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The 50th Anniversary of the First Manned Orbit – A Report from the Star City

Many years ago when I was still in school I had the chance of a lifetime: I visited the Star City, the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre located in the northeast of Moscow where they teach and train future spacemen. I still remember the visit, and my reminder is a “golden” commemorating coin with Yuri Gagarin’s portrait.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photo, when there, so I was kind of hoping that I may find some on the web. And so I did, and if you read in Russian, go to the Russian post by Anton Agarkov. And if you want to read about the political history of the Star City, head over to the Russian Space Web.

So, when you arrive to the train station just a few minutes away from Moscow, you are taken to the Star City through the gates that divide the earthly and heavenly lives. Behind the gates are clean streets, modern houses, shops, schools, and training buildings. Spacemen have lived in the Star City with their families, here they shopped, here their children went to school. In the Soviet era people used to joke that socialism had come to life in this little spot outside of the capital city.

Credit: Anton Agarkov

One of the most important tasks a potential cosmonaut has to complete is a centrifuge training. It is at this stage that a lot of prospects are seeded out: the centrifuge shows, whether or not people can sustain the taking-off and setting down. A lot of equipment at the training centre is unique, and speaking of centrifuges, at the Star City there is the world’s largest centrifuge produced by the Swedish company, ASIA, at the astronomical price of 11 ton of gold, excuse the pun. The result is the ability of the medical team at the training centre to monitor the changes in the cosmonaut’s health under the influence of fluctuations in temperature, pressure, humidity, and even the atmospheric content of the centrifuge.

Credit: Anton Agarkov
Credit: Anton Agarkov

Another place of interest at the training centre is the hydrolaboratory. This is a swimming pool specially designed to imitate the state of weightlessness. A cosmonaut wearing a spacesuit is put in the water; to keep him from floating, the spacesuit is emburdened with leaded weights. The pool’s depth allows to put in it various modules of the International Space Station, so that the prospective cosmonauts can practise working in the open space.

Credit: Anton Agarkov
Credit: Anton Agarkov

Obviously, it is impossible to fully replicate the weightlessness: the objects that would be weightless in space retain their weight in the swimming pool. To this end, cosmonauts work together with the specially trained aqualungers.

Credit: Anton Agarkov
Credit: Anton Agarkov

Since the preparation for travelling into space is carried out on Earth, cosmonauts also have to learn to pilot their spacecraft. There is a special division at the training centre where they do just that. On Anton’s photo, through small windows and on displays we can see the bowels of the spacecraft the cosmonauts use to descend on Earth. Here, as well, is an imitation of a position the cosmonaut takes, when descending.

Credit: Anton Agarkov
Credit: Anton Agarkov
Credit: Anton Agarkov

In this division, the future spacemen work on normal and abnormal scenarios they may have to deal with in the upper spheres. And on special displays you can see a full cosmonaut pack, including high-calorie food in small tubes, signaling rockets, and even a gun, should the spaceman has to protect himself against the wild beasts that may be inhabiting the place where the spacecraft descends.

Credit: Anton Agarkov

Bearing in mind that scientific enquiries into the possibilities of going into space have started in Russia already in the 19th c., it shouldn’t be surprising that it eventually became the country who first sent a man into space. What is amazing, is that mere 16 years before that the country lay in ruins after the destructive Second World War. When I visited an exhibition of Soviet photographs at the Imperial War Museum North in 2006, this was what struck me the most. Throughout the first 10-13 photos I was looking at the war atrocities, hunger, death, a Reichstag banner – and suddenly, there was this massive smile of Yuri Gagarin, two Soviet chessmen competing against one another at the final of the world tournament, and many more happy faces. Perhaps, that happiness wasn’t altogether sincere, but the difference between the pre-war and the post-war Russia was quite palpable. It was as if, having stepped on the threshold of oblivion, the nation resolutely turned back and went beyond every imaginable boundary – straight to the stars.

I guess sometimes either a person, or a nation has to fall low – to then pave the road to people’s dreams.

Happy Cosmonaut Day!

The Divine Canine and the Fingers of Galileo

Back in 2005, when I was contributing to one ezine, I wrote the article about medieval cults and saints that was picked up by several news aggregators and witches’ websites. My understanding of what sites existed out there had instantly expanded.

Italy is making news this year, starting with two Leonardo da Vinci exhibitions in Manchester and a discovery of Leonardo’s portrait over in Italy, a Venice Biennale, and now a new discovery: Galileo’s fingers and a tooth.

The practice of removing body parts of saints and heros dates back to the time immemorial, and as Richard Allen Green, reporting for CNN, notes, it is somewhat bizarre that Galileo who was persecuted by the Church was subjected to a very religious act by his admirers. What this manifests is that Galileo, the inventor of the telescope, the discoverer of Jupiter’s satellites, and the supporter of the Copernican heliocentric theory, was revered as a saint scientist. Interestingly, the body parts were only removed in 1737 – at the height of the Enlightenment, the period renowned for its scientific explorations and discoveries.

Read Galileo’s Missing Finger Found in a Jar by Richard Allen Green (CNN).

For instance, Robert Torkington went on a pilgrimage in 1516. In his account, which is one of the earliest English travel diaries, he jots down the shrines and relics he had seen on his way. Venice was stocked with ‘the holy bodies and arms’, ‘the faces, the fingers, the teeth’ of the saints, and, quite correctly, he concludes that all this ‘is a great marvel to see’. One of the Cistercian monasteries there preserved a bone of St. Mary Magdalene, and the Benedictine monks stored one of the pots, in which Christ turned water into wine. Some of the most fascinating relics were located in Padua: the rib of St. Bonaventure, the tongue of St. Anthony, ‘yet fair and fresh’”, and the finger of St. Luke ‘that he wrote the gospel with’. And St. John the Baptist’s finger, with which he pointed to Jesus, was preserved both in France and on the Isle of Rhodes.

Fingers and bones were not the only collectables in pious medieval Europe. There were an enormous number of places that claimed to have a chalice, in which Joseph of Arimathea had collected Christ’s blood. Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland was erected especially for the Holy Grail. The oddity of the story is in that a benefactor of the chapel had received the Grail from a Templar a hundred years after the last Templar had died. The quantity of nails from the Cross that was kept in reliquaries across Europe could build a house. And some sites have boasted to have exceptionally rare relics: at one, a faithful could see hay from Jesus’s cradle; at another, he would see the milk of the Holy Virgin.

The Legend of St Ursula

Then and now, the cults were invented and legends were spread. One of the best known myths of medieval times is related to St. Ursula’s pilgrimage, on which she was accompanied by her servants. A medieval misreading of Latin “XI MV” as ‘11 thousand virgins’ instead of ‘11 virgin martyrs’ has led to a long-lasted mistake, widely commemorated in art. The strangest cult of Saint Guinefort flourished in a village, where the worshippers sent their prayers to none other, but a greyhound.

These days the possibility of such mistakes is dramatically low. The advent of the paparazzi and of the internet meant that there would be no confusion as to what the idol is. Centuries back, the papal inquisitors were frightened to hear that the villagers worship someone hairy, with a tail. Today no-one would have time to get perplexed, because Saint Guinefort would make it in the news before the inquisitors could reach the village. However, it does not mean that there are no longer any myths. Is Elvis alive or not? Films like “The Velvet Goldmine” seem only to support the view that fame can bore a person to the extent that he stages his own death. If we presume that Elvis had not died, aren’t we waiting then for his Second Coming? The bigger the idol, the less people believe that he can perform a human act of death. And it is quite logical, because the gods and kings do not die, do they? 

The illustration is taken from Lady Lever Art Gallery’s website and represents the panels from The Legend of St Ursula and 11,000 virgins. The panels date back to 1400-1410 and were painted by the masters of Valencian School. Four more panels are now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Jodrell Bank Touches the Stars and Stars in Euro Space Mission

At Futuresonic 2009, the visitors to the opening gala performance on 13 May 2009 were treated to a very special project co-commissioned and co-ordinated by the festival and the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory. In the picture on the left you can see Teresa Anderson introducing Touch the Stars – a collaboration of the musician Mark Pilkington and astrophysicist Tim O’Brien, to mark the International Year of Astronomy and the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon landings. As the short description of the project tells us, “in space nobody can hear you scream, but that doesn’t mean it is totally quiet“. And although the sound in this YouTube extract leaves a lot to be desired, you can nevetheless tune in to the sound of space – or even possibly, the sound of silence, received directly from space via Jodrell Bank Observatory. The blog entry by Kate Adams at Futuresonic Community powerfully conveys both the bedazzlement and the amazement at the experiment. For my part, I’m glad to have recorded this very extract because on a couple of occasions you can hear Mark turning the sound of the cosmos into a melody. The melody is very fleeting, but, if I am to take the comparison to the sound of silence further, then I should first say that silence can indeed be melodic, but once you take a notice of the melody’s presence, it disappears. This is what we possibly have experienced in the dark space (sic) of Contact Theatre.

You can find Jodrell Bank on Facebook, and Planck Spacecraft is also on Twitter. The University of Manchester has been quick to embrace the developments in Social Media and Networks, so on the Planck webpage you’re actually served their Twitter stream. But since 14 May 2009 Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics has also been at the forefront of another major development, for science in general, as well as for Manchester and the University. I’m quoting from the University’s magazine, issue 8, vol. 6 (June 2009):

Cutting-edge engineering by staff at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics will play a crucial role in a European space mission to study the fading glow of the Big Bang. Staff at the facility have designed and built radio receivers at the heart of one of the major instruments on board the Planck satellite – the most sensitive receivers of their type ever built. The European Space Agency’s Herschel and Planck satellites – launched in May – will collect the most detailed information yet about the birth and evolution of our Universe and its stars and galaxies“.

The mission has started on 14 May in French Guiana, and here is the full story about the European space mission. Not only is this all exciting, but also helps to see why for so many years – since 1996 or 1995, to be exact – Futuresonic has been a truly outstanding event where art and science were blending together in a very inspiring way.

The Power of Pluto

The day I started blogging (24 August 2006) I felt so enthusiastic about it that I produced 5 (!) posts. One of them was the reaction to a news report about Pluto being relegated from the Planet league. Well, a story has just been Dugg that the Illinois State Senate unanimously declared Friday 13th “the day of Pluto”, in order to commemorate the discovery of this dward planet by Clyde Tombaugh, the native of the farming village of Streator in Illinois, in 1930.

However, in astrology Pluto rules the motives of death and rebirth, and this couldn’t be more true about the debate around Pluto’s celestial status. The National Geographic News article stresses precisely this: the decision to “demote” Pluto isn’t convincing enough. For this reason, as well, several online publishers protested against the decision by the International Astronomical Union. JustNow blogger reported on the appeal planned by a group of scientists in January 2009. And a year ago, on 15 March 2008, Seattle had seen a public protest march and rally under the tagline “Pluto IS a planet”.

The image is courtesy of Seattlest.

The Excommunication of Pluto the Planet

The planet Pluto has been relegated from the Big Planets. What this “excommunication” brings to people and astrologers?

Pluto is relegated from the Big Planets (Image credit: yahoo.com)
So, the planet Pluto has been disqualified (relegated) from the Planet Division and will now continue to whirl as a dwarf planet. The story is here http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/5282440.stm. Apparently, the possibility has been discussed for a while, and now the action was finally taken.

I’m wondering how this is going to impact the work of astrologers. From what I could gather in the past, while surfing through various resources on the web, there is already a contention, as to whether to take into account the positions of asteroids in a horoscope or not (think of Lilith and Selena, first and foremost). With Pluto now being ‘diminished’ to the status of a dwarf planet, it’s interesting how this is going to be taken into account, if at all?

In simple terms, Pluto is associated with dramatic changes, and since the planet was given the name of the Roman god of the Inferno, it rules the 8th house – the so-called house of death – and is linked to the sign of Scorpio. It ‘rules’ crimes, revolutions, terrorism, but also the reproductive forces (cue in a connection between Eros and Tanathos).

Although the astronomers’ decision is purely scientific, it is quite curious in one respect. If one thinks of death, revolutionary events, or even terrorism, they are all of the size and influence of Pluto.  They are small, lurking from beneath the most common occasions, easy to go unnoticed, existing on the fringe of the system (be it solar or social). Yet they are powerful enough to overthrow empires and wage wars, as well as to push people towards the goals they wish to pursue (memento mori, perhaps?) In such context the planet Pluto being relegated appears almost like a manifestation of its usually huge impact, as much as of its marginal status.

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