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

Exclusive on Byline Times: Disappearing London voters as foreign buyers and new build AirBnBs flood neighbourhoods

110-112 Vauxhall Bridge Road; One of the AirBnBs block of apartments springing up in Westminster Pic credit: booking.com
The Surprise: This was the old pub that is now a new rebuilt AirBnb The original planning application was for it to be replaced by residential housing.

I have done a special investigation for Byline Times showing the extraordinary contrast between the decline of the electorate in Westminster and Kensington and the huge property and tourist boom bringing in non voting oligarchs, foreign buyers and purpose built blocks of AirBnBs.

This may have contributed to Labour winning Battersea and Kensington from the Conservatives at the last election. This time it is not so clear as Labour and the Lib Dems are vying for votes.

See my full story here.

Exclusive on Byline Times: New official “No Deal” advice means chaos and confusion for 1.3 million Brits living and driving in the EU and EEA countries

The EU British Driving Licence that will disappear. and no longer be valid in the EU and EEA.Pic credit: gov uk

Britain’s 43,000 citizens living in Holland will have to retake their driving test if they do not apply for a Dutch driving licence by 31 October, according to new No Deal Brexit advice from the Department of Transport.

In Spain any of the 300,000 British citizens who have not exchanged their licence by October 31 will have to pass a medical test to continue driving to get a new licence.

These are just two of a whole plethora of confusing and chaotic rules that will vary from country to country when the British driving licence is no longer recognised by the EU.  UK’s 1.3 million citizens living in the 27 countries will face different rules, time deadlines for applications and compulsory medical checks before they can drive again in some countries.

The full story is here.

 The full guidance -which has only just been published – is here. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/driving-in-the-eu-after-brexit-driving-licence-exchange

Warning the advice is being updated as more information on the new rules become available as the UK government doesn’t seem to have the full picture.

How Singapore shames London’s record on disabled mobility

Since taking this world trip I have gone out with my wife Margaret in a wheelchair in some 20 countries and encountered many challenges – from uneven and inaccessible pavements to stairs with no accompanying ramps, high kerbs, blocked paths and sudden inaccessible dead ends.

The visit to Singapore was a treat. It outstripped many European cities in the comprehensive services available to disabled people and the ease of getting around the country.

It sends a strong message to Transport for London on how to organise disabled friendly services across the capital. From travelling on the system it was clear a great deal of thought had been put in to make it as easy as possible for disabled people. Signage, positioning of lifts and the design of trains were all co-ordinated. So was access to the street to and from stations. It makes London just amateurish and years behind and pretty hostile to disabled people..

It was a lightening visit – just one day – it involved a visit to major attraction using the underground train system.

While This the cruise terminal was not directly connected to the metro the 250 yard walk from the terminal to the new station was well signposted. It’s served Marina South Pier where more local ferry services run. Getting access was easy . A wide ramp allowed wheelchair access to the station and lifts took you down to the booking hall and platform. The lift came out exactly opposite a carriage on the train which included wheelchair spaces.There was completely level access to the train with a minimal gap. We had to change lines at the next station Marina Bay. Again the system was easy to navigate.

Going out at Bayfront station was easy with lifts to the station entrance and a lift also well used by families with pushchairs to street level.

And then there was a bonus. We were going to the Gardens by the Bay one of Singapore’s newer iconic attractions. And round the corner was a shuttle bus to take you to the centre. But it was no ordinary shuttle bus. It included a ramp so wheelchairs could be hoisted on to the back to enable disabled people to travel in style. They were also testing a driverless vehicle.

Once there the two amazing attractions the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest were easily accessible.The Cloud Forest was particularly impressive with wheelchair accessible lift and always taking you hundreds of feet above the tree, hanging plants and huge waterfalls.The pictures tell the story.

Singapore’s system is copied by the metro in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. It also has lifts to platforms and ramps into stations. Unfortunately at the two stations we used half the lifts did not work. And the access to the stations is not straightforward. More like London than Singapore.

Vietnam: The scooter boys in a booming Communist state with a widening wealth gap 

Imagine being dropped in the centre of a huge, unfamiliar vibrant place like Ho Chi Minh City without any local currency or understanding the language. The first thing you might do is look for an ATM to get some local cash. But there is not one in sight.

Then a friendly young guy on a motor scooter who speaks English suggests he can direct you to one which turns out to be round the corner.

You successfully get the money. Then he asks for payment. In the end You give equivalent of £3 and he goes away. As a tourist to the city this happened to me. I was politely fleeced.

The incident is symbolic of the current state of affairs in Vietnam. The loss of £3 was not a huge matter for me but it was a small fortune for him. It illustrates both the gulf between first world tourists and third world countries and the internal divide between the rich and poor in an emerging nation like Vietnam.

The young motor scooter rider is one of the enduring features of Ho Chi Minh City.There are thousands of them desperate and anxious for work and they dominate the roads and the pavements. Trying to negotiate a wheelchair along the pavements I found they were my main competitors for the few ramps that made the streets accessible. The traffic in the city is anarchic and you take your life in your hands to cross the road. Many of scooter riders use the ramps for the disabled to mount the pavement to avoid being held up by traffic lights.

They are at the bottom of a very large pile with shoe shine cleaners and people selling fans to tourists. At the top are wealthy entrepreneurs and property developers in the new Asain tiger.

And a visit to Ho Chi Minh city and a popular seaside resort Nha Trang confirms this. Both are booming with new tower block offices and apartments in the former Saigon and new multi storey hotels in the seaside town.

Ho Chi Minh City still has a number of its original French colonial buildings including the old post office, a Roman Catholic cathedral and an opera house that would not look out of place in Paris.But any idea that the writ of Macron runs here is out of the question. France has left an architectural legacy but not much else.

Instead it is the Japanese,Chinese, Americans and British ( in the shape of banks like HSBC and accountants like KPMG) that dominate the city alongside growing new Vietnamese entrepreneurs.

In Nha Trang a seaside resort that was a favourite relaxation destination for US troops during the Vietnam war it is US and Japanese hotels that are dominating the seafront with at least six new tower block hotels under construction when I visited.

After the American troops left it became a holiday destination for the Russians and Chinese. Now it is seeking a wider tourist market from Asia and even Europe. The resort is not just a cruise ship destination but a major tourist centre in its own right.

The present beautiful uncrowded beach could in future become as crowded as one on the Costa del Sol.

Small shacks with corrugated roofs are cheek by jowl with new luxury hotels in Nha Trang. And in Ho Chi Minh City huge swathes of modern apartments are going up in the city centre which are well beyond the reach of the average Vietnamese worker.

Communism comes in is over property ownership. The concept of private freehold property does not exist. Instead people buy a state licence to occupy the house or flat which can be revoked if the state requires the land for development. People are compensated for having to move and foreigners are restricted to a 50 year occupancy. Some, the guide suggested, get round this by getting a Vietnamese person to “own” it for them.

Most companies expect their staff to work a six day week . Japanese employers are rated the best as they offer staff a five day week.

Vietnam is a country in transition and is aping China. It is an inexpensive holiday destination if you ignore the poverty gap.

By the way the country plans to ban motor scooters from the Ho Chi Minh City by 2030 to combat smog. I wonder where they will go or whether they will succeed.

Murder at the laundrette: A Cunard experience not in the brochure 

Anybody on a world Cunard cruise cannot but be charmed  by the civilised behaviour of the crew and fellow guests. A day does not go by without any guest being encouraged to enjoy themselves by the large crew and fellow guests.Everybody is very considerate and helpful to each other. 

But there is one room in Queen Victoria where all this breaks down. It is called the laundrette. Here the genteel atmosphere throughout the ship evaporates in a mix of soap suds and wet clothes.

The laundrette is one of the few free services on board but there are only two or three machines for 100 or more cabins. And with 700 people going on a 108 day world cruise plus a turnover of some 1300 people at major ports demand is high.

To get a machine normally polite men and women are transformed into duplicitous schemers resorting to any ruse to get their hands on the machines.

When wiley women and aggressive men get going to grab a machine anything goes.

One person even came armed with two fake ” Out of Order ” notices to  attach to a washing machine and a dryer so she could get exclusive use during the voyage. The ruse was discovered when other suspicious guests tried using the machines and found they worked perfectly.

More direct action has involved taking other people’s clothes out of driers and washing machines when the guests using the machines are out of the laundrette.

One poor guest who had just loaded a washing machine and went out to get more dirty clothes came back five minutes later to find another guest had emptied her machine and replaced it with her clothes. By then she had started the machine and the first guest could do nothing about it.

As for men aggression can spill over. One man furious that another guy had taken out his washing turned to the other and said ” How dare you run your fingers through my wife’s knickers “. A fist fight broke out and it is said that Cunard threw both of them off the boat at the next port.

No wonder when you visit the Cunard laundrette you find a line of grim faced men and women guarding their machines with their lives and warning you there is a two hour wait before you need to come back.

So far the ethos of take no prisoners has not yet led to any deaths. But there is still another month on this voyage so anything could happen.

In the meantime nobody has copied the iconic Levi jeans advertisement where a  young guy goes to the laundrette to strip off and put all his  dirty clothes in the machines. But perhaps Cunard’s strict dress code of smart attire after 6.0 pm and a dinner jacket and cocktail dress on gala night puts off people from going to the laundrette in the nude. But again there is still time…