39th BIS Sino-Russian Forum: An Inside Look

Four decades in the making… 

In 1979, as the world celebrated the 10th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. The late Anthony Kenden, a pioneer in analyzing military space programmes, encouraged the Society to support a programme of technical forums where knowledgable speakers and Society members could, in an informal setting, learn and discuss the latest developments space exploration “at a suitably high level”. The topic of the very first Forum on 4th January 1980 was to be “The Soviet Space Programme” held at the Societies new HQ building on South Lambeth Road in London.

From this small gathering, this Forum grew each year to become one of the most popular annual meetings in the Societies calendar. This is thanks to the enthusiastic attendance from members, regular speakers and the support from the staff of the BIS. A key individual in this success and the driving force behind the Forum for three decades was former President, the late Rex Hall. Originally called the Soviet Space Forum, over the years this format was expanded to create an originally separate Chinese Technical Forum until both were merged into what today is known as the BIS Sino-Russian Technical Forum. This year as the world once again reflects on the Apollo 11 achievement the Society will host its 39th Forum over the weekend of 2nd and 3rd June, and looks forward to the 40th Ruby anniversary programme in June 2020.

Over the past four decades, a wide variety of almost 350 papers have been presented by over 100 speakers from across Europe the USA, Canada, South Africa, Asia and Russia. You may be forgiven for thinking that, though the official title is a ‘Technical Forum’ it may be too technical for you. Well, that is simply not the case, true there are detailed presentations throughout the programme but there are less in-depth papers as well. It’s more a gathering of old friends and colleagues who wish to share and discuss the history, latest developments and future prospects of the Russian and Chinese space programmes. The agenda has expanded over the years to include presentations on cooperative ventures with other countries as well as the maturing Japanese and Indian space programmes and, at times those from the  US and Europe as well.

We have also hosted some notable guests, including South African Space Flight Participant Mark Shuttleworth, and more recently Russian space workers, such as rocket engineer Oleg Sokolov. Of course, for years we had dreamed of inviting a Russian cosmonaut to a Forum for years, hardly believing that one day we could actually enjoy that experience.

But that day came in 2015 when UK astronaut Helen Sharman accompanied her Soyuz T12 commander Anatoly Artsebarsky to the forum. Then, amazingly the following year, Helen returned as part of the 25th-anniversary celebrations of her flight to the Soviet space station Mir, this time accompanied not one but three Russian cosmonauts. Anatoly Artsebarsky returned this time with his colleagues, Viktor Afanasyev and Sergei Krikalev.  The 2016 extended weekend programme across three days was an outstanding success and a highpoint in the Forum’s history. Clearly, our next challenge is to arrange the visit of a Chinese space official or, even better perhaps a Chinese taikonaut and Shenzhou veteran! We can but try

The creation of a programme takes about a year to assemble. At least six months prior to the Forum I have a rough idea of who will, or may be speaking, from regular presenters (affectingly known as “Rex’s Usual Suspects”), guest speakers and hopefully encouraging other members to take the plunge and present a paper. As daunting as this may sound the whole event is run in an informal and relaxed manner. As many speakers are not professional lecturers or researchers, with the encouragement and support from the audience, their presentations can offer new insights into their chosen topic. It can be a thoroughly enjoyable experience, indeed that several ‘new presenters’ have gone on to become regular speakers themselves, which is especially encouraging to see as us older hands retire to the ‘back benches’ of the Forum.

The early Forum programmes focused solely on the then still relatively secret Soviet space programme, spread over a Friday evening and most of Saturday. From 1985 the agenda was condensed to a single full days programme thus, creating the long-established pattern of holding the annual event on the first Saturday in June. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, one of the challenges was to decide just what to call the Former Soviet/CIS/Russian Technical Forum? Despite this in 2000 we introduced the first separate Chinese Technical Forum, but from 2004 the now Russian and Chinese forums were merged together. As the popularity grew so did the programme and from 2015, what was originally an occasional ‘special weekend’ has become a regular event spread across two full days (Saturday and Sunday), with the occasional special function on a Friday, and a dinner at a local establishment on Saturday evening.

The wide variety of presentations are eagerly anticipated by regular attendees each year, and it is thanks to enthusiastic  support from the staff of the BIS that make each Forum a huge success, and who go to of their way to ensure we are all well fed and watered
with the occasional toast of vodka at the appropriate  times, naturally. With such an eclectic mix of members and guests, networking & socializing are key ingredients to the success of the weekend, offering an opportunity to meet old friends and establish new contacts. It also offers an excellent opportunity to browse the Societies extensive library collection.

Should you wish to learn more about the background to the Forum and its various papers I wrote an article on the History of the Forum through 2015 that was published in Space Chronicle Volume 69, Supplement No. 2, pp. 46-58, 2016 with a recent  update to 2018  also appearing in Space Chronicle Volume 72 No. 1  pp. 35-36. Both available from the Society upon request.

With such a bulging and varied programme, why not take the opportunity and register at this year’s Forum. Held over June 1 & 2, 2019 you will receive a warm welcome and I feel sure you will enjoy the experience. Details of registration can be found below, or to book onto the event, please fill out the Payment form below:




Dave Shayler, FBIS

Member of Council

2019 Sino-Russian Forum Coordinator


Payment: If you are a BIS Member or Fellow, you can make your free booking below. If you are not a Member or Fellow of the BIS, you can book for ÂŁ10.00 via the Online Booking Form. Please note that our policy is not to give refunds, as the administrative cost of doing so is more than the ticket price. In exceptional circumstances, however, we will give a refund. 

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