Education: Fly me to the moon - via Uxbridge: Julia Hagedorn visits a space school rooted firmly on planet Earth

Click to follow
THE INTERNATIONAL space station Daedalus, which has facilities for manufacturing, research, space observation and exploration and will house about 250 crew members, scientists and engineers, is inviting tenders from small companies.

Firms after the contracts include Fail Safe, which manufactures spacesuits from new flexible materials, using a modular system that means certain parts can be replaced; Shrinks R Us, which provides psychological profiling of clients before sending them into orbit; and Reebox Space Station Trainers, which offers a six-month intensive programme to combat the effects of weightlessness.

Daedalus, of course, is a hypothetical project, although a visitor to the Space School at Brunel University, in Uxbridge, west London, would be forgiven for forgetting. James Potter, head of the Space School, a course that runs for a week at Easter and again during the summer, is so enthusiastic and has gathered around him so many like- minded scientists and students that it is easy to become caught up in the excitement generated by the 'last frontier'.

The Space School is not intended to train future astronauts, but to give students aged 16 to 18 with a genuine interest in science and engineering an awareness of space. The 34 students on the course this month spent a week attending lectures, practical sessions and workshops from 8am until 11pm, after which there was often research for the next day to be done.

Daedalus is a good example of the seriousness with which the topic is treated. Having made their tenders, the 'companies' were quizzed at length by Dr Potter and a colleague. Daniel Robots Ltd had devised a cybernetic figure with cameras for eyes and a 'head' and 'wrists' that swivel through 360 degrees for carrying out external maintenance and repairs to the spacecraft. The students were asked, for instance, why they hadn't produced several cheaper versions instead of putting all their faith in one robot.

Another exercise involved designing and building a space station. A computer program provided the list of available components and included a spreadsheet so that the students could keep an eye on the cost of their chosen options.

Another exercise addressed moon- mining. This involved prospecting for lunar ore by manipulating computerised vehicles on a huge plaster-of-Paris model of the moon that almost filled a room and was dotted with craters and obstacles.

Then there were the rocket launches, for which students had to build a launch pad out of scrap that could be operated out of a large bin of water. It therefore had to be waterproof and include a safety switch that would still allow the rocket to ignite and fire underwater. The eventual solution had a lot to do with a device much favoured by the IRA - a mercury tilt switch.

Mark Burchell, a lecturer at Kent University, gave the students insight into how precarious a space mission can be. His example, the Russian mission Mars 94, aims to send a spacecraft into orbit around Mars, not only to drop instruments on to its surface but to send two missiles to burrow into the planet.

The university has developed a special kind of accelerometer to measure the scaled-down missiles' likelihood of success. It took two years to produce and was tested by being dropped off a cliff-top in Kent - Dr Burchell admitted that no one quite knew whether these tests would bear any similarity to the impact of hitting Mars.

Dr Burchell's lecture on Mars gave vivid descriptions of its ice poles, winds and dust storms, although a few members of the audience dozed off at this point - perhaps the late nights were taking their toll.

Kent University always sends someone to lecture at the Space School. Physics departments are under particular pressure to expand but, as Dr Burchell pointed out, universities are having real problems finding enough qualified students and the course is a golden opportunity to recruit. Five or six students from the Space School choose Kent every year.

Almost all the students who attend the course go on to study science. Two alumni of the first Space School have just graduated from Oxford and returned for a reunion this year. The school had influenced their choice of the astrophysics option at Oxford and, as Sarah Pearce pointed out, allowed them to build a network of people interested in space at a time when school friends laughed at their interest.

Michael Pollock, now studying A-levels, also stressed the inspirational aspect of the course: 'At school, the physics you do is often dry and boring, not practical like it is here, where you can see where you are going.'

But is there really a future in space? Dr Potter believes there is. He sees space as being the next region to explore, just as in the first part of this century man conquered the air.

'There is a potential for long-term industrial expansion and exploration. If we stop exploring, society becomes static. The world is a crowded place and we need a frontier of some kind to measure it against - to encourage people to think beyond the controls of their minds.'

He agrees that cost is a barrier, but foresees that the kind of companies that invested in oil rigs could spread into space platforms. Nearer home, he would settle for straightforward sponsorship, to enable him to halve the pounds 350 he has to charge students.

(Photograph omitted)