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Did you know the Nasa space shuttle is due to blast off again on 2 February? Did you know it will be piloted by a woman for the first time? Did you know that when it departs from Cape Canaveral at 17 zillion miles an hour, it will be the 64th shut tle mission since the Thunderbird Four lookalike was launched in 1982?

No, of course you didn't. Such shameful ignorance is par for the course in this country. There was a time when the British nation was riveted by the whole rocket-fuelled enterprise: sputniks, Cape Canaveral launches, gravity-free flotation, orbital dockings, Apollo missions, moon landings, earth-rise photographs, Teflon technology... it had us on our knees with excitement, swearing we'd tell our grandchildren what marvels we'd seen. Now, we're so apathetic about the subject, it's as if the world of space research had simply closed down.

Not me, pal. The Weasel - always to be found at the intellectual frontier - has been finding out what's what. And guess what the Next Big Step in space research is going to be? A mission to Mars? Nope. Jupiter? In your dreams. Give up? It's a multinational Space Station and it will, I am informed, be with us by the year 2000.

According to Nasa HQ, it will be "a truly `world class' scientific and technology research facility" in which boffins will study human disease and cures, and experiment with micro-gravity. Thirteen nations, they excitedly report, are pooling their resources. The US is hurling unimaginable sums around. Russia, having no money, is supplying tonnes of free technology. Italy, France, Germany, Japan and Canada are investing nine billion dollars' worth of know-how. It's a great international enterprise. Together we march. Nation beside nation. Shoulder to shoul...

Hang on a minute. Surely Britain is contributing something to this exciting project?

Indeed we are. It's an oven.

Embarrassing but true, our sole contribution to international space research at the turn of the millennium is a device, vaguely reminiscent of a bread bin, in which astronauts can cook real food (as opposed to that squirty, pureed rubbish) in non-gravitational hyperspace. It's only at the design stage at present, but is expected to become a standard feature; Hertfordshire University is standing by to make a prototype. The next surprise is its inventor, John Nicholson. He is not a scientist. He is a full-time carpet cleaner from Stevenage, Hertfordshire. Nor is he a lone wolf in the inventing game - his design partner is Mr James Longford, a 73-year-old dairy farmer from Hereford.

The initiative, it seems, came from John, who has been a space nut since his father worked on the Blue Streak missile back in the Sixties. He spent his youth writing Jim'll Fix It-style letters to Nasa, asking to attend a rocket launch, and has been to the Cape every year since 1989. A couple of years back, he and James thought it would be nice to contribute something to the space race, sent off their designs for a "zero-gravity oven", and were invited to address the International Space Congress in Jerusalem last summer. An invitation followed to meet the directors of the Kennedy Space Center - and Mr Nicholson is off on Monday, polishing his aeronautical bon mots and hoping to get his oven off the ground, so to speak. n "I can't get over it," says Mr Nicholson. "Every day, something happens that's new to me. I don't know what I'm going to say to this Nasa bloke." Had he ambitions to become an astronaut? "I think I'd make a lousy scientist, because I'm rubbish at physics. What I'd like is the day to come when I can go to Heathrow and go into orbit with lots of other people and look down on the earth..."

For a man who's the UK's sole representative in these giddy-making circles, Nicholson is endearingly modest. "I've no plans to give up cleaning carpets," he says. "I can see myself doing it in another ten years' time. I can imagine myself having a cup oftea and a slice of cake with one of my regulars and saying, `Do you know, Mrs Bridges, because of me, they're eating proper food up in space...'"

H H H The Weasel's admiration for the management at British Gas has long been high - its ground-breaking "unequal pay" policy, its famously sensitive handling of staff relations. But this week's developments regarding their blind and handicapped customers are in a league of their own.

It takes a company as forward-looking as BG to want to sweep away the last pieces of grit in the machinery of a modern, thrusting, international industrial concern. Of course, British Gas is sympathetic to people with disabilities. It's just that it would rather find ways of being sympathetic to them without spending any money. Consequently, they are now thinking of imposing a £25 fee for advice currently offered free; scrapping their present three-yearly safety checks; and imposing a £25 charge for setting the timer on blind people's central heating.

And lastly, they may discontinue the supply of Braille instruction manuals (and Braille warnings on the side of appliances) unless new competitors in the market can be persuaded by government regulation to supply them too.

Since the chances of this happening are approximately nil, of course, British Gas's way is clear. No one should be unduly alarmed. Obviously, there will be a period of adjustment, during which regrettable incidents are likely n to take place - the combination of blind people, pilot lights and combustible gas is naturally one that will cause a certain alarm to the faint-hearted, particularly if they happen to be living in the same block of flats. But ultimately, this is a problem that will solve itself -in a flash.

H H H Reports of the increasing parochialism of the British media come as no surprise. A recent study showed that, in the past five years, British television documentary coverage of international matters has dropped by 40 per cent. ITV's programming on developing countries had dropped by 75 per cent. But I found myself raising an eyebrow or two at our reactions to the Japanese earthquake. BBC radio, particularly, seemed obsessed with the question of whether any Britons were involved in the twisted metaland disintegrated motorways, as if their inclusion in the story would make it worse, or their safety would make it better.

It is, of course, inevitable that the specialist media will seek to service their customers' particular interests. You can't blame the architecture newspaper Building Design for the headline uk college survives in kobe quake when it discovered that a building designed by British architects (hurrah!) had failed to fall over. Nor can you criticise the Architect's Journal for heading its coverage kobe earthquake - experts examine design implications. After all, they would, wouldn't they? n Even so, I foundmyself a little disappointed in the Church Times, which blithely told us churches damaged in japanese earthquake. What was all that stuff we learned in Sunday school about a church not being a building? n H H H I can understand the feelings of the youngcouple whose baby boy was sent home from the now-infamous Treliske Hospital in Truro, Cornwall, with a needle embedded in his back, and who are now considering legal action.

This must seem like the right thing to do.

But they should reconsider. These are difficult times for the health service, despite, as Virginia Bottomley is always telling us, the resources being poured in. Also in the papers last weekend was a story about a hospital being forced to use second-ratelatex gloves in a bid to save a few quid. As time goes on, we will be hearing more and more stories of equipment shortage.

In the circumstances, the infant's parents should be satisfied with an apology. The removal of valuable health service equipment - to wit one hypodermic needle, used - is a serious matter. They are lucky not to have received a bill.

H H H Every heart must go out (mine certainly does) to David Copperfield, the azure-barneted illusionist, who has, apparently, been chucked by Claudia Schiffer, the not-unpretty model of ill-fitting lingerie. After being squired around in the past by such posh swains as Prince Albert of Monaco, Claudia, it seems, found the Dickensian Svengali a little common for her taste.

What finished them off, by all accounts, was his lack of finesse when visiting the Louvre.

As the couple drifted through the finest flowerings of Etruscan pottery and Renaissance oils, Mr Copperfield repeatedly squeaked: "Wow! Is that old or what?"

One sympathises with Claudia. But it does beg the question: what are the appropriate things to murmur to a companion when visiting an art gallery? One of the great cultural bal-ancing acts is that of sounding alternately blokeish ("Without the hat it could be your cousin Harriet, ha ha ha"), knowledgeable ("Very unusual to get that kind of brushwork with impasto...") and sensitive ("Of course, the entrails wound around the windlass by the executioner also represent the snake wound round the Tree of Knowledge..."). All I know is, you get it wrong at your peril. A friend of mine was - just like Mr Copperfield - binned by his girlfriend for public uncouthness. She thought him responsive, subtle, well-read and culturally au fait - a Lord Clark among men.

It was only when she found him standing in front of some Tiepolo nudes and saying, "Hey, nice tits in those days," that she realised he was more from the Alan than the Kenneth tendency. The Weasel

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