UFO March 21, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Movies & TV
In early February, we had a writing residency at Ragdale (see posts about that HERE and HERE). While there, we began in earnest the process of pulling together the material for a book about our year of following the end of Shuttle. In trying to conjure a context for our shared interest in the space age, we kept going back to the childhoods that forged our interest. The childhood memories that we reflected upon were as likely to be cultural touchstones as they were NASA’s scientific and technical achievements. Chatting and writing about these themes reminded us of a show that Doug watched in his childhood and that we had watched together in 2005: UFO.
UFO was a late-1960s British television show created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, a married couple who shared their working lives, which sounds familiar to us. Prior to UFO, the Andersons teamed up on The Thunderbirds (1965), a show that used their supermarionation technique. After UFO, the Andersons developed another space-themed television show, Space 1999, which featured husband-and wife-team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain in the lead roles.
Doug’s childhood memories of the show are of something scary and slightly illicit. He had to sneak around the house, watching the show in the dark and with the sound on low to avoid waking his parents. Unwittingly, he created the perfect viewing environment, a combination of unease and foreboding, for a show about an ongoing threat to the earth in the form of a piecemeal alien invasion. In an early episode, a dying alien is recovered from a crashed UFO (consistently pronounced as a two-syllable word in the series: You-Pho). After the alien expires and is autopsied, it’s revealed that the alien contained transplanted Earth human organs in its body. And thus, the series conceit is established: the aliens are coming to earth to harvest our organs.
Week after week, alien UFO’s emanating from an unknown origin planet attempt to make their way to earth singly or in small groups (usually of three). In order to do so, they must run the SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization) gauntlet: a trio of space interceptors that are launched from the uber-secret Moonbase complex, and a jet fighter called Sky One that is launched from underneath the ocean where it normally cruises affixed to the front of a submarine, SkyDiver. It was the 1960s, when anything was possible. It was the 1960s’ version of 1980. The show’s other conceit is that all SHADO’s activities are concealed by using a movie studio as the cover story for the headquarters.
The show is moody, eerie, and dark. The main character, SHADO Commander Ed Straker, is as unlikable a hero as one can imagine for television. He runs his SHADO fiefdom with a ruthless disregard for his compatriots—there’s an undeclared war going on, after all. Worse, save for two episodes, one about his son and the other about the dismantling of his marriage, he’s completely emotionally flat—seemingly on purpose. Even in those two aforementioned episodes, Straker always chooses SHADO over his personal ties.
Balancing out some of the show’s harder edges are its mod, psychedelic 1960s British vibe. The show’s costuming includes pretty standard sixties iconic fashion, such as Nehru jackets for the male leads and short skirts or clingy jumpsuits for the women, but the vibe really hits the mark in the secondary locations. At the Moonbase complex, most of the clothing is shiny and silver, and the women wear shiny purple wigs (which are not donned when the same characters appear on Earth). The women’s uniforms, looking something like braided metallic track suits, thoughtfully and quickly change into a sleeveless, short skirt number (and viewers see the characters change clothes). On the submarine SkyDiver, men and women both get see-through mesh shirts.
The whole show has a glam-and-gadgets James Bond feel, and there’s a reason for that: many of the actors and several props and stages were used for Bond films. We’re sure that this list is incomplete, but here’s a quick list of the actors who appeared in both UFO and a Bond film: Ed Bishop (You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever), Michael Billington (The Spy Who Loved Me, and he tested for the role of James Bond more than any other actor), Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny!), Vladek Sheybal (From Russia with Love), Steven Berkoff (Octopussy), Anoushka Hempel (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and Shane Rimmer (The Spy Who Loved Me, Diamonds Are Forever, and You Only Live Twice).
That’s not to say that the show avoided hard-hitting issues and make-you-think tropes. The episode “Close Up” (a pun for the movie-studio cover story) involves a space telescope designed to follow a UFO back toward the aliens’ home planet. When the telescope sends images back, everyone realizes that they have no calculations of distance or scale and that a planet—or in the demonstration the scientist gives Straker, a woman’s leg—looks completely different and possibly unrecognizable from different distances. Measurement and scale is a topic we discussed at Lofty Ambitions HERE.
We’re in the midst of re-watching the entire UFO catalog, just one season, but back when a season consisted of 26 captivating episodes. Here’s the opening sequence:
GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 5) September 9, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup, Movies & TV, Museums & Archives, Serendipity, Space Shuttle
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One reason we continue to return to Florida’s Space Coast, whenever work schedules and finances allow, is that each trip is an opportunity to discover something that we haven’t seen before. Today’s GRAIL scrub gave rise to yet another unexpected chain of events that ultimately led Doug to the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum (SWOF, because who doesn’t want to acronymize things related to NASA?).
[If you want to catch up with Parts 1-4 in "GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest" before you go on, click HERE.]
Located in downtown Titusville, just a few hundred feet from the water’s edge, SWOF is housed in an unassuming downtown storefront. During Doug’s visit, museum volunteers Betty Conant and Mike Vesey (pronounced like easy) were engaging and enthusiastic about their museum. SWOF previously had been located in the Sear’s Mall on Route 1, but, as Mike Vesey related to me, the rent kept going up and up, and ultimately the museum was forced to relocate. The move was also a downsizing, and parts of the collection are now kept in storage.
And what a collection it is. The bric-a-brac display has the feeling of a small, Midwestern county historical society. Just imagine the kind of museum that one could create if your county’s history encompassed the whole of the United States’ role in space exploration. This gives a rough idea of the scope and content of the museum’s collection.
SWOF is laid out by rough eras: Mercury (with a smattering of Gemini), Apollo, and Shuttle. Two wildcard collections are included: a reconstituted Atlas launch control room and a room that includes fire-and-rescue team materials and items related to Russia’s space programs.
Some rooms contain glass-covered shelving cases with regalia such as commendation plaques, manuals of various types (control room launch procedures, systems, etc.), safety hard hats with the wearer’s names, mission patches, and signed photographs. A wonderful example of the bric-a-brac in the Mercury room is the book Exploring Space with a Camera.
Tucked away in another corner of the Mercury room is one of the museum’s more unusual items: a hatch from an actual Mercury capsule. But this isn’t just any old spacecraft hatch (as if that could ever be true anyway). This hatch is the door from Mercury capsule #4, the first to attempt to fly. Mercury Atlas 1 was launched from the Cape on July 29, 1960. Fifty-eight seconds after launch, traveling at a speed of 1700 mph, a structural failure in the Atlas rocket brought the launch to an ignominious end. The museum’s hatch is appropriately charred and battered, and, as the display script points out, the titanium (an especially tough metal) looks to be torn “like tissue paper.” The display script also tells one of those tales of loss and discovery (much like the Los Alamos limousine we discuss in our “In the Footsteps” series), the sort of tale we have started to expect and yet which continues to amaze us. The museum’s spacecraft hatch was found in a scrap yard by an artist looking for materials to incorporate into his work. In a true expression of serendipity, the artist, Gene Hummel, also happened to be a mechanical engineer for McDonnell-Douglas. And he happened to have worked on the Atlas-Mercury program. And he was there for the day of the ill-fated launch; it was his first month on the job at the Cape. So one of the few people who could identify the meaning of this particular piece of scrap found it.
The museum also contains the reconstituted control consoles from Atlas Launch Complex 36 (pads 36A & 36B). Mike Vesey pointed out that NASA had donated the consoles directly to SWOF, and, although their computational innards were removed, volunteers rewired the switches and lights so that kids could enjoy playing with them. Doug would argue that the setup isn’t only suited for kids, because, after all, what space nerd doesn’t enjoy flipping switches, watching flickering lights in response, and falling into a good daydream.
Among the high points displayed in the Fire-and-Rescue and Russian materials room are the following: a photo of a rescue worker, standing before a Saturn V on a launch pad, clad in his own silvery, spacesuit like garments; a poster of the Lockheed-Martin Family of Launch Vehicles, which contains photos of the Russian Proton launch vehicles; and finally, an item that surreally (that’s our word for the week) blends the room’s two disparate themes, a Russian children’s book about firefirefighters. Like the rug in Lebowski‘s living room, the children’s book “really tied the room together.”
The artifacts in the Apollo room were more astronaut focused than the other collection areas. On the walls hang two training life-support system backpacks and a spacesuit. Just beneath the spacesuit is a display that, in part, answers one of the more common questions asked in the early days of space exploration: how do astronauts go to the bathroom in outer space? As in The Graduate, the answer to the big questions is “plastics.” The complete answer is plastic bags. And they’re here on display.
The room dedicated to Shuttle contains some of the more complete and intricate engineering models in the museum’s collection. On display are a complete Launch Complex 39 crawler, launching pad, rotating service structure (RSS), and shuttle stack. Continuing the theme set up by the Launch Complex 39 models, nearby are pieces of the real thing: mounts that the shuttle assemblage used to rest upon; restraining bolts, thick as an arm, that hold the solid rocket boosters onto the pad; and a 220-lb slice from the crawler’s metal track, or shoe (the entire shoe has approximately the same mass as a Mustang GT, 3500lbs).
Tomorrow, another attempt at launching GRAIL. Doug will rise at 5:00a.m., reconnoiter with the remaining GRAIL Tweetup attendees at the buses at 6:00a.m., and head over to KARS park to witness the launch. The weather is trending better. There exist two “instantaneous” launch windows tomorrow morning, meaning that each opportunity lasts for just a second. Not just a second as in hold on a minute, but exactly 1/60 of a minute. When it comes to this GRAIL launch, just a second means maybe tomorrow.
GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 1) September 4, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Books, Cognitive Science, GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup, Movies & TV, Physics
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In the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the bridgekeeper asks three questions, much like the security questions now used for credit card accounts. What is your name? Lofty Ambitions. What is your quest? GRAIL. What is your favorite colour? According to Crayola, America’s favorite color is blue. We suppose this bridgekeeper’s question calls for a separate post on color and the light spectrum.
In just a few days, Doug will head off to an event that feels like a mixture of old and new, familiar and strange, routine and unexpected. He’ll return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for another lofty quest: GRAIL, or the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory. The two GRAIL spacecraft, identical twins, are scheduled to launch on Thursday, September 8, and Doug is covering the days surrounding the launch as part of the GRAIL Tweetup.
FOLLOW DOUG’S TWITTER FEED: http://twitter.com/#!/dougdechow
In addition to tagging this series with its title, we’ll also use the tag GRAILTweetup to make it easier to follow on Twitter.
We didn’t expect to head back to the Space Coast. At least, we didn’t expect to return this year, soon after witnessing the last-ever space shuttle launch. We are somewhat stunned that NASA finds itself unable to launch human beings into space and remains unprepared to articulate a consistent, achievable future for human space exploration. Our rational, logical selves understand how much simpler and more effective lifeless, robotic space probes are. The Voyager twins may be among humankind’s greatest achievements, whizzing out of the earth’s ecliptic plane and on to whatever cold, dark fate awaits them. They have traveled farther from the sun than Pluto, which was classified as a planet when they left Earth in 1977. But few people take notice of them. Few will mourn the passing of lifeless, robotic space probes, no matter their accomplishments.
We owe a lot to NASA. Maybe that’s why our thoughts about the space program are not always completely rational and logical. Doug’s first memory in and of life is watching Apollo on television as a tyke. His first job out of college was as an abstractor and indexer at NASA’s Center for AeroSpace Information, a job that helped keep us fed, clothed, and adequately lodged for three of the most invigorating years of our lives together. Doug’s job at NASA coincided with us striking out alone together, far from our families and homes and into the cultural-political fray that is the metropolitan D.C. area.
Over the past whirlwind year, NASA employees have guided us to understand and interact with the world in new ways. News Center flacks like Allard Beutel, security guards like Omar Izquierdo, volunteers like Matthew Baker, and engineers like Stephanie Stilson (see our interview with Stilson HERE) have been some of the most competent and conscientious professionals with which we’ve ever dealt. They’ve helped us become more eager journalists (two posts on that subject are HERE and HERE), more informed bloggers, and more interesting people.
We’ve traveled enough in the past year that we now think of airport codes—MCO—instead of stopover and destination cities. Three years ago, when we were just settling into our new life in Southern California, if a soothsayer had foretold of our year cycling between SNA and MCO, we might have stared at each other blankly, wondering how and why we’d end up working for The Mouse. After three years, when we mention that we haven’t yet been to either Disney theme park, others stare blankly or get embarrassed for us. Even Mike Coats, the Director of Johnson Space Center, chastised Anna for never having experienced the pixie dust (see that interview HERE). But it hasn’t yet made our list of things to do. It can wait.
Six weeks ago, GRAIL wasn’t on our list of things to do. Then, NASA sent out a call to Twitter users, and Doug was chosen to participate in the meet-and-greet that is the next NASA Tweetup. NASA has become avid about social media. The Tweetup tents for the last three launches were air-conditioned and had separate high-speed wireless that worked better in the hour after launch than that for the press. Two NASA websites won Webby Awards this year, and Astronaut Doug Wheelock won a Shorty Award for an image of the Moon he tweeted. If you don’t follow Astro_Mike, you’re not getting the most space geek out of your social networking. Mike Massimino has more than 1.2 million followers on Twitter.
For a while, people lamented that the rise of video games and personal computers would make us all more isolated from each other. Each of us would be holed up in our offices and our homes, interacting only with an individual machine. While Nicholas Carr in The Shallows and others point to cognitive changes that remain disconcerting, Facebook and Twiiter and all the rest of social media have connected us in ways we couldn’t imagine ten years ago. Social networking allows us to stay in touch with friends we haven’t seen in years, and it invites people who might otherwise never encounter one another into larger social networks—perhaps not friends in the traditional sense, but far from isolated. Fears that technology would further distance people from each other physically and emotionally seem to have been unfounded.
Plenty of people go about their days without Facebook or Twitter. Some people don’t bother with the internet at all and get along just fine, though they’re missing a chance to read this post. When Anna’s mom invested in an iPad, scrolled through photos right away (this weekend, she’s reliving the national Elvis impersonator semi-finals), played virtual solitaire for hours, and even started sending email messages, we knew her world had changed. NASA is all in too, and space geeks are using Facebook pages, a wiki, Google docs, and a variety of social media to share information about GRAIL instantly. And the virtual interaction supports the in-person gathering, including a barbeque, that will be this coming week’s Tweetup.
This trip to the Space Coast, therefore, will be different because Doug will view the events through the lens of the Tweetup. He’ll be busy looking for Nichelle Nichols and Neil deGrasse Tyson. This trip will also be different because Anna is staying home, working with her graduate and undergraduate students to create together a (private) cross-course blog about poetry. Together, we will negotiate, for the first time, how to co-write posts while separated by 3000 miles. We plan to post every day this week! Check back to see how we manage.
Last Chance to See (Part 16) July 20, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Last Chance to See, Movies & TV, Space Shuttle
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As we write this post, we remember that on this date in 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Today is the anniversary of humankind’s first steps on the lunar surface, when Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar module at 2:56 UTC (July 21), or 10:56 p.m. EDT today (for our recent post on time, click HERE).
As we post this, we are likely hours away from the symbolic end of the space shuttle program. Atlantis is scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 a.m. EDT, with another shot about ninety minutes later. By tomorrow evening, the precise anniversary of Armstrong’s small step and humankind’s giant leap, the last functioning space shuttle will be a historical artifact. (For our related post on shuttles as artifacts, click HERE.)
On Monday, we finalized media credentials with Dryden Flight Research Center, in case the space shuttle lands at Edwards Air Force Base here in Southern California. After we moved here three years ago, one of our first trips out of the neighborhood was to see Discovery land. Seeing the last mission conclude here would suit the story we’d like to tell.
Yesterday, the email to the credentialed press made it clear that Kennedy Space Center wants to host the final shuttle party. Edwards AFB isn’t even a back-up landing site tomorrow. If the weather isn’t good in Florida on Thursday, Atlantis will orbit for another day and try again for KSC, though Edwards will be the back-up site for Friday and, if necessary, Saturday.
The weather on the Space Coast looks good—improving, the email said—for tomorrow’s landing. (for our most recent discussion of weather, click HERE.) NASA has a slew of events scheduled after the landing, with Charlie Bolden, NASA’s Administrator, and STS-135 Commander Chris Ferguson scheduled to give remarks at the runway at 7:45 a.m. Following that, there’s a full day of press briefings, comments from administrators and crew, photo opportunities with Atlantis outside the Orbiter Processing Facility, and employee appreciation all around. Emotions will be reeling, adrenaline will keep journalists on the story for hours, and everyone will draw this landing out as long as they can before leaving KSC.
Meanwhile, we’ll be in California, three hours behind and thousands of miles away. We may spend a good portion of our usual sleep time watching NASA-TV. That’s okay. We’ve been part of the media fanfare before. Now, it may well be time for us to contemplate the end of the space shuttle program from some distance. As with the frenzy at KSC tomorrow, we’ll draw out our “Last Chance to See” series a bit longer, too, unable to stop before we’ve seen the landing and articulated some larger meaning. Stick with us as we work our way through just a little more.
Three Mile Island Anniversary March 28, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Movies & TV, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
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This weekend, we were working on our regular post for Wednesday about radioactivity and how we measure it, because we’re trying to make sense, in small ways, of the nuclear accident currently unfolding in Japan. Suddenly, we remembered that, on March 28, 1979, a valve stuck at Three Mile Island. At that time, we were teenagers not yet very aware of the world’s dangers. This was before the twenty-hour news cycle (which would feel its birth pangs later that year with the Iran hostage crisis), when we spent afternoons listening to the Bee Gees, Rod Stewart, and The Knack.
The accident at Three Mile Island began with a minor problem in a secondary system, but the chain of events continued, as they so often do. A relief valve stuck open in the primary system, and some coolant from the nuclear reactor escaped. That wasn’t good, but it’s what happened next that really accelerated the problem. An engineer in the control room misunderstood what one of the indicators was telling him. An indicator light showed that electric power was not operating the valve, but they interpreted that to mean the valve was closed, not requiring power. If the valve was closed, the coolant level had risen, so they released some steam, further lowering the coolant level. The core was being exposed.
Years later, in 1985, a television camera finally physically accessed the core (read more at National Museum of American History), and we understood that it had partially melted down. The cladding (the first level of uranium containment) on most of the fuel rods had failed, allowing the products that result from fission in the core to be released into the cooling water surrounding the rods. Tons of melted uranium flowed to the bottom of the reactor vessel (the second layer of containment).
Less than two weeks before Three Mile Island, The China Syndrome hit the theaters. Anna, already a fan of Michael Douglas from The Streets of San Francisco, became an even bigger fan of Jack Lemmon, who played Jack Godell, the shift supervisor at the fictional nuclear power plant. During what seems to be a relatively routine SCRAM, or shutdown, Godell discovers that a gauge has given the operators the wrong information. He taps the indicator with his pen, and it unsticks. They thought the water level in the reactor core was too high and released some, but the gauge was wrong and the release has left the water level too low. When the water level cooling the fuel rods gets too low, the rods can overheat. Moviegoers understood the Three Mile Island scenario because The China Syndrome had shown us something similar.
During the incident in the film, Godell feels an unusual vibration that tells him something bigger than a stuck indicator is amiss, and it turns out to be falsified x-rays of pipe welds. When he examines one of the suspicious water pumps himself, he discovers radioactive material has leaked. We won’t spoil the rest of the story, but suffice it to say that the power company wants to hush things up.
In the Three Mile Island accident, radioactive coolant escaped to an auxiliary building, outside the official containment area. And radioactive steam was vented directly into the atmosphere. Still, several studies found no contamination in the area’s water and soil and determined that the releases didn’t raise radioactivity levels enough outside the containment area to cause any additional cancer deaths. The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island remains the worst in United States history, and the cleanup didn’t officially end until 1993.
The nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan seems worse than Three Mile Island, though each of the three damaged reactors (of six reactors at the plant) have been individually rated, like Three Mile Island’s single reactor accident, as a 5 on the International Nuclear Events Scale. Preventing explosions (and the widespread dispersal of radioactive contaminants) and preventing acute radiation sickness (and the near-term deaths that result) are crucial in limiting the severity of the accident.
In Japan, the fission products have contaminated water that is now in some of the plant’s basements and tunnels. Contaminated water has made its way the short distance from the nuclear plant’s buildings to the sea. Traces of radioactive iodine and cesium have been noted in tap water and vegetables even farther away. As we prepare to post this piece, the news reports that trace amounts of plutonium—the most toxic substance that might be released in a nuclear accident—have been found outside the nuclear plant itself. While some plutonium might be left from weapons testing in years gone by, at least two of the samples are believed to be from the one nuclear reactor at the plant that uses both plutonium and uranium as fuel.
On Wednesday, we’ll pick up this conversation again, as we’d planned, with a discussion of how we measure and talk about radiation.
Happy 80th Birthday Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner March 23, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Movies & TV
Eighty years ago this week, on March 22nd and 26th respectively, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy entered this world in near simultaneity. Almost forty years later, starting in 1966, their lives became intertwined with the cultural phenomenon that is Star Trek. In the forty-plus years since the first airing of Star Trek on September 8, 1966, Shatner and Nimoy have variously rejected, embraced, and come to terms with their iconic roles as Captain James Tiberius Kirk and Science Officer Spock.
Both men have had notable successes in recent years. Nimoy’s turn as William Bell on Fringe was well received and widely advertised as his swansong. Some have interpreted his exit speech and actions in the season two finale, “Over There,” as an homage to his Needs of the Many speech (see below) in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. This linkage is no surprise considering the producer of Fringe, J.J. Abrams, also directed the Star Trek franchise reboot. To our way of thinking, Spock’s speech was a more singular moment than Kirk’s equally famous (and more often invoked) “KHAAANNNN!” scream in the same film.
Nonetheless, that moment when Shatner’s Kirk turns the name of his enemy, Khan Noonien Singh, into an execration, well suits the bombastic end of William Shatner’s range as an actor. Shatner later channeled and morphed that same brand of bombast into his role as Boston Legal legend Denny Crane. Shatner’s tenure as the self-eponymous Denny Crane was a scheduled weekly ritual in our home, and Boston Legal was the inspiration for one of our first adventures here in California.
As Boston Legal came to a close, we spent one happy Saturday at David E. Kelly Studios rummaging through clothing worn on that and other DEK shows. Among our purchases was a Screaming Eagle American flag tie that must have been for uber-conservative Denny Crane. Whether or not it was worn by William Shatner is open to debate. But in our family’s lore, we know he wore it, Mary Lee!
As happy as we are for both men’s late career success, it’s the childhood memories of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as their alter-egos Kirk and Spock that we cherish. Those memories of the roguish Kirk, the ascetic Spock, Bones, Scotty, and all the rest are now part and parcel of our larger popular culture birthright.
For Doug, the obvious choice for a role model would have seemed to be the all-American, all-Id Kirk. Kirk was even born in Riverside, Iowa, just a stone’s throw (and almost two-hundred years in the future) from Doug’s own Illinois home. What red-blooded, land-locked Midwestern boy wouldn’t dream his way through junior high school science class, transfixed by the possibility of the future version of himself traveling at warp-speed through the cosmos? The fact that Kirk also got most of the ladies didn’t escape Doug’s notice as an adolescent watching the series in syndication.
In fact, the series’ adherence to a philosophy of cosmic pluralism gave Kirk the opportunity to canoodle with females born on different planets (Miramanee in “The Paradise Syndrome” and Shahna in “The Gamesters of Triskelion”), in different timestreams (Edith Keeler in “The City on the Edge of Forever”), and from different species (Marta in “Whom Gods Destroy”). Kirk’s amorous activities were wide and varied enough to also include non-carbon-based lifeforms such as androids (Andrea in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”). Who knows how to classify the body-invading entity Thalassa (“Return to Tomorrow”), but the final analysis suggests that the man’s tastes were profoundly catholic.
That said, the green that most captured Doug’s attention wasn’t the skin of the Orion women, but the color of Spock’s copper-tinged blood and all of the strength (mental and physical) and perfection of character that it connoted. Spock’s implacable appeals to rationality and logic may have had a more explicit moral undercurrent in the turbulent sixties, but they also spoke directly to the chaos that is a teenager’s worldview. Then as now, faith in science offered both a worldview and a hope for a better future.
The differences between the Kirk and Spock characters were never more clearly on display than in those episodes that called for the characters to become somehow alternate, opposite versions of themselves. This had an unanticipated effect in the case of Kirk, for when Kirk’s darker-side was trotted out in the alternate-universe episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” it took no real imagination or effort to measure the moral distance between the two Kirks. However, when Spock cut loose—such as “This Side of Paradise,” where Spock fell in love—it got your attention, peaking at the episode’s wrenching end when Spock reveals that, for the first time, he was happy.
In the end, though, what’s most memorable about Kirk and Spock isn’t their differences, but the sense of wholeness—of complementarity—in their long-lived friendship: Spock’s calm, cool yin harmonizing Kirk’s incandescent yang. As friends, the two are greater than the sum of their parts. It’s odd that this blending has never played out as well in the show’s fervent fan base.
We probably risk a huge chink in our nerd-core armor by admitting that we never got the Trekkies vs. Trekkers thing and would have to go to Wikipedia to get a sense of who is who. Debating the merits of Kirk vs. Picard never held much currency for us either; it was apples and oranges, Jean-Luc Picard being an avuncular teacher, not a warrior king. One even wonders if the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation consciously sought to distribute Spock’s defining characteristics over two characters: Riker playing the role of the Captain’s trusted confidant and Data absorbing the cold, calculating mental space of Spock’s enormous brain (add in Deanna Troi’s psychic bent as analogous to Spock’s Vulcan mind-melding).
What an odd sequence of circumstances in the universe must have conspired resulting with these two men—Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner—being born four days apart. Or perhaps not so odd after all, as original Apollo 11 moonman Michael Collins noted in the preface to the 2009 edition of his book Carrying the Fire: “On my tombstone should be inscribed LUCKY because that is the overriding feeling that I have today. Neil Armstrong was born in 1930, Buzz Aldrin in 1930, Mike Collins in 1930. We came around at exactly the right time.”
Collins’s statement could apply equally well in the in the case of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. Not only did they luckily come into this world at the right time, to meet up later in what would become Star Trek, during the nation’s race to the Moon. Shatner also reprised his astronaut role by waking up the crew of Discovery. That they were born the same week allows us, too, to write a single post that wishes them both a happy 80th birthday, and many more.
Tempest in the B-Plot January 5, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Movies & TV
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Actor Anne Francis passed away this past Sunday, January 2, 2011. Her death occurred barely a month after the death of her Forbidden Planet costar Leslie Nielsen, who died on November 28 of last year. The temporal proximity of their deaths occasioned our viewing of their shared screen appearance this week.
This viewing was a first for Anna, and one of many over the years for Doug. With a Guest Blog by a visual artist on Monday, the look, feel, and sound of this movie jumped out at us. We began thinking about Forbidden Planet as an intersection between art and science, and perhaps the precursor for the science fiction we’ve watched all our lives.
The plot of Forbidden Planet, while loosely based on The Tempest, is a fairly straightforward science fiction trope: crew lands on unfamiliar planet, encounters human survivors, encounters unanticipated aliens/monsters with which survivors have learned to co-exist, is slowly decimated by monsters, and escapes. The planet—and all its technological advancement—must be destroyed. This is a plot that pervades the science fiction cannon, one that can be seen in films such as Ridley Scott’s Alien as well as various episodes of Star Trek. In the words of William Shakespeare in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.”
In fact, in numerous ways, Forbidden Planet smacks of Star Trek, about which we’ve written before. As we learned in the DVD’s special features, Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, talked about this earlier film in terms that position it as a sort of series pilot for him. We immediately saw the connection between Forbidden Planet and Star Trek (especially the original series and The Next Generation) in the crew uniforms, communicators, and phaser-like weapons; in the interior of the space ship; in the apparatus that creates three-dimensional holodeck-type likenesses; and in the contraption that looks like the transporter room but is used, in Forbidden Planet, for holding crew members during deceleration. When a threat to the ship emerges, the crew, like Doug and his childhood friend, creates a force field, something with which Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy were quite familiar too. While these notions are fiction, many of them are based in science—or at least science-sounding terminology, like a “quantum mechanic” who might tinker with gadgets.
Nuclear energy was a new possibility in the world of 1956, the year Forbidden Planet was released. The 7800-level underground system, which the alien Krell built, is powered by 9200 thermonuclear reactors. On October 17, just a few months after the film hit theaters, Great Britain turned on the first commercial nuclear power plant.
The notion of the id—that subconscious part of us that embodies our basic human drives—was introduced by Sigmund Freud a few decades before Forbidden Planet demonstrated an id come to life. Dr. Morbius and his 19-year-old daughter Altaira have inhabited the planet without trouble for years, ever since a monster killed the rest of his crew. The invisible monster returns to begin killing off the new human visitors. This monster is an extension of Morbius’s interior self—his id—which he tries to renounce.
The film also seems to have influenced Star Wars, for if Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot were separated into two entities, they would be the equivalent of C-3PO and R2-D2. Robby the Robot is part human helpmate, part data cruncher, and a sort of unselfconscious companion. Just two months ago, we saw Robonaut 2 at Kennedy Space Center. Robonat 2 is the version of Robby the Robot, complete with head, arms, and deft hands, that will launch on the next space shuttle mission.
Of course, Forbidden Planet also suggests some of science’s biggest questions now. Is there other life out there in the universe? If so, what kind of intelligence might these other creatures have? What exactly is intelligence, and how might it be measured? How does the brain create emotion? What, if we get right down to it, is the mind?
Also, for that matter, what is music? The soundtrack for Forbidden Planet is the first all-electronically produced soundtrack. In fact, because Louis and Bebe Barron were not musicians and used no traditional musical instruments for the score, they could not be nominated for an Academy Award. In an amazing composition, the Barrons used electric circuits to produce a soundtrack that is both sound effects and narrative score. For a film that demonstrates the subconscious interior, it’s no wonder the score becomes crucial to the story, to creating suspense, and to conveying the monster itself. A 2009 article in Scientific American Mind points out that music is emotional communication, rather than based on meaning, and that individuals experience the same piece of music in surprisingly similar ways.
As we expected, Forbidden Planet is campy, too. The indoor sets are surprisingly well done, and the exteriors must have been impressive fifty years ago. The flora and fauna remind us of Star Trek sets, in which boulders seem made of polystyrene and depth of field is not completely convincing. Instead of alien life forms, a tiger and a deer populate the backyard of Dr. Morbius’s house. And there’s some campy humor too. The cook gets stinking drunk on the sixty gallons of hooch Robby the Robot concocts. Robby the Robot is late to respond to Altaira’s call because he was giving himself an oil job. When a visitor convinces Altaira to try kissing, she wonders whether that’s all there is.
Altaira eventually falls in love, of course. Commander Adams announces to Morbius, “She’s joined herself to me, body and soul!” What more dangerous thing can a boy say to a girl’s father! The movie ends with Anne Francis safely in Leslie Nielsen’s arms. We grew up with Police Squad! and Airplane! But as we watched this last scene in Forbidden Planet, we tried to let ourselves believe in this younger, heroic Leslie Nielsen: “a million years from now the human race will have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and tragedy.”
Measuring the Unthinkable December 8, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Art & Science, Math, Movies & TV, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons, Physics
In the spring of 1989, a couple of Midwestern college students might have been forgiven for believing that the Cold War was still being waged with all of its chillingly vibrant madness. The newly minted 41st President seemed in no hurry to break precedent with the velvet-concealing-hammer rhetoric of his predecessor. The fall of Die Berliner Mauer and the election of Václav Havel—and the later emergence of the Czech Republic—was still months away. The political zeitgeist, the calculus of international relations, could easily lead the laity to wonder how and when it might all end.
Sometime during that springtime, Knox College conducted a hiring search for a new Physics professor. As a small-world aside, the eventual winner of that job search, Dr. Phillip Mansfield, would later become an acquaintance of a friend, Dethe Elza, whom we wouldn’t “friend” until years later at Ohio University. The events—Dr. Mansfield’s hiring and making friends with Dethe—occurred in the days before friended was a word, and long enough ago that there’s no obvious merit to revisiting the grade that Doug earned in Dr. Mansfield’s Physics 312: Mechanics. These days, it’s a remark by another of the candidates—a man whose name is lost to us now—that has reasserted itself in whatever part of the brain is responsible for commingling long-forgotten moments with recent experience.
As a part of the interview process, the young particle physicist, who was doing a post-doc at SLAC (the Stanford Linear Accelerator), joined a small group of physics undergrads for lunch. During the meal, the physicist talked little of his work, but spent much time on the other things that interested him in life. Perhaps, he was trying to convince the assembled students, all males, that he was a fully realized human being and not one of those physics automatons that most undergrads fear greatly. At some point during the luncheon conversation, the physicist made one of those remarks that stays with you long after the name of the speaker is forgotten. He said, “When I was at CERN, I measured my bike rides in kilotons and megatons.”
What was meant to be a joke still falls flat. Presumably because of the absence of laughter, he went on to explain that continental towns and cities were geographically close enough that expressing distances in kilometers had been replaced by measurements mapped onto the nuclear kilotonnage and megatonnage of blast radii. (For blast maps, click here.) This remark was presented as common European vernacular at that time, but despite working with a variety of Europeans from the High Energy Physics community during the middle of the last decade (2004-2008) and while doing his own PhD (1999-2005), Doug has never heard another similar phrasing. Maybe, like many aspects of the Cold War, once it was over, that bit of verbiage, clearly expressing a European anxiety at being caught in the middle of a Russian-American game of nuclear lawn darts, was swept into history’s dustbin.
Even though it wasn’t much of joke, the remark does serve as a reminder of the difficulty of capturing the destructive power of nuclear weapons in a way that is meaningful to humans. We recently watched Trinity and Beyond. This 1995 film, narrated by a post-T.J.-Hooker and pre-Denny-Crane William Shatner, contains a short section about the test of a Russian thermonuclear weapon known as Tsar Bomba. The explosive yield of Tsar Bomba—or Big Ivan—has been reported as 50 megatons or maybe 58 megatons, reduced from its originally planned 100 megatons. Whatever its actual yield—50, 58, or even 100 megatons—the number is effectively meaningless to most human brains.
One comparison that does resonate can be found in the Wikipedia entry for Tsar Bomba, which provides a calculation that equates the explosion to a split-second’s output (.39 nanoseconds to be exact) of our Sun. For that evanescent moment, the explosion of Tsar Bomba was 1.4% as energetic as the Sun. Again, the numbers may be relatively opaque, but the intent is clear: that weapon produced more than one percent of the energy of the Sun! The same powerful Sun responsible for all of our plants, heat, and weather—that Sun! And we actually exploded this on our own planet? Damn. If we’d exploded 100 (and yes, we’ve exploded way more than a hundred nuclear weapons) at once, blasts on the Earth’s surface would be 1.4 times more powerful than the Sun.
Comparisons like this are meant to express a measurement of the unthinkable. While we were at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, we noticed a similar comparison, which came up in several venues—tour guides mentioned it, plaques proclaimed it. The sound of launching a Saturn V rocket was the second-loudest event on earth, second only to the detonation of an atomic bomb. One of the interesting special features on the Trinity and Beyond DVD was a real-time nuclear weapons test, in which silence surrounds the visual explosion until the shock wave finally reaches the microphone. Usually, such a film is edited, and if there’s sound, it’s synced up with the image, or, even more common, the sound is musical soundtrack designed to stir an emotional response, which is what the comparisons convey in relation to scale.
The Cold War is over now. In 1966, when the Cold War was sizzling and with five nations in the world’s nuclear club, the United States supposedly had 32,000 nuclear weapons. In 1988, when we were in college and the Cold War was waning, the Soviet Union is said to have had 45,000 nuclear weapons. This year, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, there remain more than 22,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with almost 8000 of them ready to go.
Video Research, the Manhattan Project, and Blogging about More Than One Thing at Once November 24, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Other Stuff, Writing.
Tags: Movies & TV
According to a new widget in the right sidebar, our post entitled “On This Date: August 29 & 30” is the top post here at Lofty Ambitions. That’s one of the posts we consider extras, not a regular weekly Wednesday post, nor a guest blog feature. Maybe a lot of people with a birthday on those dates search to see what happened and look at Lofty Ambitions instead of Wikipedia, or maybe we have some important keyword combination we didn’t intend. We surmise, though, that the interest is in the piece’s opening content: the Cold War began on August 29, 1949, when the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb.
Last Thanksgiving, we visited the Atomic Testing Museum—a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate with extensive archives—when we were in Las Vegas. It’s just a mile off the strip. Doug’s father, an engineer, came along. We have plans to go back; Anna has an institutional grant to do museum and archival research there. Atomic testing was a hallmark of the Cold War that began in 1949, and is visually represented by Isao Hashimoto’s multimedia artwork “1945-1998” (click here and press the play button).
Of course, as Hashimoto’s representation indicates, the testing program really began with the Trinity atomic test on July 16, 1945, and the massive Manhattan Project that led to those first three atomic weapons. Over the past week or so, we’ve refreshed our background knowledge, discovering and rediscovering narratives and details by watching documentary films.
One stop during our 2007 cross-country move was the Los Alamos Historical Museum. There, we purchased a copy of the video Remember Los Alamos: World War II. This 1993 production of the Los Alamos Historical Society depicts what life was like during the Manhattan Project. Dozens of project veterans were interviewed for the film, and the interviewees included project scientists, members of the Special Engineer Detachments (SEDs), Women’s Army Corp (WACs), homemakers, students, and local Native Americans—some of whom were living and working on the land prior to the project and at Los Alamos during the war.
The film splits its time between the activities of the very well-known personages—J. Robert Oppenheimer and Leslie Groves—and folks such as Jerry Roensch, an Army WAC who worked as a telephone operator from March 1944 until the middle of 1946. Jerri Stone Roensch’s story, also recounted in her book about her time at Los Alamos, Life Within Limits (published by the Los Alamos Historical Society in 1993 and reissued in 2002), is very typical of the second group of Manhattan Project personnel. She came to the high desert of New Mexico, fell in love with the landscape and a boy, Arno Roensch, a scientific glass blowing trumpet player, and never left.
Next up on our viewing list is an episode entitled “The Manhattan Project” from the History Channel’s Modern Marvels series. In standard History Channel style, the program attempts to wow you with a litany of facts and figures. With a project the size and scope of the Manhattan Engineer District—originally a district within the Army Corp of Engineers headquartered in Manhattan, New York—it’s relatively easy to overwhelm the viewer with details that reflect the projects Brobdingnagian reach. The Y-12 and K-25 plants at Oak Ridge are particularly apt examples of the outsized proportions of the Manhattan Project.
These two plants functioned to separate and enrich Uranium 235 from Uranium 238, Y-12 using electromagnetic calutrons and K-25 through gaseous diffusion. The Y-12 plant required miles and miles of wire for its magnetic coils. When it became obvious that wartime demands made obtaining the necessary amounts of copper impossible, 15,000 tons of silver were borrowed from the U.S. Treasury (the silver was returned after the war). The K-25 plant is the largest single factory building ever created. Shaped like a U, each arm of the plant is a half-mile long by 1,000 feet wide. The building totals over 2,000,000 square feet. Together, Y-12 and K-25 consumed fully 10% of all of the electricity produced in the U.S. during 1944.
In that late August post that’s holding at the top of our rankings, we talk about some other occurrences, too. Space Shuttle Discovery first took flight on August 30, 1984. That’s an important happening for us because we recently traveled to Kennedy Space Center to see Discovery’s final launch, which was delayed (see our “Countdown to the Cape Series” on October 27–November 7).
The Space Shuttle still sits on pad 39A, right where we left it. This afternoon, NASA held a press conference: they are not ready for the December 3-7 launch window. Cracks in stringers of the external fuel tank are troublesome because they are unexpected. NASA wonders whether stress was introduced in the manufacturing or transportation of the tank, only to show up later during cryo-loading of the fuel. Launch and ascent shift stress to different areas—what if cracks show up then? If one weakness got through the process, what else might have been missed? “We’re not quite there,” the representative at Johnson Space Center said. “We really need to understand our risk.”
The launch date remains up in the air. Officially, Discovery will launch no earlier than December 17, with a four-day window. “But a lot of data has to come together to support that,” another representative said. A launch that late in the year means reconfiguring the onboard computers during a “quiet” time in the mission, too, as we roll over into 2011. We’re not booking a flight to Florida in December—not yet.
Countdown to the Cape…Holding at 1… November 3, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Movies & TV, Space Shuttle
Our experience at the Cape has become a lesson in patience. When we booked our flight and lodging, we planned for a week, just in case. Though Discovery’s launch was scheduled for Monday, there existed launch windows every afternoon November 1 through November 7. By the time we left for Florida, the launch had been delayed until Tuesday, in order to fix a few leaks. By the time we arrived at the motel in Titusville, the launch had slipped to Wednesday. A slip in launch is our new, insider lingo.
It is now Wednesday, and the launch of Discovery is delayed until Thursday, November 4, 2010, at 3:29:42pm or within roughly ten minutes of that earliest time. The countdown clock usually holds at -11:00:00, but it’s now holding through a 24-hour scrub. The reason: a main engine controller.
The “little glitch” (that’s what NASA called it in yesterday’s status briefing) occurred yesterday during power checks. One of the three phases in the computer dedicated to the third main engine didn’t come up, but it was in the redundant, not the primary, system. Besides, it came on later, and then they scrubbed whatever oil or carbon had built up by power-cycling the circuit breaker five times. No biggie. But later, the team saw “a little blip in all three phases” of the same circuit: “dribbling.”
Mike Moses, the Launch Integration Manager, called for the 24-hour time-out of sorts in the launch schedule because he wants to be careful “not to craft a solution based on what we think is the problem.” The events themselves, had they happened during launch, would not have presented a problem. Still, he wants his teams to take a day to “polish that story and bring some history” to the explanation. They need a narrative—mathematical and physical explanations—to connect and explain the two events and predict any risk. That’s a good lesson too: build a narrative to get to your conclusions, instead of merely jumping.
Even though the countdown is holding, time doesn’t stand still here. NASA is busy, the Cape is crowded, KSC is buzzing. We’re busy, too. In fact, our divide-and-conquer approach to preparation and research for this trip to the Cape has worked well since our arrival.
Doug has spent a lot of his time at Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex, which is part historic site, part museum, and part theme park. He’s viewed one of the three remaining Saturn V rockets (originally intended for Apollo 19), preserved only because the last three Apollo missions were cancelled. He’s visited defunct launch pads, once buzzing with preparations for Mercury and Gemini missions. On the tenth anniversary of continuous human residency in space, he watched the IMAX film about the International Space Station. He’s still going. There’s more to see, more to research.
Meanwhile, Anna has been to a press conference about the International Space Station, where she asked a question, and to two countdown status briefings. She’s been hauled out to Launch Pad 39B, which is currently being refurbished in hopes of a future manned space program and heavy lift launches. She’s interviewed three-time Discovery astronaut and current Director of Johnson Space Center Mike Coats, who said that all three Shuttles are technically the same, but that he sort of likes Discovery best. If the countdown clock starts up again later today, Anna is off to the retraction of the Rotating Service Structure from the Shuttle on Launch Pad 39A.
The slip in launch, then, is an opportunity for Lofty Ambitions, and we’re taking full advantage of it. We’re worried that tomorrow’s launch time is unrealistic, as showers, winds, and thunderstorms move in, leaving only a 20-30% chance of launch. We won’t be at the Cape indefinitely, and we’ve heard others lament their necessity to leave before Thursday.
But at least in public, NASA talks one day at a time, knowing that there are launch windows for three more days—and then again in December. They’ve tanked—filled the external fuel tank—under similar weather predictions and launched fine. The launch is a go, until it’s not. In the words of Mike Leinbach, the Shuttle Launch Director, “You fly when you’re ready, and if you’re not ready, you don’t go.” In the words of Mike Moses, “It’s another day in paradise.”
We keep expecting exhaustion to overtake us. But we can’t let our guard down. There are poisonous snake colonies in the wet ditches surrounding the KSC Visitor Complex (warning signs are posted), and we keep our eyes out for alligators. We see at least a couple of gators every day.