Humans in Space

Smart people have strong views on human space flight. In my mind, human space flight isn’t a football for arguments over public verse private. How missions are funded is less important than the fact that they are funded. Space flight will always be a high-risk activity. Those risks will sometimes be borne by the public sector and sometimes by the private sector.

Saying that all we need is robotics in space is to overstate the case for robotics. No doubt, robotics will play a fundamental part in exploration. It’s one component in a bigger picture. Humans need to go to space. That’s a rather a didactic statement. It needs to be challenged. So, my answer has several parts, and here they are:

Firstly, it’s not that we have a choice, given the nature humans have demonstrated over the last million years. Discontent with staying in one place, we are constantly on the move. We’ve inhabited every part of the globe. Even the most inhospitable parts. It’s extremely unlikely we will counter that instinct to travel, to go, and to see for ourselves. First-hand.

Secondly, every robotic mission has limitations based on the design of the machines we send into space. A designer must use the knowledge of their time to anticipate what may be needed, often a decade from the first moment they sat at their computer. The adaptive capability of humans is unmatched. However, machines advance, it will be unmatched for tens of decades ahead.

Thirdly, our lives are full of stories of imaginary flights. From Leonardo da Vinci vivid creativity to the practical achievements of the Wright brothers. Imagination spurred on inventors to bring to life ways in which humans could take to the air. The same applies to space flight. Flash Gordan is a comic book character. We know that Star Trek is a fiction. The film Gravity stressed the dangers of space. None of this detracts from an imbedded predisposition we have for space-based adventures.

Fourthly, when faced with the new it’s not always clear what to do. However, if unprecedented situations arise, we humans rise to the occasion. The inventive capacity of people is unique. When the machinery around us fails we come up with answers. We work out a way to get over the problems. Being able to rapidly fix things matters in space[1].

Fifthly, our species is successful, in part, is because we face risks. It could be said that existence requires us to face risk, but we do it anyway. Our enjoyment of dangerous sports is one indicator. People train to face perils and are thrilled to overcoming challenging circumstances. Collectively we delight in their achievements. Why go to space? – Because it’s there[2].

It’s more than evident that from the perspective we have in the here and now, we can only see so far ahead. A few will see further. What seems obvious to a highly educated commentator on human space flight may be rendered null and void at a stoke come the next discovery.

NOTE 1: On the third point, I found a quote from Orville Wright. “No flying machine will ever fly from New York to Paris. That seems to me to be impossible. What limits flight is the motor.” So, even with his inventiveness and imagination it only went so far. [Early Flight – From Balloons to Biplanes].

NOTE 2: On the fourth point, the experience of my early career working on ground test equipment for communications satellites comes into play. Extensive testing is needed on any space borne systems. As I remember it being said – we don’t make ladders that high.


[1] https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/apollo13.html

[2] Why climb a mountain? British climber George Mallory gave a famous response in a New York Times interview in 1923: “Because it’s there.”

Moon Mission

The universe is big, I mean really big, but our nearest neighbour is close by. Seeing our unique satellite orbit the Earth is as common an experience watching the weather. No need for a telescope.

The circumference of Earth (distance around Earth at the equator) is roughly 40,000 kilometres (25,000 miles). The distance to the Moon is 10 times the circumference of the Earth, or roughly 400,000 kilometres (250,000 miles[1]). That sounds like a lot but compared with the dimensions of our solar system it’s nothing much.

The first humans walked on the Moon on 20th July 1969. I was 9-years old. I watched the event in our living room on a small black and white TV. Around the globe, hundreds of millions of people watched as Armstrong stepped out on the surface of the Moon for the first time[2]. For good or ill, humanity changed on that day.

A plan for returning humans to the Moon is underway[3]. NASA’s new lunar mission is ready for launch. Called “Artemis” a mission is on the launch pad. In ancient Greek mythology, Artemis was heavily identified with Selene, the Moon.

This project will work with industry and international partners, like the European Space Agency (ESA)[4] to send astronauts to the surface of the Moon. The European Service Module (ESM) will provide for future astronauts’ basic needs, such as water, oxygen, nitrogen, temperature control, power, and propulsion.

It’s a big day. Exploration is a part of human DNA. These are the next steps. I wish the project every success.

POST: Well, we get to use that well used phrase – Space is hard. “Space is hard.” But why? — Elizabeth A. Frank (elizabethafrank.com)


[1] 225,623 miles away when it’s at its closest. The Moon’s orbit is not a perfect circle. When the Moon is furthest, it’s 252,088 miles away.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_landing

[3] https://www.nasa.gov/specials/artemis/

[4] https://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/ESA_Web_TV

Change

Understanding British reticence is part of understanding Brexit. This phenomenon is not new. Not new at all. It maybe culturally embedded. There’s an array of wonderful cartoons from Punch on the theme.

The late 1950s were peppered with such an inclination to paint a colourful picture: “You’ve never had it so good[1]” but closing a blind eye to unemployment, industrial stagnation, threatening Russians, and the aftermath of Suez. Substitute inflation for unemployment and Brexit for Suez. It’s all too familiar.

The early 2020’s is the era of unwillingness to do something about Brexit or talk about its damaging impact. All the time knowing that an accumulation of evidence all points one way. The nation is playing the 3-monkeies, in pretending that the facts don’t matter. It’s a lack of moral responsibility on the part of politicians who refuse to accept facts, looking the other way or faking ignorance.

Today, we see that Britain’s Brexitism, if there is such a word, is dedicated to a permanent anti-European sentiment. We see it in national newspapers like The Telegraph all the time. We hear it from would be political leaders. I’d even say we smell it.

This is done by politicians and establishment figures to preserve the sanctity of the 2016 referendum and as a means of explaining daily political failures. There must be a wild European ogre on the horizon otherwise the danger is that people might blame Brexit.

There are more successful times when the national code was discretion, pragmatism, and realism. These options have been thrown out of the window by the true believers in power. Such wise options are seen as “lefty” or U-Turns.

Johnson’s Government has capitalised on British reticence. Indications are that his successor will do the same, if not more so. The ideology of Brexitism is an over-simple belief. Which maybe explains why it spawns so many meaningless political slogans.[2] If it was complicated or in touch with reality the ideology would be more difficult to sustain. Hence the Brexiters inclination to capitalise on British reticence.

The means to break this destructive chain, whose links go from bad to worse, is radical change. The important part is that it must be change that the British people want. I suspect the conditions of that change are brewing. The next General Election must not be more of the same but under a different colour. There must be higher matters on the table when the country next decides.

POST: For balance, I’ll put the case for the Brexiters. The Brexit project has failed because the “liberal” and “lefty” establishment and outsiders that have sabotaged it. That is the civil service, the unions, the opposition parties, the judges, lawyers, the media, including the BBC, the banks, including the Bank of England, industrialist, immigrants, local government and anyone who isn’t a Brexiter and those countries that are punishing the UK. If that doesn’t work they then blame Harry and Megan. Yes, it is that mad.


[1] Conservative slogan in 1959.

[2] Get Brexit Done. Brexit means Brexit.

Sun & Wind

My morning routine includes switching on the radio. That already marks me down as being of a certain age. News and current affairs isn’t always a cheerful way to start the day but, at least, as a result I feel a bit better informed about the world and its ways.

Listening to Vince Cable[1], at the end of the BBC’s Today programme this morning[2] I agree. [At run time 2:37]. Sir John Vincent Cable, yes that makes me even more inclined to listen to him, has a wealth of knowledge and experience and puts his case well.

Yes, we have had four major shocks to the British economy. The banking crisis, Brexit, COVID pandemic, and war in Europe. Amongst these Brexit was self-inflicted and has cost the UK a great deal. To lump on top of all that we have had incompetence in Government the like of which hasn’t been seen for decades.

The blatant idiocy of suggesting that the answer is fracking to produce more gas and more exploratory drilling is needed are the ultimate in short-term planning. The UK is not the US. Believe it or not, there is a global climate crisis and burning more fossil fuels makes it worse. Short-term planning is one of the reasons that the UK economy is underperforming. Proposing more of that approach is to further embed reckless incompetence.

Vince is right. We should make it easier to build onshore wind turbines in the UK. I’m not saying completely deregulate the planning systems. That would be entirely foolish. However, in local development plans we have ridiculous absurdities that name wind turbines and solar farms as a particular danger to the character of the landscape. So, any proposal that is brave enough to come forward gets slapped down immediately. Local politicians run for the hills.

Like all such regulatory issues, there needs to be a balance struck. There are numerous places in the UK were wind turbines and solar farms have a great deal more positive impact than negative. Proposals for renewable energy developments should be given a leg up. The UK is blessed with renewable energy assets in wind, seas, rain, and enough sun to make a difference.

I am first in-line to defend the beauty of our countryside but not everywhere is equal in that respect. Not only that but compared to nuclear power stations of any size, wind turbines and solar farms can be removed after a life of service with little sign of their former presence.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vince_Cable

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001bbsv

Holiday from reality

All aboard for the fantasy rollercoaster. We are in for a new season of irrational excess. The winner of the competition for UK Prime Minister (PM) is to be a character out of Westminster folklore.

Mythology is powerful. It permeates our lives in the snap assumptions, unconscious bias, and it races through the pages of the tabloid press and social media.

I’m culpable. It’s that click-bait headline that stimulates an instant response. It can be as few as six words. “PM chews gum and walks too.” Immediately, the instinct to disagree is triggered in my mind. How can that be? So, I unwittingly join an avalanche of rancour and feed the machine.

People are more than the professional polarisers would like us to think. However, the idea that is a let-out clause for preposterous nonsense is not one that should stick. A candidate who wins votes by peddling blatant right-wing gibberish is dangerous.

For all the Brexit promoting fiction he is guilty of, in this case, former Minister Michael Gove[1] is right. It’s a nice journalists turn of phrase, being “on holiday from reality”. This is addressing Truss’s proposal to cut taxes as inflation takes-off and the cost-of-living presses hard on us all.

Pertinent when the Johnson, caretaker PM is holidaying. His would-be successor likes to pretend to be a next generation Thatcher but never has such a claim been more wayward. Thatcher wasn’t an advocate of ungrounded economics.

Back to the human capacity to believe political fantasies. It’s hard for progressives and more rational thinkers to accept but it’s real. Once upon a time there was a “centrist” wing of the UK Conservative Party that would debunk childish economic fictions. With a few exceptions, those people are now mute or considering their futures.

Since the 2016 EU referendum, the UK Conservatives Party has been transitioning into a version of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). These crude libertarian junkies have taken control. Brexit is not permanent. In fact, healthy national politics is dynamic and in-tune with what people are thinking. Unfortunately, a small self-selecting constituency is picking the UK’s next PM.

Get ready, the national rollercoaster ride is about to get a lot scarier.


[1] https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/michael-gove-says-liz-truss-is-on-holiday-from-reality-as-he-backs-rishi-sunak-for-pm/ar-AA10Rtgq

Energy cap

The letters “Of” have been used as shorthand for “Office of” in the names of several regulators in the UK. There are at least two of them that are gaining an unparalleled reputation for incompetence[1]. Maybe, I’m being unfair. Afterall, a regulator can only do what the legislation that created it will permit it to do. They are not lawmakers. They can only interpret the law in respect of their own responsibilities. That law, however amended, is relatively stationary in the face of events.

One way of explaining what has happened is to admit that the ethos and rules in place were devised to serve past times. In the world of services provided by industry, the environment has changed dramatically, in more ways than one. A cacophony of events, Brexit, recuring political ineptitude, war, and climate change have made the framework created for British regulation obsolete.

It’s like trying to use a Thatcher / Blair era computer in the world of today’s internet and mobiles.

Now, what’s clear is that we have a bunch of Ministers who haven’t a clue what to do when faced with this problem. Conservatives keep a picture of Sid[2] on their bedroom walls.

The call has come from the Greens to nationalise everything[3]. This too is an inept solution to current problems. This was the dogma that Labour once held dear. How the political landscape changes.

Despite the calamities befalling us, we must get off fossil fuels. Again, Conservative politicians are on the wrong page. Britons needs encouragement to switch and insulate[4] not to stoop to fossil fuels industry lobbyists. The notion that the solution to a painful recession is to burn the future is absurd.

Let’s get out of the rut. Defending, and being constrained by a framework of organisation that’s out of date is no use to anyone. That is why the Liberal Democrat proposal to freeze the energy price cap is a good start. We desperately need to buy time, with escalating inflation, to come up with a new regulatory scheme. One that works for customers. One that works for the environment. One that works for you and me.


[1] Ofgem – the Office of the Gas and Electricity Markets and Ofwat – the Water Services Regulation Authority

[2] To encourage individuals to become shareholders, the gas privatisation offer was advertised with the “If you see Sid…Tell him!” campaign.

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-62577830

[4] Home insulation has been slashed by the current Government

Foot shooting

In the 1970s and 80s, Europe’s aviation industry strove to create common airworthiness codes. In 1983, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed that bring together 11 national authorities, including the UK. These countries agreed to improve European safety regulation; develop common codes and common interpretation of those codes and extend cooperation.

Given the immense efforts the UK applied to creating the Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA) and subsequently the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) it is unsurprising the hope of continuing involvement remained until the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) was signed.

Leaving the European system of aviation safety regulation is a consequence of the political choice of a hard Brexit. Exiting EASA membership was not accompanied by leaving other European institutions. However, the implications of no longer being an EU Member State have rippled through out the whole aviation system. As the UK becomes less Eurocentric so the rest of Europe becomes more Eurocentric. Yet, the UK will surely wish to continue to exercise influence within regional bodies. This is incongruous but it is a political choice, and such choices have consequences.

Another case of immense efforts, the UK applied, was to collaborative working in aerospace research. UK organisations and academic institutions benefited significantly from participation in the Horizon Europe project and its predecessors. This is being run down despite assurances given in the TCA. An impasse has arisen over the political shenanigans related to the Irish border.

Now, the lawyers have got involved there is surely nothing good that will come if it[1]. The overall message is negative. With Conservative leadership candidates stirring up anti-EU sentiment just to get votes, it’s hardly likely there will be a reconciliation any time soon.

Yet again, the UK is perfecting the art of shooting itself in the foot. A sad situation. By the way, I do think this situation will be resolved in the fullness of time. The EU published a Pact for Research and Innovation in Europe in November 2021. To quote:

(g) Global engagement: Develop a coherent global engagement strategy and common tools, promoting shared European values and principles for R&I in terms of international cooperation and capitalising on the attractiveness of research in the Union; ensure the Union’s scientific and innovation strategic autonomy while preserving an open economy; promote a level playing field and reciprocity based on fundamental values; enhance R&I partnerships and strengthen, broaden and deepen collaboration with third countries and regional organisations.

The last line ties in nicely with the TCA and creates a need to solve the issue of UK engagement. That would be wise for both parties in the end.

POST 1: The consequences are real Thanks to Brexit, I lost a €2.5m research grant. I fear for the future of UK science | José R Penadés | The Guardian

POST 2: Grants lost At least 115 UK researchers to lose their ERC grants – Research Professional News


[1] https://sciencebusiness.net/news/uk-launches-legal-case-against-eu-over-horizon-europe-association

Coming election

A moment of pure speculation. Barring a military take over, there will be a UK General Election before January 2025. When we have such national elections about 70% of the voting population get sufficiently motivated to put a cross in a box on a ballot paper. Yes, a few doodle or write “none of the above” on their papers but it’s a tiny number that go as far as to protest their frustration.

It’s always a good time for public relations agencies, tabloid newspapers and political gurus. The potential for appallingly cringemaking headlines and earworm like slogans is manifold. Some of these folks will be writing pages of forthcoming books on “how it was won” long before it was won.

Today, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken the role of caretaker to a new extreme. He’s more of a couldn’t care less taker of the p*** PM. The forthcoming election will be a race between at least three horses and maybe even four. Conservatives, Labourites, Liberal Democrats and one or two Greens will be trying to capture the high ground and launch themselves on the doorsteps of the UK. 

The issues will be stark. Armageddon isn’t on the cards, yet, but there will be dire circumstances as a background to the future campaign. Each party will be saying the other is an incompetent bunch of nincompoops. Each party will be stressing their unique qualities and indisputable solutions to all and sundry. A daily routine of shifting news stories will be a bombardment of severe intensity.

Free speech is a first principle of democracy. That said, I’ll bet that there will be an acute reluctance amongst competing politicians to mention one six-letter word. I almost wrote competing “pelicans”. Now, that conjures up an image of huge birds fighting over an unfortunate fish.

In the idea world candidates will be engaging in polite discussions with those who hold different views and hoping to persuade them of a view they hold dear. In the idea world candidates would avoid denigrating or insulting those who hold views that are difficult to understand.

The six-letter word is – Brexit. All the objective evidence points to the failure of this project. It’s clear the current Conservative Government is frightened of people saying Brexit has failed. In complete antithesis to free speech, they are clamping down on civil servants and those who work with Government to ensure they don’t highlight Brexit facts.

Come the next General Election the inevitability of tribalism and short termism will kick in. The UK’s voting system encourages polarisation. There’re absolutely no nuances. Debate on Brexit is likely to get squeezed to the side-lines as Conservatives and Labourites pretend it can still work.  

To unlock a better future for everyone we do need Proportional Representation. Otherwise, the same old, same old will haunt the country for years to come. The fight needs to be for honesty.

Was I right, or was I right? Fishy parrot

Schooling

Grammar schools. Don’t talk to me about grammar schools. I hear one of the Tory leadership contenders is touting the return of grammar schools[1]. Ironically, he’s also talking as if he believes in meritocracy. Apparently, he didn’t mean a universal return of selection in education but only expansion in areas where selection already exists. Maybe his double-take was because there remains evidence that selective education entrenches the divisions in our society. There’s a vestige of community snobbery that is served by dividing school children at age 11 years. This has always been popular amongst committed Tory voters.

The false narrative that grammar schools create social mobility is for the birds. Much of the entrenched views on this subject are the result of stereotypes that portray images of comprehensive schools and grammar schools as being like a comparison between Grange Hill[2] and Hogwarts[3].

Now, I will not get trapped in the myth that all grammar schools are bad, and all comprehensive schools are good on some higher ethical level. In most situations parents are going to seek the best state school opportunities, in their area, for their children. Those children will thrive in well-funded and well-run schools of either kind.

The circular argument that the grammar school experience “worked for me” is often a way society’s divisions are perpetuated through the generations. It’s self-fulfilling. We must ask – Should the children of doctors be more likely to become doctors? Should the children of teachers be more likely to become teachers? Should the children of politicians be more likely to become politicians?

My plea is that we don’t run headlong back to the pigeonholes of the 1970s. We need to give the best education we can to all pupils. Wherever they are from, and whatever the situation of their parents. The talent the country needs will not come solely from selective or private schools.

Yes, not everyone has been gifted with academic ability or for that matter craft or creative ability. Degrees of specialisation do make sense but not by selective partition at age 11 years. Remember that partition was conceived when children left formal education at an age less than 15 years.

One Tory leadership contender has hooked onto the campaigning value of virtue-signalling of having been to an ordinary school. She tells of seeing: “children who failed and were let down by low expectations”[4]. Thus, highlighting a perception of early disadvantage to heighten her projection of later accomplishments.

Debates on education never stray far from recounts of personal experience. Each of us are so impacted by our school years that it’s impossible to remain entirely objective. My father went to the local grammar school, but I did not. Although this fact never seemed to matter much at home, in the background, maybe in my own mind, there was an implication of failure.

What I value, on reflection, is the board range of experiences that an “ordinary” secondary modern schools afforded me. We had a wonderful cross section small town and rural life. A generation of school staff that ranged from young student teachers making their first idealist mark on the world, to grumpy escapees from the cities who treated everyone as backward laggards, to hardened eccentrics who regaled us with their collection of war stories.

Variety is the spice of life.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-62340247

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Grange_Hill_episodes

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hogwarts

[4] https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/liz-truss-school-tory-leadership-candidates-row-rishi-sunak-1760697

The past

What’s disheartening about the current political debate in the UK is that it’s so backward looking. Now, I appreciate the real impact of demographics. Yes, we have an aging population and the trend for population ageing is continuing[1]. So, the audience of voters that existing politicians are trying to seduce is predominantly over 50 years old. This shapes the message that they send out.

If I go on about how much the world has changed since my school days, I’ll bore your paints off. I have endured such stories from local Councillors, relatives, and work colleagues for many a year. Nevertheless, perspective can be lost if I don’t make a few points on this subject.

I was surprised to read that the world’s first e-mail is over 50 years old. So, that medium that has taken over our lives and practically displaced post office delivered mail and that ancient artifact, the letter, is a decade younger than me. Of course, the use of e-mails took a while to get going and so it’s the time since Windows 95 when the greatest change has taken place. The first website is just over 30 years old. Now, it’s impossible to imagine a world where everyday information is not displayed on a screen of one size or another.

The transition has been from a predominantly analogue world to an almost exclusively digital one.

What I find amusing is occasionally having to explain analogue technology. Although some long-standing devices have endured. Mechanical wristwatches continue to be valued and vinyl records are making a resurgence.

Before I get side-tracked the core of my argument is that we have been through a monumental transition in my working life. It’s happened at pace. It’s happened well ahead of political thinking. OK, savvy political operators have populated social media. Although, many campaigning efforts are derisory and ineffective. We are in an era when about 242 million iPhones are sold annually. Not doing social media is not an option.

If it’s worth engaging in political debate it should be about what happens next. What’s behind us can teach us but it’s not a pattern for the future: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.[2]” Endlessly raking over the past can be a huge distraction. Thatcher, Blair, and Ashdown were of their time. The global issues they faced were of their time.

Instagram is 12 years old; Snapchat is a year younger, and we have only had TikTok for 5 years. These social media platforms are the places where younger people get their daily news. On that basis they form opinions and may act on those opinion.

The further monumental transitions that are coming our way ought to occupy, at least, a part of contemporary political thinking. That doesn’t seem to be happening. If the UK wants to play a leading role on world stage our traditional myopic attitudes need a good shake up. If we intervene on global issues promoting 19th century views the results will be disastrous. Be warned.


[1] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/bulletins/populationandhouseholdestimatesenglandandwales/census2021#age-and-sex-of-the-population

[2] Leslie P. Hartley (1895-1972) British novelist and short story writer