Last week I had a ticket (at short notice) to a lecture by Jerry Stone of the Spaceflight UK organisation – officially titled “The Day They Launched A Woodpecker”, but was basically an alternative history of space flight.

It was essentially a swift romp through the history of rockets, initially as wacky Victorian experiments through to the WW2 missiles and then on to modern space exploration – but all with a focus on the less well known, and more humorous aspects of the experiments.

I quite like these anecdote laden talks as everyone can read Wikipedia or books and learn about the Big Science, or watch Discovery Channel where everyone is a HERO – but the grand way they present the events can make the people involved  seem more distant and difficult to relate to.

Learning that a Great Scientist made some howling mistakes somehow humanises them as people. Especially important as many of the talks Jerry Stone gives are aimed at schools and you sometimes need to persuade potential scientists that the Great Scientists are ordinary people, just like the school kids and anyone can become a scientist.

Sadly, the room for the lecture was almost totally pitch dark, making note taking rather difficult and my already perilous handwriting was almost unintelligible when the lights were finally switched back on, so a few bits I can recall/decipher.

One of the more amusing early stories of rockets were attempts to fit them to the back of bicycles, which can be more accurately recounted here.

One interesting aspect of the early days of rockets that still carries on today is the familiar “5..4..3..2..1.. Blast Off” countdown, which can in fact be traced to a popular German silent movie about sending people to the moon. Lacking sound, the director, the infamous Fritz Lang came up with the countdown which was displayed as text on the screen to build audience suspense.

Most of us know the Germans were the driving force behind the US rocket project, but who knew they were such an influence in popular rocket culture as well?

One amusing tale about the German rocket efforts during WW2 came around thanks to the bureaucracy in the German military. Having long realised that being “economical with the truth” was the best way to get equipment when needed, but that also the High Command could never be contradicted – the scientists working on the V1 rocket were troubled by the arrival of a letter asking what happened to the consignment of 1 million building bricks allegedly sent to them.

Although they had never ordered the bricks, the scientists responded by claiming that the bricks were lost in a Typhoon. Shortly afterwards a reply came back, where High Command said that they realised an accounting error had taken place. “Typhoon not necessary” it concluded.

For some time, when things went missing during the US rocket and moon projects, it was blamed on a Typhoon.

An audio clip about how rockets calculate their position by “knowing where they aren’t, then working out where they should be and if they aren’t where they shouldn’t be then working out where they weren’t” reminded me of a four minute version of Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous unknown unknowns speech.

Sadly I can’t find the audio clip online, but its deadpan serious delivery of a bizarre, yet scientifically perfectly sensible explanation was hysterical to listen to.

It also turns out that the famous saying “take me to your leader” is in fact based on a real NASA document. The early astronauts were given a card with text in different languages to use if their re-entry dropped them off in the wrong place.

The note said, “I am a stranger. I come in peace. Take me to your leader, and there will be a massive reward for you in eternity.”

To end the talk though was to finish on the story that gave the talk its title – the time NASA launched a Woodpecker. No, not the incident a few years ago where a woodpecker attacked the space shuttle, but an actual launch.

A launch of a Thor rocket in the 1950s at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on launch pad 17 A was repeatedly delayed by damage to one of the pipes carrying computer cables to the top of the rocket. After several days of repeated repairs, they finally identified a woodpecker as the culprit, but several attempts to get rid of it failed.

Eventually, they mounted a high-pressure gas canister just under the woodpecker’s favourite perch, and when it arrived the next day, the traditional 5..4..3..2..1.. Blast Off was given, a lever pulled and with a massive blast of air – the woodpecker was blasted upwards at high velocity.

After some dazed confusion, the woodpecker flew off, allegedly in the same direction as the rocket was itself due to fly.

Each successful NASA rocket launch is marked by a silhouette tally mark on the launch site. As there had been a formal countdown, and the woodpecker could be said to have been “launched” quite successfully, there is to this day a tally mark for the launch of a red bellied woodpecker at the launch site.

The talk was hosted by the Society of Chemical Industry, and Jerry Stone can be booked for talks elsewhere if you want  a really quite entertaining presentation for schools – or an after-work event?

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One comment on “An alternative history of space exploration
  1. Robert says:

    I thought it was good, but possibly it was really aimed for a younger audience, than those of us who were there.