Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Virgin Galactic biscuits

News just in: Richard Branson is planning to offer sub-orbital flights for the wealthy ($300 000 a pop), with the expectation that prices will eventually come down.

Nicey (from the fabulous web site "A nice cup of tea and a sit down") may get to have his hypothesis for the first biscuit in space tested. I think he thought it would be a fig newtony type thing - I must go and look.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Spaceport Queen rides again

I wasn't mistaken. The delightful Juan de Dalmau does want me to give a presentation about Woomera at the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana! I am so excited.

And now I'm thinking of other possibilities. The local music scene, for example. I must re-read Papillon, for Devil's Island is just off the coast and it was one of my very favourite books when a teenager. And of course I must master some of the more complicated French tenses and increase my French space vocabulary a thousandfold.

Here are some examples of French space lingo:

fusee - rocket
micropesanteur - microgravity
navette - space shuttle
scaphandre - spacesuit

I love the word scaphandre. It reminds me of the river Scamander, somewhere in the region of Troy. Very Homeric.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


I have nine days to finish an article about the Vanguard 1 satellite, labelled Kaputnik because the launch vehicle exploded on the stand in one launch attempt. It's hard not to like Vanguard 1. It was nearly the first satellite in the world, but was beaten by Sputnik 1, and it was nearly the first US satellite, but was beaten by Explorer 1 .... James Van Allen devised instrumentation for it but when he saw which way the wind was blowing he transferred his project to Explorer. (Fickle bastard). As a result Explorers I and II had the honour of discovering the Van Allen radiation belts when it should have been Vanguard. I think my Australian tendency to favour the underdog is definitely aroused by poor old Vanguard! And yet it provided the technical foundations for the contemporary US space industry, and it is still in orbit today when all those other early satellites have long since re-entered.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Remembering the Cold War

I've just moved from Adelaide to the southern Riverina. A few nights ago I went out for dinner with a number of more "senior" folk. I took the opportunity to ask them what they remembered of the launch of Sputnik and the Cold War activities at Woomera.

A few said that they were very aware of Sputnik 1, and even went out to watch it. There was no fear, nor a special sense of excitement; it was just an interesting thing going on. As for Woomera, no-one had been particularly aware of what was going on there at all.

What people did talk about was the bombing of Darwin in WW II. At the time it was downplayed, because the government did not wish to alarm people, and it is still not widely known even among Darwin residents, said Rachel who had lived in Darwin for the last few years.

Friday, September 10, 2004

I am the Spaceport Queen

I may have neglected to mention that Juan de Dalmau, Director of the International Space University and lovely man, has invited me to participate in a professional tour of the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana next year. And I believe he wants me to give a lecture. I think that's what he suggested; I was so overwhelmed I may have misunderstood. But if he was serious I am determined to deliver it in French. French spoken with an English accent (and Aussie too I hope) is, my French friends tell me, as sexy as English spoken with a French accent. Well, I can live in hope.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The art of flight

If you are in the UK this weekend, you might want to check out this event:

An Arts Catalyst event

Artists Airshow

Former Royal Engineering Workshops, Farnborough, Hants
Sunday September 12 1PM-6PM
Free entry by reservation, places are limited so book as soon as possible.

A day of art and flying in and around Europe's largest wind tunnel. Right next to the runway used for the official Farnborough Airshow are the abandoned wind tunnels, test tanks and life-size helicopter flight simulators where secret projects were developed during the second world war and the cold war. Saved from demolition, they will now be developed into a heritage centre and business park.

Selected artists, working with ideas of flight, will present a day of process-based works and experiments for a limited audience, with guided tours of the wind tunnels. These artists include Louise K Wilson, presenting a work based on flight simulation, stunt-flying and Britain's lost technological heritage. Australian artist Zina Kaye will show documentation and talk about her 74cc 3 metre wingspan surveillance airplane 'Observatine'.

Please give names of those attending. You must be on the list of people attending to get on to the site.

To reserve a place please email: info@artscatalyst.org
If you have any special requirements please call: 020 7375 3690

Special bus £10 return at 11 AM from East/Central London. The site is 15-20 minutes walk from Farnborough British Rail Station. Bus details, map and car parking directions will be emailed when you reserve. Light refreshments provided.

Friday, September 03, 2004

More on Moonwatch

In the National Archives today. I discovered that there were Moonwatch groups in Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, and Townsville as well as Woomera, all devoted to optically tracking US spacecraft. The Australian operation was coordinated by Professor Elford at the University of Adelaide and the the information sent in code to the Smithsonian in Washington DC by the Weapons Research Establishment in Salisbury just outside Adelaide.

Even though Moonwatch was set up in the IGY specifically for Vanguard, it proved so successful that the program was continued into the 60s. The main subject of the file in the National Archives was the trouble the Woomera Moonwatch group had with customs when the US sent them a crate of binoculars.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Flying Saucers at Woomera

Well. Yesterday I got my hands on the formerly secret UFO file from Woomera. I did not have to wait for it to be retrieved from the National Archive stores as the file was already out - a UFO researcher had been using it the day before. (Who are they? I am dying of curiosity).

The file is very interesting reading and not what I was expecting. I'm not sure what I expected, really. There is a 1953 letter from the Air Force to the Superintendent of the Long Range Weapons Establishment (the organisation which ran the rocket range at Woomera), asking the the LRWE appoint a liaison person to talk to the president of the Australian UFO Society, Fred Stone. Stone and his colleagues were concerned that legitimate UFO sightings could be confused with launches from Woomera. As I learnt from Bill Chalker's book on Australian UFOs, societies like this one were just being set up in the early 1950s. There are also accounts of several UFO sightings at Woomera.

There is no hint that the observers were subscribing to the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis of UFO origins. But these people were ballistic and aeronautical scientists, accustomed to observing aerial and high atmosphere phenomena on a regular basis. It does make you think. (Can I really be saying this?) And there were security issues that would make the unidentified appearance of aerial stuff of concern.

Tomorrow I will complete my work on the file and move onto the more relevant topics of Woomera's participation in Project Vanguard.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

An unusual occurrence

I have been searching the National Archives of Australia in preparation for some research. On the top of my list is the file entitled "Unusual Occurrences of Flying Saucers at Woomera".

With the heavy traffic of sounding and research rockets, which released all kinds of things from grenades to chalk dust, it would be surprising if someone had not seen a UFO.  Rocket experiments at Woomera were often visible over hundreds of miles.

I'm also going to check out the activities of the Communist Party of Australia, my old friends the Natural History Society, and the Moonwatch group.

And tomorrow morning - the collections of A.B. Jay, a Native Patrol Officer in the Woomera Restricted Area. These are held at the South Australian Museum.