More than 30 years ago, I was a Star Wars–obsessed kid, like most of the pre-teen population at the time. I had a ton of action figures, as well as a large Millennium Falcon playset for them (which I'm pretty sure is in our attic somewhere).
My parents indulged my obsession in a pretty cool way. In our basement we had a ping-pong table we didn't use much. Because my dad's job involved installing and repairing vending machines and video game consoles of various sorts, he also had access to extremely large and sturdy cardboard boxes. We took a number of those boxes and connected them with duct tape to form a series of tunnels around the table—for me and my friends, they made corridors like the ones in the Falcon, though we had to crawl through them rather than walk.
The central area under the table was like the lounge where Chewbacca and the droids play 3D chess and Luke learns to use his lightsaber. To top it off, my dad installed a modified old broken video game console at one end of the table. It included an aircraft-style steering console and a radar screen with lights behind it, as well as buttons to generate laser-like noises.
As you can imagine, this was pretty much the Coolest Thing Ever when I was nine or ten years old. My friends and I played in that spaceship so much that we had to replace the boxes periodically, because they tended to get destroyed as we thrashed our way around the cardboard hallways, perpetually escaping asteroid fields and attacking Imperial forces.
I can't remember playing ping-pong even once on that table.
I'm still not sure quite what I think—on balance—about Avatar, which my wife and I saw last week. In one respect, it's one of very few movies (pretty much all of them fantasy or science fiction) that show you things you've never seen before, and which will inevitably change what other movies look like. It's in the company of The Wizard of Oz, Forbidden Planet, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Tron, Zelig, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Jurassic Park, Babe, Toy Story, The Matrix, and the Lord of the Rings films. It's tremendously entertaining. Anyone who likes seeing movies on a big screen should watch it.
I also don't know if anyone is better at choreographing massive action sequences than Avatar's director, James Cameron—nor of making a three-hour film seem not nearly that long. Maybe, with its massive success, we'll finally see fewer movies with the distinctive cold blue tint and leathery CGI monsters stolen from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Maybe in a few years we'll all be tired of lush, phosphorescent Pandora-style forests instead.) Avatar is also the first truly effective use of 3D I've seen in a film: it's not a distraction, not a gimmick, and not overemphasized. It's just part of how the movie was made, and you don't have to think about it, for once.
But a couple of skits on last night's Saturday Night Live, including "James Cameron's Laser Cats 5," in which both James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver appeared, reminded me of some of Avatar's problems:
Now, if you're among the 3% of people who haven't seen Avatar yet, I still recommend you do, in a big-screen theatre, in 3D if you can. Like several of the other technically and visually revolutionary movies I listed in my first paragraph (Star Wars and Tron come to mind), its flaws wash away as you watch, consumed and overwhelmed by its imaginary world.
James Cameron apparently plans to make two Avatar sequels. Normally that might dismay me, but his track record of improving upon the original films in a series, whether someone else's or his own (see my last bullet point above), tells me he might be able to pull off something amazing there. Now that he has established Pandora as a place, and had time to develop his new filmmaking techniques, it could be very interesting to see what he does with them next.
Since 1972, the Landsat satellites have been photographing the surface of the Earth from space. However, the amount of data involved meant that only recently could researchers start assembling the millions of images into an actual map, where they could all be viewed as a mosaic.
NASA has posted an article explaining the process. The map covers only land areas (including islands), but it is not static—it includes data from different years so you can see changes in land use and climate.
Here's the neat thing. Back in the 1980s, while the information was there, putting even a single year's images into a map would have cost you at least $36 million (USD). Now you can get the whole thing online for free. Take a look. If you poke around, there's a lot more info than in Google Earth.
Our first (and sixth last!) trip to the surface of the Moon was over. The seared, beaten Columbia (weighing less than 6,000 kg, and which had remained shiny and pristine until its re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere), with its passengers, was the only part of the titanic Saturn V rocket (3 million kg) to return home after a little over one week away. Every other component had been designed to burn up during launch or return, to stay on the Moon's surface (where those parts remain), to smash into the Moon, or to drift in its own orbit around the Sun.
All three astronauts returned safely, and suffered no ill effects, despite being quarantined for two and a half weeks, until August 10, 1969, when I was six weeks old.
Just before noon today, Pacific Time, marks exactly 40 years since Neil armstrong and Buzz Aldrin launched their Lunar Module Eagle and left the surface of the Moon, to rendezvous with their colleague Michael Collins in lunar orbit:
They were on their way home to Earth, though it would take a few days to get back here.
The beginnings of human calendars are arbitrary. We're using a Christian one right now, though the start date is probably wrong, and the monks who created it didn't assign a Year Zero. Chinese, Mayan, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and other calendars begin on different dates.
If we were to decide to start over with a new Year Zero, I think the choice would be easy. The dividing line would be 40 years ago today, what we call July 16, 1969. That's when the first humans—the first creatures from Earth of any kind, since life began here a few billion years ago—walked on another world, our own Moon:
They landed their vehicle, the ungainly Eagle, at 1:17 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time (the time of my post here). Just before 8 PDT, Neil Armstrong put his boot on the soil. That was the moment. All three of the men who went there, Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, are almost 80 now, but they are still alive, like the rest of the relatively small slice of humanity that was here when it happened (I was three weeks old).
If the sky is clear tonight, look up carefully for the Moon: it's just a sliver right now. Although it's our closest neighbour in space, you can cover it up with your thumb. People have been there, and when the Apollo astronauts walked on its dust, they could look up and cover the Earth with a gesture too—the place where everyone except themselves had ever lived and died. Every other achievement, every great undertaking, every pointless war—all fought over something that could be blotted out with a thumb.
Even if it doesn't start a new calendar (not yet), today should at least be a holiday, to commemorate the event, the most amazing and important thing we've ever done. Make it one yourself, and remember. Today was the day.
Forty years ago today. July 16, 1969, 9:32 a.m. EDT, Launch Complex 39A, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Three nearly hairless apes—human beings in pressure suits—left for the Moon:
They were aboard the world's greatest machine, which put out about 175 million horsepower during launch. Less than three hours later, they exited Earth orbit and were on their way.
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I would have loved this show about 30 years ago:
Via All Things D.
Now here's the really amazing part. The movie was assembled from a series of images taken not from a probe sent to Jupiter from Earth. Nope, they were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, in low orbit around our own planet. These pictures were taken, over the course of two hours in April 2007, from here, something like 600 million kilometres away from the subjects. The light from Ganymede and Jupiter took almost an hour to reach the Hubble camera.
Talk about your telephoto lens.
Remember when the U.S. and Russia were the only countries with space programs and their own rockets? Then came the European Space Agency, mostly launching commercial satellites from French Guyana. Somehow my 1970s kid brain is still stuck in that mindset.
But it's wrong, wrong, wrong. Yes, the U.S. still sends plenty of astronauts into orbit, and has wonderful robotic probes venturing throughout the solar system. But how about the Moon? As far as I can tell, the last time America sent anything to the Moon was ten years ago, when the Lunar Prospector orbited, then intentionally crashed into a crater to test for water. Russia hasn't sent anything since the Luna 24 probe in 1976. The ESA was there more recently, with its SMART 1 five years ago.
Who is sending spacecraft to the Moon now? That would be Japan, China, and (most notably today) India, which hit the moon with a flag-painted impact probe sent from its Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter mere hours ago.
The U.S. has a lunar orbiter scheduled to launch next year, and both it and Russia have grand plans to send people back, but for now, it is the countries of Asia that are telling us about our nearest neighbour in space. I think that's pretty cool.
Sorry, I'm not keeping very good track of my sources for these:
I'm having another colonoscopy on Thursday, my first in more than a year and a half. It's in preparation for surgery next week to reconnect my intestines so I can get rid of the bag of poop I've had to keep glued to my belly since the summer of 2007. So I won't be posting here tomorrow, I don't think.
And you know, in the scheme of what I've been through in the past couple of years, a colonoscopy is nothing. If you're over 50 or (like me, it turned out) are otherwise at risk for colorectal cancer, go get one. They give you good drugs, so you won't mind.
There's been a lot of talk recently about how the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the largest and most powerful machine ever built. I guess it is that. But there is another machine I still like better: the Apollo Saturn V moon rocket, retired more than 35 years ago. Each one was constructed not for years and years of experiments by thousands of people, as the LHC is, but for a single task lasting a mere week: to get three men to the moon and back.
The Saturn V was the most powerful machine of its time. I still think it is the most important device we've ever built, and as far as I know it remains the most expensive—in adjusted dollars, the Apollo program cost about $135 billion, many times the price of the LHC.
I've just watched In the Shadow of the Moon again, this time on television. (It was worth seeing in the movie theatre before, for the size of the images.) I was less than three weeks old during the launch and the eventual landing of the Lunar Module. If I'd been an adult, I think I would have burst into tears at both events. I've come pretty close just watching the footage, almost 40 years later.
I'm very happy that people think basic physics important enough to spend billions of dollars constructing the LHC. But, while it is impressive, that device is an experimental apparatus, carefully assembled over many years. Although the Apollo rockets were also a massive endeavour, it happened instead in an astounding rush, a little over eight years from conception to success, less time than it takes for Peter Gabriel to make a new album. It remains the only time we've taken people to another world. That's some really awesome machinery.
My oldest daughter and I saw In the Shadow of the Moon today. She's a nine-year-old Discovery Channel junkie, and so agreed right away when I suggested we go. The screening was sparsely attended because the film has been out for about a month, and it is a documentary, after all.
I was three weeks old when Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin landed on the Moon, so obviously I don't remember it. But just as obviously, it's been part of my psyche my whole life, especially because my dad is a keen amateur astronomer, fascinated by the Moon since his childhood. (I even had the privilege of examining some real moon rocks loaned to my grade 8 science lab back in 1982.) I thought I'd seen almost all the lunar footage out there, especially the stuff from Apollo 11.
Wrong. In the Shadow has tons of new stuff, totally aside from the entertaining interviews with the surviving Apollo astronauts (except the notoriously reclusive Neil Armstrong). Slow-motion HD-restored film of snow-like ice shedding from the sides of the Saturn V rocket as it lifts off the pad and slides through clouds of steam rotating across its metal skin. New views of Armstrong descending the ladder of the Lunar Module (LM) for his "one small step." Sound and video of the ground crew wiping their sweaty brows as the LM crew skims their craft over dangerous lunar boulder fields, almost out of landing fuel, trying to find a flat place to set down. Precious, fearsome liquid oxygen—instantly frozen to tiny crystals in space—spewing past the window of the crippled Apollo 13 command module.
At some moments, I got a bit weepy. We haven't been back to the Moon since I was three, so I don't remember any of the Apollo lunar missions. In the following few years, as I learned about them, I became convinced that moon missions would be common when I grew up. But, as Roger Ebert wrote some years ago, in reviewing Ron Howard's Apollo 13 docudrama:
When I was a kid, they used to predict that by the year 2000, you'd be able to go to the moon. Nobody ever thought to predict that you'd be able to, but nobody would bother.
This film reminded me how amazing it was that we got there at all when we did, at pretty much the first moment it was technically possible. Not safe, not wise, not sensible, just possible. The men in the movie—garrulous and funny Michael Collins, wry Aldrin, grandfatherly Jim Lovell, frail but firm John Young, and stern and trustworthy Gene Cernan among them—are old now, but they were young then (the same age as I am today). They achieved a great thing, maybe the greatest thing anyone has ever done. That's worth remembering.
Back in the late 1970s, a traveling exhibition of Soviet space program artifacts and replicas came to the H.R. MacMillan Planetarium here in Vancouver. My parents had bought a lifetime membership to the Planetarium when it opened in the late '60s, so we went there all the time, and this was a particularly exciting event.
The part that made the biggest impression on me was the very loud demonstration scale model of the massive Soyuz rocket that launched (and still launches) Russian space capsules. I remember its distinctly Russian shape, with the flared boosters at the bottom, so different from the straight-arrow American designs such as the Saturn moon rockets.
When I saw the exhibition, Sputnik was not even a quarter century in the past, but to me as a kid it was ancient history. In that time, people had orbited the Earth, gone to the Moon, sent robots throughout the solar system, and were about to launch the first reusable Space Shuttle.
Today is the 50th anniversary of that first-ever Sputnik orbital flight. As far as people going into space, not much genuinely new has happened since I saw those Soviet rockets. We have the space station now (built through cooperation between post-Soviet Russia, NASA, and other space programs around the world), but we're also still flying Soyuz and Shuttle missions, and no one has been back to the Moon since 1972.
Sputnik was the first, and it turns out to have been the model too. Its successors, robotic space probes, have accomplished remarkable things since, from examining the Sun to plunging into the atmosphere of Jupiter, landing on Saturn's moon Titan, and going way beyond. Every day, people across the globe use communications satellites and GPS and satellite views on Google Maps without a second thought. Sputnik, by striking fear of Communist supremacy into our hearts, also energized the Western world's science education programs. Indirectly, I'm probably alive today because of the scientific and medical research prompted by those changes, which improved treatments for both diabetes and cancer.
That tiny beeping metal sphere really did change the world. S dniom razhdjenia, Sputnik.
UPDATE: IEEE Spectrum has a nice feature on the anniversary, including an interview with Arthur C. Clarke in which he points out that "space travel is a technological mutation that should not really have arrived until the 21st century. But thanks to the ambition and genius of [Wernher] von Braun and Sergei Korolev, and their influence upon individuals as disparate as Kennedy and Khrushchev, the Moon—like the South Pole—was reached half a century ahead of time."