Travelogue Kennedy Space Center: The billionaires’ space race to Mars

SpaceX building at Cape Canaveral

Imagine in 40 years time booking a 14 day holiday on Amazon Prime to hike the craters of the moon. Or a tourist  world voyage to Mars.

Visiting the Kennedy Space Center on a huge nature reserve on North  Merritt Island this year is not  just awesome  but at an extraordinary time in its history.The Florida site is not only where NASA does its top level research as well as showcasing its past achievements  it is now the place where the world’s richest men are competing with each other to launch into space.

 If you ever wondered where the huge profits of international capitalist companies are going, most of the money they have made is being spent here. They are gambling on a new lucrative tourist business that will be worth billions in the future. And they are changing the face of Cape Canaveral. Dotted among the state owned space facilities are brand new space centres owned by private individuals and companies each competing with each other to build rockets , space capsules and launch sites . The only one missing is billionare Richard Branson whose Virgin Galatic company is based elsewhere.

Thus you have Elon Musk, worth $37.7billion, and owner of Tesla electric cars ,with SpaceX, planning with his Falcon rocket to take US astronauts to the space station and then planning to go to the Moon and beyond. He is competing with the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, worth $125.3 billion and owner of Amazon whose Blue Origen company wants to go to the Moon. And you have Boeing with a base here who want to expand from building aircraft to spacecraft.

And what is also interesting is that the Space centre itself has the Journey to Mars centre where enthusiastic scientists are openly aiming to recruit the next generation to work on their space programme to “solve the impossible ” for the Mars mission.

The talk aimed at today’s ten year olds is premised that if you follow the history of the development of flight within 40 years what could be accomplished by a few pioneers will become commonplace for commercial services for tourists. Hence the interest in the commercialisation of space.

On the  cruise ship one of the most interesting lectures came from a NASA scientist who explained some of the pioneering work being done to aid the space project.Dr Lawrence Kutznetz showed that the breadth of research was spilling over into fields that could help the   disabled , aid medical research,and go the limits of technology.One worldwide research project involves designing a light weight spacesuit from scratch which will be essential if anyone wants to roam around Mars. Unlike the Moon Martian Gravity is similar to Earth’s and no human could walk more the few yards without collapsing under the weight of what they have to carry to stay alive. So using the Internet, peer reviewed research  is designing new materials, sealing the helmet from the rest of the body and allowing the rest of the suit to leak

Another project has very recently discovered by mistake that a particular drug when used on elderly mice caused cells covering its whole body to regenerate turning the equivalent of a 60 year old mouse to having the energy of an adolescent.

Scientists are not quite clear how this happened. The implications of this last experiment I can imagine will be very interesting for our wealthy billionaires funding the space programme – imagine being able to live until you are 150 – double the present lifespan.Or imagine Donald Trump or Rupert Murdoch being offered a double lifespan.Perhaps not.

Other experiments have discovered that if you link two people’s brains using non evasive electrodes it is possible by thought alone to  operate another person’s artificial hand.

So not only is the space centre an exciting place to visit but some of the research going on there is in the realm of science fiction.

Saturn 5 rocket

On Byline Times: Protesters and objectors frustrate growth of fracking – National Audit Office report

One of the few fracking sites in the UK in Lancashire. Pic credit: BBC Lancashire

Very informative report from the National Audit Office out today on the state of fracking and how it is being held back by unprecedented numbers of protestors and objectors. Read the story here.

Australian Bush:The Invasion of the Giant Cane Toads

It could be science fiction.It has already been featured on games videos. But in the Australian Bush there’s an extraordinary real problem which is entirely self inflicted.

In the 1930s some bright person thought they had found an ecological way of dealing with a pest – a beetle – that was destroying Australia’s sugar cane crop. They decided to import the world’s large toad that had been introduced to Hawaii from Central America. The toads grow up to six inches long.

What the people who imported the toad did not know is that this large toad could not jump. And the beetles lived at the top of the sugar cane some 15 feet above the ground. So the toads were less than useless in combating the pest.

But their legacy has been a disaster. The toads secrete a poisonous fluid when attacked as their main defence mechanism. Toads are the natural food for many native reptiles and birds. They have no natural predators in Australia.

Worse the reptiles and birds that ate them were poisoned threatening the diversity of wildlife and forcing snakes and iguanas to the point of extinction in some areas. They also multiplied from a few hundred to an amazing 200 million and expanding their area from a small part of Queensland into the vast Northern Territories.

One area we visited was Litchfield National Park south of Darwin. This bush park is famous for its waterfalls and its giant termite mounds. Here the arrival of the cane toad has seen the disappearance of iguanas and some species of snake who ate the toads.

The guide who took us on the trip was devastated by the impact of the toads on other wildlife. And he was concerned about the spread of the toads which extend their range by about 25 miles every year.

Obviously it has not destroyed all wildlife in the park. Some specialised species like the olive python which feeds on bats are largely unaffected. And there is some hope that Australian wildlife hit by the toads may be able to adapt.

One snake has evolved to have a smaller jaw so it cannot swallow a giant toad. A bird under threat has found that if you turn the toad belly up it is possible to eat parts of it without being poisoned.

And the park’s meat eating ants have found they are immune from the poison. Normally they invade the huge termite mounds and kill the termites. Now they have found toads as another part of their diet.

The Australian cane toad has also adapted. It has grown longer legs so it can cover greater distances in this huge continent. Meanwhile scientists have unraveled the toad’s DNA in the hope of finding a way to try and eliminate them. This is an extraordinary story of a self inflicted problem that could be solved by evolution.

Samoa: Boris’s Treasure Island for post Brexit Britain?

The lush tropical island of Samoa in the South Pacific is famous as the last resting place of Robert Louis Stevenson author of Treasure Island.His villa is now a museum and a major tourist attraction set in the hills above Apia, the nation’s capital.

Stevenson is buried at the top of a nearby mountain and reached by a hike through tropical rainforest. There is even an environmental project to preserve the forest in that area.

It was at Stevenson’s villa that five months ago that Laura Clarke the British High Commissioner to Samoa chose to launch a new initiative aimed to boost Britain’s place in the world post Brexit. Here for one day the Union Jack flew from the building while the high commissioner waxed lyrically about how similar the UK was do this tropical paradise. You can read all about it in a FO press release here.

Samoa it turns out is one of nine countries that Britain is keen to strengthen its presence as part of a Foreign Office initiative to compensate for losing its influence in the European Union. The argument goes along the lines that for every small country that Britain supports is likely to back Britain at the United Nations as each country has one vote. That way Britain can keep playing a major role without relying on the EU.The initiative goes back to Boris Johnson’s time as foreign secretary.It is being repeated in Tonga and Vanuatu.

The policy could be expensive and the competition could be fierce. In Samoa it will mean building a high commission to compete with the ones already in the capital representing Australia,New Zealand and Japan. In both Samoa and Tonga the main competition comes from China which is aiding Samoa’s education system and operates behind a high security compound in Tonga. The Japanese and Koreans are funding a new bridge in Apia. And both islands have strong links with Australia and New Zealand.

Exactly what new business opportunities Britain will get from Samoa and Tonga is not clear. Neither country relies entirely on tourism but most of their exports are agriculture and both have tiny populations ( they have less than 300,000 between them) and are no substitute for any EU country. Britain could benefit from coconut oil and cream from Samoa. Tonga could send us frozen fish,squash and vanilla beans.

As a visitor to both countries, Samoa is stunningly beautiful and friendly and Tonga is similar. Both have a very strong Christian religious communities dating from the missionaries and still observe Sundays as a day of rest.

In Samoa family is very important and unusually there are few cementaries as nearly all Samoans bury their ancestors on their own land. As well having their own homes they build meeting halls for family events.

Surprisingly for such a beautiful place it is not overdeveloped. There are no huge tower block hotels like Honolulu dominating the coast.Instead it remains rather a remarkable tropical paradise that even Robert Louis Stevenson might still recognise.

Cabo San Lucas: Mexico’s pristine environment on the front line of an American invasion

President Trump is more than keen to build a wall to keep out immigrant criminals, drug dealers and bad people from entering the United States from Mexico.

Yet some 1000 miles away from the proposed wall Americans are very happy to move into a country seen by some as a dangerous hotbed of crime and violence threatening the foundations of the US.

The front line for this “invasion” is Cabo San Lucas a fast growing resort in Baja California some 300 miles south of San Diego and once one of the remotest parts of the world.

Some 50 years ago it was a small fishing village set among spectacular scenery at the ” Lands End” of Baja California a long slither of land separated from the mainland of Mexico by an inland sea and then an extremely isolated home for amazing wildlife.

Every year grey whales from Alaska come and breed in Pacific Ocean off the coast and there are colonies of sea lions and pelicans plus a huge variety of other birds and fish. The local scenery is spectacular with huge rocks and pinnacles rising out of the ocean and a much photographed natural arch. Cabo San Lucas is also on the edge of a giant underwater canyon which makes for fine scuba diving. Outside the resort the desolate desert scenery is full of forests of slow growing cacti.

According to the guides the turning point in Cabo’s history came when the Mexican government altered land tenure law and allowed its original inhabitants to own their land in the village. Instead of sharing the windfall the people lucky enough to own property sold it to multinational corporations at what looked to them a vast profit. Most were American real estate companies who saw the opportunity to create a resort to exploit the stunning scenery and wildlife.

Now there are no original village homes left, local fishing has ceased,and an ever expanding ribbon of hotels,condominiums, apartments ,shopping malls and time shares have been built into the surrounding hills making it the most expensive city in Mexico. Villas with commanding views of the sea sell for seven million dollars. Millionaire yachts dock in the harbour alongside tourist boats.

The resort is and looks American with Walmart, Dominos Pizzas and McDonalds along the main streets. Most shops advertise their wares in English with pharmicists offering sleeping pills and body building drugs without prescriptions.Development has brought advantages for local people with most of the population in tourism or employed by real estate companies. Mexico unlike the US encourages immigration anyone who can earn the equivalent of 2000 US dollars,according to the guides, is welcome.
As a result Cabo has attracted people from other Central and South America to work there.


There are downsides. The pristine scenery and abundant wildlife is under threat by this mass invasion. Also the Koreans and Japanese are overfishing the abundant waters off Mexico though the under sourced Mexican government is trying to limit their activity.
The real dangers are that the overdevelopment of the area could eventually destroy its main attractions. There is also a national park where development is restricted which offers hope. But the town is both an example of pristine nature being exploited by corporate greed.

Bermuda: How shipwrecks can save our dwindling coral reefs 

While global warming and pollution are threatening our coral reefs Bermuda is a rather unusual success story.

Unlike more famous coral reefs like the Australian Barrier Reef which are in decline the coral reef around Bermuda is healthy and expanding.

One reason is that Bermuda is hundreds of miles from the US and other Caribbean islands and has no industry to speak of to pollute the seas.This tiny island has a coral reef far larger than the island itself. The Atlantic Ocean north of the island is in some areas just between three and twelve feet deep.

As a result the area is dotted with shipwrecks. So many ships have ran aground there and many have not been discovered. But here is the interesting point. These shipwrecks are incredibly beneficial to coral reefs. Sunken boats create a structure for corals to grow and are magnets with for fish with plenty of hides holes. And it appears rather surprisingly that the rusting iron of the hulks acts as a fertiliser to help coral establish itself. One of the few cases of human made debris being beneficial.

According to the tour guides who took us there is now growing interest in sinking redundant ships on the edge of coral reefs once they have been decontaminated. They are colonised by the coral which expands the reef.

One example is HMS Vixen a former Royal Navy ship which ran aground a century ago whose hull as the picture shows still sticks out of the shallow water. Here it is a magnet for grey snapper, Chubb and various tropical fish.

Bermuda’s coral reefs are also refuges for turtles which are protected from predators and conservationists have brought back turtle eggs to hatch on the island’s beache to re-establish and expand the population.

Not all Bermuda’s Eco experiments have worked. Just off the coral reef there is an abandoned Eco village. The houses are built on stilts on the coast with canvas rooves and no air conditioning and sound proofing.As a result they are unlettable in the summer when there is high humidity and people’s conversations can be heard from house to house.At the moment the government is desperately trying to flog them off to anybody who might want to use them as a spare summerhouse.

Some facts on tax haven Bermuda which free market Tories might like and Socialists hate. Income tax minimal at just six per cent or nothing for 65000 inhabitants.As a result there is a 17.5 per cent tax on everything that is sold there which is already expensive because it has to be imported. Average house prices are $800000. Cheapest one bed flat $300000. Some affordable houses for $300000 – these are ex Royal Navy homes. Lucky to get a beer for £7 and to eat out for two could cost over £100.

Not much chance of Liam Fox negotiating an independent trade deal – unless he wants to expand its tax haven status with the City. Bermuda doesn’t make anything except rum cakes. So apart from flying them in on direct services between Gatwick and Hamilton don’t expect anything special.

Bermuda until 1960’s had a naval presence. Plans by Gavin Williamson the defence secretary to bring back Royal Navy bases in the Caribbean should make it the ideal centre. A few slight problems.The Royal Navy commissioner ‘s house is a museum, the deep water berths are now cruise ship terminals and the port buildings a shopping mall. Apart from that it should be plain sailing.