Monday, 24 December 2012

Earth rise

Forty-four years ago tonight on Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 was taking men around the Moon for the first time in history.

From lunar orbit Commander Frank Borman turned the camera toward Earth and gave mankind the first look at itself from deep space.

The crew then took turns reading from Genesis 1 to a mesmerised audience of millions back home.

William Anders: "For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you.

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness."

Jim Lovell: "And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

"And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."

Borman: "And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good."

Borman concluded the broadcast with the words: "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."

Friday, 5 October 2012

Moonwalker's tribute

Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, received a standing ovation after offering a moving and poignant personal tribute to his former colleague Neil Armstrong on the final day of the 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Naples, Italy, today (Friday, 5 October).

The presence of Aldrin, alongside two European astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut, guaranteed there was standing room only in the International Astronautical Federation's (IAF) Global Networking Forum (GNF) meeting room.

Aldrin said that he had hoped that all three members of the Apollo 11 crew - Armstrong, Mike Collins and himself - would have been around to celebrate together the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing in 2019.

"His one ‘small step' changed the world and will forever be remembered as a landmark moment in all of human history," said Aldrin.

He also showed his film ‘The Apollo Dream', adding that Armstrong, who died in August, had left the world a strong and lasting legacy which everyone had a duty to fulfill.

After his presentation, European astronauts Christer Fuglesang and Paulo Nespoli, along with cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, gave short presentations on their spaceflight experiences and then answered a variety of questions from the audience.
The GNF, an evolution and transformation of the former IAF Cluster Forum, proved a big success throughout the week, attracting a large number of delegates to a range of meetings and sessions.

It included several dedicated days and sessions, including a Heads of Agencies press conference, an Industry Day, and sessions looking at the Social Impacts of Human Spaceflight and Space Careers, as well as the Astronauts' Day.

During Industry Day (Tuesday, 2 October) panels of industry and space organisation experts debated the economic impacts of Satellite Navigation Systems, Earth Observation challenges and the new European-developed rocket Vega.

Among the items that came up for discussion during the session on ‘Economic impacts of Satellite Navigation Systems' was the dispute over satellite navigation frequencies between China and Europe.

Paul Weissenberg, Deputy DG, Enterprise and Industry Directorate-General of the European Commission, stated that it had been agreed to take their dispute to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) by the end of this year.

The GNF was also the location on Wednesday for the IAF's extraordinary session at which space-flown flags were handed to member organisations to commemorate the Federation's 60th anniversary.

The flags - flown on Soyuz TMA-20, the International Space Station, Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-134), and China's Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou-9 spacecraft - were presented to IAF member organisations by President Berndt Feuerbacher.

The above is one of a series of daily reports from the International Astronautical Congress 2012 held in Naples, Italy, written by Clive Simpson for the Paris-based International Astronautical Association (IAF) and first appearing on the IAF website

SpaceX on target

Delegates at the 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Naples, Italy, were treated to a first-hand update on the latest news from commercial space company SpaceX on Friday, 5 October - just two days before the planned launch of its latest mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Introducing the third ‘breaking news' session of the week Barry Matsumori, Senior Vice-President of Commercial Sales and Business Development at SpaceX, quipped that he and his colleague Robert Feierbach, Vice-President of Business Development, were the only two employees not working on Sunday's launch.

On the heels of a successful debut flight to the Space Station in May of this year, SpaceX launches its first commercial Dragon resupply mission to the Space Station under a contract that will see 12 such missions.

Launch of the SpaceX CRS-1 flight was set for 20:35 EDT on 7 October from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

After arrival at the ISS on 10 October, Dragon, grappled and berthed to the complex for an expected two-week visit, is scheduled to return to Earth on October 28 for a parachute-assisted splashdown off the coast of southern California.

Dragon is currently the only Space Station cargo craft capable of returning a significant amount of supplies back to Earth, including experiments.

For this mission, it is filled with about 1,000 pounds of supplies, including critical materials to support the 166 investigations planned for the Station's Expedition 33 crew.

Dragon will return with about 734 pounds of scientific materials, including results from human research, biotechnology, materials and education experiments, as well as about 504 pounds of Space Station hardware.

Matsumori explained that SpaceX had been in existence for just a decade, making it a young company in aerospace terms. "We have come a long way in that time and now have 1800 employees which are growing at around 200 per year," he said.

SpaceX currently launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California but Matsumori said the company is looking at the possibility of an additional commercial launch site.

"We want to ensure we have plenty of capacity and a new launch site would be used particularly for sending payloads into geostationary orbits," he said.

Potential sites under evaluation are in South Texas, where the company also has an engine test range, Florida, and "other locations" on mainland USA.

Matsumori wasn't able to provide further details but said that the timing of any new site coming on stream would be largely dependent on the length of time required for environmental approvals.

He described SpaceX as an ‘internet' company and said that it had a reputation in the industry for being very competitive, and was driven by the goals of achieving high reliability and lost cost production.

The company's current product line comprises the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, the Falcon 9 with a 5.2 metre fairing, and the upcoming Falcon Heavy - essentially made from three Falcon 9's strapped together - which is under development.

"The Falcon 9 - so-called because it has nine engines and after the Millennium Falcon spacecraft of Star War's fame - is a two-stage vehicle for reliability and simplicity," he explained.

During the session, Matsumori also gave a technical overview of the summer's COTS 2 (Commercial Orbital Transportation Service) mission carrying cargo to the ISS for the first time and showed a short film of mission footage.

Afterwards, he said the simplicity of the film wasn't able to convey the true complexity of the flight in all its detail. "It was our first mission to the ISS and we didn't want to make any mistakes," he told delegates.

The above is one of a series of daily reports from the International Astronautical Congress 2012 held in Naples, Italy, written by Clive Simpson for the Paris-based International Astronautical Association (IAF) and first appearing on the IAF website

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Unique space flags

The only objects on Earth to have flown on all spacecraft belonging to all nations with an active human spaceflight programme formed part of an extraordinary presentation by the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) at this year's 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Naples, Italy.

Special IAF 60th anniversary flags - flown on Soyuz TMA-20, the International Space Station, Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-134), and China's Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou-9 spacecraft - were presented to IAF member organisations by President Berndt Feuerbacher.

The flags, in commemorative frames along with mission logos and flight authentification certificates, were handed out to IAF member organisations as tokens of recognition and gratitude during an Extraordinary Session of the IAF General Assembly on Wednesday (4 October).

In his introduction to the presentations Prof Feuerbacher said this was the first time the IAF had arranged an extraordinary session for such an "extraordinary event".

He explained that for the IAF's 60th anniversary in 2011 the Executive Director at the time, Philippe Willekens, had wanted something unique and of value for members and came up with the plan for an anniversary flag to be flown in space.

Sergey Savelyev, Deputy Head of Roscosmos, said it had been in everyone's interests to support the initiative. "There is no limit to what we can do as an international team and the IAF helps us to do that. It was our privilege to fly these flags," he stated.

Zhasya Wang, head of China's manned spaceflight programme, added his own endorsement, saying: "We believe this event is an example of how IAF efforts can help advance the human spaceflight programme.

"Our agency is honoured to part of this great event and we gave our support, even though it came to us at short notice.

"Even though we had payload limitations we finally got approval from central government to complete the full circle of flying the flags on all of the space vehicles of the world."

Before handing out the frames flags Prof Feuerbacher expressed his sincere thanks to Roscosmos, NASA and the Chinese Manned Space Agency for this "wonderful cooperation".

The above is one of a series of daily reports from the International Astronautical Congress 2012 held in Naples, Italy, written by Clive Simpson for the Paris-based International Astronautical Association (IAF) and first appearing on the IAF website

Curiosity's journey of discovery

The ‘promised land’ beckons for the Curiosity Mars rover but it is likely to be around six months before the car-sized craft arrives in the foothills of Mt Sharpe whose rocks may have preserved a geological record of the ancient Martian environment.

Just two months into its mission on the red planet, delegates at the 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Naples, Italy, were treated to a first-hand update on the progress of the Curiosity Mars on Thursday, 4 October during the second ‘breaking news' session.

Richard Cook, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Project Manager, described the mission as making a "great start" to a deeply interesting mission.

Reviewing the ‘seven minutes of terror landing', he said that what Curiosity is going to achieve on the surface will be equally inspiring as its spectacular landing.

He explained that the Gale Crater objective was chosen after a labourious process spread over several years - selected on the basis that it is most likely to offer a glimpse into the ancient history of Mars based on its rock records.

He likened Gale Crater - 150 km across with the central peak of Mt Sharpe rising to 4,000 metres - as similar in size and elevation to the ‘big' island of Hawaii.

"It gives you an idea of the scale and the challenge of trying to explore that - for the first two years, we will essentially be driving in the foothills."

He said that from a landing site safety perspective, mission planners couldn't have picked a better spot and that Curiosity would now be moving away from the direction of Mt Sharpe in order to explore a close by alluvial fan area in the opposite direction of originally planned travel.

Cook explained that the basic mission concept was to use either the onboard scoop or drill to acquire samples of rock or soil for testing.

In order to select which part or area of a rock to sample, Curiosity will use its ChemCam laser to vaporise a small portion of a potential target rock and analyse its spectral composition. This will help scientists determine which rocks or areas are of most interest to sample with the scoop or drill.

"We intend to use ChemCam repeatedly in any given area to help identify rocks that will be of the most interest," he explained.

Curiosity is capable of travelling around 200 metres a day but is unlikely to proceed at that kind of rate to the prime target area in the foothills of Mt Sharpe because scientists will want to "stop off on the way" to look at interesting features in closer detail.

Cook estimated that the journey to the lower reaches of Mt Sharpe would likely take around six months once extra stopping time for science work is factored in.

He showed a number of stunning Mars images, including one of the latest Curiosity releases of a conglomerate rock which has already given scientists their strongest indication yet that water once flowed in the landing area.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images will be used to track the progress of Curiosity across the surface and he described a view showing the rover's first short traverse with its tracks in the Martian soil as a "gee wiz" image.

He said that cross-contamination from Earth had been a big area of concern during mission planning and in a pre-planned exercise, the rover team had already been using Mars' soil to clean through the sampling system prior to feeding in a collected sample for the first time.

Cook announced that they were preparing for the first scoop sample within the next 24 hours and that it would be about a month longer before the first drill sample is taken.

"The difference with this mission compared to the Spirit and Opportunity rovers is that you have to think about chunks of time rather than one day at a time - it is that much more complicated," he said.

"In a way the mission is still in 'cruise' phase," Cook added. "Curiosity is going to continue to surprise us and show us new things. This kind of mission doesn't get boring and the promised land is yet to come."

The above is one of a series of daily reports from the International Astronautical Congress 2012 held in Naples, Italy, written by Clive Simpson for the Paris-based International Astronautical Association (IAF) and first appearing on the IAF website

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The perfect map

When natural disaster strikes in any part of the globe, the space agencies of the world spring into action to provide valuable and timely data from the unique vantage point of Earth orbit to help with critical relief efforts.

Tsunamis, forest fires, earthquakes, volcanoes or other phenomena can have both immediate and far-reaching effects on the population and the ecology of the land, as the recent tsunami on the coast of Japan demonstrated.

With the shadow of Mt Vesuvius close by, the topic was also close to the heart for delegates attending the fifth Plenary session on Wednesday, 3 October at the 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Naples, Italy.

One expert in disaster relief operations, Francesco Pisano of the United Nations, told delegates that in crisis management, the end user was not always looking for "the prefect map".

This is because the situation can often change within hours - and he urged those responsible for providing Earth Observation (EO) data not to become obsessed with detail.

As Manager of UNOSAT (Operational Satellite Applications Programme) at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), Pisano explained that he made regular use of EO data.

UNOSAT is an operational programme of the United Nations, offering humanitarian aid and relief coordination, human security, and territorial planning and mapping.

"In the professional domains represented in this gathering, we all have responsibility," he stated. "Mapping from satellites is now a standard and serious business - it is no longer about ‘stunning' audiences."

He said that space provides a "slice of the sandwich" to enhance the decision-making capacity of those who have to take action in disaster situations.

Pisano went on to suggest that in order to make data "digestible" for local use - where there may be no or little expertise in EO data interpretation - more decisions by operators had to be user-driven.

Overall the Plenary looked at three key elements of disaster monitoring:
  • the role of space in the pre-crisis period (risk assessment, prevention and preparedness), including in particular on the consideration and presentation of a large range of usable sensors and missions,
  • the role of space in crisis response, including the role of the International Disaster Charter: how it works, its main achievements to date and future challenges,
  • and post crisis disaster management, with an important focus on user needs, and covering volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and other disasters.
Maurice Borgeaud, Head of Department, Science, Applications and Future Technologies Earth Observation Directorate at ESA, agreed that in order to deliver the most valuable kind of data, the space community needed to question exactly what users wanted.

He explained that ESA, a member of the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters, had a huge archive of Earth Observation (EO) data from the ERS and Envisat missions which was invaluable when wanting to compare current data with that from the past.

He described three stages of disaster risk management - pre-disaster, disaster response and post-disaster and explained how EO data could help with each.

Masanori Homma, Executive Director, Space Applications Mission, Spectrum Management, Space Tracking and Data Acquisition, and Environmental Test Technology, at JAXA, said Japan had introduced the concept of ‘Sentinel' to the Asia region over the past four to five years.

Space provides value-added information and he showed examples of satellite EO images taken before and after the Tsunami of March 2011 showing the extent of the flooded areas. "Such imagery gives us an overview of how serious such a disaster is," he said.

"Satellite data helps us find solutions to some problems," though data supplied from many different satellites includes duplications because of similar orbital parameters.

He urged delegates and those responsible for defining and operating new systems to work together to ensure coverage is as wide as possible.

Satellites can also play a role in assisting post-disaster recovery efforts. One example being navigation satellite systems which can help with efficient infrastructure reconstruction.

Homma also warned that ground systems could be vulnerable in large scale disasters and operators should consider ways of making the ground segment as robust as possible.

The above is one of a series of daily reports from the International Astronautical Congress 2012 held in Naples, Italy, written by Clive Simpson for the Paris-based International Astronautical Association (IAF) and first appearing on the IAF website

China's first space woman

China’s first female astronaut proved a major draw when she appeared at the 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Naples, Italy, this week.

During the first of the Congress’ early morning Breaking News sessions on Wednesday (3 October), Liu Yang spoke about her mission and introduced a film showing highlights of the flight.

The 33-year-old became the first Chinese woman to fly in space when she and two male crew mates blasted off aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft in June of this year.

Two days later, the three taikonauts (the Chinese term for astronauts) hooked up with the already orbiting Tiangong 1 module, pulling off China's first-ever crewed space docking.

She said she was astonished by the beauty of Earth as seen from space, and that she was pleasantly surprised by the toy panda that had been left aboard Tiangong 1 by the ground crew.

An illustrated overview of the flight was given by Dr Zhaoyao Wang, Director of China’s Manned Space Agency, covering mission planning and implementation.

Dr Zhaoyao Wang speaking at IAC 2012.
He revealed that the Chinese space station is expected to be completed and fully operational around 2020 and said China intended to strengthen international exchange and cooperation in its future development and operation.

"During the operational phase, the Space Station will conduct long-term man-tended operations with the nominal status of three crew who will alternate every half year," he explained.

Dr Wang said that the construction phase would see intermittent visits and stays depending on mission requirements and that some EVAs would be performed.

Artist's impression showing elements of China's space station.
There will also be a cargo re-supply ship sent up to the orbiting complex between one and two times a year.

Asked about the possibility of a second mission, Liu Yang said that flight schedules were closely connected with the country’s development programme.

"The next mission will come soon, and whether I am selected or not, I am preparing all the time for the country’s selection," she said.

Lui Yang in Naples with her minder.
As well as on-going training, Yang said part of her work now involved sharing her experiences with others who have yet to make a spaceflight.

Another crewed Chinese mission (Shenzhou 10) to Tiangong 1 is planned for next year but the officials with the Chinese delegation said a date for launch had not yet been announced.

Lui Yang poses with Clive Simpson.
The above is one of a series of daily reports from the International Astronautical Congress 2012 held in Naples, Italy, written by Clive Simpson for the Paris-based International Astronautical Association (IAF) and first appearing on the IAF website

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Chasing the vision

Delegates at the 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Naples, Italy attending the third Plenary session on Tuesday, 2 October heard of exciting developments in commercial space transportation.

Though still in its infancy, the Plenary heard that many problems were now being addressed in the fields of technology, engineering, physiology, regulations and business to bring the fledgling sector to full fruition.

Some studies agree that in a few decades, the number of people spending days, weeks, months or even years in low Earth orbit (LEO) could reach hundreds or thousands.

One member of the panel avidly chasing the vision was Alan Bond, Founding Director of Reaction Engines, who told delegates there was a difference between what is happening in space transportation terms at present and the revolutionary new kind of space system being developed in the UK by his company.

"Space transportation has got to move a lot further than where things stand at the present time," he said. "I would like to see over the next 10 to 20 years us moving to where operators ‘operate' and manufacturers ‘manufacture'. This is where the business has to go."

Describing the United States as a country that has always been very entrepreneurial, Bond said he thought Europe lagged behind in that vision because "we were locked into thinking mostly in terms of government backed programmes".

To illustrate the point he said that 90 percent of funding for current Skylon engine development came from the private sector.

At present the major focus on his Skylon single-stage-to-orbit craft is in proving the ground-breaking technology of the air-breathing rocket engines. He said testing over the past year had gone very well and, though slightly behind schedule, was nearing completion.

"It all means that single-stage-to-orbit vehicles are going to be possible," he stated. "We are now within months of saying we can provide that to the world. The question is what is the world going to do about that?"

Bond said that Reaction Engines was "open to talk" about how the technology can be pushed forward. "As far as we can see we have every reason to believe this is feasible and my view is that Skylon will change the future."

Asked by a delegate about the timing for a demonstration flight, Bond said the current schedule envisaged Skylon could become operational ten years from now in 2022. He estimated development costs at $14 billion.

He explained that an important part of the company's business model was not ‘traffic to orbit' but to sell the vehicle in volume to different operators around the world.

"Many nations want their own access to space and it is important to understand this model. We are probably looking at $5 million per launch to get 15 tonnes of payload into orbit," he added.

George Nield, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), told delegates that now was the time of a very important transition in relation to commercial space developments.

He said there were currently eight FAA licensed sites in the United States but there was interest from six new Sates which wanted to create their own space ports, an indicator of strong potential growth in the future.

William Gerstenmaier, Associate Director, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, at NASA, said it was important to the United States that commercial launch services were successful.

"The SpaceX commercial demonstration flight was a tremendous success and it is important that governments do their best to enable that sort of activity," he said. "We need to continue to look for smart ways to do this and to pass on our expertise to the commercial space sector."

He said the approach of using a cargo demonstration phase for SpaceX was a good model as it substantially reduced risks - losing cargo might be disappointing but not catastrophic as it would be in human terms.

Gerstenmaier also revealed that NASA was now taking a more relaxed approach when agreeing spacecraft specifications with commercial space companies.

"We are telling designers that they don't necessarily have to build to the same default standards as NASA has done just because that is the way it happened in the past," he said.

Silvio Sandrone, Head of Business & New Programmes Development, Astrium Space Transportation, France, remarked that you could now tell the new NASA approach was working because "you have got old dogs like us doing new tricks".

He also said that as a major aircraft and space manufacturer, his company was looking at how to transfer some of the aircraft manufacturing skills to space manufacturing.

"It is also important to leverage a wider supply base," he said. "We need to move away from qualification driven development to certification driven development."

Georges Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, said that the FAA had recognised that for the sub-orbital industry to get off the ground, we had to go through a different regulatory process than commercial air flight.

It meant allowing passengers to take a "bigger risk" – provided that they were better informed about the risks involved.

He said countries other than the United States were now starting to engage in addressing regulations and suggested it would be a very positive move if the world was able to set up a common regulatory framework.

"We don't have a basis to fly if we don't have a vehicle that is safe," he reiterated. "Spaceflight is always going to be riskier than commercial airliners."

Simonetta di Pippo, Head of European Space Policy Observatory, Italian Space Agency (ASI), moderator of the Plenary, highlighted problems caused by increasing numbers of space flights and Air Traffic Control, saying that in the future a more integrated system would need to be developed.

The Plenary event provided a snapshot of the current political, economic and technical landscape in commercial space exploitation and the statements from panel members hinted at the question of how well humankind is preparing to embark on futuristic scenarios based on massive space commercialisation.

The above is one of a series of daily reports from the International Astronautical Congress 2012 held in Naples, Italy, written by Clive Simpson for the Paris-based International Astronautical Association (IAF) and first appearing on the IAF website

Monday, 1 October 2012

New era of cooperation

Speaking on the first day of the 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Naples, Italy, today (Monday, 1 October 2012), the heads of the world’s leading space agencies ushered in a new era of international cooperation.

The leaders of agencies from the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Europe, Canada and India all provided an overview of their current programmes as well as an insight into future plans and potential international cooperation opportunities.

Speaking before an audience of around 2,000 delegates, they were welcomed to the IAC 2012, held in Naples’ Mostra d'Oltremare, by Enrico Saggese, President of the Italian Space Agency (ASI).

Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator, described 2012 as "an extraordinary year for NASA", capped by the successful landing of Curiosity on Mars which he described as an international venture based on a US spacecraft, with five new nations ‘landing’ on Mars as a result.

Bolden, a former Space Shuttle commander, said NASA was also eagerly anticipating the forthcoming launch on Sunday of the Falcon 9 rocket carrying the first commercial payload to the International Space Station (ISS) and heralding the start of a new commercial era for NASA.

"In general terms we are facing a fiscal crisis but at the same time trying to maintain a stable budget," he said. "As with most of us here, the ISS remains the centrepiece of our current human spaceflight endeavours."

He explained that in collaboration with its international partners, NASA was keen to increase the amount of scientific research carried out on the ISS.

Sergey Saveliev, Deputy Head of Russia’s Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), said Russia was also looking in difficult times to integrate the development of space technology to support the country’s economy.

"Space affects the economy and as such also has a powerful influence on economic development and growth," he stated.

He also indicated that on a global scale there was no large-scale problem that could not be solved in some way through international cooperation.

Saveliev stressed the importance of international cooperation based on mutual interests, citing the example of the development of new integrated space observatories alongside international partners.

He also reflected on recent Russian launch failures which he said were due to both human error and technical malfunctions, adding that steps had been taken to reduce the likelihood of any future accidents.

Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of ESA, described the European Space Agency as enjoying its most successful phase ever.

He said the accession of Romania and Poland to ESA - taking the number of Member States to 20 - was a real indicator of this progress.

Dordain also spoke about the ISS from a European perspective, meteorology and science satellites, ATV-4 and the success of this year’s Soyuz and Vega launches from French Guiana.

He said Vega was not only a new kind of launcher but in the background represented a completely new generation of engineers.

Keiji Tachikawa, President of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), chose to highlight his agency’s recent achievements by providing very recent results from the Shizuku/AMRS-2 satellite which has confirmed depleting summer ice levels in the Arctic region.

He said JAXA would continue in the challenge to collect and provide data on climate change and global warming to help provide solutions to the crisis facing our planet.

He also spoke about the fourth JAXA astronaut currently on the ISS and said the project was a true symbol of international cooperation. Japan is also actively promoting cooperation across the Asia region in space endeavours.

Steve McLean, President of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and also a former astronaut, recalled the recent 50th anniversary of his country’s first satellite which was a catalyst for giving Canada ‘credibility’ in the worldwide space community.

Five decades later he said his country was also very proud of its latest delivery this August - the Fine Guidance Sensor for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is being built and launched as an international project to replace Hubble.

This year Canada also extended its commitment to the ISS to 2020 and at the end of 2012 astronaut Chris Hadfield will be launched on a Soyuz rocket to become the second Canadian to make a long duration mission.

He said it was Canada’s intention to expand the use of the ISS for science and also turn it into a test bed for new technology.

One key development under this heading is the development of medical diagnosis tools, initially to be used by astronauts in orbit but later anticipated to have many applications in hospitals on Earth. "It is not quite a ‘tri-corder’ as in the Star Trek TV series but we are certainly getting close," he quipped.

Yafeng Hu, Executive Vice-Chairman, Coordination Committee for International Cooperation, China National Space Administration (CNSA), China, said his country planned 21 launches in the coming year, some of which would be helping put in place a satellite-based navigation system for people in living China and neighbouring countries.

In the coming five years, China will continue to develop its interests in human spaceflight, lunar exploration and will work on delivering a coordinated plan for the further development of space technology and science, he explained.

P.S. Veeraghavan, Council Vice-Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), announced that his country had just completed its 100th space mission, following on from a number of successes in the past year.

He also emphasised the cooperation now beginning to take place in Asia and spoke about future missions, including the launch of the first in a series of satellites for an Indian regional satellite system.

Veeraghavan stated that India planned a Mars orbital mission that would be launched late next year.

The above is one of a series of daily reports from the International Astronautical Congress 2012 held in Naples, Italy, written by Clive Simpson for the Paris-based International Astronautical Association (IAF) and first appearing on the IAF website

Space conference record

The 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Naples, Italy, got underway on today (Monday, 1 October 2012) with a record delegate attendance of almost 4,000 people.

IAF President Berndt Feuerbacher, speaking at the morning’s Prologue meeting in Mostra d’Oltremare, the Congress venue, said he was also delighted to announce that a third of the new record attendance was comprised of young people.

Prof Feuerbacher said this was the fourth IAC to be held in Italy which is one of the leading European space nations and plays a key role in the international space arena.

The IAC, themed ‘Space science and technology for the needs of all’, is the premier international gathering of the space community and this year will see the presentation of 2,200 science and technical papers by delegates from 74 different countries at 166 technical seminars and 30 symposia.

Enrico Saggese, President of the Italian Space Agency (ASI), also joined in the welcome and offered delegates a brief summary of Italy’s significant achievements and current involvement in the world’s space programmes.

"We will continue to make a significant contribution to the exploration of space," he said whilst emphasising how important it is to maintain the continued support of young people.

Luigi De Magistris, Mayor of Naples, offered a welcome on behalf of the city. "As you think and reflect about the future of the space industry in the coming days, I hope that the city of Naples will be an inspiration to all of you," he said.

The IAC Prologue also included messages from Luigi Cesaro, President of Naples Province, and Stefano Caldoro, President of the Campania Region, along with a presentation from Maurizio Maddaloni, President of the Chamber of Commerce of Naples, and Riccardo Monti, President of the Italian Agency for the promotion and internationalisation of Italian business (ICE).

Mr Monti said future IAC’s would grow to be even larger as more and more countries participated and he urged delegates to consider carefully the decisions of the future, saying that the space industry needed a clear blueprint that would carry things forward for the coming two decades.

The Prologue meeting concluded with a short message from Francesco Profumo, Italy’s Minister of Education, University and Research, and President of ESA Ministerial Council.

Part of the annual IAC is a Space Expo exhibition which this year attracted around 50 exhibitors from space companies and organisations all over the world.

The exhibition was formally opened by the European, Japanese and Canadian Heads of Agencies, heads of leading industry corporations and Prof. Feuerbacher, along with other VIP guests.

After a short tour of some of the key exhibitors - including ESA, the Italian Space Agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and representatives from China, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Israel, Romania, Australia and the United States - they went on to formally open the IAF Global Networking Forum (GNF).

The GNF - with the vision to ‘meet, share and connect’ - is an evolution of the IAF Cluster Forum, transformed to further reinforce the networking and knowledge-sharing which have always defined it and bring an even wider and more global audience together.

The IAC runs throughout the week until Friday (5 October) and the Space Expo exhibition will also be open to the public between 10 am and 5 pm on Friday. 

The above is one of a series of daily reports from the International Astronautical Congress 2012 held in Naples, Italy, written by Clive Simpson for the Paris-based International Astronautical Association (IAF) and first appearing on the IAF website

Monday, 27 August 2012

A relucant American genius

Just occasionally there are times in the rich tapestry of life when events come together in a way we had perhaps wished for but never anticipated would actually ever become reality.

Such was the case for the Lighthouse Keeper back in March 2010 when a very unexpected invite popped into my email inbox from a Dr Dougal Goodman, chief executive of the Foundation for Science and Technology, someone I was not previously acquainted with.

‘I write on behalf of the Earl of Selborne KBE FRS to invite you to meet with Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first and last men on the Moon, and Captain Jim Lovell, Commander of Apollo 13, who are visiting London on 12 March.

‘They have agreed to present a short film of the history of the space programme and to participate in a question and answer session. Sixth Form pupils and undergraduates have also been invited to participate.

‘The meeting will be at The Royal Society, 7-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, and there will be an opportunity to meet with Neil and his colleagues after the formal session.’

It seemed like all my Christmas’s had come at once! For the Lighthouse Keeper - Editor of Spaceflight magazine and a journalist writing regularly for ESA on Europe’s human spaceflight programme for a decade - it was certainly one of those once in a lifetime opportunities.

Of course, in my work with ESA and Spaceflight magazine, I had already met and interviewed many of the modern-day spacemen and women who had undertaken or were in training for missions on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, as well as some of the pioneering astronauts and cosmonauts from the American and the Russian space programmes.

But here was an opportunity to connect with a trio of astronauts from each of the most dramatic of America’s Apollo Moon missions. Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon; Captain Jim Lovell, Commander of Apollo 8 on the first circumnavigation of the Moon and then of the of the ill-fated Apollo 13; and Gene Cernan, the last man (to date) to walk on the Moon.

It was all the more special because, in the 40 years since Armstrong’s historic first footprints on another world, his public speaking engagements had been relatively few and far between, particularly outside of America. He was a very private hero.

Here was the chance to meet one of the men who, when the Lighthouse Keeper was just 10 years old, had inspired a lifelong passion in all things space. Back in the late 1960s the inspirational missions of Apollo 8 and 11 had captured my fertile imagination and spawned a lifelong passion for all things space.

Armstrong was softly spoken and at times difficult to hear as he recounted in his own words the Apollo 11 mission.

And we heard two of the most famous phrases in the world spoken by the man in person. "Tranquillity Base here, the Eagle has landed!" and "That's one small step for a man but one giant leap for Mankind."

Spoken with dignity, an actor's poise and, even after all these years, a touch of heartfelt emotion. And, of course, they got a standing ovation.

It is the hazy black and white TV images of Armstrong setting foot on the lunar surface that we remember so vividly. But ironically for such a fastidiously detailed and meticulously planned NASA programme there was one incredible omission - during the three hour excursion on the lunar surface no official colour photo was taken of Neil Armstrong.

The frame reproduced below is from Buzz Aldrin’s panorama of the Apollo 11 landing site and is the only Hasselblad-quality picture of Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface.

It was uncovered by my friend the late Douglas ‘HJP’ Arnold, of Havant, Hampshire, and we published it exclusively in Spaceflight magazine for the first time in July 1988 along with a detailed article about how this remarkable situation had come about.

Back at the post-talk malay at the Royal Society in London it was not easy to catch a moment to photograph Armstrong but I was pleased to grab this shot of him holding a copy of Spaceflight magazine, presented to him by my British Interplanetary Society colleague Suszann Parry.

As we had watched the three Apollo guys recounting their adventures with undiminished excitement and enthusiasm it was easy to think that given their combined age such occasions would become increasingly rare.

And so it proved with the sad announcement on 25 August that Neil Armstrong had passed away after complications following heart surgery.

Armstrong’s life marked an age of progress - his crackling words and ghostly images are both the soundtrack and some of the age’s defining images.

The choice of Armstrong to be the first man to walk on the Moon was a stroke of genius in itself. He needed no PR spin to embellish his achievement and there is no autobiography or celebrity status.

He was, as described by his family, ‘a very reluctant hero’, chosen because he was perfect for the job. And in that his remarkable story will remain the inspiration for generations to come.

Friday, 8 June 2012

New kids on the block

Just a stone’s throw from the attractive main entrance of Norwich railway station - the northern terminus of the Great Eastern Mainline from London Liverpool Street - flows the River Wensom, a chalk-fed Norfolk river and a tributary of the River Yare that bends serenely through Norfolk’s county town.

A good choice after alighting at the station, opened in 1884 and now the only remaining of three railway stations in Norwich, is to head across the road bridge and then turn alongside the water for a pleasant riverside walk down towards the Cathedral.

The gentle stroll on a sunny spring afternoon soon brings you to the tree-lined edge of playing fields at a point called Pull’s Ferry.

Here you can continue the riverside saunter around the outskirts of the city or turn to wander down the timeless and immaculately maintained Ferry Lane - itself a former canal - towards Norwich Cathedral Close.

The close is one of the largest in England, extending over 44 acres and containing a mixture of delightful residential and commercial properties.

Pull’s Ferry, the former ‘water gate’ to the close, and the Ferry Lane canal were originally used as the final leg of transportation for the distinctive Caen stone from which most of the cathedral was constructed.

The nearby properties range from stately eighteenth and nineteenth century terraces to homes and buildings with more distinctive Dutch gables.

Just along the way, the close houses the entrance to the cathedral herb garden - splendidly attractive and fragrant, particularly in the summer but worth a visit at any time of the year.

From this part of the close the cathedral spire is impressive, dominating the view and forever drawing the eye to gaze upon its structure.

On this day we were fortunate enough to arrive at the edge of the green and stumble upon a small tent-like structure along with an array of spotting scopes all trained on the cathedral spire.

High above us, the Hawk and Owl Trust had created a nesting platform, strapped to the side of the spire and now adopted as a perfect site from which to raise a young family by a pair of Peregrine falcons.

At the time there were four eggs on the stony bedding being incubated by a patient and expectant mum and dad. It was a treat to be there just as mother, after a four hour stint on the nest, decided to stretch her wings and take flight to survey the scene 240 feet below.

The first peregrine egg hatched in the early hours on 2 May, the second egg hatched towards the end of the day and the third hatched two days later.

The peregrine chicks continue to do well and their progress can be followed live online via a webcam set up to overlook the nesting platform - Norwich peregrines.

Peregrine falcons were once endangered in the UK but thanks to conservation efforts like this one their numbers have recovered in recent years.

The peregrine’s powerful body, short tail and pointed wings give it a distinctive appearance. This is the fastest falcon in flight, capable of reaching more than 120 mph when swooping on its pray.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Silent Spring

They have entranced generations with the beauty of their songs and glimpses of their plumage - but now the sound of the linnet and the vision of a turtle dove are becoming increasingly rare experiences for visitors to the European countryside.

According to a recent survey, the chances of encountering any one of the 36 species of farmland birds in Europe – species that also include the lapwing, the skylark and the meadow pipit – are now stunningly low.

Devastating declines in their numbers have seen overall populations drop from 600 million to 300 million between 1980 and 2009, the study has discovered.

This dramatic decline represents a 50 percent reduction and is blamed on major changes in farming policies enforced by the EU over the last 30 years.

In order to boost food production across Europe, the wholesale ripping up of hedgerows, draining of wetlands and ploughing over of meadows has robbed farmland birds of their homes and food. Numbers of linnets, turtle doves and lapwings have crashed as a result.

The survey, carried out by the pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme, also found that Britain has been one of the nations worst affected by losses to its farmland bird populations - in Europe the population of grey partridges has dropped from 13.4 million to 2.4 million, a loss of 82 percent whereas in the UK, that loss was 91 percent.

These losses were described as shocking by the scheme's chairman, Richard Gregory. "We had got used to noting a loss of a few per cent in numbers of various species over one or two years," he said.

"It was only when we added up numbers of all the different farmland bird species for each year since 1980, when we started keeping records, that we found their overall population has dropped from 600 million to 300 million, which is a calamitous loss. We have been sleepwalking into a disaster."

According to Gregory, who also serves as the head of species monitoring for the UK's Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds (RSPB), a range of factors are involved. In the case of the grey partridge, he blamed the intensification of farming which had killed off the plentiful numbers of insects that they ate.

With starlings, whose populations have fallen from 84.9 million to 39.9 million, a drop of 53 percent, it has been the destruction of woodlands and the corresponding loss of nesting places that has done the most serious damage, he said.

"By contrast, lapwings – whose numbers have declined from 3.8 million to 1.8 million, a drop of 52 precent – are more associated with marshes and riverbanks. It has been the draining of these lands that has destroyed their habitats and reduced their numbers so drastically."

The fact that the high losses of linnets, turtle doves and other farmland birds had not been expected is blamed by Gregory on a phenomenon known as the shifting baseline syndrome.

And it is unlikely that the problem will get better in the near future. In Bulgaria, Poland and the EU's other, newer member nations in eastern Europe, the farming policies that have been responsible for wiping out vast numbers of farmland birds in older member countries are only being introduced now.

"We take for granted things that two generations ago would have seemed inconceivable – in this case the reduction by 300 million of Europe's farmland bird population," Gregory added.

"Apart from the removal of creatures that are beautiful to behold and beautiful to listen to, we should take note of what this means. These losses are telling us that something is seriously amiss in the world around us and the way that we are interacting with nature."

The discovery of the dramatic losses suffered by farmland birds since 1980 comes as the green movement prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

The book, published in summer 1962, outlined the devastating impact that the uncontrolled use of synthetic insecticides was having on populations of birds in the US and played a critical role in kick-starting the green movement on both sides of the Atlantic.

Humanity was beginning to have a dreadful impact on wildlife and in particular on birds, Carson argued and Silent Spring led directly to the banning of the manufacture of DDT and other pesticides.

However, the bird losses she outlined 50 years ago have been dwarfed by the losses that have occurred in the last 30 years and which are revealed in the RSPB survey. Carson would be horrified about the state of the planet today.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Dragon's historic test flight

SpaceX is due to begin regular cargo flights to the International Space Station at the end of the summer - and its Dragon spacecraft will be the only craft on the lab's roster of servicing vehicles able to return significant hardware to Earth.

Formal reviews this month after a flawless nine day test flight in May are expected to clear the way for SpaceX's first operational cargo mission sometime in September.

SpaceX's commercial Dragon spaceship made an automated pinpoint splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, completing a feat never before achieved by private industry.

The gumdrop-shaped capsule, blackened by the heat of a high-speed re-entry, splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 560 miles west of Baja, California, at 1542 GMT.

The Dragon spacecraft became the first privately-owned vehicle to fly to the Space Station, notching that triumph May 25 at the end of a cautious laser-guided approach to the complex.

The capsule also became the first US spacecraft to reach the Space Station since the last Space Shuttle flight departed in July 2011.

With splashdown on 31 May, Dragon proved it could fill a void left after the Shuttle's retirement in returning experiment samples, broken components and other excess hardware to Earth.

The Dragon test flight launched from Florida on May 22 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. Three days later, after a flyby to demonstrate rendezvous techniques, the spacecraft precisely flew within 30 feet of the Station, close enough for the crew inside the complex to grapple Dragon with a robotic arm.

The astronauts unloaded more than 1,000 pounds of cargo from Dragon's pressurised compartment, including food, clothing, student experiments, and computer gear. The crew installed more than 1,300 pounds of equipment back inside Dragon for return to Earth.

After six days attached to the complex, Dragon was released from the lab's robotic arm at 0935.

SpaceX flight controllers at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., commanded the ship's thrusters to five for nearly 10 minutes a few hours later. The thrust slowed Dragon's speed by more than 200 mph, enough for its orbit to drop into the atmosphere for re-entry.

The successful conclusion of the test flight capped a triumphant mission for SpaceX, which intends to outfit the Dragon spacecraft for crewed launches and landings within three or four years. SpaceX is competing for funding from NASA to finance the effort.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Back to basics for US

A private space company attempting to make history today by firing its Dragon space capsule into orbit en route to a rendezvous with International Space Station had its launch aborted in the final seconds of liftoff.

The launch of the Falcon 9 and Dragon has been strictly downplayed as a ‘test flight’ by SpaceX officials and NASA observers. But a lot rests on its successful outcome which could buoy or blunt future political support for a private US space race in human spaceflight.

A year ago the iconic buildings and launch pads at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, were still a hive of activity and excitement as NASA and the US remained enraptured by the final launches of the Space Shuttle programme.

This morning’s dawn launch preparations took place far away on a dedicated launch pad and SpaceX preparation area at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A new launch attempt is now likely to be made on Tuesday.

Pre-dawn view of Falcon F9 and Dragon on launch pad.                       
I visited the SpaceX site last summer when the company was keen to show off its facilities and give us a close up view of the launch pad as it was preparing for an end of the year Falcon 9 launch.

Up-close view of a Falcon F9 rocket for the Lighthouse Keeper.             
If fully successful, this new mission will be a big confidence boost for SpaceX and NASA, which are partners for at least 12 unmanned cargo delivery flights to the Space Station over the next few years.

It will also edge the US a little closer to regaining its ability to launch humans into space - a capability it had maintained for five decades until the final launch of the Space Shuttle last summer.

NASA has paid SpaceX $381 million in an agreement to help pay for the design, development, and testing of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX has spent $1.2 billion to date, including public and private capital.

NASA and SpaceX are also jointly funding the design of a crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft to transport astronauts to the Space Station later this decade.

Upper part of SpaceX rocket in assembly hanger.           Clive Simpson
Flown Dragon capsule on display in Florida.                Clive Simpson
But SpaceX still has to compete with other aerospace companies for further NASA financing to support development of rockets and spacecraft for human occupants.

"We know this has been touted as a huge mission," said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's president. "We keep trying to say it's a test. Nonetheless, it's a big job. Success is not going to mean success of the commercial space industry, and failure is not going to mean failure of the commercial space industry."

Shotwell told a press conference at KSC the day before the flight that the most important outcome of the Dragon test flight was to learn from it - as the spacecraft's solar arrays, navigation and rendezvous sensors, and flight computer were all new.

Politically the flight comes at a crucial juncture just as budget decisions are about to be made in Washington.

Success will prove it is possible for SpaceX and other commercial operators to do the work NASA has advanced since the 1960s.

The mission is crucial for International Space Station operations. Assuming all goes well, SpaceX intends to launch its first, fully loaded cargo resupply mission to the station in mid-August.

Another company - Orbital Sciences Corp - has a $1.9 billion contract to launch its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft on eight cargo missions.

Orbital plans to launch a test flight of its Antares rocket in July. Then in September, an Antares rocket is scheduled to launch a Cygnus cargo carrier on a demonstration mission before its first cargo resupply mission to the Space Station in early 2013.

With the US pace Shuttle fleet firmly retired, the Dragon is the only means to return scientific experiments and equipment from the Space Station. All other robotic cargo carriers servicing the orbiting outpost double as rubbish trucks and burn up in the atmosphere.

Artist's impression of Dragon approaching the Space Station.                
"Since we no longer fly shuttles, we can’t take anything sizeable back down from the Space Station and this is absolutely critical to Space Station," Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said.

The commercial space race in the US may be hotting up but it can’t disguise the fact that the country and NASA will remain without the ability to put people into orbit for at least another five years or perhaps longer.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Postcard from Namche Bazaar

We’re on our way down. Arrived at Namche Bazaar mid-afternoon and able to post an email to guys back home from the local internet café.

The lower altitude means our bodies are alive with the 'extra' oxygen - an exhilarating feeling. But this has been a challenging journey for us normally office-bound mortals.

There have been times of great beauty and times of intense physical effort. We have gazed upon golden eagles from above as they swoop and soar below.

There has been a helicopter evacuation of our youngest member after he fell seriously ill with altitude sickness.

And we have experienced extreme cold and biting winds when it seemed almost impossible to keep warm.

Now we are on our way home. It has been a life-changing experience, a test of stamina and willpower, and all in the presence of the world's mightiest mountains.

Unforgiving and at the same time alluring in their pristine and rugged beauty. To see snow billowing from the mountain tops in the early morning jet-stream set against the clearest and deepest blue you could imagine is a sight to behold.

To trudge through a glacier that has created a landscape so alien it seems like no place on earth was both exciting and scary at the same time.

And always we have been supported by our able team of Sherpas, porters and cooks, whose cheery demeanour and willingness to serve is a lesson to us all.

They have guided and met our every need. Sometimes cajoling us along a particularly awkward path or offering to carry a rucksack when the altitude bites at our lungs and demands more than we are seemingly able to give.

We have climbed to more than 5,000 metres, and experienced emotions high and low in the process. But now we are on our way home. The place we have been dreaming of on the long, cold dark nights.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Camping at Tengboche

I was now beginning to feel some effects of being at high altitude. Normal actions seemed to take much longer and I was surprised how rapidly one becomes out of breath when walking up a gradient. Everything required more effort.

It started to rain a little (low cloud) on the afternoon's final approach to Tengboche. Arrived about 3.45. Drink to stave off altitude headache; thankfully it went almost straight away.

Bitingly cool this evening, especially with the damp air. Dinner was in mess tent at about 6.30 pm. Many other parties here. Tengboche is a regular stopping point for treks.

Had found lunch a little hard to digest (again an effect of altitude). Dinner this evening comprised bombay potatoes, coleslaw, bread pancakes and banana delight. Always hot juice when we arrived at campsite, and tea and biscuits in tent. I bought a can of Sprite for extra liquid.

Went to see sort film about Tengboche monastery but fell asleep. It was warm and the chairs were relatively comfortable.

Everest still seemed a distance dream but after first light in morning we should have a stunning view from the campsite, given clear weather.

It’s 9 pm. Sky is now clear. Giant mountains are silhouetted by twinkling stars. Several of us had discussion about coming days and how we would make it to Basecamp. Determined to keep going.

Some of our party started taking Diamox tablets to help thin the blood and thus combat some of the effects of altitude. Along with others I decided to wait and see how things went the next day.

Last night I slept from 11 pm until 0530 am without a break. Socks staying on tonight as colder but will try to save really warm clothing for the severe cold higher up. Others are already using long johns, hats and gloves etc at night.

Can't imagine what the coming days and nights are going to be like. For us ’office guys’ this is a test of determination and character.

Probably not enough pre-trek training with hingsight - and some more gym work might have helped as tiredness kicks in very quickly. Daytime walks are not technically difficult, though.

Our Yaks are tied up this evening near tents. Their thick shaggy coats glistened in the frost as we turned in. They are lying down but the bells clank every now and then - a comforting sound.

Awoke at 0540. Cold overnight in sleeping bag but only woke a couple of times and didn't need to venture out. People now out of tents. Sun just catching tops of mountains - looks like it will be an excellent day.

I took a short walk to top of the Tengboche site to view the sun rising on mountains. Monks in their colourful robes were gathered outside to witness the rising sun too, a daily ritual. Our campsite is white with a heavy frost and we wait for the warmth of the first swun rays of the day. It happens quickly, like the end of an eclipse. In the sun it iswarm but in the shadows still bitterly cold.

I can see the distant Everest from this campsite but it is dwarfed by other mountains in the foreground. The first part of the trail today is down through woods on sandy ground. Then across a suspension bridge. After crossing we contour around a mountainside, with a fast flowing icy river below.

There is a string of high mountains opposite, with Everest in the distance. The mighty mountain is becoming a familiar, if a little discreet, in the range beyond. Most of this part of the walk is dominated by the mcuh closer to hand and distinctively-shaped Ama Dablam.

At 12 noon it has turned a little cooler and we stop for lunch. By the time we leave an hour later the sun has disappeared as the afternoon clouds build; it will be much colder in the afternoon.

I can hear but not see the roar of water below. By now I have neck ache and a pounding lower head; not sure whether result of gaining altitude. I struggle to walk quickly after lunch. The gradient has become hard work.

The scenery is turning to barren tundra as we lose trees and vegetation. I’ve developed a severe headache in back of neck and have bad indigestion.

We come to a small wooden bridge across a raging tributary. I took a short break here and drank a can of Sprite bought at the campsite shop that morning. Then it was a steep climb up onto open land. Taking it steady, I tried to establish rhythm.

My own head had cleared now but a number of our party  werenow suffering bad headaches and stomach upsets. As a result we will probably stay extra night at our next scheduled stop - Dingboche.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Altitude emergency

No walking this afternoon as having lunch at Kangjung which is also where we are sleeping. Stopped at Everest View Hotel en route and also visited simple Sherpa Museum just after we set out from Namche.

Turned colder early this afternoon as the sun disappeared about one o’clock. The youngest member of our team, David, aged 19, rather worryingly asleep in a room at the tea house. He came on lower level easier walk as he was suffering since yesterday evening quite severe symptoms, in my opinion, of advanced mountain (altitude) sickness.

Our trek leader said we’ll see how he is tomorrow, although I heard her at lunchtime tell the Sirdar she was worried. Altitude sickness should be taken very seriously, according to the books I had read.

So far everyone else seems okay. The pace was slower today and easier to cope with. Apparently there are a number of contingency options and alternative routes to cope with a variety of circumstances.

My own cold and cough, which struck me on the second night, is much the same, not really bothering me until I lie down, mainly a running nose and hacking cough.

It’s 15:30 now. There is thick monstrous cloud all around. The light is bright but flat. The tent cold. I will transfer to our room in the tea house soon to keep a little warmer. I expect we should make the most of this luxury as it will only get colder as the trek progresses.

Ninety minutes later after a flurry of activity inside two of our porters burst through the door with a very ill-looking David propped between them. It was dark and they were all dressed for the extreme cold. I sensed a real emergency was unfolding before our eyes.

David was carried back across the mountain by the two brave porters and led by our Sirdar. It was a walk of mercy through the bitterly cold night, taking some four hours to reach the Kunde hospital where we had taken a short break that morning shortly after leaving Namche.

Our trek leader was visibly upset by now and told us she wanted a ‘second opinion’ on David’s rapidly deteriorating condition which had rapidly turned into acute altitude sickness.

It was 21.20 and I had just turned in. We had spent the evening chatting in the warmth, drinking hot tea and playing card games for 10 Rupees a go in the tea house. It was reported back that David had been put on oxygen and was staying in the remote mountain hospital overnight. That was a life-saver.

Cloudy mist hangs over the campsite tonight. Somehow it doesn’t feel so cool and it’s nice to have been inside the warm of the tea room for much of the late afternoon and evening. Heated by a stove powered by Yak dung and lighted by Tilley lamps.

We heard the next day that David had been evacuated by helicopter to hospital in Kathmandu. At the lower altitude he would thankfully make a full recovery - it had been a close shave and this trek was definitely over for him.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Namche Bazaar

A day of crossing and re-crossing the thundering glacial ‘Dudh’ (milk) river, walking through pine forests and cleared areas of terraced fields, growing a surprising variety of crops. A series of small hamlets mark the way as we slowly gain altitude, with spectacular 6000 m mountain peaks unfolding above.

We pass through the gates of the Sagarmartha National Park, the establishment of which has seen a significant attempt to stem the use of firewood in the area. Today, self-contained trekking groups must use only kerosene fuels for cooking, and tea-houses and lodges are encouraged to use kerosene or yak dung.

We follow the river course to the confluence of the Dudh and Bhote rivers, and cross a spectacular high bridge before commencing our ascent to the village of Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa ‘capital’ of Nepal.

It is a tough climb towards the end of the day as the trail zig zags steadily upwards through a forest of pine to a vantage point that provides our first glimpse of distantMount Everest. The trail continues to climb and meander to Namche, and the sight of this prosperous village spread within a horseshoe-shaped valley opposite the beautiful peak of Kongde Ri is worth every step.

At Namche we have emerged from the narrow lowland valleys and after an acclimatisation day will continue into a changing landscape of broad glacial valleys punctuated by the moraines left by retreating glaciers.

This stunningly located gateway to so many paths in history straddles the sides of the valley at some 12,000 feet above sea level - you can almost taste the atmosphere in the air, the sense of hope, joy and wonder to come.

It was called a rest day but after breakfast we were off, thought this time with a light pack. We climbed steadily up the side of the village to a museum and then up towards a view point. It was hard going as we put on 500 m.

The skies had been rather cloudy to start with but the sun came out mid-morning. It was a steep twisting climb, but first chance to see Everest in the distance though was thwarted by distant clouds.  Some of our group walked on to the Everest View Hotel but they didn’t see it from there either.

The walk back down was equally punishing in the heat of the day - twisting hairpin footpaths with wonderful panoramic views of Namche at every turn.
By the time we got down I was tired with a headache, even though it had been a fairly slow pace. After drinks and lunch the headache disappeared and so did the weariness.

I spent time in the afternoon looking round local ‘shops’. Very colourful and spread along tiny, steep streets with Yak passing-room only. I bought a fake North Face down jacket at a bargain price which I thought might be useful later for the cold nights at higher altitude.

It seemed my body was adjusting to the altitude. Today’s up and then down again walk had helped. Breathing was now easier than the first night at Namche.

But we would be back at square one tomorrow After the climb out of Namche the first part of the day would be fairly level, then a descent into the valley followed by a steady and steep climb.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information click here 
All photos: Clive Simpson