Edinburgh from orbit

Tim Peake tweeted a shot today of my gorgeous Edinburgh taken from orbital space – and astonishingly on a clear day instead of one wreathed in clouds! For those unfamiliar with Scottish geography, follow the mighty Firth of Forth along the river, (on the far left you can see the lines of the new bridge being built as well as the older road bridge and the iconic Victorian rail bridge (it’s distinctive red colour obvious even from this distance).

time peake edinburgh from space station

Follow the river along on the south (lower half of the pic) , along almost to the far right, and you can see the squarish blue block of harbour water at Leith Docks. The vast geological bulk of Arthur’s Seat, the great extinct volcano which rises up above the city around the Royal Park and Palace of Holyrood is clear on the far mid-right, and similarly the Castle on its large, imposing volcanic mount is clear. Stunningly beautiful. I wish Tim had said he was taking a picture tho, I would have leaned out my window and waved up to him…

The Last Man on the Moon

The Last Man on the Moon,

Directed by Mark Craig,

Featuring Eugene Cernan, Alan Bean, Dick Gordon, Jim Lovell


That whole time, that’s the time I call ‘sitting on God’s front porch.”

Those are the words of Gene Cernan, naval aviator, engineer and NASA astronaut, on his three days on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17. The last of the spectacular lunar Apollo missions. Gene was, quite literally, the last man on the Moon. Astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, they’re a select cadre, a group who even now, more than fifty years after the first manned space flight by Gagarin, are composed of only a tiny group of people, the few who have flown above the clouds, above the very air we breathe, to enter space, to float around our glowingly blue world and see it as no-one else in the history of the world could have before space flight.

But among that select group the trailblazers of that first era of manned space flight stand out – Gagarin, Glenn, Shepherd, Leonov. These men really did go where no-one has gone before. Spaceflight is incredibly dangerous – you ride into orbit at vast velocity atop what is basically a carefully controlled series of explosions with a thousand things that can go wrong, to enter an environment Earthbound life was never meant to survive in, where a small mistake or fault can lead to death. And in the first years it was all entirely new – nobody even knew for sure if humans could live in space, could you even eat and digest while weightless in your orbiting capsule? Would cosmic rays kill you or fry your electronics leaving you adrift before you could do anything? Could you survive re-entry?


(Above: Cernan poses for an official portrait in his spacesuit; below: Cerna in a less formal pose with his young daughter)


Cernan was there right in the earliest days, one of those elite pilots recruited for the astronaut corps, starting with the Gemini programme, and this film draws principally on his autobiography. Cernan starts as the reserve crewmember but after an awful flying accident to the main crew he is moved up to  the mission – rather mixed feelings, to say the least, getting his dream tickets, a chance to soar into space, but getting that first chance because his friend and fellow flyer died tragically. And that part covering the early years of Cernan’s life at NASA , sets the tone for this entire film – this isn’t just about those first astronauts, about the setbacks and the triumphs. Those have been documented many times – deservedly – but here we have a much more personal and importantly a much more emotional film. This is still about those gloriously heady days, pushing to be the first to reach the Moon, but it is just as much about the emotional and psychological cost for the astronauts and their families.

If you think going to the Moon is hard, you ought to try staying home” – Cernan’s wife on hearing of a flight mishap during Apollo 10.

Cernan, to his credit, does not try to paint himself or his fellow Apollo astronauts who take part in this film as the simple, heroic figures history likes to portray. Which is not to downplay in any way the risks they faced, the amazing science and engineering it involved, the boundaries they pushed, the new frontier they charted. It was heroic. And like most things heroic it is too easy to forget behind those stories there is just a normal person – doing the extraordinary, to be sure, but still a person, like any of us. A person with loved ones around them who have to share that dream with them, who also have to sacrifice, who suffer emotionally. Not just the obvious worry over whether husband/dad/brother will come home safely. We’ve all seen those prim, seemingly serene NASA wives of the period watching the mission on TV with their kids and projecting the expected image of pride and confidence when really they were terrified of what could happen, but would never show it in front of the camera.

Cernan pulls no punches on that front – he comments that in many ways the astronauts were quite simply selfish; oriented totally on their goal, the mission, the training. Meanwhile real life was rolling on and it was the wives who had to make sure the kids were looked after, got to school on time, the bills were paid, household chores and repairs were done. Wives essentially had largely absentee husbands, children absentee fathers; they couldn’t stop training or being focused on the mission, there were only a few flight slots and only the best of the best would get that chance. And so they sacrificed – on the job, Cernan paying his dues flying Gemini then Apollo 10, the last flight before Armstrong’s historic landing, so close he could almost touch the Moon but knowing that first landing was not to be his (his respect for Neil shines through any disappointment at that). And it was a vital part of proving they could get men there and fly home, critical to the success of Apollo 11. As Cernan notes of those preparatory missions – “Not many people remember Apollo 10, but I do. And I’ll tell you someone else who did – Neil Armstrong.”

The Last Man on the Moon -Trailer from Mark Stewart Productions on Vimeo.

And later he gets his ultimate reward – and what a reward, what the calls his “personal moment of reckoning”, command of Apollo 17. With cutbacks looming after several successive lunar missions, it will be the final one leaving some who trained and were ready for their mission to never reach that goal. Where Armstrong and Aldarin have a short time on the surface the later missions had several days and the remarkable Lunar Rover, a hi-tech, Space-Age dune buddy for the Moon, so they could travel further and explore more, pick up more diverse samples to study back on Earth. And in an incredibly touching moment Cernan recounts how he parked the Lunar Rover for the last time, a little away from the landing module (LEM) so it could remotely film their take off.


(Cernan on the Moon, by the Lunar Rover, the red commander’s stripes marking this out as his suit; below, the view from the trip round the Moon, the Apollo missions the very first time any human being had been far enough away to see the entire disc of our world, and to to share that image with all of us. We’ve grown up knowing what our entire globe looks like hanging in space, something all the thousands of generations before the late 60s never got to see)


And as he dismounted to walk back to the ship for the final time he paused. And there in the ancient, dusty surface of the Moon he wrote his young daughter’s initials. Which, like Armstrong’s footprints will, in that airless vacuum, essentially remain there forever. As far from home as any humans have ever been, sacrificed so much home and family life to be there, to land on the Moon, and suddenly all he can think of is home and his wee girl. It’s beautifully touching. If any future mission – and who knew back then that almost four decades on we’d still not have returned – lands and visit the Rover, those initials will still be there.

Walking up the ladder was probably one of the most memorable moments for me, because I looked down at my footprints and I knew I wasn’t coming this way again. Why were we here, what did it mean? I looked over my shoulder: there’s the Earth, there’s reality, there’s home. I wanted to press the freeze button, I wanted to stop time, I really wanted to reach out, take it in my hand, stick it in my spacesuit and bring it home to show to everybody, this is what it looks like, this is what it feels like.”

And the last man to walk on a surface not of our Earth climbed the ladder to the LEM and Apollo 17 headed home. But it still wasn’t over, not really. Hard to recall now, but the early astronauts were global figures, international celebrities in a way the preening media darlings of today could never dream of, with tens of thousands lining routes to wave to them on visit. From Gagarin through to the Apollo crews, they travelled the world – presidents, celebrities, scientists, millions of ordinary people, all wanted to see them, to hear them speak, the glare of media followed them, and as Cernan’s then wife notes it becomes too much. They sacrificed for years for his training and the mission, and now it is over, but still they are in the spotlight – when do they get to be a regular family, have an ordinary life again? Too much for many – some sixty percent of the Apollo astronauts, including Cernan, would end up divorced due to the stresses and strains. The physical return to Plane Earth was relatively gentle, a splashdown in the ocean, but the emotional and psychological effects of having to come back to Planet Earth, to real, daily life, was far bumpier.


(tired and covered in Lunar dust – making history can be dirty)

This emotional core is absolutely central to director Craig’s film here, and it gives a much more satisfyingly rounded and human insight into some of the most remarkable moments in recent human history, and those who made them happen. He doesn’t stint on the astonishing nature of the Moon missions or the glories of Apollo – period film, both NASA and family home movies and photos, all create visuals for both the missions and the families dealing with the effects of training for those historic flights, while some very well-done CG effects are added to the visuals, giving us a view we otherwise simply couldn’t have. But he balances this constantly with what it cost in terms of emotional and family life to do what they did.

And there are some wonderfully emotional scenes from the present day – Cernan returning to the Cape, to the old Apollo launch pad. It looks like the sort of thing any good film-maker would shoot – the subject returning to the scene of their greatest triumphs, where it all happened, where the roar of the awesomely powerful Saturn V rockets lifted men not just into space but all the way to the Moon and back. Except towards the end it is clear Cernan has not entirely enjoyed this stroll down memory lane, looking at the now empty, unused Apollo launch areas and thinking that he really doesn’t like seeing it like this, that perhaps he should not have come back to see it this way.


(Cernan as he is today, re-visiting the Apollo launch pad, where world-changing history was made, now all silent – a bittersweet moment for the astronaut)

And in another immensely touching scene we see Cernan visit the Johnson Space Center, Houston. And there is the capsule from Apollo 17, from that defining, historic mission, the peak of his astronaut career. And it’s a museum piece, viewed by school children not born until decades after he flew in it. He looks at the capsule, still showing the raging fires of re-entry on the shell, and the dummy astronauts inside. Did we really do it, he muses, did we really reach out and do what humans have dreamed of forever, to touch the Moon? What was it all about? How do young people today see this item in a museum and the old man standing by it, looking just like anyone’s grandfather (and indeed he is). Was it all a dream? Did he really once fly in that small spaceship? What will people in another forty years or a hundred or a thousand think looking back at the Apollo days?

I’ve been in love with the idea of spaceflight since I was a very small boy, born at the height of the Space Age; I’ve read and watched so much of the history of those times and those world-changing events. Despite all the documentaries I’ve watched, the books I’ve read, this film still stood out, largely because of that very emotional core, giving a hugely satisfying new insight into those remarkable Apollo days, the human side to the heroic giants who rode fire into the heavens. For fellow space geeks like me this is essential viewing, but for those who just enjoy seeing epic history being presented at a very human level, this is also a remarkable film.

The Last Man on the Moon opens in the UK on April 8th, and there is a special screening with live link up for a Q&A with Gene Cernan on April 11th in many cinemas around the country.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Earthrise, 45 years on….

Forty five years ago this week the roar of the enormous Saturn V rocket filled the Florida air, a huge structure carried high on a pillar of fire, raw power and ingenuity overcoming gravity, a technology pioneered as a dreadful new weapon of war harnessed now for a voyage into the final frontier, boldly going where no one had gone before. Apollo 8 took flight for the Moon in December of 1968; Neil and Buzz Armstrong’s historic first walk on the Moon was still a year away, but this too was a tremendously historic flight and a major milestone in the long, long history of human voyages of exploration – this saw human beings, for the first time, leave the orbit of their own, small world and travel beyond, circling right around our Moon. As Christmas 1968 approached those three astronauts were the furthest from home any human being has ever been in the history of the world – as their tiny craft’s orbit took them around the dark side of the Moon even the slender thread of radio connecting them tenuously to home was broken for a brief spell. On the dark side no contact with home, just three explorers in a piece of 1960s tech, circling another planetary body.

And then on one Lunar orbit… On one glorious moment, largely by accident, as the ship was being rotated they saw something out of the small windows on their little craft. The Moon’s surface filled the viewport and there, in the distance, on the Moon’s horizon, the planet Earth rose above the Lunar vista. Earthrise. A cosmic ballet of interleaving gravity wells and orbits that have been taking place for billions of years almost like the beautiful clockwork orrery models of the solar system. But unseen, always unseen. Until December 1968 when three men saw it for the first time – in all the ages of the world a sight no-one had beheld, a view of our entire globe slowly rising above the Moon, the sky deep black, the Earth a magnificent, shining blue, an oasis of life and warmth in the cold distances of space. And they rushed to take a photo, one of the greatest images from the history of exploration, shared with the entire world, our first view of our whole world, not just a part of it seen from low orbit, but the entire Earth seen hanging in space.


On Christmas Eve, all alone and so distant in their small vessel the astronauts read out a passage from Genesis about the mythical creation of the world and, looking back at their distant home in a way no-one before them ever could, they concluded “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.” I was born in 1967, a child of the space age, grew up with my little astronaut play suit and my passion for reading took in books of astronomy and space exploration as well as daring tales of science fiction; it’s been in my blood since as long as I can recall, I still get shivers at the image of a Saturn V roaring into the heavens, watching Gravity last month, taking in that spectacular opening scene of the astronauts floating above a glowing Earth I still ached to travel there myself, as I have always dreamt of since I was a very small boy.

For me the Apollo 8 mission has always summed up both the majestic awe and the terrifying dangers of manned space exploration – an environment we never evolved for, but through a mixture of invention and courage we’ve created ways for us to venture into it, to dip our toes “into the cosmic ocean” as dear old Carl put it. So dangerous, a tiny impact on that fragile vessel and it’s all over, no great protective shields like they have on the Enterprise, no transporters and emergency shuttles if anything goes wrong, no chance of coming back if your complex calculations – carried out on primitive computers that couldn’t match a cell phone from today, or on slide rules, if you please – there isn’t enough power, air or fuel, no mighty impulse and warp engines to carry you where you want, just enough thrust and fuel to match a complicated figure of eight orbit around Earth and the Moon, get it wrong and you will drift for ever through the heavens. And yet people still dared to do it. It reminds us of how magnificent our species can be when it turns from our damned destructive impulses and towards something wonderful.

To celebrate the forty fifth anniversary of that historic voyage NASA has created a new visualisation of it, taking in the original images and crew recordings mixed with the very latest research and findings from far more advanced unmanned Lunar probes.

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.

The World Outside My Window

This is simply stunning, brief though it is, a timelapse of footage shot of our world rotating below the International Space Station (ISS), all shot in beautifully crisp HD, creating some wonderfully sharp, clear images of our planet from several dozens miles above the atmosphere. Best viewing experience is to select the fullscreen option and just glory in it for a few brief moments…

The World Outside My Window – Time-Lapses of Earth from the ISS from David Peterson on Vimeo.


Overview is a stunning short film from the Planetary Collective, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the famous “Blue Marble” photograph (taken by Apollo 17, see above) by talking with astronauts about the ‘overview effect’ – the change in perspective many of them experience when they get to do something that all the thousands of years of humans before the 1960s could never do: see the world from space. I’ve been a space geek since I was a very young boy, happy with a NASA costume and toy helmet, box for a ‘spaceship’ and imagination, and I’ve heard a number of astronauts and cosmonauts talk about this experience, about how viewing the world from above the clouds changes their perspective forever on how astonishing our world is, how remarkably beautiful yet fragile, how everything and everyone is interconnected… The imagery is beautiful…

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

The Big E over the Big Apple

With the shuttle programme – and NASA’s ability, for the moment, to send manned missions into space – now grounded and the surviving spacecraft being sent to various museums around America today there was a very special moment as a modified 747 carried a very special shuttle flying low over New York City for everyone to watch. The spacecraft was the Enterprise. The ending of the shuttle programme is much like the ending of Concorde for many of us – when we were kids they were the future, now they are history and that would be fine, it would be natural, if they were retired to make way for the next generation of craft to replace them, but they’re not. We’ve stepped backwards, it feels, become smaller. But for a final hurrah this was a remarkable one, the Enterprise, her very name resonates for many of us, flying over New York, captured here with Lady Liberty and the Empire State in the frame by Bill Ingalls:

Shuttle Enterprise Flight To New York (201204270017HQ)

What a remarkable shot, a couple of the great world landmarks with a piece of flying space exploration history. Enterprise was named after NASA called for a public vote to name the first spaceship; the geek community, of course, got together and made sure to vote en masse that she would be called the Enterprise, because she was the first of a series that would boldly go… Enterprise herself never brushed against the hard vacuum of space though, she started her career at NASA riding piggyback just like she was today – she was designed to test aerodynamics, a bit of a new area for spacecraft design at the time because most were odd shaped objects on the end of a rocket but the shuttle, she was meant to fly back down from orbit through the atmosphere like a conventional plane, hence the tests. As a boy I followed the emerging shuttle programme and remember well watching news reports of the Enterprise’s flights paving the way for the first full shuttle launch.

Shuttle Enterprise Flight To New York (201204270019HQ)

Shuttle Enterprise Flight to New York (201204270024HQ)

As a wee boy raised on repeats of the classic Star Trek it made me happy to see a real spacecraft being named Enterprise and, Americans being rather good at marking big occasions, when she was first revealed to the public Trek creator Gene Rodenberry and many of the original cast were there to wish her good skies, way back in 1976 (pic below and following borrowed from Space.com):

And here three and a half decades or so on is one of those illustrious crewmembers of the fictional USS Enterprise giving the Vulcan salute – live long and prosper – to his old friend, the shuttle Enterprise, as she heads for the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Musuem in New York. Rather fitting she will be near the USS Intrepid, which any old Star Trek hand knows was the name of one of the other Constitution class starships in the original Trek, the same class of vessel as Jim Kirk’s Enterprise (Intrepid being crewed entirely by Vulcans, if my memory serves):



As I said, like with Concorde, it feels wrong to know that the shuttle are gone, that something that promised the exciting future of space exploration to a young boy is now a historical artefact in a museum and that we didn’t mothball them to make way for a new generation of faster, bigger, more efficient spacecraft. Still, one of these days there will be another Enterprise, I am sure. Larger, with a greater range, this Enterprise A, B or C ships will boldly go further… As Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself once noted when asked if they would ever build another Enterprise “plenty more letters in the alphabet”.



One day, another Enterprise, please, make it so…

(Enterprise comparison chart from Cygnus X-1 site)

Welcome to the Space Age

As Russians mark the 50th anniversary of planet Earth’s first satellite, Sputnik, taking flight IEEE Spectrum has an interview with the legendary grand old man of science fiction, Arthur C Clarke (link via Boing Boing). Clarke, of course, before becoming the hugely influential SF writer he would later become (we’re talking about a man who talked to presidents and kings as well as scientists and writers – also one of the few who was so respected he was friends with both astronauts and cosmonauts during the Cold War) wrote a speculative paper in the 1940s in which he imagined using geostationary space stations to act as relays for beaming radio signals across the entire globe, pretty much what we now have with a legion of satellites linking us up in ways we don’t even think about anymore – we use phones and watch TV largely without considering the world-changing technology which brings it to us so damned easily. All starting with a little silver ball called Sputnik going beepbeepbeepbeep around the world.

“My god, it’s full of stars…”

I looked at this astonishing image from the Hubble Space Telescope on the BBC’s site today of the red giant V838 Monocerotis, a star which exploded in 2002 and the first phrase that leapt to mind was astronaut Dave Bowman from Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey – “my god, it’s full of stars.”

Dammit, why don’t we have those holidays in space I was promised as a kid yet?!?! I want to see these things for myself.


The BBC site had this astonishing photograph taken by the New Horizons space probe. This is Io, one of the moons of Jupiter, a world so large its collection of moons around it are like a miniature solar system (in fact it is reckoned if the gas giant Jupiter had been a bit bigger it would have reached the threshold to ignite the nuclear fires at its core and become a star, just as the sun did billions of years ago). Io is one of the Galilean satellites, one of the four larger moons first seen through an early telescope by one of my great heroes, Galileo, when he turned his new optical device on the king of planets. I’ve seen Jupiter through a large telescope at the University of Glasgow’s observatory myself, in enough resolution to see the coloured bands and even the mighty, centuries-long storm of the Great Red Spot; on either side of Jupiter’s glowing disc I saw two bright points shining like diamonds on black velvet and realised they were the moons Galileo had seen centuries before.

Io itself is a world which looks like an old-fashioned view of Hell, a surface covered in decaying yellows from sulphur, constantly reshaped by a continual series of volcanic eruptions as the enormous gravitational power of Jupiter twists the core of the little moon keeping it geologically active when most worlds that size would long have become inert, like our own moon. As well as tremendous gravitational tides the space between the moons and Jupiter is often filled with enormous amounts of high energy radiation – a beautiful but very inhospitable place; it increases my admiration for the skills of those who designed and operate these missions that these little probes can even function in such conditions. At the top of this image, almost on the terminator line separating dark from light, is an eruption from the volcano Tvashtar; this eruption is actually shooting out some 180 miles into space.

It reminds me of the triumphant Voyager missions years ago, when one woman noticed an anomaly on shots taken of Jupiter as the little probe left the system to continue its grand tour of our solar system (still the greatest voyage of discovery in human history to date). The data from those incredibly early computers was slow to process, even before taking into account the time taken to transmit that information to Earth over the vast distances. She noticed something strange and was at first unsure what she was seeing. Only slowly did she realise that one shot had, quite by accident, caught an eruption shooting right out into space from Io; a fluke shot and a chance find by that scientist to come across the first volcanic eruption humans had ever seen on another world. I’m just disappointed that all the promises of my childhood of holidays in space by the time the 2000s came around still hasn’t come to pass. When I hear idiots complaining about the money being spent on space exploration and how it could be better spent on problems on Earth (that bloody Davina McCall was the latest, showing her incredible ignorance) it infuriates me. As a percentage of budgets we spend very little on this actually; don’t demand cuts to exploration, cut the money on bloody massive weapons programmes, then we would have the budget for Earth bound problems like hunger and disease and to explore new worlds and learn more.