Two Past Visions of the Future

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Two things this week made me think about the how people in the past looked at the future, particularly regarding space exploration. The first was a movie, and the second was an article on Brickset.com’s site about certain space LEGO kits from the past.

The movie, Forbidden Planet, is one of my favorite movies. It was my favorite movie when I first watched it at the age of 12, and has been since. My appreciation of this movie is so high and obvious, my wife gifted me with the DVD anniversary edition of the movie many years ago. We watched it again last night.

It had been a long time since I last watched the show, and I must admit before watching it last night, I was afraid I wouldn’t like it as much as I had before. Thankfully, my appreciation of the story and special effects in the movie have not diminished, but grown. There are some issues, such as the men’s treatment of the female character, Altaira, but on the whole, it’s story still holds up.

I won’t get into the story itself, which is fun and thought-provoking. I just don’t think my description actually will ever be able to do¬†Forbidden Planet’s storyline any kind of justice. I will say the story involves a ship’s captain (any “Airplane!” and “Naked Gun” aficionados might appreciate him), a mysterious professor, an awesome robot, an alien planet, a beautiful woman, and a deadly monster. You could read summaries about the movie on various sites, but most won’t give readers an accurate “feel” of the story either.

I do urge you to watch it–the movie’s special effects, art, costumes, and models come together as an interesting snapshot of the future of space and technology in the 1950’s.

While the special effects are “quaint” by the standards of today’s blockbusters, they were probably top of the line back in the 1950’s (I don’t know for sure, I wasn’t there). The panoramas of the planet, the blaster fire, and the ship, are, instead of mind-blowing, now quite “pretty” per my wife. There is an art involved in the effects, because there were artists involved with the effects back then–apparently drawing them on the celluloid world frame by frame.

But what I like most of all, aside from the story, are the structures. The professor’s home and office are an homage to “mid-century modern” in the architecture, the furnishings, and the decorations. That was what the future would be like, according to certain folks in the 1950’s, and you can seem some glimpses of this future in certain neighborhoods in built during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s in the United States.

The captain’s ship and appearances of technology are all part of a recipe to make a child excited about exploring the galaxy. The saucer-shape of the starship, stasis beams used during hyperdrive activity, blasters, and glass globes and equipment whose purpose aren’t quite defined, but just look “futurey” are part of the inspiration. Then there are passenger cars able to go hundreds of miles an hour and the ability for building whatever is required, using molecular technology. The future was exciting story of possibility to kids, and a few adults.

 

I think Walt Disney and his architects agreed with this and maybe took some elements in the movie as their inspiration for their parks. For anyone who has ever wandered Disneyland’s and Disney World’s old “Tomorrowland”(before significant teardowns and restructuring), and EPCOT Center, there were elements used in the parks that are quite similar to the structures and technology used in Forbidden Planet. I don’t think it was a case of ripping off the movie, but more of a consensus of what the future in 1950’s America was going to be.

Because I am a fan of the design and architecture of “mid-century modern,” it’s a future I certainly wouldn’t hesitate moving towards.

The other vision involves all the fun ways LEGO tried to bring their vision of space, particularly NASA’s space vehicles, to children. Brickset.com does a great job in this post going through the different kits LEGO brought out. Again, as a child, I would have been ecstatic to build my own Saturn rocket on a launch pad, not matter how janky it looked. The imagination filled in whatever shortcomings reality had.

The beauty about the LEGO kits are that kids could deviate and build slightly different versions of space vehicles and probes. It didn’t matter, so long as the child remained inspired and excited enough to continue their exploration of our history and possible future for going out in the Universe.

Whether from LEGO or from MGM, each different vision served different markets and came from different companies. But b0th contain very optimistic messages about man’s place in the galaxy. Sure, these are toys and science fiction movies we’re talking about. However, they both encompass visions that fascinate and maybe motivate a few of us. It’s definitely fun just to go back, even if only for a few hours, and explore the universe according to the 1950’s.

If you have access to Amazon, Forbidden Planet is there for you, if you’re interested. I search Netflix with no success. Or go to one of your local DVD dumping grounds–they will likely have a copy available.

 

Blue Origin’s In-flight Escape Test

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No, it’s not the New Shepard, but a Little Joe. Picture courtesy of NASA.

It’s not every day that you see a rocket come apart in mid-air, fire coming from each part, and then have both parts come back to Earth, safely. But that’s just what Blue Origin did today during their in-flight escape test of the New Shepard rocket and capsule. When the smoke and dust cleared, the New Shepard booster was standing on the pad again, just as it had done four times before.

And of course the capsule parachuted safely nearby. While Blue Origin hasn’t really released any new information, the video narrator might have mentioned the booster had gone past 248,000 feet (75.5 km or nearly 47 miles) to apogee, before coming back. Honestly, that may be all you wish to know, and you can go see this morning’s test right here: https://www.blueorigin.com/#youtubebqUIX3Z4r3k.

Don’t let the 1 hour and 1 minute video deter you. There was a combined hold/count reset of about 30 minutes. But if you want to go straight to the action go to the 50 minute mark and enjoy the show.

However, for you space-history buffs, Blue Origin mentions the Little Joe II rocket test NASA conducted in January 1966. You can see a short bit of the test’s footage at the 3:18 mark in the video. It’s relevant to Blue Origin in that the test was also an in-flight rocket test crucial for making sure the Apollo escape system worked. I actually wrote about the Little Joe II test back in January this year for the Space Foundation’s “Space Watch,” linking the test to other rocket escape systems, including Russian ones. You can read about the history here: Testing the Lifeboat.

One other bit of trivia about Little Joe. Unless you’re a craps fan, you may not know the name is related to a specific thrown dice configuration in the game of craps. Specifically, each dice must show a two. If you put both of those two dice together, then that’s what the bottom of the Little Joe rocket looked like with nozzles in place in the original drawings for it. You can read a bit about it at the Boeing history site (it was originally build by North American Aviation): http://www.boeing.com/history/products/little-joe-launch-vehicle.page. Another story about why it was called Little Joe is on a NASA site, here: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/researchernews/rn_littlejoe.html. Something to do with the success of rolling a “Little Joe” being related the way the rocket was built.

 

Another “Space Watch” article…

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“Ride ’em cowboy”–a bit of encouragement Pete Conrad gives to Richard Gordon while straddling the spacecraft. Image from NASA.

While I’ve been lying low content-wise on the site here, I’ve been staying pretty busy at work. One of the many fun things I get to do is to look up historic events leading up to the Apollo moon missions, and then write a little bit about the event for the Space Foundation’s “Space Watch” monthly newsletter.

In this particular “Space Watch” article, titled Gordon’s Orbital Garbage Disposal and Rocket Herding Service,” I try to describe the activities of two brave astronauts during a Gemini mission fifty years ago. What they did gives the category of “space operations” an entirely different meaning, and shows just what kind of interesting and courageous explorers they were.

While many NASA fans seem to attribute the administration’s achievements to the idea of NASA itself, I’ve always felt it was the people within, such as Gordon and Conrad in this story, who really moved the agency forward toward the lunar missions and subsequent successes. This is not to downplay the mission controllers, engineers, and others who all played their part. Indeed, it’s the team, the people, who figure out how to overcome challenges, and then move ahead. But the astronauts in particular put their lives on the line during space missions. Whether it’s NASA, or in the future, one particular company or other that starts regular manned flights to space, the professionals called astronauts will still be the ones trading the ability to “fly” in space with the possibility of real, deathly, consequences.

With these thoughts in mind, I hope you enjoy Gordon’s Orbital Garbage Disposal and Rocket Herding Service.”

SmallSat 2016

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SDL sure knows how to treat their guests. They hosted a social “Luau” dinner on the first night there. I made sure I ran every night, to work off the extra calories…

This last week my company sent me to do some hob-nobbing and research work at Space Dynamics Laboratory’s Small Satellite (SmallSat) conference for 2016. It’s an annual event the company hosts, going on thirty years now.

For those who don’t know what a small satellite is, there are a few different definitions, but let’s just say the satellite probably should be 500 kg (1100 lbs) or less. Some might even say 100 kg (220 lbs) or less. And because we work in a field of engineers and scientists, there are sub-categories of small satellites, such as nano, mini, micro–you get the idea. If you can’t measure it and categorize it, you can’t obsess about it, right? You’ve probably seen a small satellite and not known it if you’ve been following Planet’s or Terra Bella’s activities. Cubesats fall under the smallsat definition.

So small satellites are the focus of SmallSat. Entrepreneurs, government organizations, universities, and various companies from varying backgrounds get together to show what they can do, have done, and will do with the small satellite platforms. Technical sessions are running pretty much from 0800 to 1800, with people presenting, ideally, in 15 minute presentations. So people like me, research analysts, show up, hoovering up whatever data and information we can find about this industry. Blogs and space-centric news organizations show up for their stories. And there’s a lot for everyone to talk about. I won’t get into specifics, as that is what my ‘real-life’ job is for. If you want to find out that information, you’ll have to go to the Space Foundation’s Space Report Online.

I’ve been to this event twice before, both of those times as an employee of SDL. The difference between those times and the conference this year is striking, particularly the level of energy and activities going on in the small satellite community. Both were very high this year. The support industries for small satellites seemed quite excited about field products for small satellites, and seem to think there’s going to be a lot of growth in this field. The small satellite builders, both new and old, seem to be receiving lots of orders and interest for their products. Operations services indicated growth in telemetry and data requirements. The activities, services, and experiments conducted by, and proposed for, small satellites, seems to be limited only by the imagination (and limited launch opportunities–hopefully that’s fixed soon).

To my eyes, there appears to be a lot of opportunity here. There are those that moan we’ve seen this before, and that we’re in a bubble. But the circumstances propelling the interest and growth in small satellites are different–very different. And if it’s a bubble, is that really a bad thing? Even with the collapse of the internet bubble, I think things are better today overall than they were at the height of that bubble. And we’re not in a bubble yet. But it will happen eventually, as “irrational exuberance” takes hold in this industry too.

If I were in my twenties today, and interested in space, I’d be working hard on concepts to get my own start-up going, or working in a start-up to get the needed experience, and eventually move on. None of this going to NASA or the USAF for space operations nonsense. Those organizations have very focused missions, but as I’ve noted before, small satellites seem to bring out the imagination and healthy risk-taking of motivated individuals.

But as it is, I’m having tremendous fun learning from the very energized small satellite sector, chewing on the information, and writing about it. I’m thankful SmallSat exists to bring not just national, but international focus and energy together, to learn more, and for conference participants to strut their stuff. If you’re motivated enough, try to get a paper or two in.

 

Your Comrade Through Space History

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Take a walk through history. Image from Roscosmos.

A friend of mine passed along this link today: http://inspacewetrust.org/en/. Before you click on it, you should have some time on your hands. This is an animated walk through history, thanks to Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. It’s a very dynamic and cool way to present some of the more important historic bits in space history.

Initially, there’s a Russian space history focus. But as the little space traveller goes along, more international missions get discovered. Really, that site is all this short blurb of a post is about, but maybe it will help make the mid-week bearable for some of you.

If you are Russian, learning Russian, or have Russian friends, you can go directly to: http://inspacewetrust.org/. Either site is pretty nifty, maybe proving that it doesn’t matter the language–space is just fun.

P.S.: Don’t forget to move the mouse around on the initial load screen. The spacewalking cosmonaut is more than a pretty picture.