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
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