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Stories from the Scotsman
First footing in space


WHEN IT comes to boldly going - and further abusing that much-split infinitive - the Scots have been as venturesome as any, ever since the legendary and over-optimistic Father John Damien, the 16th-century abbot of Tongland, supposedly flung himself off a tower of Stirling Castle wearing feathered wings. He survived, escaping with only a broken thigh, after crash-landing into a midden.

Many a flying Scot has enjoyed happier landings since, although when it comes to the final frontiers of space travel, so far it has been pioneers of Scots descent who have taken the big steps. Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, took a scrap of Armstrong "tartan" with him on his historic space flight of 1969, in tribute to his Border forbears, who would have gone a-reiving by the light of that very moon on which he left the first footprints.

Armstrong’s fellow-moonwalker, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, also boasts Scottish antecedents, as does Dr Bonnie Dunbar, fellow astronaut, deputy director for university affairs with NASA and now a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Quite apart from stray scraps of tartan venturing where no kilt has gone before, there are present-generation Scots making significant contributions to our exploration and understanding of space. The Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Professor John Brown of Glasgow University, is the leader of a scientific team who will analyse data about the sun from the HESSI (High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager) project. A NASA space probe will orbit the Sun, transmitting information which should vastly increase our knowledge of our closest star.

Unfortunately, launching of the probe, originally planned for this summer, has been postponed. This is a significant blow to those involved, as it had been regarded as one of the crowning glories of Glasgow University’s 550th anniversary celebrations, bearing in mind that numerous astronomers at the university have been studying the Sun since Alexander Wilson during the 18th century.

Possibly the UK’s foremost aerospace engineering researcher is Professor Colin McInnes, professor of space systems engineering at Glasgow University and a specialist in the area of solar sails. Solar sails are a potential great leap forward in space technology, as they would enable spacecraft to harness the photon "wind" from the Sun. Professor McInnes, who was recently made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, has been involved in the project management of the American-based Planetary Society’s venture to put a sail into space by the end of this year, a project which would use a vehicle launched from a Russian submarine.

Other Scottish universities, including Dundee and Aberdeen, are involved in areas such as spacecraft electronics and space law while, in the commercial sector, the essential navigation hardware for the European Space Agency’s Ariadne launch vehicle was developed and built by Ferranti in Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, an expatriate Fifer is investigating the very stuff from which stars - and their solar systems - are made. Burntisland-born Anneila Sargent is professor of astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, president of the American Astronomical Society and director of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, high in the Sierra Nevada. Sargent and her colleagues use powerful radio telescope arrays to probe the beginnings of planetary systems, discovering the kind of "proto-planetary discs" of stellar dust and gas which might feasibly give rise to groups of planets such as our own.

And let’s not forget Scotland’s honourable place in the annals of amateur rocketry. Step forward the Paisley Rocketeers, probably the world’s first amateur rocketry club. During the mid-1930s, the Paisley outfit launched a series of increasingly ambitious home-made projectiles, initially based on penny fireworks and at least in part inspired by the attempts, albeit unsuccesful, of German pioneer Gerhardt Zucker to launch rocket mail from the island of Scarp, off Harris.

Among their associate members was a youthful Arthur C Clarke - later to become renowned worldwide for his visions, both factual and fictional, of the future - but the advent of the Second World War and, later, legal restrictions on model rocketry curtailed their activities. Rocketeers founders John and Peter Stewart are now in their seventies, but remain active, experimenting mainly with "aquajet" rockets as part of a burgeoning amateur rocketry scene in Scotland.

Thursday, 13th September 2001
The Scotsman

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