Tuesday, October 31, 2006

That was no Martian...It's Halloween - NASA's new plan to outer space

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles terrified radio listeners with the Mercury Theatre presentation of The War of The Worlds. Because of Welles's dramatic script and some clever sounds effects, many listeners thought slithering aliens were loose in New Jersey, frying humans with their heat rays and beginning their conquest of our pale blue dot of a planet.

It was years later that space probes showed us the red planet up close. What was once feared to be the home planet of invading martians was revealed to be a barren world. Mechanical rovers left their tracks in the red sands of Mars. Computers used digital scans to recreate deep martian canyons in CGI. We now look at Mars as a curiosity, not a threat.

It is fitting that almost to the day of the famous Welles broadcast that the Hubble Space Telescope was given a new lease on life. Like the War of the Worlds Martians of the famous book, radio play and George Pal movie, the Hubble was facing extinction in the cold realm of space.

If all goes well, brave souls will travel to the Hubble in May of 2007: the same month that a famous science fiction film lit up movie screens 30 years before.

For this overgrown kid, the Hubble announcement was a treat sweeter than any sticky candy.

This Halloween, as trick or treaters arrived at my front door, I watched one of my favorite bad science fiction films: Plan 9 From Outer Space. Plan 9 was produced during the paranoid 1950s, when some thought our neighboring planets teemed with wriggling lifeforms plotting to destroy us, fears about the spread of communism expressed through rubber monsters and plastic spaceships.

It also reminded me of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie, where a silly spaceship crashes into the Hubble and sends it to a fiery death. "Farewell sweet Hubble!" sobbed Crow T Robot.

At least for tonight, that scene has been delayed for a while.

Here is the planet Mars as seen by the Hubble. As I look at these images, I hear the voice of Orson Welles and his sign off from the War of the Worlds broadcast.

This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be; The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying "Boo!". Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember please for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian, it's Halloween.

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