Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Other Car is a Saab?

I'll have to run this by my wife, but it seems like a great deal. We've got a Prius and a Volvo - how about a 1964 Saab in great condition? A mach 2 Saab J35 "Draken" jet interceptor, that is. I saw this in a video news item on Yahoo. It's a sweet ride and an amazing bargain at $175,000 (you can't even get a new Cessna 172 for that) but it is something of a gas guzzler for a Swedish vehicle (about $5000 of jet fuel for 10 minutes of supersonic flight). I'm sure it's much more economical if you stay off the afterburner.

There are also some intermediate hurdles if I'm going to take advantage of this deal. First I'll have to get current on my private pilot certificate (single engine propeller aircraft only) and medical. Then I'd have to get an instrument rating and probably a commercial pilot certificate too. Then I'd have to get some jet training and probably get type certified in a two-seat jet of similar performance (maybe someone in the world has a two seat Draken you can get checked out in - the one for sale in Stockton, CA is a single seater). By the time I do all that, John Travolta will have bought it and flown it home.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Packing for Mars

When I was ten years old (in 1963), I had a plan for my life. After high school, I would go to the US Air Force Academy, followed by flight training (jets, of course). Later I would go to test pilot school with the ultimate goal of becoming an astronaut. I was too young for Apollo (and for Vietnam as an officer and pilot), but if it had worked out, I would have been an Air Force pilot in the late 70's and astronaut-ready by the mid-80's. The plan fell apart when I was 12 and started to develop severe myopia. The Air Force Academy and flight training wouldn't allow corrective lenses (of course even if I had 20/10 "Yeagervision" there are any number of other things that could have killed my plan, but hey, it was a fun plan while it lasted).

At that time, the idea of space flight represented nothing but sheer excitement, but now that I've read the new book Packing for Mars (by Mary Roach, subtitled "The Curious Science of Life in the Void"), I understand better than ever that the astronaut's life is much more complicated and less enjoyable than you might imagine. Maybe this wasn't the life for me. Of course I knew this at some level from a lot of previous reading about space flight, but with the exception of some astronaut memoirs (especially Mike Mullane's down-and-dirty Riding Rockets), they don't go into much detail on the discomforts and inconveniences of space flight. Mary Roach does, and she does so with a writing style that is informative, colorful, personal, and often downright hilarious. I was laughing out loud at least once in every chapter. Her writing style often reminds me of Bill Bryson. She explains things clearly, but emphasizes quirky details and people. While the situations are often funny, she obviously respects the people and the work they do, so it never comes across as snarky - she's often laughing with the astronauts, cosmonauts, and other space workers.

Of course she covers the required "going to the bathroom in space," but she also covers the psychology of isolation and confinement, general problems of zero-G (including bone loss and vomiting), crash testing (with cadavers!), animal testing, Earth-based mission simulations, hygiene, and the ever-intriguing questions of sex in space. On the latter topic, she isn't able to come up with any hard evidence (sorry) that it has happened, but you can't say her research wasn't thorough. Considering that someone might have "done it" in a zero-G parabolic test flight, she tracks down and watches an obscure porn movie that was rumored to have had one scene shot on such a flight. She uses a fluid dynamics argument (sort of) to conclude that while the scene may have been shot in an airplane, it was not shot in zero-G. Read the book for more. You will also learn some interesting things about dolphin behavior and anatomy, since these marine mammals have to deal with some of the same issues as zero-G astronaut couples might encounter.

The author interviewed astronauts, cosmonauts, and all sorts of researchers, and her field trips included a flight on the "vomit comet" (she didn't vomit, thanks to "good drugs" they give you) and a trip to Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, where NASA conducts simulated lunar and Mars missions in a remote, desolate, cratered environment that's about as close as you can get to Moon or Mars terrain on Earth. NASA and the US astronauts seemed to be the most "uptight," and the Russian cosmonauts the most frank in describing uncomfortable stuff. One exception was Jim Lovell, who was was unusually open, especially when she asked him about Gemini 7, in which he had spent two bathing-free weeks in the tiny Gemini cabin with Frank Borman, who apparently could be a rather cranky and difficult guy. Lovell proved he was brave enough for Apollo 13 by spending some 23 days in space with Borman (Gemini 7 and Apollo 8 - Borman was sick most of the time on Apollo 8, though it wasn't admitted at the time - so perhaps a bit of crankiness could be forgiven).

I read the Kindle version of the book, and I found it was valuable (and funny) to read most of the footnotes, which required a "click" for each one. Some of the funniest comments are in the footnotes. A very good book, even if you're not especially interested in space.

More HD Space Exploration

I'm still infatuated with HDTV, Blu-Ray, and streaming high quality movies over the internet. I'm not planning to buy a lot of Blu-Ray discs since there is so much content available on cable and online (not to mention a lot of DVD's I own that now look substantially better). But I did want to have a few "demo discs" including a couple of space-related ones.

One that I bought was "For All Mankind," a 1989 theatrical-release documentary that collects many of the best segments of NASA film from the Apollo era into a single "meta-moon-mission." As director Al Reinert explains in the making-of feature, all the Apollo missions pretty much followed the same script, so why not use the best film from each mission? He even went as far as to use some Gemini footage (mainly Ed White's EVA) because it was just gorgeous, in part because the Gemini missions' earth orbits were much higher than the Apollo, shuttle, or ISS orbits, so you could get a much better sense of the roundness of our planet. He also used some of NASA's "engineering film" including the famous shot of Saturn V stage separation shot from the separating boosters. Since these were film cameras, the film had to be recovered, which was quite a trick. Each camera would eject its film canister housed in a small re-entry vehicle equipped with parachutes and a radio homing beacon. On-station USAF C-130's with special aerial recovery equipment would home on these beacons and snatch the parachutes from the air (a technique that had been developed to recover Corona "spy satellite" film in the early 60's). The narration consists mainly of comments by the Apollo astronauts, recorded by Reinert in audio-only interviews. The Blu-Ray transfer is awesome - it was probably 16 mm film in most cases,  but the quality is quite impressive, especially in the scenes of lunar rendezvous with the LM silhouetted against the lunar surface.

I also watched the new Blu-Ray copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, much of it with the audio commentary by actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood. The film-like quality of the 1080p display is gorgeous and highlights Kubrick's great attention to detail in every aspect of this film. The spacecraft models are amazing. Dullea did some of his own stunts in this film, and he talks about one scene that was just wild, entering the emergency hatch when HAL famously refuses to open the pod-bay doors (here's a three-minute clip of the scene). In his haste to try to save "Frank," "Dave" had forgotten his helmet and gloves, making an EVA into the emergency airlock just a bit dicey.

The pod's door and outer airlock door were on the ceiling of a two-story set, with Dullea falling toward the camera positioned on the inner airlock door (on the floor) when he was supposedly ejected from the pod by pressurized air (this was why a stunt double wasn't used - his face was rushing towards the camera). He was suspended by a heavy rope, the other end of which was handled by a circus trapeze performer who weighed more than Dullea (a critical point). There were knots in the rope to signal the stopping points, and when the first knot reached him, the circus guy stopped the rope (preventing Dullea's face from impacting the camera) and then jumped off a platform with the rope attached to his foot, using his weight to suddenly yank Dullea back toward the outer airlock door (and ceiling of the set!) where he could use the emergency airlock close handle. It was done in one take, and it really looks like this takes place in zero-G. Dullea must have had total faith in Kubrick and that circus performer! An amazing scene in an amazing movie.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

U2 and NASA, Space 2009

This very cool video showed up today in an email update from Space-Multimedia. I'm something of a U2 fan (I saw them live once, back in 1994), but I didn't realize that they had cooperated with NASA for some events during their 2009 tour, including live video feeds with ISS astronauts and with "space tourist" Guy Laliberté (founder of Cirque du Soleil and "the first clown in space," as Bono calls him).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Apollo 13 Revisited

My first HDTV and Blu-Ray player provided the (de?)motivation for a lazy, movie-watching weekend. I had to try out all the different parts of my new toys, including a WiFi connection that allows access to various internet-based services, some free (Pandora internet radio, YouTube), some not free (Netflix, Amazon Video On Demand). I ordered a Blu-Ray copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey from Amazon (mostly because it was only $8.99), but it won't arrive until next week. In the meantime, Amazon provides a free VOD rental of the film, but unfortunately not the HD version. I watched a little to see how the WiFi connection would work (quite well), but decided to wait for the Blu-Ray disc to watch the whole thing later this week. I've bought 2001 on VHS and DVD and now Blu-Ray. It's a space classic and a home video test case, I guess. With Blu-Ray and a 42 inch 1080p screen, it may start to approach the original movie experience of 1968 (which I barely remember, though I know I made my mother take me to see it).

The one BD that I bought and received so far is a BBC nature show, Nature's Most Amazing Events, and the action, scenery, cinematography, and visual quality did not disappoint. The new Blu-Ray player also does a nice job "upconverting" DVD's so I watched a couple of old favorites, Memphis Belle and Apollo 13. I have the 2-disc anniversary edition of Apollo 13, but for some reason I had never watched the making-of special or listened to Jim and Marilyn Lovell's commentary, both great. I really love that movie, both for the many authentic details of the Apollo era and for the emotional intensity. 13 was to be the fifth manned lunar voyage and the third landing, and the public and the media in 1970 had already come to think of it as routine (e.g., the networks didn't interrupt prime time to televise the crew's live color TV "en route to the moon" broadcast - that was so 1969!). But of course the oxygen tank explosion soon made it anything but routine, and the drama of three astronauts' lives hanging by a thread in the "LM lifeboat" captured the world's attention for almost a week. Riveting stuff even though you know the ending.

The making-of special shows what a great combination Tom Hanks and Ron Howard were for this film. Hanks was a space fanatic and astronaut wannabe. Howard wasn't so much, but he is a fanatic for detail and authenticity (technical and emotional) in all of his films. The fact that they were able to get NASA's cooperation to film parts of the film in sets installed in the KC-135 "vomit comet" was an amazing coup and added tremendously to the you-are-there feeling. All that filming had to be done in 30 second segments as the zero-G training jet flew parabolas over and over. All of the "whole body" shots were done this way, but in many scenes where only the actors' heads or torsos were visible, they had to mime the zero-G effects by swaying their bodies to simulate it. It all looks real to me!

I'm sure I will quickly recalibrate my technology "normal meter" so in a couple of weeks, HDTV will just be routine, and I'll go back to not watching much TV. This happens with all technology (except the iPod Touch -  I use it extensively every day, and it still amazes me). But I'm glad it's giving me a reason to revisit some space favorites like Apollo 13 and 2001.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Space Models!

The moon landings were not faked, but if they were, this guy could have been one of the model builders. OK, maybe not (he says he was only 10 in 1968, and he's French), but he has built some pretty nice space models. I don't know exactly how I found his site, but it's got some pretty amazing stuff. I was an avid model builder in my youth (from maybe age 8 to 15), focused mainly on military aircraft, though I did build a few space models too (long since gone - I remember an especially nice Saturn V and a very large Gemini, possibly the original version of this Revell 1/24 scale model). I was pretty good for a kid modeler, though I didn't have the patience to do really fine painting or to custom-build special details. I pretty much built and painted according to the instructions.

I haven't looked at all the models on M. Meens' web site, but my favorite has to be his recently completed 1/24 scale model of the Lunar Module ascent stage shown above and at left. This thing is a work of art - just beautiful. He has quite a few photos showing the fine detail, but my favorite is the cutaway view shown above. I have seen many illustrations and 3D representations of the LM over the years, including the real full-size one (exterior view only, below right) at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington.

I've also seen life size cutaway mock-ups of the LM flight deck (at KSC and other places) and I've spent hours in the the 3D virtual cockpit of the AMSO LM in Orbiter (flying simulated moon landings, of course). But this two-section view of this 1/24 scale model gives the best impression I've ever felt of the nature and size of the tiny LM cockpit. Very cool.

The web site also includes some models and drawings of the Soviet N1-L3 moon rocket (which failed in all tests). The models (N1 vs. Saturn V) are great and at one time were on display at Cite de l'Espace in Toulouse, which I recently visited (I didn't see them). In addition, there is a beautifully drawn (by Serge Gracieux of Cite de l'Espace) set of "story board" images depicting what the Soviet N1-L3 moon landing mission would have been like if it had succeeded in 1969. The mission had some similarities to Apollo, but only cosmonaut would have landed the "LK" on the moon (shown above), while one other would have remained in lunar orbit until the ascent section of the lander rendezvoused for return to Earth. There were no docking ports planned, so the landing cosmonaut would have to transfer to and from the LK by EVA.

UPDATE: This video is from a Japanese modeler who did a superb customized job building a 1965 Revell 1/24 scale Gemini Spacecraft (the one I had back in the 60's). The video starts with some space scenes with the Apollo 8 transmission of Genesis (December 1968), and a series of stills showing the model building procedure starts around 0:34. The gold foil on the back end of equipment module (from a candy bar wrapper!) is an especially nice touch. Finished model shown below. Very impressive.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Why Moon Landings Were Not Faked

I found this brief video clip through a Universe Today post from last week, but I just love it, so I have to post it here too. It's one of the few "space related" things that I find myself sharing widely with "civilians"  (i.e., friends and relatives who care nothing about space, also called "normal people"). And it's just so funny, I've watched it five or six times myself.

Admittedly this video is more about humor than space, but it does address something that has always puzzled me about moon landing conspiracy "theorists." Between 1962 and 1972, NASA's budget totaled about $260 billion (in 2007 dollars). Much of that was spent on the Apollo program, ostensibly to send astronauts into Earth orbit (11 times, since all the moon missions first orbited the Earth) and later to the moon (nine times with six successful landings - the others were the two planned orbital missions and Apollo 13 which flew once around the moon and back to Earth). According to Moon hoax fans, if this money was spent at all, it was spent on faking the moon landings through an elaborate conspiracy involving thousands of government and contractor employees. These people supposedly built a lot of real-looking but non-functional hardware (plenty of civilians saw the hardware) and applied amazingly advanced special effects technology to produce thousands of photographs as well as many hours of film footage, video, and audio recordings (including radio transmissions that seemed to come from the moon - though of course NASA also controlled the tracking antennas, so who knows?). They also produced a lot of scientific data and a few hundred kilograms of "moon rocks" (which could have come from Hawaii or someplace, right?).

That's all well and good, the joke's on us and all, but what about the Saturn V rockets? Thousands of people witnessed the launch of thirteen gigantic rockets in Florida from 1967 to 1973. Flames came out, loud noises, something went into the sky. Where did they go (some did go only into Earth orbit for tests and to launch the Skylab space station in 1973)? Well maybe the conspiracy people will allow that NASA can put things into Earth orbit. Are they still up there? Did they burn up and reenter the Earth's atmosphere? Wouldn't someone have noticed this? Or did they go to the moon, but without astronauts? Was NASA good enough to do that, but not to land and return the astronauts?

It's all so ridiculous, of course, and if you are in the conspiracy frame of mind, you can always come up with additional things that could have been faked to conceal the other fakes. But why thirteen Saturn V's? And why six "faked" landings (plus Apollo 13 which was aborted)? Why not just launch two or three Saturn V's (to prove you're testing them, of course) and then one successful faked landing? Then declare "mission accomplished, JFK honored, Soviets beaten" and spend the rest of the money on planes and bombs for Vietnam?

Recently the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has sent back pictures of the Apollo landing sites. But who controls LRO? NASA of course. No doubt the conspiracy continues to this day. And there is no way to convince the conspiracy faithful, of course. But we can have a good laugh about it once in a while, as with the video that triggered this whole rant!