose is to be heavy. Perhaps tungsten adds the required weight for size. How does this alloy react to space weather, plasmas and bombardment? Is it contributing aluminium particles to the space environment? Could they combine with the atomic elements so common in the space environment to form new compounds? Al2O3 (aluminium oxide) or tungsten oxides?

The weights would, one presumes, behave like a meteorite as they are solid. And more like a metal-rich meteorite too. Would they be distinguishable through a telescope or by spectroscopy?

So many questions.

How many of these weights are circulating among all the space junk? Jonathan McDowell's catalogue of space objects has 286 de-spin weights listed. How many of these are still in orbit is something I'll have to leave for a future calculation.

What about the damage a collision with a de-spin weight would cause? These are dense, heavy, solid objects, and I'm going to guess for that reason would be far more destructive than something of a similar size, cross-sectional area or velocity, but made of different materials. It should also be possible to model how an impact crater from collision with one of them might differ from other pieces of space junk. This would help identify liability for the damage, as the launching state is responsible for this under UN treaties.

Comparatively, there are not that many de-spin weights, compared say to rocket bodies, but perhaps the greater damage they can do would merit being selectively targeted for active debris removal. 

As Fedor and Cornille are rapidly becoming my yo-yo gurus, I thought I should learn a little more about them. Sadly Henry Cornille died in 2019 at the age of 80. He went on to work on the Apollo programme. I couldn't find anything about Fedor online so this clearly requires deeper archival research. If you think about it, they are the pioneers of today's space tether technology.

I've got another loose end to tie up here - the relation to the popular children's toy called the yo-yo. I realise I don't know anything about its origins. *goes and looks up* Well, this was an eye-opener, as my assumptions that it was 1960s invention turn out to be extremely wrong! The yo-yo is very ancient technology, originating in China (as indeed does rocket technology). 

This is a fetching red figure vase showing a boy playing with a yo-yo in the 5th century BCE, from the Antikensammlung museum in Berlin.

The yo-yo despin weights are a lovely thread linking physics from the past to the future. I've become quite captivated by them.


Cornille, Henry J.Jnr 1962 A method of accurately reducing the spin rate of a rotating spacecraft. NASA Technical Note D-1420 

Fedor, JV 1961 Theory and design curves for a  yo-yo de-spin mechanism for satellites. NASA Technical Note D-708

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Ten more ways to get involved in space without leaving Earth

This post follows on from Ten Ways to Get Involved in Space Without Leaving Earth. When I started to put this list together, it turned out there were SO many more things you could do from the safety of terrestrial gravity and atmosphere! Some of these are also very compatible with Covid-19 isolation. So here are the next ten for your delight and edification.

11. Contemplate the Moon
Could anything be more simple than this? There is even a special night for it! International Observe the Moon Night is on September 26 every year. But you can do this one any time of year, any time of day or night. Just look up. Perhaps there will be a white crescent against a blue sky; perhaps a full disc glowing in the night. Just look, and think or feel whatever you want.

12. Experience weightlessness
Ever wanted to know what it was like to be freefall, without having to pay a cool 65 million dollars to go the International Space Station, or even $5000 to go on the Vomit Comet? Hell, you could even do it without any vomit at all! All you have to do is locate your nearest amusement park and find the drop tower. Dreamworld in Queensland has one that's 119 m tall and gives you 5 seconds of freefall. That may not seem like much reading it on a page, but believe me, you will really feel it! The tallest drop tower is the Lex Luthor Drop of Doom in the Six Flags Magic Mountain park in California (120 m).

13. Visit another world through words.
To be transported to another world, all you need to do is read. There are some wonderful books which make you feel immersed in the environments of another planet. One of my favourites is CS Lewis' Voyage to Venus. Sure, it's based on outdated science (Venus is a warm waterworld in this novel), but it truly makes you feel the sensory experience of skies, waters, plants that are alien and yet speak to some deep human dream.

It would be great to put together an anthology of space environmental writing - passages or short stories which really evoke otherworldly places. Science fiction readers will no doubt have plenty of their own favourite examples, but others might appreciate some pointers. It's not like I need more projects at the moment, but oh this one would be so much fun to do!

14. Watch space films
So much choice here! Settle down with an action adventure, a thriller, a documentary, a romantic comedy. OK, so there don't seem to be many romantic comedies set in space, but did you know, for example, that Notting Hill features scenes on board a space station? And soon, it seems we might have a new one actually filmed in space. NASA has confirmed that it's working with Tom Cruise to make a movie on the International Space Station.

Some of my favourite space films are Christopher Riley's First Orbit, the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, the space mining drama Moon [NB this link has spoilers], and First Man, which I reviewed here.
Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924)

Then there are the vintage classics, many of which you can watch on YouTube. My picks are Forbidden Planet, Aelita Queen of Mars, Frau im Mond, Cat Women of the Moon, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Night of the Living Dead, the original zombie apocalypse film, involves both space (the origin of the zombie plague) and contagion, so it's very appropriate isolation viewing. It holds up much better than you might imagine.

It's always good to have a laugh about the cheesy plots and clunky pre-CGI special effects, not to mention the notions of what the future was going to be like; but many of these vintage films are also quite insightful and raise issues which are very relevant to contemporary issues in space travel and ethics.

15. Best of the best of space on You Tube
One of the best things on Space YouTube is actual live astronauts demonstrating how things work in microgravity. US astronaut Don Pettit was fantastic. He made a series of videos demonstrating how to do basic tasks in microgravity, which you can watch here. Chris Hadfield has also made a number of excellent videos - of course, one of his most popular was playing David Bowie's Space Oddity on his guitar, which became an instant cult classic! You could start with these astronauts, but there is a wealth of material on YouTube and NASA's channel to delight in.

16. Social media space
Getting involved in space is as simple as finding some topic, organisation or person you like, and following them on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, or whatever platform works for you. As well as getting to know the community, you can talk to people, ask questions, or contribute your own thoughts. I've met many lovely people through these encounters! I'm not going to recommend anything here as there is so much, and you will do better to look for the thing that interests you the most.

Why not start your own social media account, or even blog, devoted to the space things you like best? You don't have to be an expert (although it helps not to spread misinformation - please fact check carefully!). And remember it doesn't have to be about hard core science or engineering: perhaps you like space poetry (I know I do), or vintage space-age teacups (another of my favourites). Sharing things you love with other people who love them too is one of the most enjoyable aspects of social media.

17. Support a crowd-funded project
Amateurs have been the mainstay of space since the rocket societies of the 1930s, and have been launching and tracking their own satellites since the 1960s. I'm a huge fan of citizen or community science. We don't have to leave space to the big boys (I say that deliberately). You might not have space or rocket expertise yourself, but you can support those who do and feel part of a project. Of course, it's best to be prepared for disappointment - your chosen project may not make it into space or even get off the ground. For me, it's the participation that is the important thing.

Here's a lists of space projects currently listed on Kickstarter:

Perhaps you have a space project that you would like to resource using crowd-funding! This might be a good place to start:

18. Invite someone to give a talk to your group
In the Covid-19 era, in-person talks have been replaced by Zoom events. These are great as they allow for remote participation, even people from other countries! They reduce costs and allow people who are not able to easily move about or leave the house the opportunity to participate.

Be conscious that people are often asked to give enormous amounts of their time for free, so it's best to have a budget for a speaker - even if the talk is online. Academics and space professionals are often expected to do some public outreach as part of their job, so this is far more critical for freelancers, those without a full-time job, or those for whom public outreach is not part of their job. I'm not saying don't ask if you don't have a budget, just be aware.

19. Attend a conference
Although conferences are usually academic or industry events, if you are able to pay the registration fee there is no reason you can't attend a space conference. You can hear all the talks, meet the people, and feel part of a community. In Australia, the annual space conference is the Australian Space Research Conference, usually held in September-October.

SpaceUps are wonderful 'unconferences' which you can find all over the world. The unconference format is driven by the participants: when you arrive there is usually a big board or wall where people offer talks or workshops, or ask for talks or workshops they would like. It all happens organically on the day. Usually there will be a couple of invited speakers as well.

Of course, the Covid-19 world has meant that many conferences are being run entirely online. This radically reduces the cost of travel and accommodation and all those other incidentals you incur if a conference is not in your home town. Participation has never been easier! The down side is that you don't get to meet and know people in the same way and you need a good internet connection which not everyone has.

20. Download a space app
Space is only as far away as your smartphone or device! There are so many good things out there. Here are a few that I fancy.
What you see with Stellarium

Stellarium: point your phone at the sky, and this app will tell you all the constellations, stars, planets and space stations that are in the sky above you!

Fireballs in the Sky: this is a community science that allows you to contribute your sightings of meteors, fireballs and space junk to a scientific project.

Deluxe Moon: all things Moon including gardening advice. It's got astrology information too, if that is your bag.

Want to photograph the Moon or other night sky features? These apps will help!

So there you have it. No excuses to languish on Earth when there are so many ways to leave the planet without a rocket!

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Dr Space Junk's Pan-Galactic Birthday Party

This is an exercise I created to allow my friends to join me online (through Twitter) to celebrate my recent birthday, as the Covid-19 virus has stopped all physical parties across the world. It was such fun I thought it was worth preserving!  Here it is in nine tweets.

You might need a pen and paper for this. We are going to create a pan-galactic party. I'm going to stay here on Earth for the moment, but you, my Twitter friends, are going to join me from elsewhere in the cosmos. 
And where might this elsewhere be? I will show you how to find out. Please take a moment to get a beverage of your choice (I'm going for some more sparkles) and instructions will follow. 
Step 1. Using this random planet generator, find out which planet you are currently tweeting from. It might not be your home planet, just where you are right now. Save it or write it down! 
Does everyone have their planet now? Step 2. Because you are a super-galactic traveller, you also need your own starship. It will have a witty and satirical name. Of course, it's a Culture ship! Here's how to find your starship's name.  
Step 3. An intrepid astronaut like you doesn't have a regular name, you have a special name befitting your status. This is how you get your astronaut name. Choose from the list
Step 4. Everywhere you travel in this crazy cosmos of ours, you are accompanied by your favourite pet. What species? You decide! But choose it's name from here.  
OK so now you have a planet, a ship, a special astronaut name, and your faithful pet. Step 5. Go to the kitchen and pick a random object. Just whatever speaks to you.  
Step 6. Pretend your random kitchen object is something from your ship, or the planet, or from your last stop. Describe what it does and what it's for. It could be anything. 
Final step! Take a picture of your space (kitchen) object. Tell me your planet, ship, astronaut and pet names, and what your object is for. I can't wait to hear the results!
To give you an idea of how it works, here is one I made earlier. I'm at the planet Rada (see below), not a very hospitable place, so probably I am just orbiting it. My ship is the Rapid Offensive Unit (ROU) Trade Surplus, and I am Commander Jaylen Elmes. I travel the galaxies with my faithful pet Pipsy, a snorgle from the planet Bepo. (I looked up the Random Planet Generator again to find this planet).

Planet Rada. Perhaps I'll go home now.

I always take one of these when I travel. It's a matter re-organiser. You can choose from four different fields, which will recreate the material you feed into it as crystal, antimatter, dark matter or cheese.  

Matter re-organiser, a very handy machine.
So there you have it, a way to create your own galactic adventure. If you were sufficiently energetic you could write a story to go with it. I just sat back and enjoyed what my friends came up with. Many added their own witty touches to the basic structure, and I was vastly entertained! I might have been in isolation, but it was one of the best birthdays!

Monday, April 13, 2020

Is Earth's core a global commons and what does this mean for outer space?

On April 6, 2020, US President Trump issued an Executive Order rejecting the 1979 Moon Agreement and the idea that outer space is a global commons. 

What is space if it is not a global commons? Other such commons include Antarctica, the deep sea, the atmosphere, and cyberspace. We plebs cannot be denied use and access to these places - no-one is going to be selling us oxygen to breathe, on Earth at least, and for the foreseeable future. But as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, I don't think anything can be ruled out. (Note that the atmosphere on Mars might also be a global commons, but as it's not suited to human use, manufactured breathable air may be a commodity there). 

I think Trump's rejection of space as a global commons is really insidious, and the precursor to carving up space between commercial interests. It got me to thinking about a place that mirrors outer space, only you couldn't get any more inner, or deeper into the gravity well. I'm talking about Earth's core.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Image by Roen Kelly

The core has two layers. The outer core is a fluid iron-nickel layer about 2400 km thick wrapped around the inner core, a solid iron-nickel sphere, about 1220 km in diameter.  They're both rotating, but in different directions. The temperature of the outer core ranges from 4000 to 6000 degrees celsius. One of the key effects of the core is to generate Earth's magnetic field, which protects us from the solar wind. Without it life on Earth would be very different.

Sure, it's a big ball of molten metal that we can't get to, but I don't see why this prevents us from thinking about it's status. Space was once inaccessible too, and Jules Verne imagined journeys to both. In 1864, he published Journey to the Centre of the Earth, where his heroes attempt to descend to the core through lava tubes. They don't achieve their goal and there is, sadly, no hidden path straight to the centre. At this stage the nature of the core was unknown but one theory was that it was molten. It was also thought that there were large cavities inside Earth which might sustain ecosystems of different kinds (some containing prehistoric fauna). About 200 km down, Verne's intrepid explorers find a vast underground lake and caverns with their own weather systems.

Source: Wikimedia
The existence of the core was proven by Richard Oldham in 1906, and by the early 1930s, the analysis of seismic waves passing through Earth showed that it was indeed liquid. The solid inner core was discovered by Danish seismologist Inge Lehmann in 1936 from analysis of a New Zealand earthquake. 

These days we think of Earth as solid, like a boring Easter egg. There are some very deep caves both on land and under the sea, but they're only about 2 km. 

Technology may help where we can't find natural routes to the underworld. The problem is the increasing temperature and pressure as you go down through the mantle, which crushes and melts the equipment. The deepest humans have ever drilled is 12 km. That's just 0.4% of the 2900 km you'd need to go to get to the core.

All the same, the mysteries of the interior of Earth continue to influence our desires and imagination. Only in recent years have scientists started to explore the dark biosphere, microbial and wormy life which thrives in the dark fissures and seams of the deep rock. Perhaps there aren't plesiosaurs in subterranean lakes, but it seems the deep Earth is not sterile, either. And perhaps we need Planetary Protection policies for the deep layers of this, and other planets.

A global uncommons?

The next question is whether there are any resources in Earth's core that could be used by humans.  We may run out of easily accessible iron ore near the surface, for example. This is one of the reasons asteroid mining is being pursued. We might not quite be equipped to deal with extracting it in liquid form, though. 

Heat from the core is already used in geothermal energy, but the extraction happens close to the surface. Geothermal energy is a renewable energy source, and is regulated at a national level. 

How much can be owned below the surface of Earth is also a matter for national regulation. In Australia before 1891, land titles extended to the core in the common law principle of usque adcoelom et usque ad inferos.  The complete sentence is 'whoever's is the soil, it is theirs all the way to Heaven and all the way to Hell'. After 1891, states placed limits on the depths below the surface. In Victoria, for example, the Crown owns the land below 15 m to the centre of Earth. 

And what about treaties or conventions setting out the ground rules for interacting with the core, like there are for outer space? If they exist, I couldn't find them. There seems to be nothing to prevent me claiming ownership of the core, apart from the tiny annoyances of being unable to access it or enforce my ownership. (In 2010, a woman claimed legal ownership of the Sun).

Perhaps we could call Earth's core - and by analogy all planetary cores, and unbreathable atmospheres, a global uncommons or perhaps even dyscommons. Everyone has rights to them and the benefits that derive from them (for example, the protection of magnetic fields), but they have limited or zero commercial use for the people who think of Earth in that way (which I'd prefer not to). The uncommons may underlie the commons that are the subject of competing claims and conflicts.  The commons then only comes into being when it has something of value to offer. For example, geostationary orbit is very valuable real estate, but only became so when it was possible to elevate satellites to this region. We may see something similar with cislunar space in the future.

But uncommons don't have to be metrically defined regions of Earth or space at all. As Judith Farquhar, Lili Lai and Marshall Kramer say,
The uncommons is not, in other words, an exterior to the one-world world; rather, it is a possible world that can make itself partly known in a mottled and ever-changing light and shade. (2017)

The one-world world (Law 2011, 2015) is a single vision of what Earth or the cosmos is. Pretty much all of our legal and scientific approaches to space are based on a one-world world. Law argues that the dominance of this one-world world by northern hemisphere thinking (ie industrial capitalist nations) makes the raising of multiple, but simultaneous, ways of experiencing the world seem eccentric and self-indulgent. Think about this and tell me it has not sometimes been your reaction when hearing about, for example, Indigenous worldviews about space. It's not easy to train yourself out of this, to see a fractiverse, as Law puts it, rather than a universe. For me, at least, it's an ongoing project.

My final question is both about how this furthers our thinking about outer space as a global commons, and what this means for defining commons or uncommons on regions of other planets. I don't have any answers just now but I feel I'm on a path of thought that might be productive.


Farquhar, Judith, Lili Lai and Marshall Kramer 2017 A Place at the End of a Road: A Yin-Yang Geography. Anthropologica 59(2): 216-227

Law, John 2011 What’s Wrong with a One-World World? Paper presented to the Center for the Humanities, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut on 19th September, 2011 d.pdf

Law, John 2015 What's Wrong with a One-World World? Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 16(1): 126–139

Friday, January 31, 2020

Australian space icon: Mr Squiggle, the Man from the Moon

The impact of the Space Age was not just in science and technology - it was also in popular and everyday culture. If you were a kid growing up in Australia from the 1960s until the the 1990s, you would have been familiar with a children's television icon: Mr Squiggle, the Man from the Moon. Mr Squiggle is a huge part of Australian television history, but I'm more interested in what the programme says about how space travel was perceived in the 1960s and after.

Squiggle basics

This is Mr Squiggle's theme tune:
Here's Mr Squiggle
With lots of fun for everyone
Here's Mr Squiggle, sing a happy tune
You can see we're as happy as can be
Mr Squiggle, the man from the Moon.

Mr Squiggle was the brainchild of political cartoonist and puppeteer Norman Hetherington. The pencil-nosed puppet's television debut was in 1959. At first Mr Squiggle was part of a six week stint on the Children's TV Club on the ABC, but soon gained his own stand-alone programme. Margaret, who married Norman in 1958, wrote the scripts for the show while Norman performed all the character voices. (Note that while Norman has his own Wikipedia page, Margaret doesn't).

Children would send in their 'squiggles', and Mr Squiggle used his pencil nose to make them into pictures, accompanied by a female sidekick. Other characters included Bill Steamshovel, Gus the snail, Merv Wallop and his nephew Wayne, Reg Linchpin, Doormat, the grumpy Rocket and a talking Blackboard.

Mr Squiggle lived at 93 Crater Crescent on the Moon and travelled to Earth every week in his rocket or by going for a 'space-walk'. He could also break out into gravity-defying 'space-walks' spontaneously in the middle of shows. Sometimes, if Rocket was very grumpy, Mr Squiggle would use an umbrella for the descent. 

The action takes place in a very ordinary, regular backyard, with gum trees, in the fictional location of Bandywallop. (The Collins dictionary defines Bandywallop as 'Australian informal: noun. An imaginary town, far from civilization'). There's a rainwater tank where Bill Steamshovel hangs out, and old, weathered yards surrounded by bush. I guess part of the appeal of Mr Squiggle, as we got so much US and UK children's television, was that it was set in Australia with Australian accents and culture. 

Mr Squiggle's female sidekicks were:
The science fiction writer Terry Dowling was a resident guest on Mr Squiggle, from 1979 to 1982. He wrote songs and performed them on the programme with his guitar.  Comedian and radio personality Mikey Robins played Reg Linchpin for a year in 1989-1990. The programme ended in 1999. 

Two books were spin-offs from the series. Margaret Hetherington wrote them, and Norman did the illustrations. They were Mr Squiggle and the Great Moon Robbery (1980) and Mr Squiggle and the Preposterous Purple Crocodile (1992). There was also a colouring book in 1989 - Mr Squiggle and His Rocket Activity Book

Bradshaw, Richard 2010 Eulogy for Norman Hetherington 1921 - 2010. OPEN: Oz Puppetry Email Newsletter Issue 11

Gorman, A.C. 2018 Gravity's playground: dreams of spaceflight and the rocket park in Australian culture. In Darran Jordan and Rocco Bosco, ed. Defining the Fringe of Contemporary Australian Archaeology. Pyramidiots, Paranoia and the Paranormal. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 92-107.

Gorman, A.C. 2011 The sky is falling: how Skylab became an Australian icon. Journal of Australian Studies 35(4):529-546

Jones, Melissa 1989 Mr Squiggle chalks up 30 years. The Australian Women's Weekly p 65 (reproduced at

Solman, Peter 2010 Norman Hetherington Remembered. A personal recollection by Peter Soloman. OPEN: Oz Puppetry Email Newsletter Issue 11

Wilkins, Richard 2011 Black Ties, Red Carpets, Green Rooms. Chatswood: New Holland

Wilson, Peter J. and Geoffrey Milne 2004 The Space Between: The Art of Puppetry and Visual Theatre in Australia. Sydney: Currency Press