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Space School UK: Magnet for maniacs


Weird people, sweat-meister and the useless UK

Yes, it's true. Space School UK attracts a lot of weird people within it. I shall explain this, and try not to annoy too many people in the process.

Hit me if you will, but you have to admit that people who are interested in space are not your 'normal' people. They usually (but not necessarily) like science fiction things, read different books to everyone else, do slightly better than others at school and perhaps don't hang around with the most popular people at school.

Nothing wrong with that. There are many things good about that.

In certain cases, the sort of people who are interested in space, and do want to come to Space School, harbour a lot of interests that they find their 'normal' friends aren't interested in. Or they don't have any friends to speak of at all.

So when they get to Space School, they are naturally overjoyed to find others of their 'own kind'. Sometimes, they overreact. I quote an example in two people I met. One of them, during the so-called Lunar Eclipse, took out four Terry Pratchett books from her room and started reading them outside, at about 11 PM.

Now, I don't have anything against the Tezzer. I like his books. But it is one thing to like his books, and another to read them outside at 11 PM.

The other one was not only weird, but downright annoying. Usually when she entered a room, people would mumble:

'Damn, I thought we'd lost her outside.'

or 'I didn't know that they let in nursery kids into Space School.'

One particularly cutting comment (made by me, I'll admit) was:

'What, so the 14 to 18 age limit meant physical age, not mental age? Oh well.'

I don't pretend that all the people who went to Space School were weird. Of course not. It's just that you noticed the weird ones. The one I was just talking about - she'd always be shouting out some nonsense to anyone within listening distance, and pretend not to notice the fact that we were all studiously ignoring her. She wore this weird cloth thing on her head (that gives the game away, then). That is one reason why you should not to go Space School - it's very easy to find people who annoy you (don't worry - there are many other reasons why you should go).

Am I saying that everyone who is interested in space is a social malcontent? No. After all, I'm interested in space, and look at me, I'm a... social malcontent? No. At least, that's what I'm told.

I'll move onto Thursday, the penultimate day. First up was the talk about Light Sails, by Colin Jack. This was a perfectly fine talk, but there is one reason why I'll always remember it.

When, during the Rocketry Practical, we were making the finishing touches on our rocket, this Colin Jack came up to our table to have a chat with us. I asked a few questions, and he seemed like a fine bloke. But there was one thing I noticed. He seemed to have wet dark patches across his shirt - now, these weren't in the normal sweat places like armpit and back, so I just thought he'd spilled some water over himself or something.

Skipping to later, when we were walking back from the field where we'd launched our rockets, I noticed that he had more wet dark patches, in different places. Very strange, I thought. Then I started talking to some people, and I heard the words ' sweaty!' It struck me like a thunderbolt - those patches were indeed sweat! The horror!

Needless to say, the rest of the walk back alternated between discussing how I couldn't have noticed before, and trying to stifle fits of uncontrollable laughter.

I have never seen a guy sweat so much in my life. Not even my old Maths teacher, whom we lovingly named 'Sweaty', for obvious reasons.

The Rocketry Practical was the usual stuff, messing about with parachutes and bits of glue. Then, as we had about five minutes left, we realised that our rocket was extremely precarious. It relied on one single mechanism - a rubber band. There weren't any backups. I'll explain it further.

When the rocket is ignited, after a certain time has elapsed, a secondary charge is ignited which pushes the whole top of the rocket away. Technically. Only we'd altered our rocket so that might not happen. But it didn't matter, because we'd put in a rubber band mechanism, which technically should spring open the optimistically named 'Payload bay' and release the glider.

If the rubber band didn't word, then the rocket parachute wouldn't be released, and you'd have a rocket plumetting down at about one hundred miles an hour, with an deadly sharp nose cone pointing at you. Worrying, no?

So did it kill anyone, as we predicted? How large was the blast radius? You'll find out soon enough, if you read on.

The next talk was given by a bloke from the European Space Agency, about the momumental waste of money that is the International Space Station. The most interesting part of this was when he said that the UK wasn't contributing any money to the ISS. What a surprise.

As a result, the UK wouldn't be able to contribute any cosmonauts to go onto the ISS. I knew this already, but I was rubbing my hands with devilish glee in anticipation of the explosion this would cause. There was an explosion. You see, a lot of people going to Space School want to be astro/cosmonauts. And they weren't happy when they were told that there'd be no going onto ISS for them. Not happy at all.

It makes sense, of course. Why should we expect to go on the damn thing if we haven't paid for it?

This poor fellow giving the talk, Alan Thirkettle, got a lot of flak from all the budding cosmonauts about how stupid this was. It was quite funny. He said that it was the UK's fault, and that they'd all have to emigrate to America if they wanted to go up into space.

Always fancied going to America, anyway.

I'll be serious for a moment. Alan was right in his comments. No matter how good you are, as long as your country didn't pay for the ISS, you won't be going on it. There are literally hundreds of first-class top-notch experts who are candidates for ISS, and the ESA couldn't really give a damn if it loses some candidates from the UK.

It's spiteful, yes. It's unprofessional, yes. But it is fair.

If the UK built a space station on our own, would we let someone from China come on board? Of course not. They didn't pay, did they?

It's the way of the world, folks. If you want to go on the ISS, you'd better start writing those letters to Tony Blair pretty soonish.

Our final talk before the rocket launch was by Dr. Cyril Isenberg. It was supposed to be about 'Our Solar System.' Which it wasn't. But it was a great talk, nevertheless. The man was cool - he knew how to keep our interest up. How's that, you ask. It's by showing us loads of cool gadgets and stuff involving liquid nitrogen. Cool, or what? (ho ho ho).

I'm just trying to remember a few. One involved Newton's Cradle (cue much whispering on the lines of 'Three balls, not two.')

Another involved using a hairdryer to hover a ping pong ball in the air. I've never been able to get that working before, but this guy managed to hover two ping pong balls, not just one. Amazing.

Digression: You know the Maltesers advert where they have this thing which can hover a malteser in the air? Didn't you think it was really cool, and you wanted to get one? Well, sorry folks, but it just don't exist. Some reporter tried to find one, and the plastic hover machine thing does exist, but it can't hover something as heavy as a malteser. They just probably used string, or computer graphics.

Another reason to become cynical in the advertising industry, I suppose.

End digression

What else? There was a good thing about the transfer of momentum from stacks of balls, which I don't have the patience to go into. Then there was the liquid nitrogen thing. He poured some liquid nitrogen into a sealed container which had two jets pointing at a tangent to the container curved wall, on opposite sides of the container.

So when the liquid nitrogen was poured in, it started to heat up to room temperature. So it expanded into a gas, and the gas whizzed out of those jets, and the container began to spin pretty damn fast. It was so cool, we asked to see the experiment again.

Something I overheard: 'Jewish lecturers are always really cool.'

What's coming up in Part 7? You'll find out about the fate of our rocket, the Sakigake (some Japanese space probe) and the really cool quiz and disco. They were really cool. Yeah. Really cool.


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