Various Artists – Hidden Figures: The Album review

Soul meets space travel on the soundtrack for forthcoming film, Hidden Figures. It comes courtesy of Pharrell Williams – who also worked on the film’s score with Hans Zimmer – and features guest spots by Lalah Hathaway, Mary J Blige, Alicia Keys, Janelle Monáe and Kim Burrell. Continue reading

Solar eclipse 2015: reflections after it happened

Solar eclipse 2015, Svalbard, Norway, BBC, 02 (1366x768)As naïve as it maybe, I was expecting most of Britain to be plunged into noticeable darkness during its first total solar eclipse since 1999. That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, thanks to rampant cloud cover, myself and many others, were forced to watch what we could of this astounding, once-in-a-generation event via live news feeds over the web. Continue reading

The forgotten science relic: Techno Quest

Science and technology magazines aren’t popular reading for many five to 12-year-olds. I know I would have taken Beano or Sonic the Comic over New Scientist any day when I was that age. But, with a little help from Wallace and Gromit, Techno Quest bravely sought to get kids into science. Continue reading

Orbiting Earth at 17,500 mph

Some recent posts by The Guardian about the International Space Station, a joint venture between NASA, the ESA and other space agencies, has prompted a sudden spurt of space fever within me.

Back in primary school, becoming an astronaut, working up in space and exploring the Solar System was my greatest dream. I would trawl through my cookbook-sized Dorling Kindersley space books, absorbing as much as could and daydreaming as I gazed at the many colour photographs of spacecraft and astronauts living in space. Techno Quest, a weekly science digest which came with the blessing of Wallace and Gromit and the occasional interactive floppy disc, allowed me to hone my knowledge of space, learning that scientists are looking back in time when they see quasars and that our Sun was a G-type star – Key Stage 2 exam questions were piece of cake.

Much to my disappointment, that hasn’t yet come to fruition, though I did ask the ESA if they had room for a freelance writer on their next mission. The International Space Station has now been in orbit for over 10 years. It makes 15.7 orbits per day, and not many people realise this, but it has to be boosted higher into orbit several times a year or else it would fall to Earth. You and I may not be able to go into space any time soon, but we can follow live tweets from @NASA_Astronauts who are orbiting up in the ISS right now. And failing that, we can always dream.

Daring Descent

Gliding wistfully through the mid-morning sky, like a singular chrome raindrop falling from the heavens. My hearts skips several b-b-beats as the reality of my predicament sets in. My conical shaped Type-2 scout craft screams through the atmosphere, creating a spiralling trail of jet propellant and water vapour in its wake. The planet is rearing up to meet me – and soon it may swallow me whole.

BEEP!! BLIP!! BOOP!! BING!!

The instruments, dials and monitors that surround me are all blinking furiously and sounding on-off, on-off – one continuous drone of synthesised noise, heralding my impending doom. My hands are gripping the manual steering control so tightly that I can barely feel them anymore. Fighting… fighting to regain control as I plummet towards the ground in a mad corkscrew. My craft’s specially designed G-seat is rapidly absorbing around my head and shoulders – holding my body in placed as best it can to counteract the effects of pressure and impact. Not that it will do much good now. At the rate I’m travelling, I’ll be driven into the ground flatter than a crumpled soda can.

300,000 ft… 250,000 ft… 200,000 ft…

Where were the emergency thrusters? A tiny info notification on the main vid-screen told me the worst. After drifting in space for so long it seems the engine components that controlled the firing mechanism had malfunctioned. Desperately I hung on and tried to force the ship to level out.

Windmill, windmill for the land…

The vivid image of a windmill atop a floating island – one that had been with me since my childhood – flashed amorously in my mind’s eye. My craft is being shaken and buffeted as it crosses the huge continents, gold, green, brown and barn as far as can see from this altitude. And not only have I crossed continents, but time zones too. The light of morning has all but disappeared. Engulfed by bloated grey clouds and colourless rock formations.

Are those mountains ahead? There they were humongous and towering one minute, gone in a sudden distortion of vision the next, as my craft whipped by at a steadily decreasing gradient. Ahead of me there is nothing but open sea. A tempest rages. Great winds are exploding and thrashing about the place. Though, tough to define at this speed the water isn’t a deep blue or even a murky grey – it’s a poisonous mound of blackish purple, swishing and swirling this way and that. Waves as tall as skyscrapers emerge threateningly and crashed down without remorse.
Uselessly is the constant whine of my instruments. Frantically I jab at the control panel. Something, anything, JUST SAVE ME! Darkness is eating at the edges of my eyes. Oh, god. I’m going to blackout. I’m done for! As I slip into oblivion all I can think about is my essential cargo – and how it will never get to its destination.

Just then… … … … … ROARRRR!!!

A thunderous sound from behind me, that sent a jolt through my ship. The thrusters, they must have fired. With less than 10,000 feet to go, my craft was angling me away from the deadly ocean below and towards the horizon. But it wasn’t going to be enough. Still grabbing the control sticks, but barely conscious, I felt my craft slam the crest of a huge wave. It was sent skimming and spinning out of control. And without warning it was suddenly tumbling and scrapping across solid rock. It bumped and bashed itself to pieces for several hundred metres before burying itself in the ground.

Of course, I didn’t know that – I was unconscious long before that.

Uncharted Solar System

Adrift. Adrift for so many years. Lost in the depths of space. All but forgotten by those I promised myself I would protect. Alone and unaided. What happened? A wormhole? A time anomaly? Or something indiscernible by human comprehension? When did it happen? Can I return from whence I came?

Awoken from my dreamless sleep at last. Now I am the only living thing for billions of miles – to my knowledge at least. Drifting ceaselessly in the metallic can that has been my home and that may soon become my tomb as well. My mortal essence weeps for the end, yet my spirit will not let me be consumed by darkness. Look hither. A great orb approaches. As I peer through the musty frame of my observation window, I am in awe.

Such majesty.

In the distance a singular blue giant illuminates my orbit, casting a crystalline glow on the planet’s atmosphere. Brilliant tones of blue and bronze as my eyes spy landmasses and oceans wide enough to engulf even the tallest mountain. Swirling pufts of cloud can be seen across the titan, creating ephemeral shapes in the sky and hiding scattered sections of the surface below. Surfing the stratosphere of the globe, it is free of comm satellites, orbital stations and space junk. It is like gliding the crest of a wave for the first time. Boundless, enriching and indescribable.

As my ship moves closer I press myself face right up against the glass – a thin layer of transparent protection between me and the deadly vacuum of space. A wondrous tapestry of colour leaps forward. Golden browns, shimmering greens, faded greys and creamy whites, all meddling together to form the uneven continents before me. Towards the edge of one slice my mind deciphers what could be some kind of city or settlement. Could be that I am not as alone as I first thought?

Like an old friend welcoming one home, the celestial body acknowledges my presence. My spacecraft. Nothing but a speck amid the solar vista. Rotating on its trajectory. All wires, automated electronics and complex computer systems in this place of silent splendour. Nature on a bohemian scale. The star at the epicentre of the solar system is blinding to behold, even at this distance. Were the planet any closer it would surely be melted by the sheer energy of its heavenly parent. I clench my eyes tightly even as the shades engage to shield me from the harmful rays.

Gently I open them again. The danger has passed. But another problem has arisen. My craft is trapped in the planet’s gravitational pull – alert tones sound and flashing indicators blink around my entire being. Scientist. Explorer. Pilot. Right now the situation calls for only one of those skills – which I do not have. If I am to survive I must try. Strap in, helmet on and seat in the upright position. The planet’s pull is already beginning to rip my craft to shreds. The G-force is incredible. My whole mind feels like it’s about to be split in two. But I have not travelled this far and survived this long to perish now. There is still strength in me and I still carry a vital cargo. Onward then, to the surface of this unknown world…