I initially learned of the British Interplanetary Society when I read Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Prelude to Space. This was in 1977 and I was a high school student. The novel was one of a handful of science fiction books in our school’s library. They were all classics and Prelude to Space excited my imagination and yearning to become either an engineer or scientist. In this 1947 novel the first manned mission to the Moon is launched from the Australian Outback. It is an international endeavor and is led, in part by a British organization called “Interplanetary.” Only later did I realize that this was actually a nod to the British Interplanetary Society of which Sir Arthur was a former chairman.

The organization was founded on October 13th 1933 by a group of people who were interested in spaceflight. The organization, since inception, is dedicated to creating, exploring, and promoting concepts, technologies, and information about spaceflight. This applies to activity in Earth orbit, within the solar system, and beyond. Even as a fledgling organization it initiated some ground-breaking work, including a 1938 design of a lunar lander, the patent for a spaceflight navigation aid, and conferences on artificial satellites and remote sensing of the Earth’s surface. NATO and other national organizations took interest. The BIS has an international membership and highly respected reputation.

BIS Moon Lander 1930s
Moon Lander Design from the 1930s study as featured in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society by RS Smith & HE Ross
BIS Meeting 1938
1938 meeting of the British Interplanetary Society and American Rocket Society. From l to r H.E. Ross, J.H. Edwards, H.E. Turner, R. Truax (in US navy uniform), R.A. Smith, M.K. Hanson, A.C. Clarke

Around the time I read Prelude to Space the BIS conducted studies related to interstellar flight. This included the famous design program for an interstellar probe called Daedalus. In recent times Daedalus has been revisited by the BIS and updated as the Icarus Project. More recently a study for a manned mission to the Martian north pole called Project Boreas was undertaken. The study looked at the advantages of establishing a scientific base at the planet’s north pole in terms of resource utilization and the ability of using the little settlement as a sort of beachhead to explore other parts of the planet.

bis daedalus
Design concept for unmanned interstellar probe “Daedalus”

The organization is very detailed when it undertakes such studies and applies solid engineering and scientific principles to its designs and reports. In many cases they serve as a touchstone and lay the foundation for follow-on work where such ideas become reality. Indeed, this fall has seen a symposium on new launcher systems and their potential impact on Mars exploration. And this November the BIS will offer a symposium on space elevator design and development. There seems to always be something new taking place at the British Interplanetary Society and it is certainly an organization to watch.





On an October’s day in 1947 it dropped from the belly of a converted piston-engine bomber and heralded in a new era. It is rare to write such a sentence without the “it” being some type of devilishly-crafted ordnance. In this case the item dropping out the bay of the B29 Superfortress was a tiny rocket plane designated the Bell X-1. The plane’s pilot, Captain Chuck Yeager, had nicknamed the plane the Glamorous Glennis, after his wife. It was one of many aircraft named after Mrs. Yeager. Each of those, both before and after 1947, represent something of a compact catalog of aviation history.

The Bell X-1’s development is a two-fold story: plane and engine. In many ways the interest in a rocket powered aircraft goes back decades, but the X-1’s genesis is likely somewhere around 1942. In Britain, the Ministry of Aviation, spurred on by the prevailing air war threat from Germany, began to secretly develop technologies that might allow supersonic flight. A company called Miles Aircraft began to develop a turbojet-powered engine called the M52, among other technologies.

Later, in 1945, the British and Americans signed an agreement to exchange information on supersonic research. Around this time Bell Aviation was given the go-ahead to build three XS-class (“eXperimental, Supersonic) planes. Ultimately the American planes would use a liquid fuel rocket engine created by a company in New Jersey called Reaction Motors, Inc.

Reaction Motors built and delivered a four chambered rocket engine with production designation XLR-11. The engine was one of several early progenitors of rockets that would someday take spacecraft beyond the Earth. Beginning in the 1920s there were little pockets of rocketeers working in Europe and North America. In the United States members of the American Interplanetary Society began rocketry experiments and by 1930 had founded a nascent little company that worked out of a converted bicycle shop. By the mid-1940s scrappy little Reaction Motors, Inc had years of experience in this field. The XLR-11 used a diluted form of ethyl alcohol as the fuel and liquid oxygen as the oxidizer. Nitrogen charged (pressurized) turbo-jets established enough of a pressure level in the engine’s thrust chambers to maintain a controlled yet explosive combustion.

bell x1 sota
Figure 1: The Bell X-1 was a state of the art research aircraft complete with sophisticated scientific instrumentation. Drama aside, it was a flying science platform.

Production of parts followed a parallel path with the plane and engine developed separately but then integrated at a Bell Aircraft facility in Buffalo, NY. By the shores of Lake Erie, a brightly painted bullet with wings received a state-of-the-art rocket engine with which it would challenge the fabled sound barrier. The plane was in many ways the first of its kind but is the result of decades-long progress in engineering experimentation, design, and aviation know-how.

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More tests were completed at Muroc in the California desert northeast of Los Angeles. The first recognized supersonic flight happened on October 14, 1947. The plane reached Mach 1.06 at an altitude of 13000 meters. Yeager and his plane experienced significant vibrations throughout the fuselage as they approached the sound barrier. As the plane propelled itself through the sky the air ahead of the X-1’s nose became increasingly compressed. When the speed of sound was suddenly exceeded the flying became smooth and the air around them seemed eerily still.

There is little debate around the significance of this event and by “recognized” this meant that level, sustained supersonic flight in excess of 1100 km/h had been achieved. There had been a few claims from reliable witnesses to this effect during World War Two. It is likely that some aircraft at that time, particularly high performance fighter aircraft that went into steep dives, reached or exceeded the sound barrier. An experimental Luftwaffe plane called the DFS-346 was captured and modified by the Soviets at the end of the war. It was flown in late 1945 and is rumored to have surpassed the speed of sound while being flown by German pilot Wolfgang Ziese.

The flight of Yeager was a milestone but at the time was considered a secret. The story was eventually leaked to Aviation Week magazine and then announced in a news story in the Los Angeles Times in late December of that year. The event was recognized by the National Aeronautics Association and the Collier Trophy was awarded to Yeager at the Truman White House in 1948. Needless to say the spilled secret became a world-wide sensation.

Yeager’s flight in the Bell X-1 is remembered in biography and film, especially in 1983’s The Right Stuff. There is a memorable scene when the Glamorous Glennis breaks the sound barrier and two concussive thumps rattle the onlookers far below on the desert floor. It seems as if the little plane and pilot have been lost. But then somebody spots the X-1 in the sky. It is no mirage and after its engines run out of fuel Yeager glides the plane to a safe landing.

Years later, when space shuttles returned to Muroc after long flights in orbit, they would drop below the sound barrier to that same double sonic boomTha-thump, thump. It always seemed like those amazing spacecraft were tipping their hats to a storied and near-mythic history.

October Bridge

October Bridge

A walk on the Erie Canal Trail last night revealed a new aspect to some of the wildlife that has managed to adapt to our urban environment. Year round there are plenty of waterfowl, songbirds, chipmunks, squirrels, groundhogs, raccoons, and the occasional fox to be seen. These critters frequent the strip of woodland that runs next to the canal’s steep embankment. Walking along the trail last night I noticed two players converge that I hadn’t appreciated before: insects and fish.

Heading east toward a rising Harvest Moon, I caught wispy blurs of motion against the diffuse but growing light ahead. Tiny night flyers had gathered in roiling, spherical swarms. The evening was cool with a taste of growing autumnal chill. Summer was definitely over…at least for today…and these latecomers had found their way into the shadowed cleft that ran beneath the nearby highway. To these frail creatures the bright glow of the tall prismatic lamps that clustered above the interstate must have seemed like the shout of some ancient god.  If not that then I wondered what drew them here. Perhaps the heat from the paved trail or something that is only relevant to their quicksilver lives?

Walking along, soft traceries brushed my nose, brow, and ears. Tiny ethereal beings skimmed the air just above my skin, gently colliding and then spinning back into the air behind me. I walked slower to give them some warning of my approach. Trees and brush grew up around me and shadows clashed. From the murky water of the canal I heard the occasional soft splash. Glancing down the rocky embankment I saw curvilinear patterns form on the surface of the water. There were many spirals forming with a languid, liquid grace. In the shallows I saw the occasional torpedo-shape of a ghost fish. Where the little night-swarmers had been careless the dark swimmers took advantage. There was a feast going on in the moonlight!

I continued onward and the fish seemed to follow me eastward. Were there many in the canal or did some combination of my headlamp, the moon, and the insects draw them along like a living tide? The path was bordered now by young, slim maples and the wide trunk of an oak. Amid parchment-dry leaves greenish husks lay in witness to a walnut tree’s scattershot attempt at immortality. A shadow loomed in a wide, geometrically straight line where a bridge cut across the dark sky.

I paused and looked up at the bridge’s archway of perfected, modern truss-work. Red and green lamps glowed like old-fashioned lanterns to show any boaters the navigational right-of-way. The bridge was new and it had only opened near summer’s end. Its form stood large and was a tribute to the months of work that had gone into its design, planning, and construction.

The old bridge that was replaced had been narrow and weathered. Cars and trucks would cross in a cacophony of jarring bumps and lurches as busy wheels encountered potholes or the scars of hasty repair work. Those sounds are just memory now. The traffic above crossed the new roadway with a barely discernible hiss. That relative quiet seemed like a shout of triumph. Canal and bridge stood together like an intersection in time, old and new but both full of utility.

I walked up the pathway to the avenue, leaving history and entering the modern. The sidewalk stretched wide and I continued homeward. Crossing the new bridge I heard the distant slap of water. Below, tiny clusters of iridescent wings glowed within the street lights. All just a passing signature of a night that might never come again.



It’s an innocent enough sound, like the chirp of a bird at dawn. On this day in 1957 a different kind of bird proclaimed itself across the 20MHZ and 40MHz radio bands. Its heart was a 3 kilogram state-of-the-art transmitter that sat nested within a 50 kilogram ring of silver-zinc batteries. It was housed inside a 1-mm thick heat shield that was so highly polished it was mesmerizing. Four whip-like antennae sprouted from its spherical body. These looked like two-meter long whiskers and you have to wonder at this stage of the Cold War was Sputnik 1 the cat or the mouse?

The beep-beep of this sturdy little satellite caught the world’s attention on October 4, 1957. Launched near the end of the International Geophysical Year it served several purposes and initiated the Space Race which would see the Soviet Union achieve many firsts. These included the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin) and the first to conduct a spacewalk (Alexei Leonov). In its time this satellite took the world by storm, and its regular orbit carried the half-meter diameter Sputnik across the familiar face of the Earth.

Despite political intent Sputnik was also a scientific instrument. The power supply was designed to last almost three weeks. This reserve allowed for numerous swings around the planet, each one lasting just under 100 minutes. The antenna configuration allowed for transmission across a spherical radiation pattern regardless of Sputnik’s orientation. This meant that the 1-watt transmitter could lay down those famous beeps with equal power in all directions. Those beeps were broadcast every third of a second across both of the transmitter’s frequencies. When one channel was quiet for a 0.3 second pulse the other channel would broadcast its own beep. Sputnik was a chatty little satellite. Analysis of the beeps allowed scientists to understand the electron density in the Earth’s outer atmosphere.

The spherical shell of Sputnik was filled with pressurized nitrogen. Internal monitors could encode information about the satellite’s internal pressure and temperature. The interior of the shell included a tiny fan that would activate via an analog switch if the internal temperature became too high. There was also a barometric switch that would activate if the interior nitrogen saw a loss of containment. A drop in pressure would indicate possible meteor damage. At the time meteoroid swarms were of concern and many speculated they could be a hazard to space travel.

Sputnik’s surface allowed it some visibility from the ground, and was reportedly prominent at dawn or dusk. However, the rocket booster that carried the satellite into orbit was much brighter and was often spotted and misidentified as the famous satellite. Ham radio and shortwave enthusiasts frequently tuned in to the beep-beeps of the little satellite.

In the end trace molecules in the Earth’s upper atmosphere slowly eroded Sputnik 1‘s orbit. It fell back to Earth in January 1958 after having completed 1440 orbits. There is little information as to where it ended its flight, but surely it fell to Earth with all the fiery aspect of a meteor. Zvezdnyy puteshestvennik pridet domoy….a starry traveler comes home!




I find it difficult to write about the recent headlines, in particular the heinous violence in Las Vegas and the slow-rolling humanitarian crisis in storm-battered Puerto Rico. No words. I do, in these times, increasingly think of the quote below:

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.” —Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Ubuntu comes from a Bantu word that means “humanity.” Hopefully the future will be one based around this philosophy. We could certainly do worse.



(photo credit: NASA/OSIRIS-REx spacecraft 28 September 2017)



The images we’ve seen have challenged all sense of scale.

Vast canyons of cloud churn within weird, geometric-perfect storms that could easily swallow a handful of Earths. Stratified bands of spinning rings serve as racetracks for roguish moons with haunting names like Pandora and Prometheus. A primordial Titan sits enthroned under robes of smog wherein percolates a strangely frigid chemistry. And a kingdom of ice stands fast above broken chasms where waterfalls rise to the stars on gossamer wings.

This is the Saturn system as witnessed by the Cassini spacecraft. The sonde has been in space for two decades and has orbited Saturn since July of 2004. It released a probe shortly after its arrival and the first landing on a moon other than our own was successful. The Huygens mission on Titan was brief but spectacular. Yet it seems but a temporary sideshow compared to the long and dedicated yeoman’s work performed by Cassini. The spacecraft has sent back volumes of data. The photos are of course amazing but so many other instruments, singing like a chorus via Cassini’s telemetry stream, have added new knowledge about the Saturn system. A graph of data can be just as revolutionary as a photograph, albeit somewhat more demure. And those graphs and photos and data-points will be a treasure trove not just for current researchers, but for those up and coming.

One photo showed a barely noticeable dot of an Earth peeking across space at Saturn. This was both thrilling and humbling. We have the ability to send such a marvel as Cassini to this other world. Yet the gulf it crossed is so vast that our Earth and everyone in it is just a few tiny pixels. We’re 1.2 billion kilometers from Saturn. That photo, sent via radio, took almost ninety minutes to reach us.

Cassini will plummet into Saturn’s atmosphere tomorrow. The scientists are doing this as the old space-probe is running out of the fuel that helps to control it. To avoid possibly contaminating any of Saturn’s moons it is being destroyed in a controlled fall. Like a faithful, dedicated friend it will keep its antenna pointing toward Earth for as long as possible. Its goodbye will be the final bits and bytes of whatever data it can gather. Then it will heat up and just for a second or so burn as intensely as the Sun. Its broken components will not withstand the incredible pressures that exist far below the planet’s towering cloud decks. After that last radio burst it will quickly be no more.

I suspect Cassini will be the first of many visitors, robotic and otherwise, to this enticing world. Another name for Saturn is Chronos. When I hear the word chronos I think of time. When I was young Cassini was a dream mission. Now it has come and gone. Perhaps in the fullness of time other explorers will venture forth. Surely they will glimpse wonder.

Worlds without end.


It’s Moonbase Alpha Day!

It’s Moonbase Alpha Day!

Remember September 13th 1999 when the Earth’s Moon was blown out of orbit? I do! Experts continue to debate whether storing all that atomic waste on the Moon was a good idea but for the rest of us all we ever hope is that the brave crew of Moonbase Alpha finds their way to a safe harbor.

Space: 1999! They only got two seasons. They faced multiple threats and dangers out in space including fickle producers and lousy writing…most of which made no sense in terms of plot or continuity… but they had the most amazing sets, effects, costumes, and guest stars including Christopher Lee and Brian Blessed. I always liked the pluck the actors showed getting through each episode even under the silliest of circumstances. The hair, bell-bottom uniforms and occasional fits of acoustic guitar playing shouted the 1970s. But there was a vision there, including a multi-ethnic, international crew who maintained a certain moral code and applied scientific principles (okay, sometimes pseudo-scientific principles laid out in eloquent techno-babble) to save the day.

When the show came to the States it was in some form of syndication. Local stations often shuffled the deck in terms of episodes so occasionally a plot line or character action made no sense in terms of continuity. Nerds would gather in secret warrens to put the episodes together and try to make sense of it. Still, it was enjoyable and something to look forward to.

The special effects for the time were quite amazing and the Eagle Transporter, in my opinion, remains one of the coolest sci-fi vehicles ever. We all envied Alan Carter his job as chief pilot. If we ever return to the Moon I hope we go there in an Eagle. The music was pure 70s but the intro theme always got your attention. If you were doing the dishes in the kitchen you would hurry up with the drying to catch the show in time.

Several of the episodes stand out. Like all TV shows there is some wheat amid the chaff. A few episodes talk about ecology, the environment, ethical use of technology and medicine, and humanity’s place in the bigger picture. But sometimes the sexism is outrageous (why are women astronauts occasionally called “girls” and is the base solarium there just for people to lay about in bikinis and speedos?) And when any television show ventures into psychology it gets quickly outdated and you find yourself cringing as if the actors are playing with fire.

Yet I give co-producer Sylvia Anderson credit in having cast Barbara Bain as the chief medical officer of the base. Also, in later episodes Zienia Merton as Sandra Benes is shown to be an expert in computers and electronics, often saving the day. There is one episode called “Black Sun”…my favorite…where the Moon travels through a singularity. Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) and Prof. Bergman (Barry Morse) even meet God in this episode and to their surprise She is female. Radical stuff for 1976!

The Alphans had the coolest ride, ever!

So September 13th comes and goes and I may watch an episode or two. It’s always fun and a good memory. Happy Moonbase Alpha Day, everyone!