Thursday, 19 September 2013

From Imagination to Reality #2 with the British Interplanetary Society

On Saturday I spent the day enjoying a series of talks about space exploration at the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) headquarters in London.  Our hosts were none other than model making master craftsman Mat Irvine and space advocate and presenter Jerry Stone.  The themes throughout the day were the celebrated author and BIS member Arthur C. Clarke and the interplay between the imagination and the realities of space travel and exploration.

The first speaker was the President of the BIS, Alistair Scott, who talked informatively and entertainingly about the history of communication satellites, one of the commercial practicalities running through the decades of space missions.  Starting with the early work by BIS as well as the breakthrough concepts created by Arthur C. Clarke, Alistair took us through their development including such historic satellites as Telstar and Intelsat 1.  He also described how the three axis design took over from the earlier spinning mode for satellites.

The original periodical in which Arthur C. Clarke sets out the concept of geosynchronous orbit 

Alistair gave a very polished, professional presentation and noted in particular the role of champagne in celebrating a successful deployment of a satellite after what must always be a nervous build up to launch. 

The next speaker was Gerry Webb, CEO of Commercial Space Technologies.  Gerry gave a very personal, heartfelt account of how as a boy he had been thrilled by the adventures of Dan Dare and other space comics and how they fired him with ambition to pursue a space career.  He talked about how becoming a member of BIS (including meeting Arthur C. Clarke and Patrick Moore) had changed his life and helped him achieve his dreams.  In particular, Gerry described how he became involved with the Soviet space programme and how his company worked with them during the 1980s.

A good speaker engages the emotions of the audience and it was not difficult to feel some of Gerry’s enthusiasm and passion for his subject.  He concluded by talking about the concept of World Ships – that is enormous space colonies that wander far from our solar system spreading life from Earth with them.

The speaker before lunch was Per Wimmer of WimmerSpace.  Per is an extraordinary man, an adventurer and space tourist in training.  He described one of his adventures in becoming part of the first tandem skydive over Mount Everest.  Per was one of the first to sign up with Virgin Galactic and described their activities in some detail. He mentioned that unexpectedly he had met a number of celebrities as a result including of course Richard Branson and also Buzz Aldrin and had even gone bowling with Kylie Minogue!  He was an excellent advocate for Virgin Galactic.

Per Wimmer of WimmerSpace - adventurer and space tourist in training
Per has also bought tickets with XCOR Lynx and Space Adventures. He is living the dream for many of us who long to do what he is doing and I was glad that someone in his position was such a good ambassador for the exploration of space. He is keen to push the educational value of his activities.  The fun of training for such flights also came through in his presentation as he described zero gravity flights on aircraft and training in a centrifuge.  It was an exciting presentation and got everyone talking before lunch.

BIS provide excellent catering at their events and I had a delicious vegetarian lasagne and glass of wine, followed by a huge helping of chocolate cake.  At lunch the speakers generously made themselves available to chat with the attendees.  Some of us had a good look at the beautiful models that Mat had brought along and this lead to Mat chatting to us about Space 1999 and the career of Gerry Anderson.

Per Wimmer, Mat Irvine and Jerry Stone at BIS
Many speakers will be only too aware that the first post-lunch talk can be tricky after the audience has had a fine repast, as we had, so we were lucky to have an animated and fascinating presentation from astronomer Greg Smye-Rumsby.

Rather controversially perhaps to some in the audience, Greg started by saying he thought any attempt to colonise Mars by settlements on the surface, as with Mars One, was doomed as the radiation was too high.  If Mars was to be colonised at all, he believed, it would have to use underground settlements. 

Greg’s talk was on Pluto with an eye to the forthcoming encounter of that far off world by NASA’s New Horizons mission. He discussed the discovery of Pluto, the debate about whether Pluto was a planet or not and the ongoing revelations about the outer parts of the solar system and how new worlds of a similar size have been discovered.  His presentation was liberally sprinkled with all sorts of fascinating points, such as that Earth is in essence the rocky core of a former gas giant planet that formed in the very earliest part of the solar system’s history. The Sun’s energy then tore away the gaseous layers leaving only the rocky core underneath which we now stand (or sit!) on.

Jerry Stone, who had along with Mat been running the event, now spoke about space colonies – the subject of a new BIS project that he is leading.  His theme was looking at whether we could in effect live in an “inside out” world in the environment of a space colony.  Looking at the work from the 1970s of Dr Gerard O’Neill, Jerry discussed the construction and benefits of large space colonies whose populations would be counted in the thousands and possibly even one day the millions. 

Space advocate Jerry Stone discusses the work of Dr Gerard O'Neill
Dr O’Neill’s work depicts an optimistic and expansive future for humanity, pitting it diametrically opposite works of the time such as The Limits to Growth which suggested that ultimately human growth has to be a zero sum as it would be limited by the Earth’s resources.  The High Frontier and other similar texts on space colonies pointed to, as Issac Asimov phrased it, the planetary chauvinism inherent in the idea that human civilization can only exist on planetary surfaces.  Jerry also looked at the work of scientists in generating solar energy from satellites constructed by the inhabitants of such space colonies.

The best position for space colonies, Jerry suggested, was in L5 – an orbit around the Earth at the same distance as the Moon but 60 sixty degrees to one side.  They would be constructed from lunar materials and the new Skylon spaceplane being developed could be used in the building process.  Jerry also discussed the long term possibilities of space colonization and in this regard mentioned one of the novels of Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama.  A similar concept to the World Ships that Gerry had mentioned earlier in the day, the use of the larger Island Three colonies could lead to a twenty thousand increase in the human population of the solar system even if only confined to the space around L5.

Mat explained that he had created a model of the Island One space colony for a programme called “Spaceships of the Mind” which he later gave to Dr O’Neill. He saw the model later in a shot of Dr O’Neill in a magazine with the model on his desk!

The last speaker of the day, Piers Bizony, gave a presentation on 2001: A Space Odyssey, perhaps the most revered science fiction film of all time.  Piers contrasted the different approaches of the optimism of Arthur C. Clarke’s outlook of the future with that of the more sceptical, if not to say cynical, Stanely Kubrick in the film’s production.  He looked at, for instance, the contrast between the awe and excitement of a journey to the Moon with the reality as depicted in the film of Heywood Floyd falling asleep whilst the in flight entertainment shows a film of almost criminal banality.

Piers took us through the model work used in 2001 and the audience was surprised to learn that the model for Space Station V was some eight feet in diameter.  It had been a superb day of talks and Piers’ presentation ensured we ended on a high note.

It had been an informative and entertaining day that encapsulated the BIS’ motto which is “From Imagination to Reality” and like many others in the audience I had certainly learned a great deal.

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