Saturday, 20 February 2016

Planet Earth is blue

I’m just about to book an online rail ticket for a trip into London from Peterborough next week on Virgin’s East Coast mainline service. It’s a fast, 50 minute journey and a flexible day return ticket, including London Underground, is £110.

On the other side of the world another member of the Virgin group - Virgin Galactic - has just unveiled its newly built spaceship, VSS Unity, in a ceremony at the company’s factory in Mojave, California.

Future tourist trips into near-Earth space - with five minutes of weightlessness - will probably take about the same time as my journey to London.

The big difference will be the price. Currently Virgin Galactic is selling advance tickets at £175,000, though it does suggest this is likely to reduce once things get properly underway.

Would I be interested in a return trip into sub-orbital space costing tens of thousands of pounds. Given the resources, of course, I would!

This will be the first time that ordinary people without any training will be able to view the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space, floating like an astronaut, and seeing our fragile atmosphere which is as thin as an eggshell.

“It’s almost too good to be true, isn’t it?” said Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin group, after the gleaming white and silver spacecraft was wheeled into the centre of the cavernous hangar.

“I’ve always believed that having the best-looking planes and trains in the world, while not a guarantee, is a good place to start,” he joked. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

More than 700 people have already signed up to fly on Virgin Galactic’s trips into space, which will be launched from SpacePort America, New Mexico, but could one day even fly from the UK.

The development and testing for the vehicle, however, has all taken place in Mojave, at the same airfield where Chuck Yeager became the first human being to break the sound barrier in his Bell X1.

The day’s jubilant tone was tinged with poignancy as Virgin Galactic’s CEO, George Whitesides, recalled meeting with Branson in November 2014 on the day of the crash.

After a nine-month investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled to be pilot error, the result of unlocking the ‘feathering’ system – designed to slow the craft down during re-entry – too early in the flight.

Virgin Galactic remains cagey about announcing an expected timeline for a first flight public – saying it wants to give the safety testing as much time as necessary. Two years would seem a good estimate.

Unity will be tested as a whole craft, first on the ground then in tethered flight to the carrying aircraft, then in controlled glide, and then finally in powered flight.

Branson admitted to reporters before the ceremony began that it was “pretty cool to be taking people into space” but said that the technology developed for space tourism would, he believed, one day also prove useful for edge-of-space high-speed intercontinental travel.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Gagarin and his hat

My career as a journalist has presented opportunities to interview people from all walks of life, not to mention many pioneering spacemen and women.

Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit Earth, was of course before my time. He died tragically in 1968, just as America was preparing to send its first citizens to the Moon and I was still learning my ABCs.

Not to be thwarted by this slight mis-match in time, I decided to catch up with Mr Gagarin retrospectively. Soon after his record-breaking flight he arrived in London as part of his post-mission world tour, a trip that the British government of the day initially wanted to keep low key.

In the end his popularity meant it was quickly transformed into a fully-fledged State visit and he returned to the capital following a fleeting diversion to Manchester at the behest of  the Union of Foundry Workers.

On a sunny July morning in 1961 our hero arrived in London for the second time and, during a stroll beside the Thames, it happened that nature called, as it implicitly does when Royalty and things of State are suddenly on your meeting agenda.

So it was as Mr Gagarin surreptitiously slipped his minder and popped into the Gents near the Tower of London for a quick brush-up that our time-travelling paths coincided - and opportunity knocked.

As we shared a handbasin and a leaky tap I was tempted to do the British thing and ask him what the weather was like in Moscow. But I just couldn’t take my eyes off his big hat.

And this is how my spontaneous interview with Mr Yuri Gagarin, Hero of the Soviet Union, Russian space pilot and all round good guy, came about.

At this point thanks are due  to my friend, fellow writer and map expert Brian Nicholls who had the presence of mind to capture the moment and kindly provided the following transcript of my bumbling interview, reproduced below in ‘print’ for the first time.

C: We have seen that iconic picture of you stepping off the plane at Heathrow. But tell me. Your officer’s hat - it does seem a little big. Is it where you keep your sandwiches?

Y: In our beloved homeland, Russia, we don’t use this expression ‘the biggest thing since sliced bread’. In fact, we don’t even know what sliced bread is! However, we have heard of the Earl of Sandwich. But you’re right, our biggest thing is our hats. All officers wear them. As for where we keep our sandwiches - well, I have been invited to Lyons corner shop and the Ritz - so maybe I could take some and put them under my hat. Ha! Under my hat! Get it?

C: Talking of headgear. I have also seen that rather jerky, rather shaky film of you staring out under your helmet. You certainly seemed to be bouncing around a bit. Is there any reason for that?

Y: In orbit it is particularly, as you say, ‘crammed’ with instrumentation. But it does not help if the engineer did not release the previous occupant, namely the dog. It was nothing to do with the speed, or the camera - it was me sitting on the damn dog. They should have taken it out first!

C: I see. Tell me about you being a hero in Russia. Do you get any privileges?

Y: In your country you get, I believe, Green Shield Stamps. Da?

C: And loyalty cards like Nectar, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club and, of course, The Co-operative.

Y: Ah yes. But I got... nothing. Absolutely nothing. No stamps, no vouchers... nothing for my amazing space trip. They said I never did enough orbits so now they are sending me round the world by our national propeller driven planes so I can get some stamps. Then I can cash in and get an iron for my wife who has been asking where I have been. Wives. They are the limit aren’t they?

By now he was crumpling a damp green paper towel and looking for the bin. I took my cue.

C: At this point, Yuri, I have to say thank you for talking to me. It has been a privilege. Do svidaniya.

Words by Clive Simpson & Brian Nicholls

Monday, 2 November 2015

Leaves on the ground

We are inbetween house moves and are back at The Jockeys for a few weeks, a holiday lodge in the stable blocks at Casewick Stud which lies in gently rolling Lincolnshire countryside a few miles east of Stamford.

The Stud adjoins Casewick Hall, the attractive grounds and outbuildings of which have a public footpath running through between the village of Uffington on the main Stamford to Market Deeping road and the attractive little hamlet of Barholm.

Casewick Hall is a medieval country house that was substantially remodelled in the 17th century. It is thought to be the location of a deserted medieval village mentioned as ‘Casuic’ in the Domesday survey and later as Casewick in a tax list of 1334. 

Daylight may be in short supply at this time of the year but compensations abound when the autumn sun breaks through and transforms the late afternoons into fiery golden vistas.

Our short walk from The Jockeys leaves the elegant driveway at Casewick Stud and joins a public footpath at the back of the hall via a gated, tree-lined avenue.

If you turn left the public footpath takes you diagonally across a large arable field until it abuts the main east coast railway, where there is a foot crossing for those heading towards Barholm.

The opposite direction cuts through the grounds and outbuildings of Casewick Hall, many of which have now been converted to homes.

An enclosed driveway lined by a tall beech hedge soon opens into parkland via a cattlegrid and gateway. Sheep wander nonchalantly across the drive and cows graze in the adjoining fields.

After half a mile the driveway crosses another cattlegrid under a second ornate gateway to join a twisting country lane and the pleasant stroll continues towards Uffington.

When the light is right photo opportunities abound and so here is a selection taken on a couple of recent late afternoon walks. Enjoy!


Monday, 19 October 2015

Ship of the Fens

There are times when embarking on a journey or overnight stay one is lucky enough to come across not one but several unexpected gems which combine to make such a visit to a new place so much more enjoyable and worthwhile.

Our recent trip to Ely in the heart of the Cambridgeshire Fens proved one such occasion. This ancient Fenland outpost founded on a lump of conglomerate rock rising incongruously above the surrounding flat land is, of course, most famous for its almighty and imposing cathedral.

Mindful of the notional nature of a fleeting visit and our proximity at the time to the town of Stamford it seemed that a cross country train would be the ideal point from which to commence this mini-visit. We alighted from the gently curving platform at Stamford’s neatly styled stone-built railway station and were soon rattling our way into Peterborough alongside the main east coast line.

One of the country’s fastest growing cities, Peterborough straddles flat fen countryside to the east whilst its western reaches extend into a pleasant and picturesque rolling landscape. A junction of styles and ambitions, it often feels like a contradiction - a dual-personality crossover of ancient and new, still defending its ancient coaching past as a stopover on the old Great North Road whilst being home for modern day commuters who flit backwards and forwards to the capital by high speed train.

After a brief stop at Peterborough’s newly re-modelled station our Stansted-bound train splits off on a spur to the east and is soon trundling across flat and diminutively featureless countryside. The monotonous monoculture fields that seem to reach as far as the sky and characterise this region are punctuated by extensive drainage systems with their horizon-defining banks and lone, singular roads appearing from nowhere to intersect the railway.

This late September morning was overcast and grey, offering an indistinct backdrop for the intense arable farming, the dull and distant appearance of which was compounded by greasy train windows. Soon the line passes through March, which was once the county town of the Isle of Ely until the latter ceased to exist by government decree in 1965. Just a few minutes later the distant cathedral of Ely  looms on the closing horizon like some giant alien artefact.

Our short journey through big skies across a bereft landscape has been as stale as the air on this cramped and fusty train that plies its way back and forth between Birmingham and Stansted airport. But the sun is extending a welcome as the coaches slow into Ely’s business-like station which, with its multiple platforms, is a busy cross-country junction linking Norwich, Cambridge, Peterborough and Birmingham, and London.

So what of the gem-like discoveries? Well, first and for such a small place, there is much within Ely that could easily fit the category, not least the stunning architecture of the cathedral itself.

But for now, we are seeking out something on a smaller scale that might otherwise slip by unnoticed. Topping & Company is a suitably fitting name for any high street shop and once inside you can see why the crime author Alexander McCall Smith described it as “the best bookshop in the world”.

For the book lover or casual shopper it is three floors of literary and tactile delight where serious browsers are afforded complementary coffee, served from a cafetiere in china cups all set on a neat wooden tray.

Beside the second floor window is a small wooden table and chairs where one can sip coffee and repose in a literary paradise, surrounded by the smell of book print and with a tantalising view across the street to the cathedral spires and ramparts. There is no sterility here - Toppings is a treasure.

If this is more than a fleeting, day-time visit there are plenty of overnight accommodations to select from. Nowhere is more welcoming option than Peacock’s Tearoom and Fine B&B, just a stone’s throw from the River Ouse and its boating community.

As the name would suggest, this is a traditional English tearoom - tasteful, sumptuous and quirky, with a hint of French eccentricity, all of which makes it popular with locals and visitors alike.

Peacocks is run by the charming and delightful George Peacock, an ex-criminal defence lawyer in another life, and his attractive wife Rachel. More recently they converted the upstairs of the two joined up 1800s cottages into a couple of delightful bed and breakfast suites, each with its own private sitting room, separate bedroom and pleasant facilities.

This really is English bed and breakfast as it should be. Peacocks exudes character and charm - overflowing book cases, comfortable old chairs, antique furniture and a restored market trolley doubling as a coffee table.

Pick the day of your visit to Ely wisely and you can also enjoy the city’s lively traditional market on Thursdays and Saturdays, along with an eclectic craft, flower and food stalls on occasional Sundays through the year.

On non-market days, however, the large, block-paved square is rather featureless and seems surplus to requirements - bland, unimaginative modernity contrasting starkly with the magnificent stonework and intrinsic creativity of the city’s cathedral - a ‘Ship of the Fens’ dating back to 672 AD when St Etheldreda first built an Abbey Church.

Words and photos: Clive Simpson

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Renewables under attack

If you are colour blind there is sometimes a blurry line when it comes to discerning the difference between green and blue - as British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to be making increasingly clear.

His bold claim on coming to power for the first time in 2010 to be leading the “greenest government ever” was rapidly dismantled - almost as quickly as the floods and storms of 2013 destroyed homes and livelihoods.

This summer the UK has experienced one of its wettest ever August months and globally the year once again promises to be amongst the hottest on record. Glaciers are retreating and global sea levels have risen by 8 cm in two decades as a result of warmer ocean water and melting ice caps.

A growing body of evidence suggests that climate change is very real - and international negotiations on the establishment of climate change controls are scheduled to reach their peak in Paris in December.

Yet within a few months of being elected for a second term, Cameron’s majority Conservative government has pretty much made it clear it wants very little to do with renewable technology.

In June it announced cuts to financial support to developers of new onshore wind turbines, the cheapest form of renewable power available. And last week it announced it intends to slash subsidies that help families and small businesses install solar panels.

Why have David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne decided over the last few months to abandon key government commitments to protecting the environment and its pledges to create new green technologies that could wean us off our urge to burn fossil fuels?

Meanwhile, a commitment by Britain’s biggest suppliers six biggest energy companies to help tackle climate change has been called into question after it emerged all have quietly dropped their green electricity tariffs.

Despite the major suppliers - which together provide 90 per cent of UK household power -  all making public commitments to tackle climate change by reducing carbon emissions not one of now offers a renewable energy tariff.

The UK’s solar industry, which is already reeling from a wave of damaging policy changes, was shocked and taken by surprise by last week's government publication of its scheduled review of the Feed-in-Tariff  (FIT) scheme for supporting small-scale renewables.

The Solar Trade Association (STA) had already been engaging with officials and ministers over the last few months demonstrating how the FIT framework could be reformed to provide better value for money while targeting parity with fossil energy around 2020.

Its ‘Solar Independence Plan for Britain’, published in June, sets out proposals based on a detailed budget model of the solar Feed-in Tariff. The STA estimates that it will cost just another £1.70 per year on energy bills between now and 2020 to deliver a million more solar homes and grid parity.

Mike Landy, head of policy at the STA, says: “We don't agree with these self-defeating proposals and will be urging DECC to take up our alternative. A sudden cut combined with the threat of scheme closure is a particularly bad idea – it will create a huge boom and bust that is not only very damaging to solar businesses and jobs but does nothing to help budget constraints.

“We really are astonished at how self-defeating these proposals are. Instead, we are calling on the government to work with the solar industry to deliver our plan for a stable glide path to subsidy-free solar.”

Like a number of other issues that have suddenly come to the fore, the Conservative manifesto for the elections in May said nothing about attacking the British solar industry, which has flourished thanks to public support and delivered unprecedented cost cuts.

The STA, along with 100 local authorities, community energy groups and professional associations, has already written to the Prime Minister in support of FITs and days that when Parliament returns it intends to grow this alliance and fight hard for a more sensible policy.

Landy adds: “If DECC (Department of Energy & Climate Change) and the Treasury insist on making such damaging and unjustified cuts they will need to develop alternative policy proposals to drive commercial sector deployment. The upcoming Energy Efficiency Tax Review provides exactly the opportunity to do so. But we need to see some positive proposals very quickly to mitigate the shattering of confidence across the solar industry.”

It would seem that the government has once again adopted a short-sighted, market-driven attitude - not just from the perspective of national prestige but also in terms of lost opportunity. Sooner or later the world is going to end up depending on renewable power and the UK has much to gain from developing not shrinking its expertise and influence.

The proposals set out by DECC, which is itself under threat, will see tariff rates for domestic schemes (now up to 10kW) cut from 12.9p today to 1.63p/kWh next January. The deadline for responses to the consultation is 23 October and you can make your own comments using this link - online survey

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Sea levels rising

Detroit skyline.                                                                                                          Clive Simpson

Essential indicators of Earth’s changing climate continue to reflect trends of a warming planet, with several markers such as rising land and ocean temperature, sea levels and greenhouse gases all setting new records in 2014. 

The findings are included in the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) 'State of the Climate in 2014' report published this week.

NOAA warns cities and businesses to expect ever higher levels of coastal flood risk after sea levels hit record highs. The agency confirmed that average sea levels have risen by 3.2 mm every year since 1993 - meaning that in 2014 sea levels were about 67 mm higher than in 1993.

The report, which is compiled annually by US government climate scientists, also revealed land and sea temperatures reaching record highs in 2014, while atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases also soared.

Ocean temperatures are at their warmest since records began 135 years ago, the report says. The record warming is contributing to sea level rise - helping to melt glaciers more quickly and causing ocean expansion (water slowly expands as it warms).

Greg Johnson, an oceanographer at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, suggested thinking of the warming effect as if it were a fly wheel or freight train.

"It takes a big push to get it going but it is moving now and will continue to move long after we continue to stop pushing it," he explained.

The report also noted that warmer ocean temperatures raise the risk of severe storms, which are made more dangerous by high ocean levels. Warm ocean temperatures in the Pacific are also producing warmer winters and worsening drought conditions on the US West Coast, scientists said.

The news came on the same day as a new joint report was released by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Lancet Commission, revealing that climate change is jeopardizing the future health of the human population.

Braulio Ferreira De Souza Dias, scientific advisor for the Lancet Commission, said: “We are moving closer than ever before to triggering potentially irreversible impacts, and jeopardizing the health of our ecosystems and that of present and future generations.”

It also comes in the same week as a major report argued that we should prepare for climate change in the same way as we would a nuclear war or terrorist attack - by planning for the worst-case scenario.

Even a small increase in sea level can cause a large increase in the risk of flooding. A global sea level rise of just one metre - the most we are likely to see this century, according to the report's lead author Sir David King - turns what would have been a one-in-a-hundred year flood in New York into a twice a year catastrophe.

State of the Climate in 2014

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Logo goes up in smoke


I always enjoy a good rocket launch and last night's Ariane 5 from French Guiana carrying Europe's latest weather satellite for EUMETSAT was no exception.

It was especially good to see the giant MSG-4 logo on the side of the Ariane rocket because the logo was designed for EUMETSAT by myself and Andrew Hunt back in 2002.

At the time I ran the award-winning media agency SimComm Europe, which was based in Havant near Portsmouth, and Andy freelanced for us.

I worked extensively for both EUMETSAT, based in Darmstadt, Germany, and for the media and public outreach departments of ESA's Paris headquarters and Netherlands technology base, writing and producing annual reports, newsletters, website copy, press releases and brochures.

For our humble MSG logo this last night’s launch was its fourth and final flight into space on the side of an Ariane 5 rocket. This was the press release we issued back on 22 August 2002: 

Giant logo emblazoned on European rocket

The design work of a Havant company will quite literally be going into orbit shortly before midnight tonight.

A giant logo created by SimComm Europe is on the side of Europe's Ariane 5 rocket which is due to blast a new European weather satellite into space.

The launch of the first Meteosat Second Generation satellite for Europe's German-based Eumetsat weather organisation is scheduled for 2330 BST from French Guiana in South America.

SimComm, based in Brockhampton Lane, has been working with Eumetsat for a number of years and designed the logo for use in various kinds of publicity material connected with the launch.

"The logo has been used in many documents and on stickers, pens and notebooks," said SimComm managing director Clive Simpson.

"However, we're delighted to see  our work on the side of a rocket - it's quite a coup for a PR and design agency, and not every day you get such prestigious exposure."

Meteosat Second Generation will replace the current series of weather satellites which provide the pictures and information for our daily weather forecasts.

In 2003 SimComm also wrote, produced and handled the worldwide distribution of Eumetsat’s MSG information book and user guide.

The 80-page full colour document, in both English and French versions, promoted the value of the Meteosat Second Generation programme.

SimComm writer Lucy Owens (now Mrs Lucy Kemp), who also acted as deputy editor for myself on Spaceflight magazine, went on a press trip to French Guiana for the first MSG launch.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with launches, her trek to South America proved in vain as far as witnessing a spectacular launch was concerned after a technical fault delayed it beyond the scheduled length of the press trip.

Article by Clive Simpson