Thursday, April 27, 2006

China and NASA working together?

A story on the New Scientist website says that NASA is looking into the possiblities of cooperating with the Chinese space program. NASA boss Michael Griffin is planning to visit China later this year.

NASA wants to go back to the moon. China wants to go to the moon.

This could be big.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Cat in zero gravity


I have shown this video to several people. Some think it is funny. Others think it is just plain mean. You decide how you feel.

Either way, it is interesting how a cat reacts to zero gravity. Cats have the instinct to land on their feet, twisting themselves in mid-air to land paws first.

But what happens when there is no "down"?

Apparently this causes havoc with a cat's internal sensors, making them spin around in loops as they try to find which way to land.

If I were in space, where one small hole in my spacesuit could cause disaster, the last thing I would want in orbit with me...is a cat.

I did not make this video, nor did I post it on YouTube...so no hate e-mails please.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Roving Mars


I went to see Roving Mars this weekend, and was pleased to find it the best IMAX film I have seen since The Dream is Alive. It also played to a large crowd of people who turned out on a rainy day to see it.

The audience was suprisingly pulled in and awed by the science content in the film. Films that feature NASA scientists explaining things in detail usually make people, especially kids, get sleepy and shift in their seats. Because the content of Roving Mars is well edited, the drama of discovery is intact. When a NASA scientist tells us why they think Mars once had surface water, the visuals and the science talk work together, sharing the knockout moment as decades of work and research pay off.

Although I loved every minute of the movie, there were two parts that stand out in my mind.

When you see the Mars Rovers close up in IMAX, you can appreciate how complex they really are. On TV or in small images, they look pretty simple: solar panels, wheels, shock absorbers, a robot arm, and other assorted gadgets.

Up close, you see that they are teeming with wires, cables, and mysterious boxes filled with high-tech gear. These are not toy robots that a teenage gearhead could cobble together in his dad's garage with a soldering gun; these are very delicate and complicated instruments that no one person fully understands. To see the workmanship up close makes you appreciate the engineering prowess of NASA's geeks.


The other part that connects with me is seeing mission control on the day of the landing. Computer graphics show what the landers went through on their way down: the fiery ride through the thin Mars atmosphere, the landing airbags expanding like a space-traveling puffer fish, and the bouncing landing on the red soil. No earthly camera could capture that, so we see it through CGI.

But the cameras do capture the people in mission control. The men and women, with their headsets and computer screens, know all too well that it only takes is one missed signal, one malfunction, and all their work goes flying off into space, or is smashed on the martian plains. When a tiny purple line appears on a readout monitor, only then is it confirmed the rovers have reached the surface safely. Cheers and applause fill the room as the first pictures from Mars scroll on the main screen. The joy of this moment in the control room gives some human warmth to a movie about a very cold planet.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Star Trek - The Comeback


Star Trek is set to make a comeback in 2008 with a new movie.

As someone who grew up with Trek, and still has his models of the Enterprise that were build as a pre-teen, I have mixed feelings.

Part of me cares, and part of me has moved on.

As I re-organized my sloppy computer room, I found many old science fiction books and neatly ordered them on my shelf. I do not own many Trek books, and the ones I do own are mostly about the production and creation of the series.

I did find that I own lots of old school science fiction, like JG Ballard and Philip K. Dick. I also own the newer stuff (newer as in less than 30 years old) by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson.

I bought most of these books when I was in my late teens and early 20s. Some I read, others I just kept to read when I got around to it. Now that I am older and have more life-experience, I look forward to reading them with a new perspective.

I find that I mostly gave up on Star Wars and Star Trek when I got old enough to vote. I found myself drawn more movies like Blade Runner and Aliens, which reflected a much harsher and less-idealistic world of the future.

The Star Trek and Star Wars universes belong to a benevolent federation and a Jedi Order, where good and evil are clearly defined.
I still watched the shows and movies out of curiosity and appreciation of the sets and special effects, but they seems more like childhood relics, like the models that I built and painted as a kid. The world of Neuromancer or Snow Crash is our current world of corporations, rapid-fire technological change and moral quandaries.

Star Trek aired in the late 60s, when America was torn by social strife, war, and the fear of nuclear annihilation; quite a contrast to the Trek portrayal of an idealized future. Space travel was the exciting new science of the time, so the idea of humans zipping between planets several centuries from now did not seem so far out.

Now we have a much more science-literate audience who have grown up with the Internet and the Discovery channel. It might be harder for Trek to pull them in as viewers, since some of the future-tech in the show seems kind of cheesy compared to what we know today. Then again, young researchers at NASA were inpired by Star Trek to create the ION engine for space probes.

The really big question is do people really want to watch new Star Trek now? With all the talk of global warming, some are begining to doubt that humanity might be around for 30 years, much less 300 years and the time to develop warp-drive.

Who cares what happens 300 years from now? I care in the sense that I do not want humankind to be wiped out by plagues, pollution, comet impacts, or grey goo. It is one thing to hope humans explore the stars and create a circle of intergalactic pals, but right now so many earthly matters are in our face.

Can I really empathize with people who don't use money anymore, live to be in their 100s thanks to medical wizardry, and have perfect bods to fill out those pajama-like uniforms? They live in their perfect 23rd century while I'm stuck in the era of identity theft and global outsourcing.

Star Trek has been strongest when it took on controversial issues in a way even non-geeks could relate to. Like Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, Star Trek could use its science fiction veneer to allow writers to take on thorny topics, like race-relations and nuclear war, without irritating network censors or twitchy sponsors.

Maybe the writers and producers can pull it off. Like I have said before on this blog, we could seriously use some optimism about the future, even if it is a tad silly at times.

Whatever they do with the new Trek, I would like to see them use the designs of Matt Jefferies as a reference. He was the designer whocreated the design for the orignial Enterprise and gave the sets their unique look.

Friday, April 21, 2006

2001: A Space Ipodyssey



I always thought there was an unsettling similarity between the black case of an Ipod Nano and the famous monolith from a certain Stanley Kubrick film.

I guess I wasn't alone.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Scott Crossfield 1921 - 2006


I just heard the news about the loss of Scott Crossfield, the first pilot to reach Mach 2 (1,320 mph) and who flew the X-series research aircraft.

There is more about Scott Crossfield's life and career on this page over at NASA.gov.

As I was reading the official press release on the NASA site, I noticed that Crossfield was involved with the reliability engineering and quality assurance for the Apollo command and service modules and Saturn V second stage.

That part stands out for me because I think how mind-boggling it must have been to break the Mach 2 barrier and fly the X-15 plane to the edge of space and be part of putting humans on the moon.

What an extraordinary life...84 years...ended too soon.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Space age bowling alleys and coffee shops - Why I love Googie architecture!

Space Age Lodge - Gila Bend, AZ - Postcard photo from Greg Ottinger

What is Googie? I could spend hours trying to describe it, but the front page of Chris Jespen's Googie Architecture Online does it so well.

Googie architecture was born of the post-WWII car-culture and thrived in the 1950s and 1960s. Bold angles, colorful signs, plate glass, sweeping cantilevered roofs and pop-culture imagery captured the attention of drivers on adjacent streets. Bowling alleys looked like Tomorrowland. Coffee shops looked like something in a Jetsons cartoon.

Why do I love it?

If you have read my previous blog entries, you know that I have a soft spot for the era of Tomorrowland and the dreams of the space age.

Rocket to the Moon - Disneyland

I was not even alive during the age of Googie, but I feel a connection to its quirky vision of the future that never was.

Googie to me seems to be an attempt to create a sense of the future in a time that was still far away from the year 2000. In the 50s and 60s, space travel was still a technological marvel. Computers were giant and mysterious machines. Color television was nearly miraculous.

There were hints of a world to come, where these new wonders would be as common as the telephone, that was nearly a lifetime away.

Googie reflects an optimism of a time when the future and technology were still new and exciting, offering a sense of adventure that awaited us. It was cheerful when nuclear war fears were now looming over a nation.

Seimons Pavilion - 1964 World's Fair

Now we are used to computers and space travel. The future that Googie teased us with has come, and like a child who gets the shiny new toy on Christmas day, now that we see it out of the box, we are slightly disappointed that it is not everything we have hoped it would be. It is often difficult to be optimistic as we read headlines about global warming and bird flu. When we look to the future now, it scares the hell out of us.

The Pine Room - Cecil Motel, Manitoba, Canada -Photo from a postcard

Googie has made a comeback of sorts today. Retro furniture and the designs of the 50s, 60s, and the often mocked 70s are being rediscovered by a new generation.

For younger people who were raised with laptop computers and threats of terrorism, an age when civic centers, bowling alleys and diners looked like spaceports seems kooky.

Kooky is what we need a little of right now in our day to day lives. Most of us live in an identical landscape of stripmalls, office towers, and housing tracts, which cover an ever growing cookie-cutter America.

While we love our big box stores and coffee houses, it is a rare space (no pun intended) that has its own unique identity.

Googie is playful and often unique. In the world of Googie, an everyday place for eating, shopping, or entertaining is a trip out of our everyday world. That why Googie lovers mourn the passing of a bowling alley or a coffee shop that is plowed under: each example is usually one of a kind.

Perhaps that is why Googie is being appreciated over half a century later, because everyone could use a little space age whimsy: where even a common storefront can be a new frontier and where a brighter tomorrow is served up with pie and coffee.

Satellite Shopland - Katella Way, Anaheim, CA -(Near I-5 Freeway and Haster St.)

A very special thanks to Chris Jespen for his pictures and his amazing site.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Back to work!

After a solid week of organizing, putting it off some more, then organizing, I finally have my workspace in order. Now I can get back down to blogging.

I have not sat down with a book that was not related to school, computers, web design or buisness for a long time. It has been too long since I have read a book for fun.

I am also shocked to discover that I have not read many books by writer Philip K. Dick. After reading about his life, I am ready to dive in and read his works.

A whole shelf of classic science fiction, that I bought back when I was teenager, awaits. These are books I meant to read, but never got around to it. They have been waiting, like a hidden treasure, for me to re-discover.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Cleaning house

I've been tearing apart my workspace lately. You do not realize how much stuff you own till you have to move it around.

I have come up with some great stories to blog about, but now I have to put back my collection of paperback books in its proper order.

I also discovered that I own a copy of Spacetime Donuts by Rudy Rucker: a very rare book.

Once my computer room is back in order, I can get back to work.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

3 months of blogging...and still here

I have read that most blogs are abandoned after three months. Some bloggers have the will and the drive to keep posting. Others find that real life eclipses their blogging and stop writing.

I have not written as much as I would like to. I wanted to be an everyday poster, but it has not worked out that way.

I am still here after three months. Let us see what the future holds.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

That was no martian...It's April Fool's Day

I know the CBS radio broadcast of War of the Worlds does not really count as an April Fool's Joke, but I am listing it here anyway. It may have happened on Halloween, but the echoes of Orson Welles drama can still be felt in the internet age. You could say that Welles was the first "troll".

For a list of other April Fools Day's hoaxes, check out this list at the Museum of Hoaxes.

The official sites for Star Trek and Star Wars post April Fool's jokes yearly.

StarTrek.com is announcing their "new redesign". Yuk Yuk!

StarWars.com is announcing a new chapter of the Star Wars trilogy called The Shadow War Chronicles. Before you get your hopes up, be sure to look carefully.