Category Archives: Space

Movie Doubles – ‘Gravity’ & ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

It’s Oscar Season

I watched ‘Blue Jasmine’ recently. The brouhaha that erupted from Dylan Farrow’s open letter put me off doing an entry on it but I have to say it was typical fare from Woody Allen. Cate Blanchett is in top form playing a hysteric and deluded person but these kinds of characters aren’t that rare in the Woody Allen oeuvre so…

Anyway, the Oscars have come and gone and that’s meant a bit of binge viewing the nominees. I may as well try and see if there’s something to be said in mashing up these two films. ‘Gravity’ of course has been the highly praised hard sci-fi movie of the year that even the toughest there’s-no-sound-in-space crowd can embrace happily. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is the adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s book about brokers who sold penny stocks to the rich. They’re both very interesting films – much more so than ‘Blue Jasmine’ – so here they are.

Spoiler warning!

Victory of Verisimilitude Part 101

Much of the praise and criticism of ‘Gravity’ has centered around whether the experience of space and space walking and surviving in high orbit is anything like what is presented. The praise comes from people who are sick of Star Wars and Star Trek characters exploring space without ever going EVA in heavy spacesuits to brave the non-elements of no atmosphere, no perceivable gravity. The critic s of the film have pointed out how unlikely it is to venture to the ISS from the shuttle orbit, that it would take considerably more energy to get there than what is left in the propulsion of the  suit. Still, you have to marvel at how naturalistic the portrayal of ‘null-grav’ and the constraints of working with spacesuits. Is it really like this? Some have suggested it is not as dexrously possible in real suits with real gloves.  Even so I think this is the first space movie where I’ve felt the fear of heights staring down to the planet surface from on high.

‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ similarly goes in hard for brute realism. The language, the deals, the anxiety and the adrenaline of selling the market to itself comes over like a tidal wave. The film takes particular delight in explaining the ins and out of the various drugs consumed and the sexual adventures attempted. The film actually give flesh to the Talking Heads song ‘Wild Wild Life’. Interestingly enough, Matthew McConnaughy’s performance in his cameo appearance as the elder stockbroker invokes ‘American Psycho’ so perhaps this film can be seen as the continuing narrative of the 1980s Wall Street onto the 1990s. Just as it is hard to gauge just how close to the reality it gets with ‘Gravity’, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ has a good deal of sense of reality.

Maybe this kind of obsession over verisimilitude comes from Oliver Stone and his movie where he brings in consultants for every little detail he needs knowledge – and of course Oliver Stone directed ‘Wall Street’. Both films are like triumphs of production design and props departments. The eye to details that come and go in both films are astonishing. In ‘Gravity’, the international Space Station looks exactly like the modules are supposed to with even the Kibou  science module done exactly as it looks. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is like a time capsule for a catalogue of luxury goods. Even the lingerie frills look period-accurate. It’s simply astonishing how far both films go. The sheer weight of detail forms the compelling picture of verisimilitude.

Space Age Gender, Wall Street Sex

‘Gravity’ has something in common with ‘Alien’. Of course ‘Alien’ hardly had ‘artificial gravity’ in the Nostromo so the amount of floaty ‘null-grav’ shots in ‘Gravity’ tell us how far filming techniques have come. The way ‘Alien’ would have been written with artificial gravity would have been to save what would have been astronomical costs and simply get on with the drama. The elegant camera-choreographed movements of Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Stone, floating through the chambers of the ISS and then the Chinese satellite are a tour de force of contemporary shooting technique. the fact that she does it in tight, minimal underwear is evocative of Ripley’s underwear moment in ‘Alien’.

All the same, ‘Gravity’ can be summed up as an update of ‘man versus nature’ narrative, except that it’s more like ‘woman versus environment’. Amy Pohler made the gag at the Golden Globes that the film shows George Clooney would rather drift off in to deep space than form a meaningful working relationship with a mature woman, and it’s sad to say there’s some truth to it. Not so much as applying to George Clooney, but to the fact that it’s the film about the moment a woman has to get up and do the work and survival routine in space all on her ownsome.

Is this a big deal? Who knows. There may well be an astronaut of the future who says she was inspired by Sandra Bullock in this movie. That story is yet to be written – but it does seem like this film gets rid of  the guy to put the woman on the spot, and the guy gets sent flying off into deep space because it’s the greatest complication for the female character. It hardly seems like a big moment except when you look at the unreconstructed, unedited abject sexism of the Wall Street culture in ‘the Wolf of wall Street’ where not only are women objectified, they compete hard to be the most desirable object because there are no other stakes. The breakdown of prices of prostitutes and what you get for your money is so brutal you come to realise we live in some kind of two-zoned society.

There’s one zone of society that works towards equality and emancipation and egalitarianism, and there’s a whole other zone where everything is so reified by money that social structures and ethics and morals and culture just don’t mean a thing. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ loudly proclaims everybody can be bought, and in that narrative universe it is mostly true. The people who cannot be bought – like FBI agents and the government officials seem to be highly anomalous aliens who are deeply dishonest to their own needs. In fact, it’s is very strange to try and reconcile these two zones while desires can be met through money. It’s even arguable that the government and its agents are a kind of hypocrites that functions through being incredibly dishonest (or simply repressed) about their transaction to do with desire, pleasure and money.  Stripped of moral meaning, we’re led to view the human circus in ‘the Wolf of Wall Street’ as a tableau of indecency.

When you watch the two films together, you really wonder if society has come a long way; or perhaps not. Perhaps there are two zones to this world and only the deft can inhabit both with a straight face. Maybe that’s why there’s so much drugs in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’.

Gangs Of Wall Street

I’ve been thinking if there was a director better suited to handling this material than Martin Scorsese. The reason it surfaced as question for me was because I kept seeing echoes of ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Gangs of New York’ in this film. (If Robert DeNiro were still in his prime in his 30s, he would have been magnificent in ‘the Wolf of Wall Street’). The film even follows on from the concerns of ‘Casino’ which closed with the lament that Las Vegas was now owned by the bankers.

This film occupies a spot in Scorsese’s filmography that documents life in New York City often as a crime-infested mirror to Woody Allen’s ouevre  of comedies. The pertinent question to be asked is perhaps is that what is to say the gangsters and psychopaths often portrayed in Scorsese’s films aren’t more prevalent than we think, and that perhaps a good deal of the world’s problems could be sheeted home to these psychopaths with gangster culture running so much of American capitalism.

The other observation to be made is that it is good to see Scorsese has a lot of energy for making very energetic movies. He’s certainly not slowing down to make things more comfortable.

Space Shuttle, Wherefore Art Thou

In the olden days, best and brightest minds would go to MIT and then find jobs with NASA. This changed around the time of the Reagan administration and more and more of the smartest graduates would go work in banks writing algorithms for making money. This of course led to the creation of things like mortgage bonds and futures derivatives, and these things in turn led to the GFC. Had they gone to NASA instead of Wall Street we might have lost a few more shuttles but we might not have created such disparity in wealth in the world.

NASA  of course has ceased to fly the Space Shuttles because of safety concerns. It’s quite strange to watch ‘Gravity’ where the film opens with the demise of a shuttle due to orbital debris. NASA is charged with doing something, but its current mission is really unclear, so the film seems to be a metaphor for the way NASA stands at the moment – that is to say, the Shuttle is dead, the ISS is something just to hang on and the Chinese space program is the only one doing anything. I’m personally not encouraged by the Chinese space program. Especially after the Jade Rabbit probe packed it in on the moon on the third day, living down to the reputation of  ‘Made in China’.

In some ways ‘Gravity’ seems to point at a time in history – now – where NASA has been reduced to a distant patter on the radio, and when the situation is really critical, somehow recedes into the darkness.

American Progress

Because NASA have indeed receded so far from the front line of mounting manned missions, ‘Gravity’ makes you wonder about technological progress. It appears American technology is far more adept at creating the illusion of space exploration than actually doing. it. It would be because so much money has been spent on the technology of special effects, it is probably easier to make a person look like they’re doing space exploration realistically than actually sending somebody into space to do indeterminate ‘research work’.

The irony of this is tremendous. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street takes great pains to explain that stock prices and money are virtual things compared to cash. The ephemeral nature of a deal being expanded to having its own transactional value independent of the deal has essentially created today’s world.

Similarly, American capitalism is at such a point that there is so much money to be made trading derivatives than equities or bonds. Indeed, high-speed trading and dark pools combined can be seen as American capitalism racing off into a dark world with very little transparency. The US governments of the last 30+years have a lot to answer for in how things have worked out.

The Allure of Pennystocks

It’s only mentioned ever so briefly but the main instrument through which the characters of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ enrich themselves is pennystocks and their volatility. Much like Milliken and the junk bond trade, there is some serious money to be made in the volatility of cheaper stocks. The problem with all of them is that you never know if the volatility represents an actual market or a couple of other speculator spinning the wheel. It’s an inspired move to shove pennystocks towards the wealthy because the potential returns on junkbonds and small caps  have been shown to be more than a portfolio of bluechip stocks. But the trick is always going to be which pennystock is going to represent the future and figuring out which ones are going to stay dogs and playthings of the speculators. That takes a lot of time and research – and these things are not available to the average Joe Schmoe and Mrs Schmoe.

Naturally, there is an information war going on between the broker and investor. The more and better the information one has, the better one has a chance of making sound decisions. Jordan Belfort and hi company essentially wade into their clients head with a bunch of bamboozling sales pitch and ambush them into buying stocks they might have never opted to buy on their own cognisance.  If stockbroking is a dodgy business to begin with, you sort of wonder how the SEC let this practice flourish for as long as it did.

Watching the film, it occurred to me that if Jordan Belfort and company had stayed with selling their pennystocks to ordinary mom and dad investors instead of the rich, they might have never brought down the SEC and FBI on their backs. It is suggested very strongly in the film that it is complaints from the rich and powerful who inadvertently lost money to ‘Stratton and Oakmont’. it might have gone for much much longer if the victims were just ordinary moms and dads, and therein lies the very scary thing about American capitalism and its lax regulation. It really is a everything goes until you step on the powerful toes.

 

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History Is Now

The Sum Total of Human Experience For 2000 Years

A little while ago the Economist put up this chart in their Daily Chart section. I’ve been meaning to blog it but life has a way of getting in the way of blogging. It’s a chart of summing up the years lived and the economic output of humanity for the last 2000 years.

SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already “longer” than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of Angus Maddison’s figures.

For a moment, I want people to consider what this means. That 28% of human history and experience was lived in the 20th Century tells us that whatever was important leading up to the 20th Century, things that were just as important happened in the 20th century. Add in the 23% from the last 11 years of the 21st Century and basically, the last 111 years account for 51% of the sum total of human experience for the last 2000 years.

If you look at that gentle slope to the left of the 20th century, that includes the Empire phase of the of the Roman Empire minus the first 49 years which fell before 1AD, the various empires in the Middle East and Persia, the multitude of Chinese Dynasties since the latter Han Dynasty, and so on. The cultural output probably correlates with economic output as a proxy, so what this all suggests is that everybody from (just randomly, no relative importance implied) Tacitus and Suetonius and Zhuge Liang and St Thomas Aquinas and Renee Descartes and Johann Sebastian Bach, and Constantine and Napoleon, all fall into 49% to the left of the 20th Century.

In turn, if you had a detailed understanding of the 20th Century and the 11years of this century, you’d actually be on top of 51% (and growing in proportion) of human history since 1AD. This doesn’t immediately relegate the classics of any field to the dust bin, but it puts it all into a different perspective.

There was a study done in Germany that pointed to 1970 as the year classical education ended. That is to say, it was the year in which the teaching of classics was no longer the mainstay of education, that increasingly vocational education pushed aside the classical education. If you look at this chart, you can see why. The push of modernity was directly the push of the massive demographic that arose in the 20th century. It is possible more people were lost to war and violence than any other time in history in the 20th Century, and even then it managed to produce so many life-hours and economic output and by extension, cultural output.

In turn, what has happened since 1970 sheds a lot of light on this shift. The move from modernism to post-modernist philosophy was probably an attempt to accommodate this giant shift where overnight the classical teachings that formed the cultural framework became obsolete. Indeed, more humans have read the classics, listened to classical music alone in the last 111years, while things like cinema as a form of expression grew into maturity and needed to be discussed. Pop music of various shades supplanted the ‘importance’ of classical music and contemporary art keeps on rewriting the frontiers of expression at an ever more frantic pace.

The best book that in fact offers an insight into this might be ‘Future Shock’ by Alvin Toffler, because what is described in that book is precisely what this chart has shown, and the implications keep reaching out. I don’t mean to praise the book, but rereading it today would offer confirmation that indeed the future is not only now, so is history.

One of the important take away messages from the chart is that what we are doing right now, is just as important as what happened before. Your poem, your short story, your film, your song is no less important than anything that preceded it. It’s just that nobody has had the time to find your work unless you have become a celebrity. Not being famous and best-selling does not preclude you from being a valued contributor to the human experience. Be encouraged in knowing that what you are doing is meaningful. Go forth and create, secure in the knowledge that what you are doing is just as important as what came before. It’s counter-intuitive, but history is in the making, right now as we speak, and you are doing it.

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Movie Doubles – ‘Moon’ & ‘The Red Baron’

O The Humanity!

This one is an odd movie double because they really are movies I watched back to back, with nothing but their price tags to help me make that decision to pick them up on DVD and stick them in the shopping basket. Naughty me; heaven only knows I have a ton of other things to be doing than watching 2 movies in a row. Still, the essential truth about movies is that they’re always entertaining, even when they’re not well made.

‘The Red Baron’ is not a great movie; it might not even be a good one in parts but it has lovely aerial combat scenes which are always good value. The directing and editing are a bit loose for my tastes. It just drags in parts. Still, the modern CGI makes the air battles hyper-real and hark back to Howard Hughes movies as well as ‘Blue Max’ and ‘The Great Waldo Pepper’. There is a long history of these WWI flying movies that justify at least one viewing.

‘Moon’ on the other hand is a lovely film that borders on greatness in parts. There is a strange parodic element to the film in its visual styling, where the homage goes wrong. The hyper-NASA white decor is somewhat disheveled and the talking Robot voiced by Kevin Spacey (that name suddenly seems like an in-joke, doesn’t it?) is like HAL-like to the extent that it is even-toned and somnambulistic, with a touch of irony. It’s cheesey but in a gourmet cheese kind of way.

Here’s the obligatory spoiler alert, as discussing these film will entail letting some important plot points out. Mind you, if you didn’t know the Red Baron doesn’t make it through WWI, I don’t know why you would be watching ‘The Red Baron’.

The Edge Of Existence

‘Moon’ is a movie about a mining colony on Mars that is run by one man on a three year mission – except it turns out the main character is a clone and there are many of them waiting to be unpacked. As such, the film is about an extraordinary amount of loneliness out at the edge of human existence. This theme gets dug deeper as when the cloned main character encounters another clone of himself and realises he is the original human entity, the struggle for existential meaning accelerates. Played out against the desolate lunar landscape, the struggle makes for interesting viewing.

By contrast ‘The Red Baron’ takes place at the beginning of modern aerospace. The biplanes that fight in the skies have open cockpits and the machine guns are manually cocked before going into fight. There’s something of a bare-knuckled excitement about flight and the air that supersedes even the horrors of the ground war below. Oddly enough – and I can’t emphasise this enough – ‘The Red Baron’ is an optimistic film about existentialism.

In both films you find yourself wondering about the human machine that does as it is told, only to awaken to the emptiness of the mission. The struggle of the characters only begin after the hollowness of the mission is exposed. The reverse side of the coin seems to be that if you want people to do extraordinary things, you have to shield them from fundamental truths about their mission. In the case of ‘Moon’, nobody sane wants to go there; and in the case of ‘The Red Baron’, the aerobatic war with chivalry in the air is a sham and a side show distraction to the horror of the western front.

You can’t go out to the edge of human existence with the full knowledge of one’s own humanity, because that knowledge would cripple you.

More Human Than Human

Yes, that’s the motto of the Tyrell Corporation right there and there, and if you ever wondered why the replicants come home in ‘Blade Runner’, then ‘Moon’ is your movie. The back story of the clone project in ‘Moon’ seems to be that the clones only last 3 years before they wear out and die. This could be because of the space radiation, or it might be that clones simply do not last long. In any case the mission on the moon provides a time limit that makes the clones expendable in the process.

The best science fiction films always try to ask what makes us human. In a rare instance for American cinema, the neurosis in ‘Moon’ is schizophrenic rather than paranoid. By that I mean, the monster and the fear is not externalised into a monster like a giant shark or a giant lizard or a giant insect. It’s easy to pitch those films, as evinced by the number of films that have a monster in them and the character has to go and kill them. It’s a lot harder to pitch stories about the inner turmoil of recognising the enemy within one’s self an the identity starts to break down. For instance the last sequence in ‘2001’ which is clearly a progenitor text to ‘Moon’ is built on schizophrenia, as are most of science fiction films based on Philip K. Dick’s works such as ‘Blade Runner’, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and ‘Screamers’. Screamers of course feeds into ‘Terminator’, but Terminator movies are in most part concerned with paranoia over machines.

What makes ‘Moon’ interesting then is how it extends some of the texts that have come before it to illuminate the plight of the clone that discovers it is a clone.

More Knight Than Soldier

The ugliest thing about warfare in the twentieth century may have been the demise of chivalry and chivalric valour. Warfare is ugly business. If you looked at it from a very normalised human eyes, the only way to justify warfare is as Von Clausewicz notes, extension of diplomacy to secure interests. But the gap between such a prosaic description and the energy required to defeat foes gives rise to a great fiction – the glory of war.

To have glory, you have to have honour, to have honour you must have valour, and so the system goes that creates aristocrats. The Baron Manfred von Richthofen who flies as the Red Baron is the inheritor of a vast ideological system that allows young foolish men to go fight a war. If ever there was a war that stripped away such underpinnings, it would have been World War I where overwhelming fire power was used to pin infantry into static lines. The last vestiges of warfare that resembled the warfare of movement, with cavalry and moving infantry in that context, would have been the aviators fighting in the sky. And so to them went the glory.

In what might be a 21st century twist, the Manfred von Richthofen of ‘The Red Baron’ is so sensitive, he has ceased to buy into the apparatus that props up the glory of war, and he begins to fill a great un-ease with his situation and has existential doubts. It’s a really strange text.  Then again, the Red Baron was 25 when he died. It s possible that he might have struggled with these issues, as he repudiated his own book about aviation and combat before he died saying he was “no longer that person.” He certainly might have had PTSD from his brush with death in July 1917 by all accounts.

The nurse love interest storyline on the other hand is just awful. Or perhaps it is a reflection of the fact that there really isn’t much to be said about a fighter ace who died in combat at the age of 25. His personal life was likely a lot less interesting. The polemic of the film is thus bigger than his life, and the film suffers for it. Heroism for propaganda is for chumps.

Here’s the Aussie twist in this story for all of you, by the way!

Cinema Of Contracting Space

What makes ‘Moon’ even more interesting than any run of the mill sci-fi film is its exploration of loneliness. Loneliness is the essence of space exploration, whether that moment comes in bunches or in sporadic bursts. To explore and move in the vast depths of space, humans must make tiny bubbles of survivable zones to carry around them. The moon in ‘Moon’ is replete with the demands of space, and so the central theme is the crushing loneliness that visits itself upon the main character.

Equally it could be argued that space closes in on the pilot in a cockpit in ‘The Red Baron’. The fighter pilot, for all his skill and daring is trapped in a tiny, exposed vestibule, all on his own. This anxiety is only alleviated by the shared camaraderie on the ground – but up in the air, the pilot is all alone.

Marshall McLuhan famously wrote that the most famous instance of space contracting was people in their lounge rooms watching the broadcast of the lunar landing – which featured 2 men in a capsule going down to the airless surface. ‘Moon’ exists at the extended future of that McLuhan observation. ‘The Red Baron’ is the story of how the process began.

In both cases, the traveling into the edge of the civilisation prompts this isolation, and then the isolation prompts the psycho drama that follows. While it is not explicit in ‘The Red Baron’ that flying is driving him nuts, it is clear that the aerial combat is taking a toll on him and transforming him. In ‘Moon’, the great discovery is that the transformation has already taken place and may be repeated over and over, ad infinitum.

Thus, in both films, loneliness is the natural condition of humanity when face to face with the vastness of existence itself.

Glorious CGI

It’s nice to see that even reasonable budget films can get great special effects these days thanks to the affordable CGI spectacle. Moon would have been a high budget effects movie back in the 90s even, and doing ‘The Red Baron’ on 18million euros  would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. The best thing about the proliferation of CGI has been that they are in the service of smaller stories. The story in ‘Moon’ is small; it just needs the big CGI lunar landscape to make it work. The story of  ‘The Red Baron’ actually is quite small; it just needs huge aerial combat scenes to make it work.

One thing is for sure that the general trickle down of CGI to smaller films is generally making film making better across the board.

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Mars Direct Is Back

Spacefreak Moment For Mr. Obama

Back in the day when this blog’s predecessor was the ‘Spacefreaks Weblog‘, and shared writers – yes it wasn’t just me writing stuff – the big topic in 2004 was whether the space program should be looking to Mars or not and whether the Shuttle program should be continued in light of the Columbia disaster. There are a lot of pros and cons to both these ideas but the most important thing to come out of those discussions was how direct flight to Mars was probably going to yield far more knowledge than space stations and shuttle programs whose operations were always limited in scope.

So it’s good to find today that President Obama has scrapped the Lunar missions for a Mars mission.

US President Barack Obama says he is aiming to send US astronauts into Mars orbit in the mid-2030s as he seeks to quell protests over his earlier space policies.

“By 2025 we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first ever crew missions beyond the moon into deep space,” Obama told an audience at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

“So, we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to earth, and a landing on Mars will follow.”

Obama, who was accompanied on his trip by astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, vowed he was “100 per cent committed” to NASA’s mission as he sought to set a new course for future US space travel.

The US president was making a whirlwind trip to the heart of the US space industry after he was hit with stinging criticism for dropping the costly Constellation project which had aimed to put Americans back on the moon.

“We should attempt a return to the surface of the moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say, pretty bluntly here, we’ve been there before. Buzz has been there,” Obama said.

“There’s a lot more of space to explore and a lot more to learn when we do,” the president said, as he unveiled a plan to increase NASA’s budget by $US6 billion ($6.4 billion) over the next five years.

His plan includes ramping up “robotic exploration of the solar system, including a probe of the sun’s atmosphere, new scouting missions to Mars and other destinations, and an advanced telescope to follow Hubble”, he said.

“As president, I believe that space exploration is not a luxury, it’s not an afterthought in America’s quest for a brighter future. It is an essential part of that quest,” he said at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

“I am 100 per cent committed to the mission of NASA and its future.”

Which is great. Back when George W Bush put forward his space project, the feeling was overwhelmingly, “why are we going back to the moon? Why are we wasting our money re-doing that trip?” At least this plan makes sense.

That being said I do sort of wonder what he means by “…new spacecraft designed…” The beauty of the Mars Direct plan is that it doesn’t really need too much new in the way of new spacecraft.

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40th Anniversary Of Lunar Landing

Distant Moon

When I was first starting up with this blogging thing, I started off talking about NASA in the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster. You can go look it up. Partly because back then, it seemed NASA had failed on it s promises much more than they had fulfilled them. So as we sit here today and ponder the 40 years since Apollo 11 landed on the moon, I can’t help but get a little nostalgic about all this stuff.

“The touchstone for excellence in exploration and discovery is always going to be represented by the men of Apollo 11,” Obama said. He said their work sparked “innovation, the drive, the entrepreneurship, the creativity back here on Earth”.

The president said he recalled watching Apollo astronauts return to Hawaii after splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. He said he’d sit on his grandfather’s shoulders and “we’d pretend like they could see us as we were waving at folks coming home”.

Obama praised Armstrong, Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins for their “calm under pressure, the grace with which these three gentlemen operated”.

Obama did not talk about future NASA missions. Aldrin, Collins and six other Apollo astronauts used the anniversary to make a pitch for a mission to Mars.

Here is an interesting profile about Neil Armstrong and how uninteresting he’s tried to be in the wake of his historic fame.

Apollo 11 CrewIn his limited public utterances, Armstrong has always turned the subject away from himself. He usually deflects credit to the 400,000 people who built and maintained the vehicles and managed the bureaucracy that enabled him and Aldrin to reach the moon.

In his own book, Men From Earth, Aldrin wrote that he thought the man who preceded him onto the lunar surface had worked his way through his career “carefully watching everything he did and said”.

Talkative and opinionated, Aldrin may be the antithesis of Armstrong. In his post-Apollo career, Aldrin has done what Armstrong would find inconceivable. He once did a guest voice on The Simpsons, sat for a hilarious interview with Ali G, made a rap video with Snoop Dogg and Quincy Jones, and lent his name to a computer game, Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space. Just in time for the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, there’s Aldrin in a US ad for – what? – Louis Vuitton luggage. Aldrin once punched a guy who accused him of “lying” about the moon landing.

Someone once described Aldrin and Armstrong as “amiable strangers”, but Hansen says that’s inaccurate. “I’m not even sure ‘amiable’ is the right word. Neil did not appreciate how [Aldrin] went off in such strong, aggressive ways with his ideas. They worked well together, but I’m not sure there was much personal rapport. Buzz never figured Neil out.” From time to time, Hansen says, Aldrin would contact him and ask for help to persuade Armstrong to attend some event – a reflection, Hansen says, of the astronauts’ uneasy relationship.

Hansen says Armstrong’s reticence may have been reinforced by the example of Charles Lindbergh, another 20th century pioneer who knew much about the soul-twisting powers of fame. The two men met in 1968, and Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were Armstrong’s guests for the Apollo 11 launch. They corresponded until Lindbergh’s death in 1974.

And that was the fascination with the man. Perhaps our own perception that he was like Columbus or Lindbergh or Amundsen – when in reality, he was the very last chain in a finely calculated system project – was such a mismatch that he knew he could not live up to it. It’s not as if he created a rocket in the backyard and flew to the moon himself. And yet here we are, we still remember their names – Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.

It’s really unclear what promises NASA can fulfill. The forecast is a return to the moon and perhaps a Mars mission. It seemed like we would be there by no had we not been diverted by the Space Shuttle project which has busily (and haphazardly) gone into low Earth Orbit over and over and over again. Thus it becomes important to look at the achievements as they are.

I hope to see a Mars project in my lifetime, yet we may not even get to the starting line.

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Voyage Of The Doomed

NASA Releases Details On Deaths Of Columbia Crew

In a newly released research from NASA, it is revealed the astronauts had no chance of surviving the critical mishap that befell Columbia.

The last seconds of the astronauts aboard the doomed Columbia space shuttle have been described in graphic and harrowing detail by Nasa after a four-year investigation into the 2003 disaster.

The 400-page report reveals that they had no more than 40 seconds to react — not long enough to seal their suits and avoid blacking out from hypoxia, a condition said to be similar to extreme alcoholic intoxication.

None of the crew of seven had a helmet visor closed during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere over Texas on February 1. One was not wearing a helmet, and three were not wearing the gloves that came with their orange pressure suits. This was a response to a design flaw with the suits — if the astronauts kept their helmet visors closed it allowed too much oxygen to build up in the cabin, and the gloves were too bulky to allow them to operate the spacecraft’s controls.

The crew members, returning from a 16-day mission, would have lost consciousness almost immediately after superheated gases entered a small ragged hole in the shuttle’s left-wing heat shield — caused by a briefcase-sized chunk of foam from the external fuel bank breaking off 81.7 seconds after lift-off. The gas melted the spacecraft’s frame, sending it into an uncontrollable spin at 203,000ft and 12,500mph. Moments later the nose section — where the crew were seated — broke away from the fuselage.

The nose cone began to break up in the intense heat of re-entry, causing a violent cabin decompression. If the decompression alone did not kill the astronauts, the violent shaking and spinning of the nose section probably did, because they were not property restrained in their seats. According to the report: “The inertial reel mechanisms on the crews’ shoulder harnesses did not lock . . . As a result, the unconscious or deceased crew was exposed to cyclical rotational motion while restrained only at the lower body.” It added that “crew helmets do not conform to the head . . . consequently, lethal trauma occurred to the . . . crew due to the lack of upper body support and restraint”.

The last words from the stricken spacecraft came at 8.59am, when commander Rick Husband said: “Roger, uh, buh . . .” as alarms began to go off in the cabin simultaneously. A minute later the nose section had fallen to 137,000ft. Within the next 24 seconds it was destroyed. The report concludes that even if the harnesses and suits had been working perfectly, the accident would have been unsurvivable, because ultimately the crew members, practically torn in half by their lap belts, were thrown out of the nose section into superheated, near-vacuum conditions. It goes on to make 30 recommendations for improving crew safety. “I call on spacecraft designers from all the other nations of the world, as well as the commercial and personal spacecraft designers here at home to read this report and apply these hard lessons, which have been paid for so dearly,” said Wayne Hale, a Nasa associate administrator.

“This report confirms that although the valiant Columbia crew tried every possible way to maintain control of their vehicle, the accident was not ultimately survivable.”

I guess that covers that.

One of the things that prompted me to start blogging was actually the aftermath of the Columbia disaster. I think it kind of hit me that for years NASA had been doing the shuttle program only to have lost 2 of a fleet of 5 shuttles, while accomplishing relatively little, even when compared to the Apollo program. In the years since then, we’ve all come to understand that perhaps the concept of the shuttle was always a little sketchy, and all the technical problems it contained led to both the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

In a nutshell, they are the most complicated machines ever built by mankind, which means that it has the most parts that can fail. The effect of any of the failed pieces of the shuttle can be absolutely overwhelmingly catastrophic, which in a sense accounts for both accidents. In response to the Columbia disaster, NASA grounded its fleet, and then 4 years ago, gingerly proceeded to continue with the flights. The fleet of shuttles will be retired in 2010, which is now less than 2 years away.

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Space, The Final Frontier

Up In A Space Elevator

space-elevatorBack in the days when I first started blogging, one of the main interest areas for me was space exploration that actually had a commercial basis. This led to extensive blogging about the Space-X prize and the first private enterprise party to get to space. We (it was a collective blog back then) also thought that Australia should look at Space Exploration more seriously.

Another line of interest was the Space Elevator – so much so that one of my co-bloggers at the time ‘db’ went and joined a consortium called LiftPort who were trying to promote the idea and technologies it would require to build.

So in memory of those times, I want to link to this article today.

AUSTRALIA could play a key role in the 21st century space race, with competition heating up between Japan and the US to build the world’s first “space elevator”.
As the technology required to create a physical link between Earth and outer space becomes closer to a reality, discussions of next-generation space exploration have been given new life.

Japan announced recently that it was researching plans to build a space elevator – a link to space that could transport cargo and even tourists – for as little as 1 trillion yen ($11 billion).

“Just like travelling abroad, anyone will be able to ride the elevator into space,” chairman of the Japan Space Elevator Association, Shuichi Ono, told The Times.

The news is believed to have shaken up scientists at NASA, who have traditionally focused on rockets to reach space but could now be considering following Japan’s suit.

The deal for Australia clearly is to join JAXA’s bid to build the space elevator.  The reason the NASA boffins are a little surprised is that they have so much invested in rocketry and the shuttle that they’re going to find it hard to switch from that line of technology to a space elevator.

As previously researched in many other studis, the Indian Ocean, about 900km turns out to be an optimal place to build the Earth-side platform. The other various reasons listed in the article are nice, but bottom line is, any Federal Government in Australia really ought to look at getting Australia back in the space exploration business.

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