Fifty years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to travel in space. It seems remarkable to think that we’re now almost as far away in time from Gagarin’s flight as he was from the Wright Brothers making their first flight. I wasn’t born for Gagarin’s trip, though I do remember the day twenty years later when the Space Shuttle was launched for the first time, though what I mainly remember of that is being allowed to watch it at school, and spending a long time sitting around in front of the TV before being told the launch was delayed.

There’s obviously a lot of stuff around the web today about Gagarin’s flight, and one of the things I’ve found most fascinating is listening to this BBC Home Service report of the news:

What’s interesting about is the discussion about what might be next, now that man has gone into space, with the rather casual discussion about manned flights to Venus and Mars being in the near future. (However, the later discussion about how long it might take until a moon landing is pretty accurate)

One of the interesting things about the public perception of space flight is how fast we assume progress will be once we’ve broken through a barrier, perhaps encouraged by the pace of progress in the 1960s. Whether we saw it in 2001 or somewhere else, my generation has lots of youthful memories of space hotels and holidays on Mars in the 21st century which have never quite come to fruition. (But never fear – Virgin Galactic are just two years away from launching their first space tourism flights, just as they were two years ago) Even if serious thinkers, planners and engineers didn’t think that, we got the impression that the conquest of space would be easy, with spaceports as common as airports. There’s probably someone out there still with a warehouse full of ‘my friend went to the Sea of Tranquility and all I got was this’ t-shirts, in anticipation of that imminent new market opportunity.

It’s tempting to speculate where we might have reached in fifty years time – and on a wider scale, whether anything we’ve created in that time will have travelled further than Voyager 1 – and what might have been achieved. Will we still be ten years away from Mars, or might Kim Stanley Robinson’s fiction have come to life with the first Martian uprising? Or could things have gone bad up there and Kessler Syndrome forced us to drop our eyes down from space until the skies clear again? All I do know is that I’d like 88-year-old me to be here to see it.

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There are now officially 150 things worth reading on the internet.

The people disarmed – Chris Bertram’s take on the Libyan no fly zone.
TPA – Sinclair the Shameless – An excellent post from Tim Fenton of Zelo Street on the many ways you can describe Matthew Sinclair of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
Cosmonaut Crashed Into Earth ‘Crying In Rage’ – The fascinating story of Vladimir Komarov’s death on Soyuz 1, his friendship with Yuri Gagarin and the Soviet politics that surrounded them. (via) Warning: there’s a pretty nasty picture of human remains at the start of the story.
Let’s look at the facts about Mayors – Richard Kemp outlines many of the reasons why elected mayors are a bad idea.
Written by a Delta pilot on approach to Tokyo during earthquake – does what it says on the tin, but fascinating to see what happens in the cockpit during a situation like that. (via)

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Link me till I… lart?

Project Iceworm – There’s something about the phrase “nuclear-powered research center built by the Army Corps of Engineers under the icy surface of Greenland” that makes you realise that maybe we are living in the cool parallel universe with the wacky uses of technology
Voyager 1 at edge of Solar System – Fascinating account of a thirty year journey and interview with one of its creators
Congratulations, Mr Karimov! – European Voice welcomes a dictator on his visit to Brussels
Betelgeuse and 2012 – Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy explains why the ‘my friend definitely heard someone who once met a scientist say that the Mayans predicted Betelgeuse going supernova in 2012 would herald the end of the world’ stories aren’t correct. Though he fails to point out that even if we were to see Betelgeuse going supernova in 2012, it would actually have exploded sometime around 1360.
Thoughts on Coulson: Which newspaper groups can you trust? – Interesting post from Love and Garbage about just how widespread the use of potentially illegal methods by newspapers is, and how it’s not just the News Of The World and the Murdoch press that’s the problem

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100% organic and cruelty free links, these:

Campaign for the Abolition of Parliament – Richard Kemp questions just what the point of some of the activity within Parliament is
Pish to Progressivism! – “Nowadays politicians are more keen to dub themselves “progressives” than they’d be to assure the world they’re not murderers.”
What I learned in the Arid Zone – An interesting look at Phoenix, Arizona, that poses the question of what might happen to it when the water supply starts drying up?
The terror time machine – Wow, it’s like being back in the early days of blogging as Justin McKeating points out the truth when a Tom Watson MP starts fearmongering about eeevil terrorists
Abandoned Remains of the Russian Space Shuttle Project Buran – More ‘worth looking at’ than ‘reading’, but some fascinating pictures of the remains of the Russian Space Shuttle and launch site, including a look inside one of the orbiters.

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Here’s a question that’s been dwelling on my mind for a while: if it was necessary for human beings to return to the Moon as soon as possible, how long would it take?

We know that there are various promises from different national space programmes to go (or return) to the moon in the next decade or so. From memory, NASA have it as part of their planned programme of activity to get to Mars, and both China and India have said it’s their aim to get astronauts there. (Russia and ESA have instead decided to concentrate on doing useful things in space and making money from them)

However, let’s say that we needed to get someone up there as quickly as possible. For the sake of the argument, let’s say some aliens come to visit and tell us that the secrets of cold fusion, faster than light space travel, matter transportation and unlimited rice pudding are all in a box that they’ve planted in a relatively easily accessible part of the Moon, just waiting for someone to come along and open it up – which, they state, has to be done in person by a human being.

So, we know we have a working plan to get men to the moon – build a Saturn V, stick an Apollo capsule with a human payload on top and then cross your fingers that it works – but how long would it take to build those from scratch? Are there current manufacturing plants – anywhere in the world – capable of doing that work, or would new ones need to be built?

Or would there be a quicker path through either cobbling something together from existing technologies? Could a Soyuz or Ariane be expanded to be able to push a payload far enough?

I’ve tried looking for information on this but – not surprisingly – little attention has been paid to the question of ‘how quickly could we get back to the moon if our new alien overlords required it?’ by serious people, so I’m throwing it open to the wisdom of the internets to see if anyone out there might have an inkling.

And, of course, there’s a great story to be told when the first human to walk on the moon in over 40 years gets to that box, solemnly opens it and finds a note saying ‘Wow! Never thought you’d fall for that one!’

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OK, so it’s probably from having read The Sky Road far too many times, but the news that two satellites have collided in orbit creating hundreds of pieces of debris gets me somewhat worried. The idea of this event starting an ablation cascade – where the debris created today damages other satellites, which creates more debris, which causes more damage, and so on until Kessler Syndrome kicks in and there’s no way out of the gravity well.

Here’s a thought – is this a possible explanation for the Fermi paradox? Unless civilizations take advantage of a very narrow window to get off the planet, do they end up trapped by their own rubbish?

All alone in the night

A very nice picture of the ISS in front of the Moon. (via Bad Astronomy)

Next stop, Alpha Centauri

I’ve been playing Civilization 4 a lot recently, so my first reaction on seeing this story was to worry that Tokugawa was going to build a Wonder before me…

More seriously, it’s interesting that someone appears to be taking steps to make a space elevator happen, but we could be waiting a while for physics and engineering capabilities to catch up with imagination. Even then, the resources and the will needed to build it might not be around.

“So,” you ask yourself one dull day, “What would be the effects of asteroids of various sizes landing on Wales?” (via Bad Astronomy)

Video of the inside of the cockpit of Space Shuttle Endeavour during takeoff. (via the great Bad Astronomy Blog)