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Moon:Mars July 26, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Moon.
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Well… what of this, Alternative 3, produced for ITV as a spoof documentary in 1977. I remember watching it at the time, I’m not sure if I knew at that time that it was April Fools, although it wasn’t broadcast during April, which sort of undermined the point of the exercise.

This, again, was one of those pieces of television culture that were consumed with incredible enthusiasm by myself and my friends. We loved this and would talk about and around the topic afterwards. And in such a way as to nearly gift it the mark of authenticity even though we either knew, or rapidly discovered soon afterwards, that it was a construct. In fact I have a vivid memory from the week after the programme was aired of reading a tiny snippet in what I think was the Guardian saying that it was fake.

What it purported to be was an account of the disappearance of a number of scientists, a link with the space programme, or rather a secret space programme and a video tape which when decoded was meant to show the first landing on Mars by a joint Soviet/American team in the early to mid-1960s which…

Well, I’ll stop there and let you discover for yourself.

It comes in various parts, which you must judge for yourself whether they are worth viewing. In truth it’s as interesting for the insight into documentary techniques of the period as it is for its content. Ropey title sequence? Check. Stilted interviews? Check. Avuncular older man as presenter? Check. Alcoholic former US astronaut eaten up by a secret too large to be able to contain? er… check.

Thing is that this was actually the final programme of a genuine series of science documentaries, Science Report, which Anglia Television had axed. The producers decided to go out on a spoof. And not only but also the theme music and incidental music was supplied by Brian Eno.

There’s an accompanying novel, which was pretty silly, but notable in the way it fed into what would later be UFO mythology of animal experimentation. And the programme itself, obviously, can be regarded as a forerunner of all the Moon hoax nonsense or perhaps a sub-genre of covert space programmes and collusion between Soviets and the US. Actually the more I think about it the more it strikes me that this is a perfect encapsulation of future concerns, from ecological disaster to conspiracy theories and so on.

I have to say kudos to the sequence at the very end which you can watch here… Houston and Murmansk… yeah. Right.

I presume it was taken from a helicopter over a desert or beach, certainly the ‘surface’ of Mars looks convincingly… well… Martian. The treatment of the footage is near brilliant, all crackles and interference. And as with all the best such fictions it leaves one with the wish that it had happened even as one realises it never could.

These are pretty jerky, but if you go searching you’ll find higher quality ones…

Part 1

part 2

part 3

part 4

I’m not entirely surprised to find that Monster Magnet’s excellent “Third Alternative” from “Dopes to Infinity” is based on this…

Moon:Head July 25, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Moon.
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599px-Spider_in_Earth_Orbit_-_GPN-2000-001106

There’s something about this photograph that I find undeniably weird. It could be the inversion of the Lunar Module, it could be the fact that it is orbiting Earth, this was from the Apollo 9 mission which was sent up to test the LM in Earth orbit prior to a lunar orbital test on Apollo 10.

There’s some sense of otherness about it, but what precisely I can’t determine. Maybe it’s the sense that the LM shouldn’t be in Earth orbit, that it’s utterly unsuited for that purpose. I don’t know.

Anyhow, while reading about all things Apollo I came across this. It details JG Ballards fascination with the supposed alienation that space flight engendered. A notable strand of Ballard’s fiction depicted societies laid waste by travel into space, not so much physically as psychologically. In one story a disease is brought back, one of the symptoms of which is to make the sufferer believe that they were once astronauts. They wander about Cape Canaveral unable to come to terms with reality, either their own or others.

Still, Ballard’s explanations for his predicted end to space travel cannot be entirely discounted as explanations for our ongoing disinclination to venture deeper into space. A recognition of the panoply of perils awaiting space travelers, emphasized each time an astronaut dons a bulky spacesuit, is surely an unstated factor in our reluctance to travel thousands or millions of miles away from Earth where a crisis could not be dealt with by rushing back to the safety of home. And one concern about a proposed flight to Mars which has been explicitly raised by experts is that the long, lonely voyage there and back may well drive astronauts insane. Furthermore, there is unquestionably a metaphorical truth, if not a literal truth, in Ballard’s argument that ventures into space would upset humanity’s sense of time. Consider the impact of those first photographs of Earth from lunar orbit taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts, showing our world as an island of blue in a vast imposing blackness, and the data and photographs obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope and other unmanned space probes. The message from our contact with space is clear: we are beings who live only for several decades, on a world that is only a few thousand miles in diameter, but we live in a cosmos that is over thirteen billion years old and vast enough to contain billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars and planets. Properly understood, that information would certainly function as a shock to the human perception of time, as an incentive to ponder static eternity as an alternative to our brief, frenetic experience of time, and perhaps even as an inducement to a complete, stunned paralysis.

I’ve never found that idea entirely compelling. Not least since humans have somehow managed to go to unusual parts of our own planet without plunging into psychosis. Antarctica is close to the magnificent desolation described by Aldrin of the Moon. And the isolation of those environments is not entirely different to the isolation of stepping onto the surface of the Moon (indeed years ago in Tunisia in the south of that country I found it telling that the local landscape was described as being like the surface of the Moon – the description wasn’t entirely wrong, and the landscape was stunning, but… it weren’t the Moon).

And of those who visited the Moon there have been, perhaps distressingly for that analysis, no real instances of outright madness. If anything the divorces, alcoholism and suchlike made the astronauts almost too typically of their generation of Americans.

Which is not to say that some interesting behaviour didn’t manifest itself. Edgar Mitchell who visited as part of the Apollo 14 crew underwent a self-defined epiphany while journeying back and in subsequent years tilted towards all things paranormal. Within a couple of years he established the Institute of Noetic Studies which examined issues of consciousness and psychic phenomenon. He later attested to his belief in UFOs and made some remarks about Roswell being a genuine incident that he later had to retract.

Was it the pressure of the Moon landing which precipitated this?

Not necessarily. He was already interested in such matters and apparently conducted ESP experiments covertly while on Apollo 14.

Back to Andrew Smith and Moondust….

Mitchell [conducted] a private experiment ‘transmitting’ mental images of randomly chosen shapes to four people back on Earth at prearranged times. Unfortunately, his accomplices had vfailed to take account of a slight delay in the launch, so were out of sync with his attempted projections. In what looks a little like rationalization, the astronaut claims that the results were still significant, as the other subjects’ guesses were far wider of the mark than would statistically be expecting, suggesting that they had a subconscious knowledge that something was wrong. What ever the case Mitchell was betrayed by on of his collaborators and word leaked to the media shortly after splashdown. Another independent-minded Apollo astronaut assures me that, had commander Shepherd known of Mitchell’s intentions before hand, the younger man would certainly never have flown – on any mission. But Ed kept it wholly to himself. No one at NASA had the vaugest notion that this hippy stuff was going on right under their noses. Curiously Deke Slayton claims to have been more open-minded. “I thought it was worth a look,” he says. “Hell, NASA doesn’t know everything”.

That said there’s no doubting the experience pushed Mitchell further along the trajectory he was already on…

The epiphany led Mitchell to ask, “What was causing the exhilaration every time I looked out the window?” It seemed that nothing in conventional science or religion could explain in a way that satisfied him…

Well, I have a few suggestions as to what might make me feel even slightly exhilarated, and I’ll admit it – downright terrified, were I halfway between Earth and moon. That reminds me of a programme I saw on the Shuttle back in the early to mid-1990s. It was pretty detailed, but the thing that struck me was – looking out of the windows of the Shuttle – just how dark space was. It was like a physical presence pressing against the frail skin of the spacecraft. Of course that’s the wrong way to look at it. The tiny bubble of air and life that the Shuttle represents is like our own planet in miniature and one could see it representing that air and life pressing outwards.

And that, perhaps is where Ballard, for all the genius of his fictions missed an essential dynamic of the space age (and so does John Waters in the piece referenced yesterday), a dynamic that links directly into our own motivations as individuals and species. Yes, of course there is the pull home both physically and psychologically, but there is also the opposite, the urge to push away. Those are in a tenuous balance and often fighting with each other, indeed the history of human space flight is indicative of this. But they remain and presumably will do so well into the future.

Meanwhile, what are we currently left with? Fictions for the most part… such as this here, another Moon related curiosity. It’s a hoax, meant to be footage from a ‘secret’ Apollo 20 mission, a joint US/Soviet mission that following the identification of an alien spacecraft on the Moon landed and investigated said spacecraft and found… well… watch or read for yourself. I’ve read that this is the product of a French performance artist, supposedly one Thierry Speth (although who is to say – perhaps the joke is infinitely recursive and there is no Speth, he too being a fabrication). If so fair dues to him or her.

It could be better, not so sure about the CGI alien spaceship stuff… and it’s all very ropey. But the idea itself is great. I’d have loved to have seen this done in a better way. Or perhaps this is the best way, sitting on the edge of amateurism and authenticity, that that ropey aspect is somehow an interpretation of those blurred images and jerky movements as when Armstrong climbed down from the Lunar Module…

Moon:God July 24, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Moon.
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There’s quite a nice piece by John Waters in the Irish Times today. In it he discusses his own memories of the Moon landing, and sadly he was unable to watch it on television, his neighbour with said device having visitors. So John spent the day up a sycamore tree, or as he puts it:

I walked around thinking about what was about to happen and put my eye upon the tree. Other boys had climbed it, but I had never seen anyone go right to the top. I timed my assault for the precise moment Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were due to walk out on the surface of the moon.

I wasn’t looking for a means to remember. Perhaps at some level I understood the Apollo mission as a way of getting closer to God. Or, perhaps I was seeking to go some place no man had gone before.

No doubt.

Still, this being John Waters he cannot but fail to move into the language of transcendence. This irritates me somewhat less than his usual offerings in this vein because I too share a sense of that transcendence when it comes to the space programme (and incidentally, I include the efforts of the Soviets/Russians, Chinese and so on under that blanket term…).

Actually, as John Gray has observed, both responses are “religious” – the idea of faith in human progress just as much as belief in a higher intelligence. Both seek to transcend what is “obvious”. We seem to hold both perspectives within us, moving between them. Perhaps they represent not opposites, but a single complex mechanism for dealing with our situation, ostensibly improvable but essentially fixed, and ultimately mysterious.

Well, not so mysterious. But still awe-inspiring.

Anyhow, as he strays away from transcendence he strays towards fact. Always perilous in his case, and never more so when he says:

Perhaps the most salutary image we received that hazy July day was not of the magnificent desolation of the moon face, but the poignant perspective from that vantage point showing planet Earth, apparently suspended in space, humanity balanced perilously on its surface. No image has more beautifully captured the fragility of human hopes for omnipotence, or of man, imprisoned within his desires, doomed to sabotage his own efforts by misusing his freedom.

That’s a lovely idea. Sort of. If we didn’t go there we wouldn’t see. And in going we extend our… well, not omnipotence, there being no such animal, but at least our capacity to engage with the universe, or at least this tiny fraction of it. And for many of us that does of its nature extend the relationship with God.

Problem is, lovely or not, it’s wrong. I can think of two images that represent that notion but neither of them was associated with Apollo 11. The first, the “Blue Marble” was taken by Apollo 17 in December 1972 as it went to the Moon. Ironically Apollo 17 was the last of the Apollo missions, so we got a gem there. The interesting aspect of the photo is that it depicts the face of the globe entirely in sunlight. Another aspect of note is that it was originally taken upside down, due to the orientation of the astronauts when they took it.

599px-The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17

So if Waters recalls that image from that hazy July we must grant him the power of precognition.

It is more likely that he’s thinking of Earthrise, a photograph taken by William Anders of Apollo 8, the first mission to orbit the Moon. This took place in December 1968.

600px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise

It’s another stunning image, the Earth half in shadow is depicted above the lunar surface. As with the Blue Marble image there’s an element of artifice about this (well, I guess that’s true of all photography). As viewed from the Command Module the Earth was to the left of the lunar surface and it’s only by pivoting it around that we get the image we see today.

There’s a second version taken around the same time in black and white which is almost as equally powerful as the Earth ascends from behind the Moon, but from a lower point.

611px-AS8-13-2329

There is a third image, also taken by Anders on this mission which is the first to be taken of the whole Earth. It too is remarkably, indeed even at this remove viewing these I find them enormously powerful.

600px-As08-16-2593

Plenty of time then for a young Waters to assimilate it and its meaning and well before Apollo 11.

Actually there is a religious connotation to Apollo 8. After the mission there was a minor controversy due to the crew reading 10 verses from the Book of Genesis, an act which drew down the wrath of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a prominent atheist and an accompanying law suit. I have to admire the dismissal by the US Supreme Court of it on grounds of lack of jurisdiction. Mind you that might have set an interesting precedent. I wonder was the Old Testament chosen specifically (and by the by VNV Nation, amongst others, have taken the audio of that broadcast and put it to music in their fine track Genesis). It’s odd that Waters doesn’t see fit to mention that, or the even more compelling fact that Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian church elder, received Communion while on the Moon.

Yet there is another rather greater error in the article by Waters which is inexplicable. For he posits that:

And what a trick was played on us that day, as though in a conspiracy between technology and the ether! For months beforehand, a special Nasa sub-committee had been canvassing opinions with a view to formulating the first words to be uttered by the first human to walk on the moon. Presently, Neil Armstrong was given a memo with the agreed phrase. When the moment came, he faithfully recited the words.

That’s simply not true. All the reputable sources I can reference both on-line and off agree that it was Armstrong himself who composed the words. Let’s return briefly to Andrew Smith’s Moondust…

Now, what do you say as you become the first human being to set foot on the Moon? Neil Armstrong is an astronaut, not a poet and certainly not a PR man. He wouldn’t have bothered about it much, but people have been writing to him with all kinds of suggestions – the Bible and Shakespeare being the most popular sources of inspiration – and everyone he meets seem to have an opinion. The pressure is on. It’s irritating, because, for him, the landing was the poetry and taking off again his next major work. Still, as he thinks about it, he considers the paradox that it is such a small step, and yet… the laconic career pilot comes up with one of the most memorable lines ever offered the English language.

Waters continues…

On Earth he was heard to say: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. This is what the recording recalls. But when you think about it, this makes no sense, because the words “man” and “mankind”, taken in context, mean exactly the same thing.

There’s no particular mystery to this… Smith again…

No one saw anything until Neil Armstrong pulled a cord which activated a camera on his way out of the LM. Then he jumped down to one of the lander’s big round feet, described the lunar dirt and stepped gingerly to the surface… he did get the words wrong, however, because he meant to say – and for years insisted that he did say – “One small step for a man….” Even his memory is not definitive, though in the freeze-frame world we’re about to enter,that doesn’t necessarily make it less true.

Waters however insists that his nascent and apparently self-generated conspiracy theory moves us to…

Thinking the words spontaneous, we glossed over the tautology. We knew what he meant. But what the recording attests is not what Armstrong said. The voice-activated transmission system momentarily cut out after the fourth word, tracelessly excising the indefinite article that would have made sense, and retained the humility, of the agreed phrase. “One small step for a man . . .” is what Armstrong was instructed to say, and what he insisted he did say.

And therefore comes to the conclusion…

It is as though something in time or space, or space-time, intervened to underline the distinction between what a human being can achieve from within an understanding of human nature and what we tend to extrapolate from these achievements about our collective and absolute potential. Perhaps, snipping out that fragile “a” to emphasise the tautological nature of human ambition, some benevolent force was whispering to us about the folly of thinking that we can climb out of our essential condition, gently reminding us that we make better progress when we think of getting closer to God.

Of course, again, how can we know if we don’t ever go. I may well be wrong, but I suspect that for almost all the actual meaning of the phrase will resonate as long as history is recorded. Something the deity might not be entirely unhappy about. And I can’t help but feel that in truth, the real history of those events demonstrates that for many – perhaps most – of those involved they managed, as with Apollo 8 and Aldrin, to bring God along or, more likely, to find God wherever they went.

Moon:Been there, done that? July 23, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Moon.
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A brief but good piece on the Slate Culture Gabfest dealt with the meaning of this week both in terms of coverage and in terms of the event itself. It started with an excerpt from “Rocket Experience” with vocals added by Buzz Aldrin. You may like it. I don’t. But it rapidly improved with what I thought was one of the nicest summations of the whole thing…

We wanted to start out with insouciance on this topic… but I can’t help it. I thought this anniversary meant absolutely nothing to me. I started reading about it and I actually became quite emotional. i think this is one of those things for which an anniversary is utterly necessary to reawaken our mind to the sheer courage and ingenuity and shared public purpose, sense of public purpose, which put a human being on the surface of the effing Moon.

An interesting point was made about the ‘immediacy of the web’ and how we can now all watch these events in way that even ten years ago we couldn’t have. Actually, that reminds me of the first CD-ROMS with their Quicktime movies of the moon landing in tiny windows on computer screens. It’s funny how the moon landings became in the decades after a sort of visual short hand of excitement.

And yet, it’s paradoxical, because imagine if you will the use of almost any other artifact of high technological achievement from 1969 and consider whether that would have the same cachet. Indeed one contributor to the Slate Gabfest recalled a moment in the Ron Howard Apollo 13 movie where:

…somethings gone wrong and they cut to the huge team of people in Houston all operating slide rules. There were of course calculators at that point.. but people were also using slide rules to navigate that emergency…

It is almost disturbing when one thinks of it in that way. Like Concorde, another hugely ambitious piece of technology, but one very much of its time there is this sense of slippage. That the future we expected has somehow been deflected. And yet that future we project is of course the past as was.

…which raises a related question, you’d think we were now 40 years on in terms of computing power and technology and we exploit all sort of synthetic materials and plastics to make airplanes that we fly on routinely safer and quicker and yet…
the thought of putting a man back on the Moon is the one that so… almost as inconceivable to us as it was when Kennedy announced the ambition in the early ’60s.

That is a remarkably apt insight. It’s not just an issue of political or social will, although that plays an enormous part. It is in some respects the product of a need to reinvent the wheel. Orion may be Apollo redux, and form follows function, but for the US space programme to reimplement Apollo in this modified and modernised form is a task that even now is nearly beyond belief. Even in 2009.

I’ve been re-reading Andrew Smith’s excellent Moon Dust, which is both an history of the Moon programme and a sort of investigation of the lives of the astronauts both during and after. In regard to the actuality of the landings there is a fine four or five page sequence which cuts from the audio that the global audience heard during the descent by the Lunar Module to the surface of the Moon and what was actually happening on board it.

We know this as the voice of Mission Control. his name is Charles Duke, but the astronauts just call him ‘Houston’. There are other voices too, but they all sound distant and intermingled and it’s hard to get hold of what they’re saying. An air of expectancy hangs in the room.
Now we hear;
“Thirty seconds.”
Silence.
“Contact light.”
“Shutdown.”
“Descent engine command override. Engine arm, off, 413 is in.”
A pause.
Silence.
More silence.
“Houston, Tranquility Base here… the Eagle has landed”.

And Smith delicately untangles the events each of those short sentences described, from the thirty seconds worth of remaining fuel, twenty of which were necessary to retain for an abort, to the events beyond the sentences, Armstrong realising that the landing area was littered with ‘a field of rocks’ and eventually having to made a decision with barely seconds to spare to land in ‘a clearing of about 200 feet, bounded by craters on one side and more boulders on the other’.

Even when one knows the outcome, the description is nerve wracking. And that too adds to the sense of the enormity of the project.

Smith’s book is equally good on how the lives of the astronauts were subsequently utterly altered by their experiences. These were almost exclusively military men, there was only one scientist amongst those to walk on the surface, who were ill-prepared for the fame that was to dog them afterwards. Alcoholism, relationship breakdowns, depression. the whole gamut of symptoms of humans pushed to extraordinary limits. Perhaps, perhaps if the Moon landings had been sustained that fame would have been diluted, as Apollo 17 was followed by 20 and 30 and whatever… But the curious thing is that the isolation of their journey was mirrored by the isolation of their lives thereafter. This was a place no-one was going to go back to, at least not in most of their lifetimes.

Which led on the Gabfest to the thought that the ‘wonderment’ of the event could be summed by the Onion’s entertainingly foul-mouthed piece:

And there’s an odd little precursor of that by Smith when visiting the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canveral, a construct so large that it is reputed to have its own micro climate.

Then there’s the nightmarish crawler, like something from a Judge Dredd comic, which transports rockets from the Assembly Building to the gantries at half a mile and hour, running on tank like treads that weigh one ton apiece. This is not like anything you’ve seen before. It’s unreal.

And now the bus has stopped and you’re climbing off and into a giant brick hangar and – fuck, there’s the Saturn V.

You can reel off figures and statistics all you like, but until you’ve stood underneath it, nothing can prepare you for this behemoth, suspended in segments from the ceiling, just astonishing. You try to fit a meaningful portion of it into a photo, but can’t, so you give up. What you think is not “How could anyone make something this big?” because you know that people have been making big things for millennia. BUt to make something this big, and intend it to fly – the audacity of this conceit alone – and then to make it work, to conceive of this impossible twisty chaos of pipes and cables and weird steel tubers and nozzles as big as the bus we just rode in on, bigger, and make them do something predictable and controllable and reliable enough to bet a life on, three lives, every time… it’s just… the mind reels in the same way that a Victorian’s must have been carried away by one of that era’s gargantuan steelworks or power stations. Even at thirty five years remove, it’s barely credible.

And the Gabfest recognises something of this when they argue…

…Essentially what it all comes down to… there are two tones to the coverage, that tone of wonderment… and then there’s this sort of chewing over of the regret that the space programme has stalled and even regressed.

On the latter point they also referenced Tom Wolfe’s article in the New York Times which takes the provocative notion that…

The American space program, the greatest, grandest, most Promethean — O.K. if I add “godlike”? — quest in the history of the world, died in infancy at 10:56 p.m. New York time on July 20, 1969, the moment the foot of Apollo 11’s Commander Armstrong touched the surface of the Moon.

Why, putting a man on the Moon was just the beginning, the prelude, the prologue! The Moon was nothing but a little satellite of Earth. The great adventure was going to be the exploration of the planets … Mars first, then Venus, then Pluto. Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus? NASA would figure out their slots in the schedule in due course. In any case, we Americans wouldn’t stop until we had explored the entire solar system. And after that … the galaxies beyond.

Three months after the landing, however, in October 1969, I began to wonder … I was in Florida, at Cape Kennedy, the space program’s launching facility, aboard a NASA tour bus. The bus’s Spielmeister was a tall-fair-and-handsome man in his late 30s … and a real piece of lumber when it came to telling tourists on a tour bus what they were looking at. He was so bad, I couldn’t resist striking up a conversation at the end of the tour.

Sure enough, it turned out he had not been put on Earth for this job. He was an engineer who until recently had been a NASA heat-shield specialist. A baffling wave of layoffs had begun, and his job was eliminated. It was so bad he was lucky to have gotten this stand-up Spielmeister gig on a tour bus. Neil Armstrong and his two crew mates, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, were still on their triumphal world tour … while back home, NASA’s irreplaceable team of highly motivated space scientists — irreplaceable! — there were no others! …anywhere! … You couldn’t just run an ad saying, “Help Wanted: Experienced heat-shield expert” … the irreplaceable team was breaking up, scattering in nobody knows how many hopeless directions.

It’s a good piece and worth reading. Essentially Wolfe sees the space programme, and in particular the bid to reach the Moon as a ‘single combat’ that would in its winning or losing rout the other side, in this case the Soviets. And they won. And within a few years the NASA budget was halved…

It was at this point that NASA’s lack of a philosopher corps became a real problem. The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about.

It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.

Unfortunately, NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent.

Indeed…

Forty years! For 40 years, everybody at NASA has known that the only logical next step is a manned Mars mission, and every overture has been entertained only briefly by presidents and the Congress. They have so many more luscious and appealing projects that could make better use of the close to $10 billion annually the Mars program would require. There is another overture even at this moment, and it does not stand a chance in the teeth of Depression II.

And those thoughts in mind, every time I look at the simulations of Orion there’s part of me that does the calculus as to how Constellation will pass Congressional committees, how it will weather budgets and budget cuts and the need for this to be a programme that stretches past one Presidential term, past two, perhaps past three or four in order to produce outcomes. And a certain pessimism creeps over me.

What NASA needs now is the power of the Word. On Darwin’s tongue, the Word created a revolutionary and now well-nigh universal conception of the nature of human beings, or, rather, human beasts. On Freud’s tongue, the Word means that at this very moment there are probably several million orgasms occurring that would not have occurred had Freud never lived. Even the fact that he is proved to be a quack has not diminished the power of his Word.

July 20, 1969, was the moment NASA needed, more than anything else in this world, the Word. But that was something NASA’s engineers had no specifications for. At this moment, that remains the only solution to recovering NASA’s true destiny, which is, of course, to build that bridge to the stars.

And if that seems an odd juxtaposition with the Onion clip, well think again about that wonderment. And what it means both on a practical and philosophical level.

And although there have been the setbacks that Wolfe points to, the lack of progress, it remains true that NASA has been extant for fifty or so years and that might be worth a little sliver of optimism, because simply surviving is no mean achievement in the world we live in, particularly for an organisation whose aims are largely so ineffable. And in that survival is the merest echo of the survival, or need to survive, for us as a species and to continue to exist in a universe which is indifferently hostile to us. Wonderment. Not a bad way to proceed in light of that.

Moon: Landing July 22, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Moon, Science, Science Fiction.
8 comments

800px-Orion_capsule_at_KSC

Swiftly moving beyond Garibaldy’s poor cultural experience with Moon…

It’s odd looking at the images of the proposed Orion and Altair vehicles that are intended to return the US to the Moon sometime in the next decade as part of the Constellation programme. They’re obviously very similar to the Apollo era modules, a result of a decision to take tried and tested technologies rather than attempt to push the envelope as was seen with the Space Shuttle. These are space going vehicles, rather than Low Earth Orbit vehicles. They can eschew the rudimentary wings, fin and control surfaces of the Shuttle.

And yet, for all the sleek computer animated simulations of the return – and as an aside can one think of any better way to leech the meaning from this than essentially staging it ahead of time in virtual form – they seem strangely lacking.

Okay, I have to admit, Orion isn’t bad. As Apollo writ large it has a clunky retro charm. The interior arrangement, now set up to carry… gasp… four to six astronauts… is more of the same. That flattened cone like shape has the necessary echoes of the past. No complaints there.

Reading the specs on wiki I had to smile…

* “Glass cockpit” digital control systems derived from that of the Boeing 787.[8]

* An “autodock” feature, like those of Russian Progress spacecraft and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle, with provision for the flight crew to take over in an emergency. Previous American spacecraft (Gemini, Apollo, and shuttle) have all required manual piloting for docking.

* Improved waste-management facilities, with a miniature camping-style toilet and the unisex “relief tube” used on the space shuttle (whose system was based on that used on Skylab) and the International Space Station (based on the Soyuz, Salyut, and Mir systems). This eliminates the use of the much-hated plastic “Apollo bags” used by the Apollo crews.

* A nitrogen/oxygen (N2/O2) mixed atmosphere at either sea level (101.3 kPa/14.69 psi) or slightly reduced (55.2 to 70.3 kPa/8.01 to 10.20 psi) pressure.

* Much more advanced computers than on previous manned spacecraft.

It’s like a car brochure… right down to the ‘combination of parachutes and airbags for capsule recovery’… well, okay. Not quite like a car brochure. I’ve yet to see a car with airbags on the exterior.

New_Altair_design

No, for me the disappointment is the Altair vehicle. Where is the spidery wonder of the Lunar Module? This looks like an articulated lorry in comparision, or no – a container on an lorry. It’s all propellent and payload, a squat utilitarian beast oddly truncated.

665px-Apollo16LM

I want that spidery wonder back. And I want it now.

And that reminds me of, perhaps, one of the worst Science Fiction movies ever made, the peerless Moon Zero Two, straight from Hammer Films. It appeared a little after the first moon landing and it had a plot that could charitably be called not great. Yet, there was one feature in it that I really really like when I saw it first. And no, it wasn’t the kitsch near genius of its title music but instead a sort of souped up LM that was used to ferry people around the Moon. And this… this was logical. Take the existing LM and add on a new intermediate section.

mz 25

Of course in reality the legs would have had to be strengthened, the body broadened, and really, was that the best way of doing it? Yet it made sense. Again a tried and tested technology that could be refashioned for years later. Funny thing is that even at the time I wondered whether such technology, or rather its lineal descendent would still be working so many decades later. Surely the design might have changed a tad.

But, when one looks at the specs for Orion and their similarity to the first effort to reach the Moon perhaps I was unduly pessmistic, although note that MZ2 was set in 2021. Now, if only they’d implement a Moon Zero Two LM… then we could truly say we’d gone full circle.

Here, meanwhile, is a clip from Moon Zero Two showing what we didn’t achieve.

And here is the theme music…

A classic of its kind, I’m sure you’ll agree.

By the way, a fantastic interview on National Public Radio’s To The Point this week with Buzz Aldrin about the first moon landing and why humans should go to Mars (he dismisses the Moon as a cul-de-sac). His main reason? If the US doesn’t the Russians and the Chinese will. It was funny to hear such unvarnished Cold War US Nationalist rhetoric, and yet, and yet. There was part of me suspecting that this was only the public reason he gave in an effort to pressurise the US administration. I say that because the sheer sense of wonder at what he had done and where he had gone was still remarkably strong in his recollections. Yeah, I think he got the space bug.

Equally good was a discussion with astronomer Jonathan McDowell and Steven Weinberg physicist about the merits or otherwise of human spaceflight. McDowell and Weinberg differed on that issue to some extent with Weinberg taking the view that unmanned probes can do all that humans can and more, whereas McDowell believes a human presence in some form is essential. Well worth a listen.

It’s available as a free podcast here and on the iTunes Store.

Moon: Worst Film Ever July 22, 2009

Posted by Garibaldy in Film, Moon.
7 comments

97 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.

Moon:Memory July 21, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Astronomy, Culture, Moon, Science, Science Fiction.
11 comments

I think I saw the moon landings. I have a memory, I’ve had it for years now, of being in the sitting room of my parents house in Raheny watching the shaky footage on a black and white television. There’s a problem though. It was only this month that I realised that I would have to have been about 3 years and 8 months old when the moon landing occurred. And, given that, is it really likely that I actually saw Armstrong climb down from the Lunar Module onto the surface of the Moon? Or rather that I remembered it? It gets worse. I don’t know if RTÉ carried the footage, but, the time, 3.39 a.m. Does it seem reasonable that I’d have been awake at that point? Maybe I was bundled downstairs to watch. I don’t know and there’s no one to ask. So… the question remains did I see the reports the next day, or did I imagine them happening subsequently.

I suspect the latter two options are most likely, albeit they’re the most prosaic. Ah well. Another option is that I saw subsequent moon landings. It’s funny though. Almost the entirety of my life, including my adult life I’ve been convinced I did see them. And now… I don’t know.

If I did see it I wonder what I thought about it at the time.

There’s a fabulous book that I’ve been reading recently called The Baby in the Mirror by child psychologist Charles Fernyhough which through his appraisal of his own daughters mental development in her first three or four years gives an insight into memory and its centrality to our ability to understand the world.

As he notes:

In contemplating a forthcoming journey, we don’t just make a physical connection with the human being who will be passing through that airport and hailing that taxi; we make a mental connection, imagining the sights and sounds, the varied emotions of arrival. It takes a leap of imagination before we make the leap of substance.

In foreseeing herself in Australia, Athena [his daughter who was going to Australia with him to live] needed some of that self-thread. There was that little person, in the image of the future she had conjured up; there was something that it was like to that little person; and it would be the same as what it was like to be this little person.

Athena needed some understanding of herself as a centre of experience that persisted like her body persisted, with a future as well as a present. She needed to be a time-traveller.

I wonder about that. I was a bit older than Athena, but the way in which events at a very early stage in life impress makes me wonder how much of my personality was shaped by the background noise that was the space programme, something that ultimately fed and informed my cultural tastes, my sense of self. Did the moon landing operate on a subtly similar level with thousands of children thinking that they too could place themselves in the picture, so to speak. That the adventure of it was a visceral part of them and their self-identity, and was this because in large part we were there ready to be shaped just as these events were happening? Otherwise why, if my memory of watching the landing on television is a construct did I want it to be something that I lived through directly?

The meaning of it all is fascinating too. I mean, what did I think was going on then? Fernyhough argues that:

Ask a child, as Piaget did, who made the sun and the moon and you are likely to get a creationist answer. For children growing up on the shores of Lake Geneva, the stars of the constellation of Pleiades might have been scattered there by God. Piaget’s interpretation was that young children suffered from an ‘artificialist’ bias, mistakenly inclined to see a creative agency in inanimate objects. As their thinking becomes flexible enough to give them a basic grasp of the laws of physics, they become better able to see how the landmarks of nature could have arisen without human or divine intervention. Piaget saw artificialism… as a wrinkle of cognitive immaturity which is ironed out by further development. As you grow into more sophisticated reasoning about the physical world, he argued, you rely less on God for your cosmology.

However, Fernyhough believes that this is purely cultural rather than cognitive…

In one recent study, Australian and British children were tested on their knowledge of cosmology, such as their understanding that the earth is a sphere on which people can live without falling off. Even controllling for general intelligence, the Australian kids showed a significantly richer and more scientific understanding of cosmology than their British peers. One might say that they could not help but do so. Australian children grow up well aware of their distinctive location (relative to other English speaking nations) below the Equator. Their allegiance to the Southern Cross, as depicted on their flag, is emphasized in their elementary school curriculum, which introduces cosmology at an earlier age than in the UK.

So perhaps all those news reports and diagrams rubbed off, giving a sense of the universe, or at least the position of humans within it a greater depth than might otherwise have occurred.

Subsequently the memory faded into what I’d describe as a general fascination (although that’s too pointed a term, perhaps interest or even good-will better describes it) towards all things space related. It might have been happening in the sky, on the moon, tens and thousands of miles away, but it was an extension of the 5 year old, 10 year, 20 year old and so on, me. Each achievement, each milestone something to do with me. Certainly that was true up to late adolescence. Skylab fell? It fell on me, metaphorically. I still remember discussing the landing of the first Shuttle with others with that sense of fascination. But something changed. Probably I just got older. Social activities filled in and crowded out that space.

I didn’t follow the programme with the same interest as the years progressed. The news that they’d discovered exo-solar planets through telescopes came as a signficant surprise to me and as the numbers ramped up of just how many were discovered it was clear I’d completely lost touch.

Sure, on the cultural side the consumption of SF in whatever form continued, but the linkage to the actuality of space exploration certainly dimmed. That’s changed. The rise of the internet has made it much more a part of life again. Not in the same way though. It’s not as close, even if I still feel that same sense of good-will towards it. Maybe even a greater fascination as I realise that many of the achievement I once thought would have occurred by now haven’t and may not yet in my life-time, making that which did happen doubly precious (and apologies for the shameless solipsism of this piece… but, thems the breaks)…

But then, how could it be the same? The truth is I’m pretty sure now it didn’t quite happen the way I thought it did… That while it happened, it didn’t quite happen to me…

Moon: Some astonishing facts July 20, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Moon, Science.
7 comments

WILLIAM REVILLE, Irish Times

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: IT SEEMS that the young Earth had no moon, but soon after the Earth formed, a Mars-sized rogue planet struck it a huge glancing blow. A large chunk of Earth and most of the rogue planet were vaporised into a cloud that rose more than 22,000km in altitude, where it condensed gradually into the solid moon. Lunar rocks are about 4.6 billion years old – about the same age as Earth, and the composition of lunar rocks is very similar to rocks on Earth.

Moon Facts: National Geographic News

• How did the moon form? According to the “giant impact” theory, the young Earth had no moon. At some point in Earth’s early history, a rogue planet, larger than Mars, struck the Earth in a great, glancing blow. Instantly, most of the rogue body and a sizable chunk of Earth were vaporized. The cloud rose to above 13,700 miles (22,000 kilometers) altitude, where it condensed into innumerable solid particles that orbited the Earth as they aggregated into ever larger moonlets, which eventually combined to form the moon.

• By measuring the ages of lunar rocks, we know that the moon is about 4.6 billion years old, or about the same age as Earth.

WILLIAM REVILLE, Irish Times

The moon is slowly moving away from Earth. The current distance between the Earth and the moon is 384,000km but it was closer in the past. The moon is slowly drifting away from the Earth at a rate of 4cm per year.

Daytime temperatures on the surface of the moon are about 130 degrees and night time lows reach about minus 110 degrees.

The mass of the moon is about one 80th of the Earth’s mass. Since the force of gravity at the surface of the object is proportional to the object’s mass and size, the force of gravity on the surface of the moon is only one sixth the force on the surface of the Earth. Your weight is the force that gravity exerts on your mass. Your mass remains the same whether you stand on Earth or on the moon, but if you weigh 60kg on Earth, you will weigh only 10kg on the moon. Alan Sheppard hit a golf ball on the moon in 1971 and drove it 400 yards using a makeshift six-iron and encumbered by a heavy space suit.

The gravity on the moon isn’t strong enough to hold an atmosphere and the Moon’s atmosphere is very tenuous and insignificant compared to Earth’s. The sky always looks dark from the moon because there is no atmosphere to scatter light. Also, the moon is always silent as sound-waves travel through air.

Moon Facts: National Geographic News

• The distance between the Earth and its moon averages about 238,900 miles (384,000 kilometers). The diameter of the moon is 2,160 miles (3,476 kilometers). The moon’s mass—the amount of material that makes up the moon—is about one-eightieth of the Earth’s mass.

• Because the force of gravity at the surface of an object is the result of the object’s mass and size, the surface gravity of the moon is only one-sixth that of the Earth. The force gravity exerts on a person determines the person’s weight. Even though your mass would be the same on Earth and the moon, if you weigh 132 pounds (60 kilograms) on Earth, you would weight about 22 pounds (10 kilograms) on the moon.

WILLIAM REVILLE, Irish Times

The moon takes the same time to orbit the Earth as it takes to rotate once on its own axis (27.3 days, approximately). This synchronisation causes the moon to always show the same face to the Earth. In other words, one hemisphere of the moon always faces Earth and the other (the “dark side of the moon”) always faces away.

Moon Facts: National Geographic News

• The rotation of the moon—the time it takes to spin once around on its own axis—takes the same amount of time as the moon takes to complete one orbit of the Earth, about 27.3 days. This means the moon’s rotation is synchronized in a way that causes the moon to show the same face to the Earth at all times. One hemisphere always faces us, while the other always faces away. The lunar far side (aka the dark side) has been photographed only from spacecraft.

WILLIAM REVILLE, Irish Times

We see the moon because it reflects light from the sun. The moon shape we see changes in a repeating cycle because the amount of the moon that is illuminated varies depending on its position relative to the Earth and the sun. We see a full moon when the moon is directly in front of us and the sun is directly behind us, illuminating a full hemisphere of the moon.

Moon Facts: National Geographic News

• The shape of the moon appears to change in a repeating cycle when viewed from the Earth because the amount of illuminated moon we see varies, depending on the moon’s position in relation to the Earth and the sun. We see the full moon when the sun is directly behind us, illuminating a full hemisphere of the moon when it is directly in front of us. The new moon, when the moon is darkened, occurs when the moon is almost directly between Earth and the sun—the sun’s light illuminates only the far side of the moon (the side we can’t see from Earth).

WILLIAM REVILLE, Irish Times

We see no moon when it is directly between the Earth and the sun – the sun now illuminates only the side of the moon we cannot see from Earth. Paradoxically, we call no moon the “new” moon.

The moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth is the main cause of ocean tides rising and falling. The Earth’s oceans display two bulges of water: one where the oceans face the moon and the pull is strongest; and the other where the oceans face away from the moon and the pull is weakest. Both bulges represent high tides.

Moon Facts: National Geographic News

• The moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth is the main cause of the rise and fall of ocean tides. The moon’s gravitational pull causes two bulges of water on the Earth’s oceans—one where ocean waters face the moon and the pull is strongest and one where ocean waters face away from the moon and the pull is weakest. Both bulges cause high tides. These are high tides. As the Earth rotates, the bulges move around it, one always facing the moon, the other directly opposite. The combined forces of gravity, the Earth’s rotation, and other factors usually cause two high tides and two low tides each day.

WILLIAM REVILLE, Irish Times

The moon is the only extraterrestrial object to have been visited by humans. The Soviet Union made the early running in modern investigations of the moon. Luna 2 was the first artificial object to impact the lunar surface in 1959. Luna 3 sent back pictures of the moon in 1959. Luna 9 was the first spacecraft to soft land on the moon in 1966. The first human to walk on the moon was Neil Armstrong on July 21st, 1969, on the Apollo 11 mission. Only 12 people have ever stepped onto the surface of the moon.

# The moon is the only extraterrestrial body that has ever been visited by humans. It is also the only body that has had samples taken from it.

# The first space craft to send back pictures from the moon was Luna 3 (built by the Soviet Union) in October 1959.

Or…

The moon is the only extraterrestrial object to have been visited by humans. American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first. They landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.

WILLIAM REVILLE, Irish Times

We have all amused children by pointing out the “man in the moon”, but there really is a man on the moon since 1999 – or at least his ashes are there. Dr Eugene Shoemaker, a geologist, educated the Apollo astronauts about craters.

One of his dreams was to fly a space mission but he never made it because of medical problems. After he died, his ashes were placed on board the Lunar Prospector spacecraft, which was crash-landed in a moon crater on July 31st, 1999.

The official purpose of the mission was to discover if there was water on the moon, but it also fulfilled Dr Shoemaker’s dream.

We all know there was a man on the moon, but did you know that there is one who stayed there? Dr. Eugene Shoemaker, a Geological Surveyor, who educated the Apollo mission astronauts about craters, never made it into space himself, but it had always been one of his dreams. He was rejected as an astronaut because of medical problems. After he died, his ashes were placed on board the Lunar Prospector spacecraft on January 6, 1999, which was crashed into a crater on the moon on July 31, 1999. The mission was to discover if there was water on the moon at the time, but it also served to fulfill Dr Shoemaker’s last wish.

Amazing stuff. Really. Amazing.

Moon: It’s scary out there July 19, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Moon, Science Fiction, Television Shows, Uncategorized.
12 comments

Well, as noted by Craig, this looks at least a little bit impressive.

I’ve got to admit I’m a sucker for anything with model work instead of CGI. I’ll watch old episodes of Space:1999 or UFO to see the vehicles the future was meant to bring us. That it didn’t remains something of a disappointment. So the sight of those faux-2001 styled moon rovers, all chunky angles, strong sans serif typefaces on interiors and exteriors is a joy. This is the future as conceived in 1970 or so and carried through to films like Silent Running.

Or indeed Space:1999.

I’ve already mentioned how, as a kid, I was fascinated by this book. which also had something of that. And the model work was a large part of it. Anderson, Derek Meddings and others through their creations seemed to open a door to the future. This was what it would be like. The very weight of those models seemed to give them a three dimensional aspect, a reality as it were, that computer generated imagery couldn’t. The sheen of CGI, while often in its own terms fascinating, just isn’t quite there. Even now.

Now granted, some of this presented a very pristine vision of the future. But that of Anderson wasn’t, or at least wasn’t entirely. The vehicles in UFO could be grubby, their sides scored by rocket exhausts and such like.

That thought in mind I was looking up some of that on YouTube recently and came across both the UFO opening credits and the end titles.

Here’s the opening credits, all 1970s poppy excess as if it were the Avengers.

And here, by way of contrast, are the end titles.

There’s something undeniably eerie about the way the camera pulls back from the Earth with that score, by Barry Gray, in the background. It’s sort of the flip side of 2001. Whatever is out there may not be pleasant at all.

As a commenter said on YouTube:

What a contrast with the jolly and forthright “Lets go get ’em!” opening theme. When I was a kid watching this show the end theme seemed to say “we don’t stand a chance gainst the aliens”.

We don’t stand a chance. Yep.

An oddity though. Is that the Moon behind the Earth, and if so then what precisely is that planet or moon that the camera finally reveals?

Moon: Fiction July 18, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Moon.
4 comments

moon

Okay, for the week that’s in it I’ll offer up a rag bag of Moon related material. And to start things off, here’s a link to a short story.

I’m a sort of fan of British SF writer Stephen Baxter. Never quite got his far future stuff, bar the Destiny’s Children Trilogy (or is it a quadrilogy given an extra volume of short stories). But I’m very partial to his alternate NASA Trilogy as exemplified in Voyage, a book whose plot directly links into where NASA could have gone during and after the Moon landings. One aspect of that that has always remained with me was the concept of Moonlab, an orbiting station not dissimilar to Skylab which would be positioned around the Moon as a sort of waystation. It was vaguely proposed, but clearly not implemented during the Apollo and post-Apollo programme.

Here on the rather fine Infinity Plus SF, Fantasy and Horror website, sadly defunct in terms of publishing any new material but still available to browse, is a short story from Baxter which neatly encapsulates his ability to marry hard SF with something quite a bit more exotic. One could kindly say that he’s not so great on characterisation (indeed for those of you who recall my post from last Summer dealing with his novel Flood, here’s a good discussion on UK SF magazine website, Torque Control, on just that aspect of that book by other contemporary SF writers). I’m particularly taken by his description of a British spaceship… but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In a way one of the most curious aspects of SF in the late 1960s and after is the way that it almost deliberately appeared to avert its eyes from the nuts and bolts of the space programme. Instead, and this is far from a criticism, large tranches of it dealt with emotion and psychology. Granted this also came on foot of considerable cultural ferment across many areas other than technology – so perhaps it was inevitable that there would be considerable change in direction in SF. But yet it still seems strange that the sort of approach that Baxter, and others, took was eschewed for so long. And I’m not talking so much about the sort of privatised spaceflight novels that we saw in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but a concentration on what NASA actually did, or where it could have gone, or what might otherwise have happened. To put it another way a fiction grounded in the reality but linking into parallel possibilities. Perhaps the reality of the programme was in and of itself too great and it required time to pass again for the achievements typified by the moon landings to once more gain a lustre that somehow their actuality lost during that period.

Central to this is a sort of pessimism that runs through all his work, and is quite typical of a certain strand of British SF, a sense that we really are just passing through in a universe that is utterly indifferent to us and that we either rework ourselves to it or we – as a species – vanish. Gloomy, realistic, humbling, you decide.

Anyhow, here it is...

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