Britain's First Astronaut

As the seventh, British-born, astronaut was heading towards the International Space Station today, you could be mistaken for thinking he was the first British astronaut. He wasn't. He is either the second, seventh or eighth depending on how broad you want to be at defining "British". He is the first British ESA astronaut.

The first British astronaut - a person travelling to space under their British nationality - was Dr Helen Sharman, from Sheffield, who went to the Mir space station in 1991. Despite the enthusiasm of various news outlets, Tim Peake is the seventh person born in the UK to go to space.

The British-born astronauts in order of flight are:

  1. Helen Sharman. Born: Sheffield. First launch: 1991-05-18. British. Supported by a private British consortium/USSR government.
  2. Michael Foale. Born: Louth. First launch: 1992-03-24. Used US citizenship.
  3. Piers Sellers. Born: Crowborough. First launch: 2002-10-07. Used US citizenship.
  4. Nicholas Patrick. Born: Saltburn-by-the-Sea. First launch: 2006-12-10. US citizenship.
  5. Gregory H. Johnson. Born: South Ruislip. First launch: 2008-03-11. US citizenship.
  6. Richard Garriot. Born: Cambridge. First launch: 2008-10-12. Dual nationality space tourist. Had a US flag on his arm but US/UK on his flight suit.
  7. Tim Peake. Born: Chicester. First launch: 2015-12-15. British. First to be supported by the UK government/ESA.
British-born astronauts
There is also space tourist Mark Shuttleworth who was born in South Africa and has dual nationality. He had a South African flag on his space suit sleeve.

Helen Sharman is the first British astronaut. I was a kid when she went to Mir and both her and Michael Foale were inspirations to me.

According to the press

Unfortunately, the press have latched on to phrases such as "Britain's first 'official' astronaut" and "Britain's first ESA astronaut" and then lost the qualifications that make those statements true. It is frustrating that this isn't just the usual suspects either. Even the broadsheets have printed wrong/incorrect/misleading headlines or reports about this.

Last year the Guardian went with a title wrongly declaring Tim as "Britain's first astronaut". They add the qualifications in the first paragraph, and later mention Helen and the others, but people tend to remember the massive title text a bit more than subtleties in paragraph four.

Recently, the i100 wrongly claimed Tim Peake is "Britain's first citizen astronaut" and followed that up with the equally untrue "Peake is technically the first British citizen to become an astronaut." He isn't 'technically' or otherwise. They do at least mention that Helen Sharman exists in the penultimate paragraph of that article although I'm not convinced typical readers will take in that that invalidates previous sentences. Newsweek repeated the incorrect claim of "Britain's first astronaut...". Their qualifying statement further down the story seems to dismiss Helen with the confused:

"Brits who have made the journey into space previously have only held U.S. or dual nationality and had either worked for NASA or travelled on privately funded trips".

Helen did travel on a privately funded trip but isn't American and doesn't have dual nationality. Of course, if you were to ignore Helen the statement would be true.

The Telegraph's live coverage stated:

"Major Tim Peake was forced to say goodbye to his children Oliver, 4, and Thomas, 7, for six months today as he became Britain's first astronaut."

He did say goodbye to his children but he didn't become Britain's first astronaut. He is our first ESA astronaut.

BBC Focus magazine tweeted to wish a bon voyage to Tim but also claimed he was "our first Astronaut". Unless Tim also works for BBC Focus magazine, that's wrong.

Is it a problem?

It is troubling that the person who actually was the first British astronaut gets defined away by headlines. If you wanted to omit women from the history of science this would be a way to do it. Several men who I don't know sought me out on Twitter to let me know it isn't that. Some said it was just "poor wording". Another told me that she was a "cosmonaut" not an "astronaut" despite the two meaning the same thing. Another told me there are no British astronauts as both Helen and Tim launched with the Russians so are "Russian astronauts". This perverse interpretation would presumably also have British people on an Air France flight being referred to as "French passengers". I'm not sure why so many random men have felt that need to find me and explain to me how it isn't a problem.

On a more positive note, after I wrote this Brian Cox made a point of introducing Helen Sharman as Britain's first astronaut on Stargazing Live. Good on him.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 16th Dec 2015 (02:23 GMT) | Permalink

Human spaceflight

How many people have been to space? That all depends on your definition of space. The Earth's atmosphere doesn't have a fixed boundary. It just gets thinner and thinner. The closest to an international standard we have is an altitude of 100 km. This suspiciously round number is close to the Karman Line - a place where the speed needed for a craft to be controllable by aerodynamic forces equals the orbital speed. It is a cut-off between aeronautics and astronautics.

As is often the case, the United States chooses a different definition to the rest of the world. The US prefers to use 50 miles (~80km). The practical difference from using the lower altitude is that six US Air Force pilots are then included as astronauts. I stick to 100km as it has some kind of physics-based justification.

If we use 100 km, there have been 545 astronauts so far but expect that to increase in December 2015 when the next Soyuz goes up to the ISS. These comprise of 331 from the US (NASA), 120 Russians (Soviet/Roscosmos), 10 Chinese (CNSA), 9 space tourists, and 75 with other nationalities.

For my recent book, I collated data on all 545 astronauts and made visualisations of various aspects. I've created a human spaceflight timeline which lets you see when every mission was as well as key moments.

There are a few things that become obvious when it is presented like this. The first is how we've increased the duration of spaceflights over the years. You can see how short the Shuttle missions were (roughly 8-12 days long) compared to those on space stations such as Mir or the ISS. It is also easy to see the pauses in the human spaceflight programmes of the Soviets and the Americans following the disasters of Soyuz 11, Challenger, and Columbia.

I've also created a graph of astronaut data, a map of astronaut birthplaces, a page which shows who is in space and who was in space (just change the date in the URL), and a breakdown of astronaut stats and records.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 26th Oct 2015 (20:58 GMT) | Permalink

The infographic book of space

As of last Thursday I am a published author (ignoring my thesis). I created a book of infographics relating to space with Chris North from Cardiff University. I say created, rather than wrote, as much of the effort went into creating visualisations of data and concepts.

Book cover
Cosmos: The infographic book of space

The contents start with human & robotic exploration before stepping out to the solar system, the stars, galaxies, and the universe as a whole. We have tried to include a range of concepts some of which are really easy to grasp and some which require a bit more thought. Hopefully a few challenge preconceptions (e.g. how many planets are there? and is the Sun at the centre of the Solar System?) whilst others present data in new ways (every interplanetary mission).

Interplanetary missions to bodies other than the Moon

Giant stars
A selection of large stars shown in comparison to the Sun.

We had a relatively short period of time to create the book so there was a lot of work to do. Initially we weren't sure if we'd be able to do it but managed to come up with around 60 ideas within a couple of days. The aim was 100 different graphics.

The process

As I'm based in Leeds and Chris is in Cardiff, we needed ways to work together efficiently. We used a private Github repository to build up our list of ideas and start assembling the text and data. We discussed the ideas and progress via the issues on Github and via Skype calls. But making a book needed more than just us. We had help from a graphic designer - Mark McCormick - based in Newcastle.

During most of the design process I spent a day a week in Newcastle with Mark. Being at the same computer screen made the process much easier. Many of the graphics were data driven and we quickly realised that it was going to be incredibly tedious and error prone for Mark to position hundreds of elements on the page. Chris and I created lots of Javascript and Python code to do the boring job of precisely positioning data and output the results as vector graphics for Mark to do his magic with. Working next to Mark really helped the process. In fact, a few of the spreads in the book originated from discussions we had as we were chatting over tea.

Mark, and the other designers at his company, suggested the light colour palette for the book. They said they wanted it to stand out from all the other space-related books which tend to have black covers. I liked this idea and I think the result looks really great.

Interactive versions

Having developed so many things for the web over the past few years, it was challenging, at times, to fit the constraints of the printed page. There is a limited amount of space and a limited number of labels that can been shown. We knew a few would work very well as interactive versions. A handy by-product of using Javascript to create first drafts was that it became relatively straightforward to create interactive web versions.

We created a public repository on Github to host the web versions as well as the data sets we collated to make the book. We also decided to use the issues system to solicit corrections - there are bound to be mistakes in a book containing this much information. The website also has a few bonus infographics that aren't in the book.

A timeline of human spaceflight missions. This is something that is just far too long to fit on the page of a book.

In the end I hope we've made a well-designed coffee table book that would make a good Christmas present. I also hope we've made some interesting and useful web resources. Enjoy.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 25th Oct 2015 (01:31 BST) | Permalink

Humanity vs mankind

Note (2015-09-23 09:45 UTC): updated to include clarification that "human" and "man" don't share a root.

It has been a very long time since my last blog post but I've been making a book, cycling across Europe, and had little to say in long-form.

This post is about language - particularly language commonly used in astronomy/space contexts. On Monday, I read a very useful article about inclusive language by Dr Alice Gorman (@drspacejunk). It specifically talks about phrases such as "manned spaceflight", "mankind", "manmade", and "unmanned" and alternatives such as "human spaceflight", "humanity", "artificial", "robotic".

Not everyone understands why some word choices can exclude people who aren't male. It may seem illogical that "mankind" is seen as exclusive whereas "humanity" isn't. It is common to think they share the root word "man" so why aren't they equivalent? The answer isn't simple or necessarily logical. English is messy. Linguists say they don't share a root but, even if they had, current interpretations of words aren't always consistent with past usage or with other words that appear to have a common root. An unrelated example would be "awful". This used to mean "inspiring reverential wonder" but now mostly is a synonym for "bad". "Awesome" is now a synonym for "good". Those two words may share a root but these days have more or less opposite meanings.

There are no doubt several contributing factors to why, currently, "human" and "humanity" are seen as more inclusive than "mankind". Let's start with "mankind". One problem is that "womankind" exists as a word that refers to all women. Use of "womankind" peaked around 1899 and has declined since (as has use of "mankind") but its existence means "mankind" acts in two roles; as both a generic and a term for all men. Women have to mentally include themselves in "mankind" whereas men don't. There are studies showing that male-based generic terms aren't all that neutral as they tend to lead to male-based mental imagery.

As far as I know, the term "human" has not been used as a term for only one gender with modified versions of it for others. Although linguists know the "man" in "human" isn't a postfix, is can look like it is one. In practice, both men and women have to do the brief mental process to modify the "hu" to include themselves rather than only women. For me, these reasons make "human" and "humanity" much more inclusive. Of course, this does not mean I want to erase all past use of "mankind". That would be silly (the modern usage of silly rather than the older usage meaning "happy, fortuitous, prosperous").

I'm aware that many older people don't see a problem here and may even think that "humanity" is an ugly word or proclaim this is "political correctness gone mad". I think it is just language changing as it always has. I've grown up with the term "human" used throughout science-fiction as a term that distinguishes us from alien species or robots. To me "humanity" is a natural term to use and "mankind" feels old-fashioned. I expect my aliens to say "take me to your leader, puny human".

When it comes to the term "un-manned" I've always been a bit confused if that includes everything from instrumentation to tortoises. I prefer to use "robotic" for spacecraft without biological passengers. If robots/software ever become sentient, they may not appreciate being defined by what they aren't i.e. "unmanned". Of course, they may not like the historical baggage of "robot" either.

Ultimately, people can choose whatever language they want to use. They should also appreciate that associations and connotations change with time and an old "generic" term may not be what it once was. In the early 21st Century I'm on the side of humanity.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 23rd Sep 2015 (02:59 BST) | Permalink

Fake New Year 2015

You may be seeing claims that this image shows Europe at midnight on New Year's Eve. It doesn't. It is a mosaic showing lighting changes from 1993-2003.

Faked satellite image
Not the view at midnight. CREDIT: NASA/NOAA

Ways to tell this pictures isn't what it claims:
  1. Time zones - The image covers over 4 time zones so "Europe" has midnight at different times not all at once.
  2. No clouds - The entire continent is rarely free of cloud, particularly in winter.
  3. Ireland - Ireland doesn't just have red fireworks.
  4. Fireworks at sea? - Highly-flammable North Sea oil rigs aren't the best setting for massive fireworks displays.

Although the image is not New Year's Eve, it does show something pretty interesting. It is a mosaic made by the US's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing lighting changes between 1993 and 2003. The red areas are lights that are new in that period, blue areas are those that have reduced, and orange & yellow are areas of high intensity lighting that have got brighter.

Footnote: this post is a cut down version of my posts from 2014 and 2013.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 27th Dec 2014 (22:54 GMT) | Permalink