The London Planetarium

Built on the site of the Tussauds Cinema, which was destroyed during the Blitz, the London Planetarium was opened by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh on 19 March 1958. Public presentations began the next day. The Planetarium was an immediate hit with the public, and it considerably boosted attendances at the adjoining Madame Tussauds gallery.

The Planetarium’s 18 m (60 ft) dome seated an audience of 330 who viewed presentations from a Zeiss Universal Mk IV star projector. This mechanical and optical wonder remained in use for nearly half a century before being replaced by a digital system in 1995.

Sadly, by the beginning of the millennium, attendances were no longer sufficient to keep the Planetarium going as a separate visitor attraction. Astronomical presentations ceased in 2006 and Madame Tussauds repurposed the building for shows about celebrities. Now known as the Stardome, it still features ‘stars’ – just not those up in the sky.

This beautifully-produced brochure dates to around 1960 and was sold for the very reasonable sum of one shilling (about £1.00 at today’s prices). The text is uncredited, but in his 2003 autobiography Eighty not out the late Sir Patrick Moore claimed to be the author. Moore turned down the opportunity to become the first Director of the London Planetarium because he did not wish to move to London; the job went instead to astronomer and author Dr. Henry C. King.

Alexei Leonov (1934-2019)

Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov,the first human to walk in space, has died in Moscow aged 85. One of the legendary pioneers of the first decade of crewed spaceflight, he later commanded Soyuz 19 as the Soviet part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Following the announcement by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, NASA interrupted its live coverage of a spacewalk outside the International Space Station to report his death.

Although I’ve been fascinated by science, astronomy, and spaceflight since at least the age of five I have little memory of the early spaceflights, but Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk on 18 March 1965 sticks very strongly in my mind. It was just after lunch at school when a teacher told us that a man had walked in space from the spacecraft Voskhod 2 and the class was given the unusual (in a school where there was pretty well zero interest in science) and extremely welcome assignment of painting a picture of the event.

The extraordinarily rapid pace of developments in spaceflight was a product of Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Thanks to the efforts of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, the Soviet space program had racked up a remarkable series of ‘firsts’ including the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1), the first photographs of the far side of the Moon (Luna 3), and most dramatic of all, the first human in space (Yuri Gagarin). The United States was galvanised into a response – in 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing NASA; and in 1962 Kennedy made his famous speech committing the United States to reaching the Moon before the end of the decade.

By the end of 1963, six Russians and six Americans had flown in space, all of whom had flown solo (to this day, Valentina Tereshkova remains the only woman ever to have gone into space alone). Following the conclusion of the successful Mercury program, the US was now working on Gemini, a spacecraft that would carry a crew of two and intended to pave the way for the Apollo Moon-landing project. The Russian response was Voskhod, which basically involved shoehorning three cosmonauts into a modified single-seat Vostok spacecraft. Safety features including ejector seats and spacesuits were omitted to save space. Despite this, the Voskhod 1 mission on 12 October 1964 was a success, though the flight only lasted just over a day. It was also an eventful day back on Earth: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was deposed and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev.

As intended, the mission sent a strong message to the Americans that the Soviet space program meant business, and the Russians still hadn’t finished. Thus, on 18 March 1965 at 07:00 UTC, Voskhod 2 was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome. On board were mission commander Pavel Belyayev, 39, and Alexei Leonov, then aged 30. Instead of a third crew-member, Voshkod 2 was equipped with an inflatable airlock.

Ninety minutes after liftoff, Leonov exited the spacecraft via the airlock to perform his epoch-making EVA. In his own words “I stepped into that void and I didn’t fall in. I was mesmerised by the stars. They were everywhere – up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence.”

Only much later was it revealed just how close the essentially makeshift mission had come to disaster. The inflatable airlock was necessary because Voskhod 2’s instrumentation had not been designed to operate in a vacuum, and hence the spacecraft itself could not be depressurised. When, after an EVA of 12 minutes, Leonov attempted to return to the spacecraft, he found that his spacesuit had ballooned and its joints had consequently stiffened to the point where he could not re-enter the airlock. He was forced to take the drastic step of bleeding off air from the spacesuit, to below safety limits, before he could bend the suit’s joints. The problems did not end there. There were difficulties in resealing the hatch after the spacewalk, and problems during re-entry resulted in Voskhod 2 landing 386 km (240 miles) away from the intended landing site. Leonov and Belyayev spent an uncomfortable night in the forests of Upper Kama Upland at temperatures of -5 degrees Celsius before a rescue party arrived the next day.

Gemini made its first crewed flight just days later, on 23 March, and its second between June 3 and June 7. On this second flight, on June 3, Ed White became the first American to perform an EVA. Alexei Leonov’s space walk would be the last time that the Russians would beat the Americans in space. Leonov was slated to land on the Moon in a craft known as the LK (‘Lunniy korabl’, or lunar craft), which was basically a much smaller single-seat version of the US Lunar Module. But the mission never took place: problems with the N1 rocket and Korolev’s death early in 1966 finally ended Soviet hopes of beating the Americans to the Moon. The Russians turned their attention to space stations in low earth orbit, which in the long run was far more useful than simply duplicating the efforts of the United States.

Leonov’s second and final space flight took place nine years after his first, in July 1974. It was the era of Détente, and relations between the two superpowers had improved to the point that a joint spaceflight was planned. This became known in the West as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) in which an Apollo and a Soyuz spacecraft would rendezvous and dock in low earth orbit. The Soyuz 19 crew comprised Leonov in command and Valeri Kubasov as flight engineer. The unnumbered Apollo spacecraft was crewed by Tom Stafford, Vance Brand, and Deke Slayton.

Both spacecraft were launched on 15 July. The rendezvous and docking took place two days later at 16:19 UTC. Three hours later, Leonov and Stafford shook hands through the open hatch of the Soyuz: it had been calculated that the handshake would take place over Bognor Regis, but delays meant that the two spacecraft were over France by the time it happened. After just under two days docked, Soyuz and Apollo parted company at 15:26 UTC on 19 July, and Soyuz landed back on Earth on 21 July. Apollo remained in space for a further three days, splashing down on 24 July. Although relations between Russia and the West have remained fractious, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program opened up an era of cooperation in space that continues to this day.

Following his second spaceflight, Leonov became head of the cosmonaut team and oversaw crew training. He remained in this role until his retirement in 1992. He was also an accomplished artist whose works include the painting Near the Moon. On the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, he took coloured pencils and paper with him into space, where he sketched the Earth and drew portraits of the Apollo astronauts.

Alexi Leonov is commemorated by a lunar crater to the south of the Moscow Sea on the far side of the Moon. Arthur C. Clarke’s 1982 novel 2010: Odyssey Two features a spacecraft named Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov
Born: 30 May 1934
Listvyanka, West Siberian Krai, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union

Died: 11 October 2019 (aged 85)
Moscow, Russia

HMS Belfast

2019-09-07 18.48.01

Launched on St Patrick’s Day 1938, at Harland & Wolff Belfast, HMS Belfast is the largest surviving British warship from World War II.  A group 3 Town-class ‘large light cruiser’, she has a displacement of 11,500 tons and is armed with twelve 6-inch guns in four turrets. The seemingly oxymoronic designation reflects inter-war naval treaties. Any non-capital ship armed with guns of a calibre above 6.1 inches was deemed to be a ‘heavy cruiser’, and there were strict limits to the numbers of such ships a navy was allowed to possess. But there were no such limits on light cruisers. Consequently, navies began building large but relatively under-gunned cruisers. The US Navy’s Brooklyn class was another example of the type. Perhaps the best-known ship of this class was the USS Phoenix, later serving with the Argentine Navy as the ARA General Belgrano.

The Belfast was commissioned in August 1939, less than a month before the outbreak of the war. In November, she struck a mine while leaving the Firth of Forth. One man was killed and 46 officers and men injured. The ship sustained heavy damage and was out of action until November 1942. Belfast spent 1943 on Arctic convoy duty, and on Boxing Day of that year, flying the flag of Rear Adm. Robert Burnett, she took part in the Battle of the North Cape, off the coast of Norway. While escorting a convoy, she encountered the German battleship Scharnhorst and coordinated the defence of the convoy, forcing the Scharnhorst to turn away. Belfast shadowed the Scharnhorst by radar, enabling the battleship HMS Duke of York to intercept the German warship. As the Duke of York made radar contact, Belfast illuminated the Scharnhorst with star shells. Soon after, the two capital ships began slugging it out, but the Scharnhorst was heavily outgunned by the British battleship. The Scharnhorst fought to the bitter end, but eventually sank with the loss of all but 36 of her crew.

Belfast’s next battle honour came on D-Day, when she took part in the naval bombardment that preceded the Normandy landings. During her five weeks off Normandy, she fired 1,996 rounds. This was her final action in European waters.

After undergoing a refit, Belfast was deployed to the Far East to take part in the war against Japan, but the Japanese surrendered before she saw action. With the war over, she remained in the Far East and was the Far East Squadron’s headquarters ship during the 1945 Yangtze Incident, when the British frigate HMS Amethyst was trapped in the Yangtze River by Chinese communist forces.

From 1950 to 1952, Belfast was involved in the Korean War, taking part in coastal patrols and bombarding shore targets in support of ground forces. During the course of the conflict, she steamed over 80,000 miles (130,000 km) in the war zone and fired more than 8,000 rounds. She paid off in Chatham on 4 November 1952 and entered reserve at Devonport on 1 December.

Between 1955 and 1959, Belfast underwent an extensive refit, during which her bridge was rebuilt and her tripod masts replaced with lattice masts. It was a swansong for a ship now essentially obsolete in an era where ships were armed with guided missiles rather than large-calibre guns. She took part in a number of naval exercises in the Far East, but in December 1963 she was finally decommissioned.

While Belfast was laid up at Fareham Creek, Portsmouth, the Imperial War Museum expressed an interest in preserving a 6-inch gun turret but then began to consider the possibility of preserving the entire ship. The Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Ministry of Defence established a joint committee, but after several years of can-kicking, the Paymaster General decided against preservation. The Belfast looked to be bound for the scrap yard, but in March 1971 a former captain, Rear-Adm. Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles, now Conservative MP for Winchester, formed a trust and argued strongly in Parliament for the preservation of his former command. He was supported by Gordon Bagier, Labour MP for Sunderland South, who had served in the Belfast at the Battle of the North Cape. Although the ship’s movable equipment had already been stripped out, the government postponed scrapping and in July agreed to hand Belfast over to the HMS Belfast Trust. On 15 October, the ship was towed to her present location above Tower Bridge, and six days later, on Trafalgar Day, she opened to the public for the first time. Belfast became the first naval vessel to be preserved since Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory.

Although the Belfast was an immediate hit with the public, the Trust struggled financially, and in 1977 the Imperial War Museum sought government permission to take over the running of the ship. Approval was given, and on 1 March 1978, Belfast was transferred to the Imperial War Museum. She remains at Tower Bridge to this day, where she is frequently ‘visited’ by warships of the Royal Navy and other navies. Unlike Victory, the name Belfast was not ‘retired’, and the third of the new Type 26 frigates will be named HMS Belfast. The original Belfast will be renamed HMS Belfast (1938). This is perhaps a little unfortunate, given her distinguished service in both WW II and the Korean War.

Space Agent and the Ancient Peril (1964), by Angus MacVicar

I encountered this ‘juvenile’ science fiction novel by Scottish author Angus MacVicar in 1966 at the age of ten, about a year into my SF-reading career. You should never judge a book by its cover, but it was hard for me to resist the dramatic image of two men stranded on the top of an erupting volcano, with two flying saucers circling above, and the Moon apparently about to crash into the Earth. But like so many books I borrowed from local libraries as a boy, it subsequently remained lost to me until the coming of the internet.


Space Agent and the Ancient Peril is the last book in a three-volume series about the UN’s ‘space agent’ Jeremy Grant. The series as a whole is a follow-up to the better-known five-volume ‘Lost Planet’ series which began eleven years earlier when Grant, then aged sixteen, left Australia to join his Scottish uncle Dr Lachlan McKinnon on an expedition to the ‘lost planet’ of Hesikos in the latter’s privately built spaceship. All the stories are written in the first person from Grant’s POV.

In the 1950s, just half a century had passed since the pioneering days of aviation, when the likes of the Wright Brothers, Louis Blériot, and A.V. Roe built and flew their own aeroplanes. It wasn’t perhaps unreasonable to suppose that space travel might develop the same way. But by 1964, when Ancient Peril was published, it was clear that only the two most powerful nations in the world – the United States and the Soviet Union – had the resources to send humans into space. It was utterly beyond the means of Scottish uncles, no matter how brilliant, to build spaceships. Hence we find Jeremy Grant now working for the United Nations. Uncle Lachlan doesn’t feature in this story; neither does space travel. All the action takes place on Earth.

Grant is recovering from a bout of flu when his boss, UN Chief Commissioner Earl Easterman talks him into accompanying archaeologist Spencer Johnson on an expedition to investigate the ancient city of Tiahuanaco on the Bolivian Altiplano. Located a few miles east of Lake Titicaca, the site is attributed to the Inca but it is so remote that only two archaeological expeditions have visited it in the past hundred years. Nobody has been there at all for thirty years. Prof. Johnson has requested Grant’s assistance as he is recognised as the world’s leading authority on space and interplanetary matters. He is interested in the controversial theories of two archaeologists – H. S. Bellamy and Arthur Posnansky.

After meeting in Florida, the two fly to La Paz, where a sympathetic army chief provides a helicopter to transport them to the site, along with a jeep and supplies. The night before the expedition, the helicopter pilot tells Grant that some indigenous people claim that their ancestors had lived in Tiahuanaco millennia ago. Strange godlike men had helped them to build the city, but it was then devastated by a terrible cataclysm.

The helicopter delivers Grant, Johnson, and their equipment to Tiahuanaco without event, and the two set to work. Of particular interest to Johnson is a great megalithic arch known as the Gate of the Sun. He believes that it depicts flying fishes and toxodons – the latter (a hoofed mammal) extinct for twenty thousand years. And how would the Inca have known about tropical flying fish? Johnson has a theory, but he refuses to say what it is. He wants to see if Grant independently reaches the same conclusions.

As Grant is about to articulate his thoughts, the pair are attacked by a group of hostile Urus – indigenous people apparently motivated by robbery. Outnumbered, they are saved by the intervention of a tall man, who commands the attackers to desist and requests that Grant and Johnson accompany him. The man is living in an Uru village about twenty minutes away in the jeep from the site. His house contains an extensive library of books including works by Wells, Steinbeck, Sartre, and Chekhov – but also works by Bellamy and Posnansky on Tiahuanaco.

Grant has any number of questions, but feels unable to ask them, that his thoughts are somehow constrained by the presence of the stranger. Johnson thanks him for his timely intervention, and he is finally able to ask him who he is. The man says that for them to understand they must come with him on a journey to a time when the Earth was at peace. His words become pictures which become a living reality. They are standing on a quay in the port of Tiahuanaco, watching a ship enter the harbour. They have been transported twenty thousand years into the past, when the city lay on the shores of an island and was home to a great civilisation.

Grant and Johnson find themselves dressed in local costume, and able to speak and understand the Tiahuanacan language. They have a basic understanding of the world to which they have been transported: Tiahuanaco is one of twelve island states around the world – others include neighbouring Andea, and to the east are Lemuria, Thule, Hi Brazil, and (of course) Atlantis. Some months earlier, two ‘angels’ named Shamhazi and Azazel with ‘strange eyes’ had arrived in ‘chariots of fire’. These strangers had instigated a building program involving novel architectural techniques and requiring the import of large quantities of andesite (an igneous rock similar to basalt and rhyolite) from the quarries in Andea. Curiously, nobody seems to know just why the project has been initiated – not even council headman Chirguano.

Tiahuanaco is a peaceful, prosperous island state, but divisions are beginning to appear. The building program has made the shipowners and building contractors extremely rich – and greedy. They have banded together to keep wages low and hours long. While a ship is being unloaded of its andesite cargo, an overseer named Caingang assaults one of the dockers. Grant intervenes, and a brawl breaks out. It is abruptly halted when Shamhazi appears and introduces himself to Grant and Johnson. He appears to have stopped the fighting by telepathic command.

The pair accompany Shamhazi to the house he shares with his brother, Azazel. There they also meet a young Tiahuanacan woman named Ishtar, who is running a school for orphan children and has limited telepathic abilities. Grant and Johnson learn that Shamhazi and Azazel are from an Earth-like planet named Ophir. The planet is being affected by increasingly extreme seasonal temperature variations, and by quakes. Its inhabitants decide that they must evacuate to Earth. Advanced parties are sent out to make peaceful contact. Disc-shaped spaceships, powered by nuclear rim jets, are constructed for the purpose (they are identical to a spacecraft designed by Uncle Lachlan which featured in an earlier story).

Soon after their arrival, the Ophir people learn of the existence of a rogue planet named Luna that on several occasions in the past approached the Earth, causing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and floods. This last happened ten thousand years ago, but another close approach is due soon. In Tiahuanaco, Shamhazi and Azazel instigate the construction of a quake-proof city with the same architectural techniques used to resist the quakes on Ophir. The scientists of both Earth and Ophir are confident that the effects will be relatively minor and will be withstood by the new cities – but Shamhazi and Azazel are able to pick up the thoughts of somebody who does not agree, a brilliant mind superior to even the best minds of Ophir. The two ‘angels’ want Grant and Johnson to investigate, believing the Tiahuanacans might be more ready to share their thoughts with them than has hitherto been the case. The pair agree to help and are joined by Ishtar.

The group learn that there are only five astronomers in the city – a professor and four lecturers at the University of Tiahuanaco. Ishtar has also learned of an elderly man named Yurucaré, one-time head of the Andea Observatory. He is an expert on Luna, but his theories have long since been discredited. But Ishtar senses that one of the lecturers – a young man named Tamanaque – is holding something back. Grant and Johnson make arrangements with Chirguano to visit University of Tiahuanaco’s observatory.

When they arrive, however, they are told that nobody is available to show them around. Johnson hits on the idea of sending a message to Tamanaque, who replies that he will meet them that evening alone, with the telescope directed at Luna.

Soon after darkness, Grant and Johnson meet Tamanaque, who shows them the telescope. It is second only to the instrument in Andea. Tiahuanacan astronomers are aware of the existence of the planet Neptune and are apparently familiar with Newtonian physics. Through the telescope, Grant looks at the constellations of the Belted Warrior, the Little Toxodon, and the Wry-necked Swan, with Luna prominent in the latter (the Belted Warrior is presumably Orion but it is not clear what if any are the present-day equivalents of the other two; there is nothing resembling a wry-necked bird on the ecliptic near to Orion). Tamanaque then produces a series of unfinished and unverified calculations that suggest that instead of passing Earth, Luna will be captured into a permanent orbit and become a satellite. The gravitational effects of the initial capture will trigger a global cataclysm – in just three days from now. But nobody believes his theory, and he has been forbidden to mention it. Some time earlier, Yurucaré came to similar conclusions. Nobody believed him, and when he would not be silent the Tiahuanacan elite dismissed him from his post and imprisoned him. They feared that his tale of doom would spread panic and jeopardise their lucrative shipping and construction businesses.

At that moment, Chirguano and Caingang burst in, with the intention of arresting Tamanaque. The are accompanied by the Professor, who believes that Tamanaque is mad. With some help from Tamanaque, Grant and Johnson overpower the intruders and tie them up. They force the Professor to tell them that Yurucaré is being held in an underground prison known as the Methane Corridors, located by a natural gas reservoir that supplies the city’s heating and lighting. They have until dawn – when Chirguano, Caingang, and the Professor will be found – to spring Yurucaré from the high-security jail.

This proves ridiculously easy. Grant, Johnson, and Ishtar gain access to the Methane Corridors by climbing down a ventilation shaft. Tamanaque wants to accompany them, but Grant and Johnson insist that his knowledge of Luna makes him too valuable to risk. They soon locate Yurucaré’s cell, overpower a guard, free the elderly scientist, and climb back to the surface. After Yurucaré rests, he and Tamanaque review the Luna calculations in a shelter beneath Shamhazi and Azazel’s house.

The next day, Chirguano and Caingang, accompanied by armed guards, come looking for Grant, Johnson, and the escaped Yurucaré. Shamhazi uses his telepathic powers to convince Caingang that the suspects are not there. Meanwhile, Yurucaré and Tamanaque are still trying to complete and verify the latter’s calculations. Not until evening do they reach a conclusion – and find that the situation is even worse than they believed. Tamanaque’s timing was in error: Luna is approaching ten times faster than he originally supposed, and the capture is just hours away.

Shamhazi summons the citizens of Tiahuanaco to a public meeting, with Grant, Johnson, and Yurucaré in attendance; meanwhile Azazel, Tamanaque, Ishtar, and her pupils head for high ground. A large crowd soon gathers. Grant notices Chirguano and Caingang, who look watchful but take no action. Yurucaré’s warning about the imminent thread serves only to anger the crowd, who are about to riot when the sun sets and Luna is seen to be double its normal size. It is visibly speeding away from the Wry-necked Swan, and growing brighter every second. Shamhazi implores the crowd to come with him to the relative safety of the high ground, where their children can be evacuated to Ophir. But the crowd panics. Most of them rush back to the town to try to retrieve their possessions. Children are trampled in the rush

The group head for high ground. Not until they are halfway up the mountainside do any of the Tiahuanacans heed Shamhazi’s advice and start to follow. Shortly before they reach the summit, winds begin to increase, and the first earth tremors are felt as Luna draws nearer. Both increase steadily as they reach the summit and meet Azazel, Tamanaque, Ishtar, and the orphan children. Azazel tries to make telepathic contact with Ophir to summon help and is eventually successful. By now, volcanoes are erupting in the Andes and the noise of wind and earthquakes makes speech impossible. Tidal waves are sweeping towards Tiahuanaco, where people are still fleeing across the plateau. The whole scene is bathed in the bright-as-day light of Luna.

Grant senses that he and Johnson will not be joining the evacuation. Their time in this world is almost at an end.

Two spaceships arrive from Ophir, their nuclear jets somehow capable of making the journey across interstellar space in a matter of minutes.  Grant and Johnson are forgotten by all but Ishtar, who waves as she boards. The two craft depart, leaving the time-travellers alone on the mountain, as depicted on the book’s cover…

…and then they find themselves back in the home of the stranger who stopped the Urus from attacking them. He explains that the descendants of the evacuees waited for centuries. The moon-flood had destroyed Tiahuanaco and the other island-states, and although they receded and new civilisations eventually arose, these were too warlike to permit a return. Only now, he explains, has ‘the second great flood’ begun to drain and the Earth is again at peace. The book ends abruptly as Johnson asks if the people of Ophir are coming back, and the stranger confirms that yes, now they are.

The story is loosely based on a fringe theory put forward by Austrian engineer Hanns Hörbiger in the 1920s and popularised by fellow Austrian H. S. Bellamy after World War II. The late Sir Patrick Moore said that “it is generally agreed that he was an odd character by any standards”. The theory was known as the Welt Eis Lehr (WEL) or Cosmic Ice Theory. Hörbiger suggested that with the exception of the Earth and the Sun, the whole universe is composed largely of ice. The stars are blocks of ice, and Mars is covered in ice to a depth of 400 km (250 miles). Space is filled with rarefied hydrogen, which results in the orbits of Solar System bodies decaying over a long period of time. The Earth will eventually fall into the Sun, but more immediately, the Moon (also composed of ice) is spiralling in towards the Earth and will eventually share the fate of at least six predecessors. Each of these in turn spiralled ever closer to the Earth, causing violent cataclysms as tidal forces pulled the Earth’s oceans into a ‘girdle’ around the equator. The looming presence of these ice-Moons in the sky gave rise to legends about dragons and the like. As the ice-Moons entered Earth’s Roche limit, they were torn apart by tidal forces. Ice and rock bombarded the Earth, and the relaxation of the tidal stresses around the equator triggered earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The oceans flowed back to higher latitudes, causing floods around the world. After Hörbiger’s death, Bellamy developed the theory further, postulating that our current Moon arrived in Earth orbit about 13,000 years ago. For some reason, WEL became extremely popular with the Nazis in pre-war Germany; I suppose it could be said that in comparison to some of their other beliefs, Hörbiger’s theory was more-or-less benign.

Angus MacVicar also refers to the Hörbiger theory in an earlier novel, Peril on the Lost Planet, in which the planet Hesikos is threatened by an asteroid.

Tiwanaku (to use the modern spelling) actually dates to around AD 800 and lay at the heart of one of South America’s great pre-Incan empires. But it was once thought to be much older. For example, The World’s Greatest Wonders – published by Odhams Press Limited in London before the war – gives its age as between 12,000 to 14,000 years old. Before the introduction of radiocarbon dating, another Austrian – Arthur Posnansky – spent many years studying astronomical alignments at Tiwanaku. After considering cyclical changes in the Earth’s axial tilt, he calculated that the alignments matched the solstitial sunrise and sunset in around 15,000 BC. The problem with this approach is that so many statues, stelae, and monoliths have been moved around the site or removed altogether that it is just about impossible to reconstruct accurate sightlines and identify solstitial markers.

Posnansky also claimed that Tiwanaku was once a port on the shores of a Lake Titicaca more than 30 m (100 ft.) deeper than it is today, and he investigated structures that he believed were piers or wharves. According to Posnansky, Tiwanaku served as a port for around 5,000 years until a violent earthquake overwhelmed it in the eleventh millennium BC. Subsequent quakes caused Lake Titicaca to drain, leaving Tiwanaku high and dry. Here it is probably simpler to assume that Posnansky’s ‘wharves’ were actually something entirely different than to postulate a geological upheaval that seems to have left no other evidence.

The carvings on the Gate of the Sun (referred to as the Calendar Gate in the book) include a figure holding a staff in each hand; this motif occurs frequently in the iconography of pre-Columbian South America and is thought to represent a weather god. Professor Johnson’s claims that flying fish and toxadons were depicted are popular with ancient civilisation believers and flying saucer enthusiasts, but they are not widely accepted by mainstream archaeologists.

Tiwanaku is certainly not as isolated as MacVicar suggested. Far from only ever having been visited a handful of times, the site has been extensively studied since the mid-nineteenth century. It is a ninety-minute drive from La Paz, and it has been a major tourist attraction since the 1960s.

Space Agent and the Ancient Peril was not that easy to track down, as I could remember only part of the title – Space Agent and the… which told me that it was one of a series of books featuring “Space Agent” but not a lot else. A Google search on the words ‘space agent’ will bring up over 750 million hits including estate agents, NASA, and the European Space Agency. Add ‘Tiahuanaco’ to the search and you will obtain hits on travel agents offering tours of the site. I suspect it was by sheer luck that I tracked down the full title of the book and the name of its author. A further search brought up a picture of the long-remembered cover. I seem to have also been lucky in sourcing a good condition copy at a reasonable price. At the moment, you will not find one for much under £100.

When will we go back to the Moon?

Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon. It remains one of the great moments in human history, but what happened next? At the time, as a thirteen-year-old schoolboy, I assumed that it would only be a few years before humans reached Mars. Half a century later, it sill hasn’t happened.

Six more missions to the Moon followed Apollo XI, of which only the drama of Apollo XIII and the survival of Jim Lovell and his crew made any kind of headlines. A total of twelve people – all men – walked on the Moon. Of the twelve, four are still alive including Buzz Aldrin. Neil Armstrong died in 2012 aged 82. Apollo XVII – the last lunar mission – returned to Earth on 19 December 1972, and no spacecraft carrying a crew has since left Earth orbit.

The exploration of the Solar System has been carried out purely through robot space probes. By 1969, American and Soviet probes had flown past Venus and Mars, returning data and – in the case of Mars – a few low-resolution images. Since then, space probe have reached every planet in the Solar System (including Pluto), with long-duration orbital missions of all the planets out to Saturn, and the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. There have been landings on Mars, Venus, Titan, and several asteroids and comets. There have been active rovers on Mars since 2004. At the beginning of this year, the New Horizons probe returned photographs from the distant Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 Ultima Thule.

But in comparison to the 1960s, human activities in space have progressed at a snail’s pace. The Russians never went to the Moon and turned their attention to space stations in low Earth orbit, which in the long term was more useful than simply duplicating the efforts of the United States. The MIR space station was in service from 1986 to 2000, and was permanently occupied between February 1990 and August 1999. There has been a permanent human presence in space in the International Space Station since November 2000.

Much of the technology of 2019 was certainly science-fiction in 1969 – computers have evolved from room-filling machines affordable only by large companies to mundane household appliances. Much of the gadgetry from the original series of Star Trek – which made its way over here from the States a fortnight before the first Moon Landing – seems quite primitive compared with present-day smartphones, iPads, and the like.

So what of crew-carrying spacecraft? The Russian Soyuz, which first flew in 1967, is still in service. The Chinese Shenzhou – currently the only other crew-carrying spacecraft in service – is based heavily on Soyuz technology. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the US has been without the means to launch humans into space, and is having to thumb lifts from the Russians to the ISS. This will change when the privately operated SpaceX Dragon 2 and Boeing Starliner spacecraft come into service later this year.

To date, only the US, Russia, and China have sent humans into space, although citizens of forty countries have flown in space. India plans to launch a crew-carrying spacecraft in December 2021. No other nation currently has plans for an indigenous human spaceflight program.

American plans for an expedition to Mars have come and gone over the years. The Orion program, instigated by President George W. Bush in the wake of the Columbia disaster, has yet to fly with a crew. More recently, the Artemis program has a stated goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024. Proposals include the Lunar Orbital Platform – a space station in lunar orbit, from which landers will take humans to the surface.

The Russians are working on similar proposals with a timescale for the 2030s and a Soyuz replacement known as Federation. Presumably this name-checks the Russian Federation (as Soyuz did the Soviet Union) rather than Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets. The Chinese are reviewing preliminary plans for a lunar expedition in the 2030s.

Ten years ago, I expressed the hope that I would live long enough to see humans land on Mars, but this is looking increasingly unlikely.

The Apollo program fulfilled President Kennedy’s goal of putting Americans on the Moon before the end of the 1960s and – no less important – before the Russians. The program was criticised because of the many problems back on Earth. Sadly, these problems have not gone away. The Cold War ended thirty years ago, but it was no more than a brief thaw in East-West relations. It is now clear that geopolitical competition rather than communism vs capitalism lies at the root of the hostility.

The international situation now – eighteen years after 9/11 – is as bad as it has been in my lifetime. Worldwide, the rise of the populist Right continues unchecked. Here in the UK, we have had almost a decade of Tory-inflicted austerity following the global financial crisis of 2008, and the last three years has been dominated by the incompetent shambles of Brexit. Yet these problems are inconsequential compared to the existential threat to humanity posed by climate change.

Nevertheless, we must not turn our backs on space. At minimum, self-sustaining colonies on Mars and the Moon would increase the chances of our survival as a species. I won’t be around in another fifty years time, but I can only hope that by the time we reach the centenary of Apollo XI the world is in a better state than it is now and humanity is firmly established as a multi-planet species.