Monday, July 05, 2010

Lost in space - with a dodgy boiler

Technology has two very different faces.

A bright, shiny face and a grim, grumpy face. As events earlier this week will illustrate.

First, the bright and shiny bit: the International Space Station, or ISS to its chums.

Just look at its vital statistics.

 At nearly 51 metres long and 109 metres wide, and weighing 370 tonnes (that’s 407 tons in old money), it’s the largest and heaviest artificial satellite ever to orbit the earth. It travels at an average speed of 17,239mph, at a height of up to 286 miles above the ground, and completes 15.7 orbits per day.

It currently carries a crew of six people, who for all sorts of very good reasons aren’t allowed to indulge in any kind of interplanetary rumpy-pumpy, according to a recent  interview with NASA Commander Alan Poindexter.

(Now there’s a good square-jawed- New-Frontier-Buzz-Lightyear-style American surname if ever there was one. Just the right sort of star-spangled hero to lead humanity to infinity and beyond. No cosmic nooky on his watch, you can be sure of that.)

The ISS is big enough to be seen from Earth with the naked eye, and for the last few nights it’s been passing almost directly over Bath. You can find predictions for the next ISS passovers for Bath at

There’s something just a little bit awe-inspiring, and humbling too, about standing outside on a clear summer’s evening as it tracks across the sky, taking just four or five minutes from rising in the west to disappearing into the east.

Catch it if you can – it’s quite a show. And remember as it goes by: it’s not flying, it’s falling with style.

So that’s the exciting side of modern technology. Now for the dark, grubby downside: our hot water system.

Imagine: you stroll in from an inspiring five minutes watching the ISS zoom past, to find Mrs D with her special doom-laden face on.

And you know you’re in for a spell of protracted misery when she utters those dread words:  “Hugh, I can’t get the boiler to work.”

Which sounds uncannily similar to “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Except about six times worse.

Kids will go unshowered. Washing will go un-upped. Towels won’t dry on the towel rail. But that won’t matter because we won’t be having a bath any time soon.

Of course, there’s a hi-tech solution: engage diagnostic skills, repressurise the warp coils, calibrate the quantum flux generator and stand by for ignition. But no. The green light is flashing and the yellow light won’t come on, and let’s face it, you don’t have the slightest idea why not.

You can bet your booty they don’t have this sort of trouble on the ISS. But then, nor do they have the eventual cure. Which is to open up the innards and give everything a good wiggle. Turn it off, turn it on again, run the hot water and bingo.

Stand back and modestly accept praise from assembled family members. You have boldly gone where no man has gone before.

Until the whole damn lot goes wrong again the following morning. Time to introduce the chequebook to the boiler man.

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