Monthly Archives: May 2011

Yet Another Stunning Photo of Endeavour

The title of this entry says it all:

This nifty timelapse photo of space shuttle Endeavour was taken on Saturday, May 28, while the orbiter was still moored to the International Space Station. The streaks of light in the bottom-right quarter of the frame are cities passing by below, and if you look closely, you can make out stars through the thin shell of Earth’s atmosphere in the background. If you want to see this pic really large, check out NASA’s gallery. (Gleefully borrowed from the Bad Astronomy Blog.)

To bring all you Loyal Readers up to date, Endeavour undocked from the station late Sunday night and is expected to return to Kennedy Space Center in Florida tonight — or early tomorrow morning, depending on how you define things — at 2:35 AM EDT.

Meanwhile, shuttle Atlantis will begin its achingly slow, one-mile-per-hour journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A — the final time a shuttle stack will ever make this six-and-a-half-hour trip — at 8 p.m. EDT tonight, which I believe is only about a half hour from the time I’m writing this. There’s a background article about the crawler vehicle that’s carrying the Atlantis stack, a pretty amazing machine in its own right, here, if you’re interested. NASA has two of these crawlers, both dating back to the Apollo program. I find myself wondering what the next vehicle they carry will be… assuming there will be one at all. The reality of the shuttle’s end is really starting to sink in for me now…

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Downright Eerie

They say everyone has a doppelganger out there in the world somewhere, and I now have it on pretty good authority that mine is a music teacher from New Jersey. Seriously. According to my friends Keith and Danielle, the guy who’s giving lessons to their daughters looks just like me. So much so that their youngest girl was a little bit weirded out upon meeting me last night. But wait! It gets even creepier:

This dude’s name is Rick. My favorite musician’s name, as my Loyal Readers well know, is also Rick.

Rick the Music Teacher Who Looks Like Me plays the guitar. I own a guitar.

Rick the Music Teacher Who Looks Like Me eschews the Disney tunes and lame-o kiddie songs that are usually taught to children in favor of ’80s hits. I, of course, am all about the ’80s.

And lastly, Rick the Music Teacher Who Looks Like Me has an extensive collection of band t-shirts. And I… well, the resemblance is just frightening, I tell you!

I’m deeply curious about my apparent twin, but also cautious… what might happen if we were to meet? Would it disrupt the space-time continuum and destroy everything? It’s not worth that kind of risk, obviously. But still… I am intrigued…

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From the Department of Bone-Headed Marketing Decisions

I’m seeing reports that Disney execs have changed the title of John Carter of Mars, the film adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novels I grew up on, to — are you ready for this? — John Carter. Rumor has it they’re gunshy of the word “Mars” because their animated flick Mars Needs Moms crashed and burned so spectacularly this spring. What’s that, you don’t remember Mars Needs Moms? Yeah, well, neither does anyone else, and Disney knows it, and they apparently figure it’s because the word “Mars” was in the title. Couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that the trailers made it pretty apparent Mars Needs Moms was a shitty movie, could it? No, it has to be because audiences avoid movies that mention the planet Mars in the title. So they’ve dropped the word from the title of a movie that is about a guy roaming around a fantasy version of… the planet Mars.

Yeah, trying to downplay the movie’s premise and setting is really going to help attract audiences, isn’t it?

And it pisses me off because, as I mentioned, I loved the books on which the film is based and would like to see a good adaptation version of them, and also the movie was filmed here in Utah, so my home-team spirit has got me hoping it does well. But I have a hunch people who don’t already know what this film is about — which is probably most people, if we fanboys are being honest — are going to hear the new, shorter, and completely uninformative title and say, “What’s that about? Who the hell is John Carter?” After all, he’s not exactly a household name like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. And if they can’t figure out what the movie is about, they’re not real likely to want to see it, now, are they?

Good job, Disney… and for my fellow Burroughs fans out there who were excited at the prospect of a trilogy, as the movie’s producers at Pixar have proposed? I think we’d probably better stick with our tattered old paperbacks…

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From the Department of Needless Complication

Walking to the office from the train today, I noticed a workman refreshing the paint on some traffic-barrier poles near my building. The poles were glistening in the strengthening morning sunlight, and there were signs taped to the pavement around them warning off the unwary who might brush against them. Something about this scene was so reminiscent of the television fantasies of urban life I’d been exposed to as a very small boy — think Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and about a billion cop shows set in the gritty decay of ’70s-vintage New York — that I couldn’t help but smile. But then I noticed something weird about those warning signs. One of them read “Almost Dry Paint,” which seemed like an unnecessarily specific descriptor. And then the sign next to the pole the man was still slathering with Battleship Gray read “Undry Paint.”

“Undry?” It’s bad enough that we now apparently feel it necessary to define different categories of wetness, but “Undry?” Really? Is that even a word? Whatever happened to the good old-fashioned clarity — not to mention concision — of “Wet?” Seriously, what could be more straightforward and absolutely not in need of elaboration than the traditional phrasing related to the transferability of newly applied paint? What the hell is wrong with the 21st century anyhow? It almost like society is adopting the foolishly complex language of the Coneheads and saying things like “electric incandescent illumination unit” instead of “lamp,” because, oh I don’t know, we’re living in the future or something, and everyone knows that people in the future speak in pointlessly convoluted ways. Because it’s the future, man. Arg.

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Um, I Think You Forgot to Do Something…

Last night, after the household chores were done — well, as done as they were going to get for a Monday — I threw on one of my favorite movies, Jason and the Argonauts. If you don’t know it, this is one of those great old fantasy-adventure flicks based on mythology and featuring visual effects by the master of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen. I first saw it when I was very small, four or five maybe, and it made a tremendous impression on me. I’ll grant that it’s not a perfect film. The plot is pretty thin, existing mostly as a framework to get us from one to the next of Harryhausen’s set pieces. But what set pieces! Two of Harryhausen’s best-remembered and most celebrated are in this one film: the attack of the giant bronze man Talos — the grinding sound as he moves his metal body still gives me the creeps! — and a platoon of reanimated skeletons known as the Children of the Hydra. Both sequences look a little clunky these days (Talos less so than the skeletons, in my opinion, but that could be just because Talos freaked me out more as a youngling), but they are simply brilliant examples of a handcrafted and now virtually extinct artform. And they’re a helluva lot more charming than any of the photorealistic but dull CG critters we take for granted now.

Anyhow, as I was saying, Jason is a flawed movie, as much as I love it. I’ve thought for years that it had a very abrupt ending: Jason sees a couple of his companions killed by the Children of the Hydra and dives off a cliff to escape them himself, then we cut to Zeus and Hera watching all the action from Mt. Olympus, and they essentially say “Well, that was fun,” and the end credits roll. On last night’s viewing, however, I realized that not only is this ending unsatisfying, it’s also incomplete… it doesn’t conclude the story that was set up at the film’s beginning.

Jason and the Argonauts begins, as do so many fantasy films, with an evil warlord seizing a kingdom and executing the children of the king he’s overthrown, only to have one of them — Jason — escape his grasp. Jason returns 20 years later as a grown man, sworn to fulfill an ancient prophecy by killing the usurper, Pelias, and reclaiming his father’s throne. But first, in order to rally the people and restore his kingdom to its former glory, Jason embarks on a quest to find the fabled Golden Fleece, a magical gift from the gods that lies on the other side of the world. And of course he will find and win the Golden Fleece, because these sorts of heroes in these sorts of movies always do… but he never returns to deal with Pelias and take back the kingdom! Instead, as I mentioned, the movie just stops, with Jason and his newfound love Medea embracing on the boat while the gods watch with amusement. So what the hell happened to the whole motivation for the quest in first place?! Jason doesn’t abandon his pledge to retake the kingdom or anything like that. He hasn’t outgrown his thirst for vengeance. The movie just drops the matter entirely. Oh, Zeus says something to the effect of “Jason and Medea will have many adventures in the future,” which I suppose implies that he’s going to go back to Thessaly, but there is no actual resolution. In all the times I’ve watched Jason, I’ve never noticed that such a huge thread was left dangling. This film may be unique in that, too, since I can’t think of any other movie that leaves such a big plot point unresolved. Were Harryhausen and Charles Schneer, the producer of the movie, planning to do a sequel? Did they run out of time and/or money? Was the movie running long and the last 15 minutes got cut? I’m going to have to look into that question, because now that I’ve become aware of it, it’s going to bug me forever…

(By the way, if you’ve never seen this film, don’t allow my criticism to scare you away from it. It really is marvelously entertaining. It just happens to have one big flaw…)

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Friday Evening Videos: Special End-of-the-World Edition!

In case you haven’t heard, it seems the world is supposed to end tomorrow, or rather begin to end as all the faithful born-again Christians get Raptured off to their eternal reward while the unrepentant sinners have to endure five months of torment until the earth finally explodes. Or something like that. Given that I’m largely indifferent to religion, I’m kind of hazy on the details. But I do know that an 89-year-old evangelical radio personality named Harold Camping has calculated through some arcane Bible-based numerological formula that the End of Days starts tomorrow, May 21, 2011, right around suppertime. Of course, this is the same guy who predicted the Rapture would happen back in September of 1994. And then again in 1995. But for some reason, despite the rather glaring lack of Armageddons over the past couple of decades, people keep listening to this con artist, so there’s been all kinds of buzz this week about what’s going to happen — or not happen — on Saturday.

Personally, I’m planning to cut my lawn and pull a few weeds, then in the evening perhaps visit friends, go see Pirates 4, or just sit home and watch all those season finales The Girlfriend has DVR’d. That’s because I am reasonably certain that if this mass teleportation thing happens, I’m not too likely to be among the saved. After all, I was once told by a Canadian college professor that I was one of the two most blasphemous bastards he’d ever met. (Now there‘s a good story…)

I think it goes without saying that things are going to be very different if the Rapture does occur. Fortunately, we left-behind Gen-Xers will know exactly how to behave in the terrible, new post-Rapture world. We were briefed on what it would be like nearly three decades ago by all those nihilistic music videos that borrowed their wardrobes and set trappings from The Road Warrior. This could be our moment to shine, kids! Dig out your punk-rock leathers and old football shoulder pads, and get ready to face the collapse of civilization! Our tribe will need to stay socially organized, though, and I think you’ll agree we can best accomplish that through a shared anthem. I have the perfect one in mind, a song by Blue Oyster Cult — yes, those guys who did “Don’t Fear the Reaper” — that probably no one remembers except me, but trust me, it really is perfect for what we’re facing come Sunday morning… ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present “Dancin’ in the Ruins” from the Club Ninja album (long out of print, naturally):

If that doesn’t work for you, how about a little Tom Petty? Here’s another post-apocalyptic wonderland presented in the song “You Got Lucky.” The irony for we damned types is purely intentional, of course:

Tom Petty – You Got Lucky from RescueTech LA on Vimeo.

Man, if you’re any kind of sci-fi geek, you gotta love that one… there’re the obvious riffs on the Mad Max films, of course — the motorcycle, the weird outfits, the general “lost civilization” feel — but we also get Vasquez Rocks, a distinctive formation not far from Los Angeles that has appeared in countless films and television shows, most notably the original Star Trek TV series. Then there’s the weird purple sky rushing overhead at unnatural speed, no doubt inspired by similar effects in the George Peppard/Jan Michael Vincent flick Damnation Alley. The video clip that Petty watches of LA being destroyed by alien spacecraft comes from Galactica 1980, the utterly indefensible sequel series to my beloved original Battlestar. And lastly, I’m not 100-percent certain, but I’m thinking the vehicle Petty drives up in is a maze-car from the old Logan’s Run TV series. Anyone able to verify that? Or tell me where I can loot one after The End comes?

On a more serious note: I’ve been having some fun with this Rapture thing, but the fact is, a not-insignificant number of people really believe this nonsense. They’re preparing for it, worrying about it, and counting on it. In extreme cases, they’ve stopped paying bills, given away possessions, and even broken off relationships. While I don’t for a moment believe people are going to start vanishing tomorrow, the Rapture is a very real phenomenon in the sense that it’s having a real effect on human lives. And I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen to those believers come Sunday morning when they realize that nothing happened. Will they lose their faith? Will they beat themselves up thinking they failed somehow, that they weren’t worthy of being Raptured, or of bringing it about? Will they just assume that Camping got his sums wrong again, as he’s done at least twice before? And how will they react to these realizations? Will some people commit suicide? Or fall into serious depressions? At the very least, are they going to end up feeling completely and utterly humiliated by the whole deal? Those feelings can be devastating, too.

Look, it’s not my place to disparage anyone else’s religious beliefs — gently mock them perhaps, but not outright piss on them — because I figure what someone believes is their business, not mine, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with my life, then why should I care? But when it comes to something like this, a belief that very well can and probably will result in genuine harm to people… well, it pisses me off that there are folks like Camping out there scaring the gullible, whipping up emotions and then acting like they’ve done nothing wrong when those emotions get dashed. He may not be making any money off this, but he is a sort of con artist. And he and everybody like him needs to just shut up. Before someone really does get hurt…

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Something That Has Nothing to Do with Space Shuttles

Here’s a tip for my local readers: I’ve just learned that the Tower Theatre, Salt Lake’s local arthouse cinema, is going to continue its summer tradition of running cult-favorite movies (as well as some genuine film classics) on Friday and Saturday nights at 11 PM, with an additional screening Sundays at noon for those who can’t handle the late-nighters anymore. It’s a great-looking line-up this year, too:

Summer-of-35mm_FacebookApp_SLFS_2011.gif If you’ve never been to a late-night screening of a beloved cult movie, you’re missing out on one of life’s great experiences. The Girlfriend and I attended a midnight showing of Labyrinth at the Tower a good 10 years or more ago, and it completely changed my opinion of that strange little movie. It’s one of Anne’s favorites, but I’d always been indifferent to it until that night; experiencing it with an engaged (and frequently interactive!) audience made all the difference, and I left the theater with a new appreciation of it. I imagine we’ll be going to that one again, and I’d also like to catch Jaws and The Road Warrior, two of my favorites that I’ve never seen on the big screen. Tickets for these screenings are cheap, only five bucks; if you’re a collector of cool and interesting stuff, I’m told that the Tower has taken a hint from the legendary Alamo Drafthouse and will be creating unique posters for each film that will be available for purchase.

There’s no website for the Summer of 35mm program, but they do have a Facebook page. Check it out, and maybe I’ll see you there!

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Another Peek at Atlantis in the VAB

I know I’m getting a bit monomaniacal on the subject of space shuttles, but I can’t help it… there’s so much cool stuff floating around the web right now that I want to share. I hope it’s not getting too tiresome.

Here’s a photo that caught my eye earlier today of Atlantis being lowered into position alongside the “stack,” i.e., the combined external tank and solid-rocket boosters. As I said last night, the sight of a 150,000-pound spaceplane dangling 500 or so feet up in the air, inside a building no less, amazes me:

STS-135_Atlantis_in_VAB.jpgSee that little red dot down there on the platform with the smaller white dot on top? That’s a person wearing (presumably) a red jacket and a hardhat. Just to give you some sense of the scale we’re dealing with here.

Meanwhile, up there in the sky, Endeavour astronauts have successfully installed the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment on the side of the ISS using the shuttle’s robot arm, and I understand it’s already sending back usable data. The orbital work day is winding down with astronauts Drew Feustel and Greg Chamitoff “camping out” in the station’s airlock in preparation for their spacewalk tomorrow. Because the air pressure in their spacesuits will be lower than what they’ve been breathing inside the station and shuttle, they could suffer from the bends if they have nitrogen bubbles in their blood, just like deep-sea divers who ascend too quickly. So during the night, the pressure in the airlock will be gradually lowered to help them acclimate. It’s not like the movies where people just throw on their suits and walk outside as casually as you’d put on a coat!

Credit where it’s due: the image of Atlantis came from NASA’s own TwitPic feed.

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Miscellaneous Space Stuff

Just to update all the Loyal Readers (I follow this stuff so you don’t have to!), Endeavour arrived at the International Space Station early this morning. The ISS is starting to resemble a busy airport with all the arrivals and departures: on Monday, three members of its crew will undock one of the Soyuz capsules currently moored to the station and return to Earth; their replacements¬† will be coming up in another Soyuz on June 9. In the meantime, Endeavour will remain at the station until June 1. You know, this is the way it ought to be, an orbiting waystation on the frontier between Earth and the universe beyond, with regular “commuter” flights coming and going every week — maybe even every day! — while other, more ungainly vessels designed for pure spaceflight wait nearby to take passengers to all the outward destinations. I know, I saw 2001 too many times as a kid, but this is the vision we were once promised, a vision that seemed so reasonable, so inevitable. I can’t help but get a little misty when I see echoes of it here in the real world.

Anyway, the shuttle’s cargo of spare parts — conveniently packaged on a kind of “pallet” called the Express Logistics Carrier 3 (ELC-3) — has already been offloaded by the orbiter’s robotic manipulator arm and attached to the station. Upcoming spacewalks will focus on dispersing and installing the equipment around the station. The task for tomorrow, though, will be setting up the AMS experiment package I mentioned the other day.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth:

That’s some of the crew of STS-135, the very last shuttle mission, posing in front of their ride, the shuttle Atlantis, as it was moved yesterday to the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, where it will be mated to an external fuel tank and a pair of solid rocket boosters for the final time. As of now, it’s inside the VAB, hanging vertically in one of the “high bays,” as you can see here. An amazing sight, a vehicle roughly the size of an Airbus 320-200 airliner dangling from an impossibly high ceiling like a Christmas-tree ornament. I wish I could see it in person. But you know I’ve been thinking the past few days just what an amazing age we live in, how much unprecedented access we space buffs have to all of this stuff now. YouTube, Twitter, NASA’s official websites, live video streaming, and the ubiquity of digital cameras have opened up the space program in ways that couldn’t even be dreamed of back in Buzz and Neil’s heyday. Or even just a decade ago, for that matter. How sad, then, that there will be nothing for us to see come fall…

I don’t know. I’m trying to be optimistic about the future. SpaceX and some of the other private companies are making amazing strides toward manned spaceflight, and NASA is also promising that it’s not finished sending humans into the black. (Case in point: a recent interview with NASA administrator Charles Bolden in which he swears up and down that America is headed for deep space, that it will happen and we’ll be on the forefront just as we always have.) But it really does feel like an age is ending, doesn’t it?¬† Hell, one of the men who authored the legislation that created NASA just died this week, and my first thought was “how appropriate that he should leave just as the dream he helped start is dying as well.” All the talk about regrouping and setting new goals and getting our butts back out there sounds a lot like someone who’s lost confidence and is trying to convince themselves that the game really isn’t over. I hope I’m wrong about that. But as I’ve said so many times before, the 21st century ain’t all it was meant to be.

For now, though, I can at least revel in the last warm embers of the fading fire. Videos below the fold, for those who are interested…

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Endeavour Is Up

STS-134_endeavour-launch.jpgPhoto credit: Pat Benic/UPI/Newscom

I can’t believe something as important to me as the penultimate shuttle launch slipped my mind, but somehow it did: I forgot that Endeavour‘s rescheduled launch date was today, so I was caught off-guard this morning by the news that she had blasted off on her final mission, designated STS-134, at 8:56 a.m. EDT, or just before I got up at 7 a.m. mountain time. The official launch video, for those who enjoy such things, is here. (For some reason, NASA has disabled embedding on the video; I have no idea why, considering Discovery‘s final launch clip was — and still is — readily available.) The vid is somewhat disappointing — it’s almost all overexposed footage from the fish-eye cam on the top of the external fuel tank, with the earth appearing as a big white crescent in the background and the tank itself nearly lost in the glare — but there is some interesting stuff at about 6:00, when the shuttle rolls to reorient itself to Earth, and at 8:45, when the tank is jettisoned and the orbiter lifts free. Watch closely during that sequence; you can actually see puffs of gas from the shuttle’s maneuvering thrusters.

This is the 25th flight for Endeavour, which is the youngest of the shuttle fleet, and also, I believe, the lightest in weight. (Interesting tangent: I read an interview not too long ago with one of the engineers who designed the shuttles — sorry, I’ve lost the link and the guy’s name — and he said they were intended to go 100 flights each and in his opinion, they are still capable of doing so. Just a little food for thought…) Named after Captain Cook’s sailing ship HMS Endeavour, she was constructed as a replacement for the destroyed Challenger, flying for the first time in 1992, and was the first shuttle to make a service call to the Hubble Space Telescope. She also carried the first American-built segment of the International Space Station.

On this flight, Endeavour is carrying spare parts for the ISS, as well as a scientific package called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS). For something with such a dry name, the AMS actually sounds pretty exciting, or at least potentially so; it’s a collection of eight different instruments designed to look for clues to the origins of the universe, including the mysterious substances known as dark matter and anti-matter. If those long-theorized things actually exist, the AMS is supposed to be able to find them. Endeavour‘s crew will make four spacewalks to install all this stuff. The mission is scheduled to last 16 days, with a middle-of-the-night landing in the wee hours of June 1.

One final word about the photo at the top: Endeavour launched under an overcast sky this morning, leading to some very cool videos of her disappearing into the clouds and at least one really awesome photo of her punching through the cloud deck above. Man, I love this stuff…

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