Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Quirky, yet methodologically sound: a review of Space Travel and Culture: From Apollo to Space Tourism

Space Travel and Culture: From Apollo to Space Tourism

Many books have been written about the manned exploration of space across its 50-year history and from all manner of perspectives: autobiographical, political, technological. In this 40th anniversary year of the Apollo 11 landing, it may seem that there is very little left to say on the matter.

This volume of illuminating essays begs to differ. The editors immediately and correctly identify the curious phenomenon of the dearth of academic social science studies of space travel, in spite of regularly produced and transmitted documentaries on the space age and the iconic status of many of the images associated with the missions (including the breathtaking shots of Earth seen from space, Earthrise and The Blue Marble, and pictures of Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the lunar surface). And yet, in the modern age, spaceflight has come to be seen as an obscene waste of taxpayers' money.

The articles in this volume are generally not written from the position of the dewy-eyed space fan either. Many are critical of aspects of America's endeavours in space, especially the perceived fall from greatness signalled in the shift from Apollo to Shuttle. The latter comes out of the book particularly badly, as a poorly worked-through compromise that squandered both the real potential and the mythical dimensions of preceding space programmes.

Others are less critical. The focus is largely not on the big stories but on the associated ones, the backroom ones and the simply unknown. In one article, for example, the seldom (if ever) acknowledged Apollo checklist, in both its massive engineer's manual and miniature spacesuit "cuff" versions, gets a historical context and an acknowledgement of its indispensable importance in an age of overwhelmingly complex technology. Another examines the legal and political significance of geostationary orbit - that height above Earth when a satellite can travel at the same speed as the planet rotates, thereby staying in the same position; important for reaching the maximum area of the Earth's surface for communication and monitoring purposes.

Two articles consider the relationship between space travel and capitalism: of how the huge funds granted to Nasa supported the growth of the major US aerospace companies; of outer space being the new "outside" of non-capitalism that capitalism needs in order for its economic model to continue to work; and, of course, currently the fledgeling projects to develop space tourism as a viable commercial entity.

Gender and space is also looked at, both in terms of Nasa's poor attitude to women (from sexually harassed secretaries and administrators through to a female astronaut programme brutally cancelled by Nasa after it showed that women, in many ways, made better astronauts than men) and the homosocial bonding of the all-male crews. In the first instance, the argument is perhaps a little unfair, making Nasa seem almost uniquely misogynist at a time when society as a whole limited the professional possibilities open to women.

Other articles examine even less considered areas of space exploration - for example, how its history can be reconstructed creatively by looking at forgotten sites associated with space travel: the launch complexes in remote parts of Algeria and Australia; the sheds of amateur radio hams who listened in on downlinks from the missions as they flew overhead.

Such quirky and yet methodologically sound investigations offer a fresh look at the well-rehearsed history of space exploration, and give the volume a pleasurably offbeat quality that suits it well. Of course, the articles weren't all equally interesting. Edited collections seldom, if ever, are; aiming to please, at best, most of the people most of the time. And although the geostationary orbit of satellites is considered in one article, all the others focus firmly on manned spaceflight, which gives the volume an unbalanced feel. Also, the discipline-specific terminology of some of the articles - the complex legal and economic language in the capitalism articles, for example - could be off-putting for the general reader.

But while, on the one hand, this indicates that this volume will be bought and read for its parts rather than its whole, on the other, it suggests that drawing on a broad range of disciplines means that it will appeal to a wider readership than if it had adopted a single perspective. All in all, it is a book to be recommended.

Edited by David Bell and Martin Parker. Wiley-Blackwell, 232pp, £17.99. ISBN 9781405193320. Published 29 May 2009

Reviewer : Michael Allen is senior lecturer in film and electronic media, Birkbeck, University of London.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Your chance to communicate with Venus, courtesy of JAXA

I've been researching Venusian landing missions for a while, but have not really paid much attention to orbital material.  In fact I should; the combined terrestrial and orbital components of the exploration of Venus have a unique signature when compared to those of other celestial bodies, in terms of the nationalities represented.  (This makes me think of creating some sort of index which captures this for all of the celestial bodies.  Where is cultural material mostly located - on or above the surface? What can this reveal about spacefaring cultures?).

But I digress.  There is something very appealing about sending the messages of regular people into space, and JAXA are about to do it for Venus, as explained in the story below.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is enhancing people's interest in space and the Earth by holding a message campaign. People are invited to send messages that will be printed in fine letters on an aluminium plate and placed aboard the Venus Climate Orbiter AKATSUKI.

Messages are being accepted from Japan and overseas, so the feelings and thoughts of everybody in the world can be combined in a single place and injected into the orbit of Venus.

Through this campaign JAXA aims to boost the public's knowledge about space science research activities in Japan as well as abroad. This project is in cooperation with the IYA2009 Japan Committee.

The Venus Climate Orbiter AKATSUKI is the world's first planetary meteorological observation satellite to unveil the mysteries of wind on Venus. It will explore the atmospheric movement and cloud formation process. Ultimately, this mission aims to deepen our understanding of the formation process of the Earth's environment and its future by comparing Venus and the Earth. Its planned launch date is May 2010, to arrive at Venus in December 2010.
To register your message, please visit: http://www.jaxa.jp/event/akatsuki/index_e.html

Source:  IYA Newsletter and Dave Reneke's Astro Space News 23

Further digression:  a map of sites in the solar system, by nationality (where this is clear, of course).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Antipodean space - New Zealand launches its first rocket

First NZ space rocket ready for blast off
Chris Keall
Monday November 16 2009 - 12:10pm

Just half a century after it began, New Zealand is set to enter the space race.

In the week beginning November 30 (subject to weather), Rocket Lab’s Atea-1 “launch vehicle” (what most of us would call a rocket) is due to blast off, carrying a payload 120km into the heavens (space starts at 100km up; the international space station orbits at around 320km above us).  Atea-1 will become the first privately-funded rocket to launch from the Southern Hemisphere.

After reaching 120km, Atea-1 - and its payload - will arc back to Earth. As its payload won't be placed into orbit, Rocket Lab pitches its launch vehicle as suitable for any scientific kit that needs to take a "sounding" in (brief) low orbit, micogravity conditions.

Compared to past and present US and Russian behemoths, Atea-1 is a tiddler - just 150mm wide and 6m tall.  And its payload is restricted to a modest 2kg (compared to the Space Shuttle's 22,700kg).  But Rocket Lab's chief executive Peter Beck told NBR that’s all the capacity his company needs for commercially successful launches (although larger rockets are planned).

Each launch will cost a mere $50,000 to $100,000 - barely enough to buy a drinks holder for a Space Shuttle mission.  The launch will take place on Great Mercury Island, east of the Coromandel.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sensing heritage - "fragre" in the writing of Iain M. Banks

I do find that science fiction writers are often finely attuned to heritage concepts.  Here is an interesting discussion from Iain M. Banks' Transition about how heritage feels - a form of aesthetic significance, I suppose.

It is in a sense the sense of history, of connection, of how long a place has been lived in, a feeling for the heritage of human events attached to a particular piece of landscape or set of streets and stones.  We call it fragre 

Part of it is akin to having a sharp nose for the scent of ancient blood.  Places of great antiquity, where much has happened over not just centuries but millennia, are often steeped in it.  Almost any site of massacre or battle will have a whiff, even thousands of years later.  I find it at its most pungent when I stand within the Colosseum, in Rome.  However, much of it is simply the layered result of multifarious generations of people having lived there; lived and died, certainly, but then as most people live for decades and die just the once, it is the living part that has the greatest influence over the aroma, the feel of a place. 

Certainly the entirety of the Americas has a significantly different fragre compared to Europe and Asia; less fusty, or less rich, according to your prejudices. 

I'm told that New Zealand and Patagonia appraise as terribly fresh compared with almost everywhere else.

This leads me back to earlier musings about the senses impacted by space.  Would any space places acquire fragre in Bank's terms?  Or would it just be the scent of burnt metal?  The International Space Station is longest occupied space place; lunar landing sites are really ephemeral camps.

What about the fragre of Maralinga? (which I'm thinking about also, as I have to write a conference paper on it in the next few weeks).

Monday, November 02, 2009

Stone Age-Space Age metaphors

I'm always interested in these when I find them, which is quite frequently ...... here is one from Iain M. Banks' latest book, Transition.

"So, if there are civilised aliens, you'd guess they can travel between stars.  You'd guess their power sources and technology would be as far beyond ours as supersonic jets, nuclear submarines and space shuttles are beyond some tribe in the Amazon still making dugout canoes".