Outta this world

7th September 2007 at 01:00
It's been 50 years since the birth of the Space Age. Anu Ojha reports on how one school is marking this scientific revolution

A funny thing happened on September 1, 1859. Richard Carrington, a British astronomer, observed an incredible increase in brightness on the surface of the Sun that lasted a matter of minutes, then disappeared.

For the next three days spectacular displays of the Northern Lights were seen throughout Europe and, more unusually, operators of the latest piece of Victorian technology, the telegraph system, reported that the lines themselves were "singing" and in instances the wooden poles exploded into flames. Such were the effects of the geomagnetic storm caused by the largest solar flare ever recorded.

If the Carrington event happened now, however, the effects would be rather different. Such is our modern world's dependency on satellite communications and the legacy of the Space Race's acceleration of computer technology, that the nationwide power blackouts, computer systems crashes and satellite system failures that would ensue as the result of a similar flare in the 21st century would be devastating.

In the 50 years since the birth of the Space Age, marked by the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the commercial developments resulting from this exploration have become the foundations of our globally networked 21st-century society. The Space Race was not just about flags, footprints, Teflon and Velcro (both of which, incidentally, predate Sputnik 1): the images and information gleaned have given us a perspective on the fragility of our planet's ecosystems that becomes even more apparent when looking at our nearest planets in the cosmos.

To mark this anniversary, Great Barr School in Birmingham is holding a cross curricular Space and the Environment Week from October 1 to 5. In addition to science lessons having a clear space or environment-related theme, other departments are also highlighting innovative curriculum links.

In the early 1960s, the bete noire of astronaut training was the MASTIF (multiple-axis space training inertia facility). Essentially a set of three concentric rings with a seat in the middle, this "instrument of torture" as one astronaut memorably called it, was used to prepare astronauts for the confusion of sensory balance organs that can result when humans are exposed to "microgravity" (the term used to describe weightlessness).

Chris Knipe, the head of PE, has hired two similar devices descended from the MASTIF from a circus organiser for the week. Pupils will use balance boards and co-ordination exercises to see how they compare before and after their ride.

Kate Clayton, the head of history, has written a scheme of work based around the Cold War and the role of the Space Race in the 1960s. Pupils will visit the National Cold War Museum, based at RAF Cosford near Wolverhampton.

The geography department, under Neil Morland, has also worked with Dr Jason Williams, a senior climate research scientist with the Royal Dutch Meteorological Service, who will deliver pupil and teacher masterclasses on climate change modelling using satellite data

Anu Ojha is an Advanced Skills Teacher and director of science and mathematics at Great Barr School

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