Thursday, 10 June 2010

Forget Houston, I've been to Swindon

It comes as a surprise to many people that the UK has a Space Agency - but perhaps even more of a shock is where the British version of NASA is based - in sunny Swindon. Yes, it here that you find the headquarters of the UK Space Agency.

I went along there a couple of days ago with Mark O'Donnell of the BBC in our several week mission to boldly go where science and technology have had an impact in Wiltshire. After the likes of Porton Down, the Science Museum Library and Dyson I expected a rather dull trip. In the end, the Swindon centre is an administrative hub - there's no mission control or satellite building going on here. But in practice it was an engaging visit with a number of individuals for whom science and space are clearly a passion.

We interviewed three of the staff, including Dr David Williams, the acting chief executive, who is anything but your average stuffed shirt administrator. Part of the joy of the visit was the richness of the projects involved. There's a good mix of inward-looking satellite systems with immediate practical applications, and the outward looking work, with involvement in everything from Hubble to Planck, engaged in fundamental research on the nature of the universe.

Another role of the agency is education. They quite sensibly argue that there are two topics that effortlessly grab the attention of younger children - dinosaurs and space - and use space and satellites as a way of injecting excitement into anything from monitoring the decline of forests to geometry (through looking at how GPS works). They also have a set of goody boxes for schools containing bits of meteorite and slices of moon rock. I'd seen one of these before, but not quite so intimately. Funnily, the meteorites make more of an impact, because they are big, hefty lumps you can hold in your hand, where the moon samples are on glass slides and can't be touched.

In a final, rather engaging, chat we compared early influences - Dr David Parker of the Space Agency staff being fired up by a Magpie A-B-C of Space annual which he still proudly owns along with his album of space tea cards... the inevitable science fiction whether in books or the likes of Star Trek... building Airfix kits of rockets and space capsules... and even good old Patrick Moore.

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