What Language on Mars?


Predictions Revisited

What Language Will They Speak on Mars?

The planet Mars in Chinese script. Credit: About.com: Chinese Culture, written by “js”

Chinese, on present showing. Never mind that seven men – Russian (4) European (2) and Chinese (1) – are now two months into a 520-day isolation trial in Moscow, simulating a manned mission to Mars. That’s for show. Political willpower will settle the issue.

In 1964 the rocket engineer Wernher von Braun forecast a human visit to Mars by 1984. That might well have happened had the US not cancelled its proposed Orion rocket in 1965 – the year after von Braun made his prediction. The trouble was that Orion would have had nuclear propulsion, not merely by nuclear motors, but by nuclear bombs. So it had to be abandoned in the aftermath of the nuclear test-ban treaty, much to the annoyance of Freeman J. Dyson and other enthusiasts.

Orion – the gigantic might-have-been

Here’s a diagram from my book Spaceships of the Mind (1978) which accompanied the BBC-OECA series with the same title, produced by Dick Gilling of BBC-TV. Assembled in Earth orbit, Orion would have carried about 2000 10-kiloton nuclear fission bombs, released at a rate of one a second to explode close behind a large spaceship. With a pusher plate absorbing the shocks, the spacecraft would quickly reach a speed that would take about 20 astronauts around Mars and back to Earth in just six months.

It may seem daft now but Orion was a recognition, at the very start of the Space Age, that if human beings are ever to become serious about space travel, they’ll have to think nuclear. That’s still the case, although nuclear fusion will be preferable, of course, with ignition as far from the Earth as possible.

When von Braun contributed to the New Scientist’s 1964 series on “The World in 1984” he remained mute about Orion although he glanced the nuclear option. At the time he was director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with the Apollo missions to the Moon at the top of his agenda. Here, for a start, are two early extracts from his article entitled “Exploration to the Farthest Planets”:

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Identified flying objects


Uncategorized – or declassified, you could say

Identified flying objects

It’s always worth keeping an eye on the sky. Not just because a mass ejection from the Sun is heading vaguely our way and there may be nice auroras this week. You could also spot a secret spaceflight, except that the one I have in mind is hardly secret any more.

On 22 April the US Air Force launched an unmanned mini-shuttle, X-37B, from Cape Canaveral on an undisclosed mission. For photo-reconnaissance, you might guess. Four weeks later, amateurs Greg Roberts in South Africa and Kevin Fetter in Canada saw it. On the following night another Canadian, Ted Molczan, found it again, having computed its orbit from the earlier sightings. In the past few days (sorry, all you Pentagon folk) X-37B has been anyone’s game. Today, 25 May, spaceweather.com publishes this picture of its photographic trail as it cruised across the sky, taken by Gary O. in Texas.

Trail of the mini-shuttle X-37B, 2010. Photo by Gary O.

Meanwhile, on 22 May, Thierry Legault in Switzerland got a remarkable shot of the International Space Station passing directly in front of the Sun, with the Space Shuttle Atlantis docked to it – again reported by spaceweather.com

Transit of the ISS front of the Sun, 2010, with Atlantis docked centre-left. Photo by Thierry Legault.

Congratulations, Thierry. To me, this is one of the finest images of the Space Age — and I’ve seen all the pretty ones since 1957.