A Trip Down Memory Lane to a Galaxy Far, Far Away

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I don’t know if it was the Force, but something definitely awakened this past week when I FINALLY went to see the latest Star Wars episode, “The Force Awakens.” I’ve been a Star Wars fan since seeing the very first one back in May of 1977. I find it incredibly amusing that George Lucas was worried that it would be a flop and kept a low profile for its release, fearing humiliation if it did. Right. A flop that has spanned four generations, at least in my family.

I saw this latest one with my 42 year old daughter, who was three years old when the first one came out. Way back then, I was 29. Now she could take her three year old grandson to see it. That does something to me on so many levels that I’m not sure I can even describe it.

First of all, on an intellectual level, I marvel at anything that maintains its popularity for that long. Of course if you like old movies, you can find them, whether it’s on Netflix, the cheap video bin at Walmart or Turner Classic Movies. But few single titles can sustain that kind of audience. The only one I can think of that might even begin to compete would be “Gone With the Wind” which my mother saw when it was released in the 30s, then I enjoyed and subsequently my children. But it comes and goes, waning and waxing in popularity, whereas Star Wars has NEVER being invisible. In 39 years. Give that some thought.

I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, but I seriously wonder if I’d be writing science fiction if it weren’t for Star Wars. My initial idea for “Beyond the Hidden Sky” came from the opening scenes of that first flick, where R2D2 and C3PO blast off in an escape pod. The first step toward any story is “What if?” and for me that comprised “What if a rebellious teen-aged girl moving from one planet to another with her family got blasted off accidentally in an escape pod?” The result of that premise launched my Star Trails Tetralogy of four novels and a companion volume which number over 1500 pages. I know other authors similarly inspired.

I really enjoyed this latest episode, which was reminiscent in style and energy to the original trilogy. I really liked the new characters, at least the good guys, particularly Rey and Finn. My all-time favorite from the series was “The Empire Strikes Back” and, quite honestly, I wasn’t quite as enchanted by the more recent three. “The Phantom Menace” put me to sleep, actually, and the two after that were so-so, in my opinion. But this latest one resonated, right from the blasting of that iconic theme introducing the now-classic opening crawl. Instantaneously, I was back in 1977.

My eyes tend to water in places like the grocery store and Walmart, plus it’s allergy season here in Central Texas, so it may have only been that effect, which had me wiping my eyes from that point on. I’ve mentioned in a previous blog (see “RIP Columbia: Picking up the Pieces”) how memories are stored in both your head and heart with those that reside in the latter coming back full-force, replete with a physical reaction, when stimulated. Clearly, that’s where my memory of Star Wars resides.

That feeling of being taken back in time, coupled with lightspeed flashes of all that has transpired in my life since 1977, had a profound effect.

Not to digress, though I tend to do that a lot, but I remember reading about a study several years ago where they investigated the effects, if any, on rest home residents when they were exposed to music that was popular when they were young. Interestingly enough, the oldsters figuratively got younger! They acted younger and the physiological indicators such as blood pressure and such improved as well. It’s like when all those old feelings come back, your body responds and reverts to that place in space and time.

Time certainly is an illusion, something I may understand slightly better that some folks since I have a physics degree. I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun playing with such possibilities in my novels. But here on planet Earth, so far we haven’t conquered time. I may have been 29 when Star Wars was first released, but now I’m a great-grandmother. Believe me, I don’t feel that old, and I certainly didn’t feel that old watching Episode VII earlier this week.

At least I didn’t until Han and Leia came on screen. Seeing them OLD reminded me that I, too, was OLD! How could that be? I was jolted back to the present and that rush of nostalgia slammed through me like decelerating from lightspeed. I tend to be pretty hard on myself, expecting to look and have the energy I did when I was say, well, to be reasonable here, even 50. After all, I don’t feel that old inside my head. But I am. I look it, no matter how much I try to deny it, and my body feels it, particularly my right knee which functions similar to an odometer.

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Yes, something happened when I saw Han and Leia in all their 60s glory. Time marches on and waits for no one.

Will this movie have a similarly profound effect on me like the first one? Maybe. It’s made me acutely aware that time is not standing still. If there’s anything I want to do before I die, then I’d better figure out what that is and get to it. I’ve already been reminded of that a few times recently when contemporaries of mine have passed on, which is starting to happen with increasing frequency. It’s time to forget about the things I didn’t do in the past 39 years and concentrate on what I want (or could) to accomplish in the years I have left.

They say that your life flashes before your mind’s eye when you die. Perhaps compressing 39 years into a nanosecond was a freebie from the Universe, reminding me that time, indeed, does not stand still. I remember a similar feeling the first time I heard “Sunrise, Sunset”, that sentimental song from “Fiddler on the Roof,” back when my children were still young. Now they’re all grown and even their children are grown or will be soon. It’s incomprehensible that I have a grandson in the U.S. Marines with two others married and having children of their own.

buellerquotePerhaps Ferris Bueller said it best when he declared “Time moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” That was in 1986, a mere 30 years ago. Matthew Broderick is no spring chicken these days, either.

OMG, where has all that time gone?

 

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Challenges of Space Exploration: A NASA Insider’s View of “The Martian” (Movie Version)

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[Spoiler Alert: This constitutes one massive spoiler if you haven’t already seen the movie. I comment on specific situations depicted onscreen based on my experience working as a NASA contractor for over 20 years. So if you’re even slower to see movies than I am, are planning to see it, and prefer to thoroughly enjoy the suspense, then bookmark this blog and read it later.]

First of all, I want to say I thoroughly enjoyed this movie which I finally saw over the holidays while visiting family. My intent here is not to criticize since I believe it was exceptionally well done. It employed a lot of fascinating details, ingenuity and great suspense throughout. Fortunately, Hollywood has come a long, long way depicting NASA-related movies since the movie, Armageddon, which I considered a complete debacle as far as the technical details were concerned.

I suppose being a physicist and geek who worked for NASA as a contractor from 1988 – 2009 are what drive me to pick at technical details, perhaps as a matter of ego to show my knowledge. Whatever it is, I can’t help it, and to me such details are interesting while most normal people would simply enjoy the movie for what it is and give me one of those looks that screams, “What’s your problem, Bozo?” I’ve mellowed on this a bit myself, but I still maintain that a certain level of scientific accuracy is important. But I’m a geek, so what do I know other than it was science fiction that inspired me to become a geek in the first place? Does it really matter if it’s factual? Probably not.

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Anyway, “The Martian” is based on the book of the same name by Andy Weir, whom you can learn more about on his Amazon Author page. There’s also an interesting forum on Amazon where various readers have commented on the technical accuracy of the story (or lack thereof), which of course appealed to my inner geek. Having seen and enjoyed the movie, I plan to read the book. I assume that the author did a lot of research putting this story together and can thus take credit for the fact the movie was realistic enough to be credible and even admired by someone like myself. Based on my experience, here are a few comments.

1. My first job with NASA was in the Life Sciences Division at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Part of their purview was the well-being of the astronauts. The majority of their experiments conducted on the space shuttle and International Space Station were directed primarily at how exposure to microgravity, increased radiation, close quarters and isolation affected an astronaut’s mind and body. Colonization of distant worlds such as Mars has been a topic of NASA research for many years, including what crops would grow and thrive in conditions different from Earth. Needless to say, being self-sufficient is the ultimate goal.

That said, I suspect that if we had an outpost on Mars that by that time we’d know enough about such things as potential crops that there would have been more for the story’s hero, Mark Watney, to work with besides potatoes which were intended to be consumed as food. I’m reasonably sure that part of the mission would entail planting a variety of things, perhaps for the benefit of the next crew.

Which brings me to my next comment, the length of the movie’s mission being 60 days.

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2. It takes a long time to get to Mars, depending on the available propulsion technology, but let’s just say using currently known or at least acknowledged sources, it’s going to be around a year or more. I suppose for the very first mission to the Red Planet that a duration of two months is possible, but I suspect that it would be longer. I also suspect that the habitation module constructed would be one that would be designed to be permanent, part of an elaborate colonization plan and not a primitive throwaway. Given the sophistication of their space vehicle, Hermes, which even had sectors that rotated to create artificial gravity, it’s more likely that part of that spacecraft would have constituted their living quarters and been left behind when their mission ended. This would have lightened the return load as well.

3. I thoroughly enjoyed the connections to previous Mars missions and how they provided resources for Mark to contact NASA. Whether that could actually be achieved I don’t know, but for me it was feasible and clever enough that I had no problem with it.  If you’re not at least partly awed by these previous accomplishments that comprise sending and then actually controlling a vehicle on another planet, then you simply don’t understand what it entails.

marsrover4. NASA has definitely been known to blow up rockets, not only in the early days of the initial space race with Russia to get to the Moon in the late 50s and 60s, but even more recently as many of you may recall with the Space Shuttle Challenger accident on January 28, 1986. Private rocket companies more recently are having a similar problem. Rocket fuel is highly volatile, systems complex, and problems are inevitable. Thus, when the rocket they put together in record time to send supplies blew up it wasn’t much of a stretch. Anyone who didn’t see that one coming hasn’t been paying attention to the space industry and its explosive history (pun intended).

But there’s more to it that that. Having worked in Safety and Mission Assurance for most of my years at JSC, I was privy to quite a few dirty little secrets. NASA makes every effort to identify every possible hazard and document them all in Hazard Reports. These go far beyond acknowledging the problem itself. Some are classified as Critical, i.e., could cause a problem but not a lethal one, while others are classified as Catastrophic, which entail loss of life and/or millions of dollars worth of equipment. Once hazards are identified, it’s mandatory to identify preventative controls. The severity of the consequences of failure determine how many controls need to be in place. Systems that can cause a catastrophic hazard are required to be three-fault tolerant, meaning three things need to fail before the worst case scenario can occur.

InSight in ATLO with back shell

The back shell of the InSight spacecraft is lowered onto the lander in a clean room at Lockheed Martin.

However, there are some systems that defy that level of safety via controls and are thus considered an accepted risk. For example, unless you’re a pilot you probably would never think of a “bird strike” as being in that category, but if a spacecraft on takeoff or landing strikes a bird, it can have dire consequences. Other risks are accepted for a variety of reasons, but it gets complicated so I’ll save further explanation for a future blog, such as some of those “dirty little secrets” that relate to the two space shuttle tragedies. [NOTE:–With the 30th anniversary of the Challenger accident coming up this month, you can watch for one soon.]

Back to the point of the rocket blowing up in the film, besides the inherent danger of propulsion systems in general, bypassed quality assurance inspections or those performed by over-worked technicians would increase the likelihood of problems, making that unfortunate event quite feasible.

5. The next safety-related situation would be the malfunction and subsequent explosion that destroyed Mark’s potato garden. Certainly he did some modifications beyond its original intent, but it’s still unlikely it would have been that fragile. Considering some of the nasty substances that go along on a space mission, explosions are always a possibility. This also refers back to the fact that I doubt their outpost would have been so makeshift in the first place. Mars’ thin atmosphere is not as efficient at destroying meteorites as Earth’s, plus the main asteroid belt lies between Mars and Jupiter, so they’re a bigger problem by proximity as well. I sincerely doubt that NASA would ever erect such a cheesy structure as part of a planetary outpost. This, of course, applies to the matter of the antenna being destroyed as well. Furthermore, as mentioned in the Amazon forum, the force of the Martian wind is lower, given the reduced atmospheric pressure compared to Earth’s.

6. Several of the means employed in the movie were theoretically feasible but unlikely, such as ditching the capsule nosecone and replacing it with canvas or blowing the Hermes module for some extra propulsion. A gravity assist is certainly a possibility since that technique is used routinely for interplanetary exploration missions.

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7. Lastly, I’m really skeptical about Mission Control not telling the crew earlier that Mark was alive. That just doesn’t make sense to me. However, NASA employees, no matter what rank they happen to be, are human and subject to bad judgement calls and mistakes, so it’s certainly not impossible. Subsequently, such individuals tend to quietly disappear, probably reassigned to the USA equivalent of Siberia.

In a situation like that in the movie, such a decision would undoubtedly be routed through the Astronaut Office and I suspect that the returning crew would be given that information posthaste. It’s important to know that communications between Mission Control and a manned craft are channeled through  a single source known as the Capcom, short for “capsule communicator”, a vestige derived from the early days of the space program.  This individual is traditionally an astronaut.  This person would undoubtedly be aware of the situation and thus wield considerable influence.

Not distracting the returning crew from their mission simply wasn’t sufficient rationale. Astronauts are human, too, and certainly have emotions which can drive them to do some crazy things in their private lives, but given the story’s circumstances and my experience at NASA, I really believe they’d be treated as the professionals they are and given all available information. They’d be far beyond pissed off to find out they’d been kept out of such an important loop.  Whether they’d go “rogue” or not is a possibility but doubtful without full ground support.  Spacecraft systems are beyond complex with each one having a team of experts who would assist with calculations for possible solutions.

Consider, as stated in the end of the movie credits, that it took 15,000 people to produce that movie.  Far more than that support the space program with each system component typically having a dozen or more engineers that know it inside out.  Astronauts couldn’t possibly have the necessary knowledge to make technical decisions that deviate from their training for a specific mission.

If you’re still with me at this point, thanks for listening. I really loved this movie, technical and operational flaws notwithstanding, because this is exactly the kind of film I love. My hope is that it inspires future generations, the ones who will someday walk on Mars, hopefully with a three-fault tolerant infrastructure as opposed to what astronaut Mark Watney had to deal with in “The Martian”.

You can pick up a DVD of the flick on Amazon here.

Mars Photos courtesy of NASA

 

 

“Tammy” Disappoints to the Point of Depression

I first learned that a comedy was not necessarily funny many years ago when I read William Saroyan’s novel, “The Human Comedy.” While a comedy often depicts an irreverent look at humanity which may be perceived as humorous, this is not always the case. And some things which you expect to be humorous simply aren’t. And that was my impression of the movie “Tammy” which is currently out for purchase via various cable and satellite TV providers.

To start out on a positive note I will say that the acting was excellent. Melissa McCarthy was more than convincing as Tammy; Susan Sarandon did an excellent job as Grandma and of course, Kathy Bates did her usual outstanding job as Leanor. If anything, the story was too real and too convincing as a slice of life in today’s world. Someday it may be categorized as a docu-drama depicting the culture of 2014 (or lack thereof), somewhat like “Blast from the Past” captures the 1950s. For this and its convincing content I would give it one star.

The basic story is of a young, obese young woman whose name, of course, is Tammy (McCarthy), who has had a very bad day. First, she wrecks her car, proceeds to lose her job and then, the coup de gras, she gets home early to find her husband enjoying an intimate dinner with a female neighbor. Justifiably upset, she heads to her parents’ house, who seem relatively normal, but also happen to have an extra house guest, i.e., “Grandma,” (Sarandon) who has a wad of cash and a good car so before you can say “lickity split” Grandma and Tammy head out on a road trip.

And everything goes steadily downhill from there.

I am not amused by a character who is dirty, gross, crude and disgusting besides being overtly stupid and disrespectful of everything and everyone including the law. While Tammy does do some changing throughout the course of the movie, particularly while sitting in a jail cell, if anything this movie demonstrated exactly what is wrong with the world today. This is not to say that I look down on people who work in fast-food restaurants, are grossly overweight (I’ve packed on quite a few extra pounds myself over the years) or have finally had enough and have a meltdown. I know the world is not fair and that it’s difficult to make it financially or otherwise in today’s world. The “redneck” mentality has been highly glamorized the past few years and yes, I’ve laughed at Jeff Foxworthy and various others as much as anyone else, but even rednecks usually have more dignity than shown in this film. I suspect that even the folks on Duck Dynasty would be offended.

The best part of this pitiful story is when Leanor (Bates) tells Tammy like it is: There is no free lunch and if you want to have something you have to work for it, hard. Self-pity and not caring about your appearance, language, behavior or future lead nowhere but the dead-end road found somewhere in the vicinity where this movie started.

Maybe Leanor’s message will be absorbed by those who can relate to this pitiful character or maybe it won’t. You can always hope. Personally I found this flick downright depressing as a sad commentary on at least one of the reasons why the world is in the fix it is today.

A Roughneck and a Rocket Scientist Went to a Movie…

Back in 1998 when the movie “Armageddon” first came out I went to see it with a friend who was in the oil business. I was working at NASA at the time, so we’re talking about a roughneck and a rocket scientist going to a movie, which somehow sounds like the prologue to a bad joke. While it may have been a fairly decent Bruce Willis flick, at least at the time, my friend and I did so much eye-rolling at the inaccuracies in the movie’s script that we hardly saw what was going on. Later when we were home and still ranting about how technically incorrect it was, my teenage daughter just shook her head at us.

“Mom! It’s only a movie!” she said, not understanding what all the fuss was about.

To me as well as my friend the fuss was about doing something correctly. Since we were both in technological fields we knew that was important. Do something wrong in either of our career fields and someone could die. Furthermore, with all the money spent producing movies it was nothing short of lazy to not hire a science and/or engineering consultant to get it right. Around that same time the movie “Deep Impact” came out, a Steven Spielberg movie, and to his credit, the science in that movie was accurate but apparently Robert Duvall didn’t have the drawing power of good ol’ Bruce.

My point, however, remains the same. If you’re going to do something, do it right. Seriously. Or as Yoda so eloquently put it, “Try not, do. Or do not. There is no try.”

I have wanted to be a writer since I was in elementary school. And I wanted to do it right. I wanted to write science fiction and knew that would require not only research but the background necessary to understand the principles and apply them properly. So I went back to school and got a physics degree. I thought I would know a lot more than I did by the time I graduated but I still knew a whole lot more than when I started. So many people say they stupider after going to college than before because they then realize how much there is to know about our amazing world.

After graduation I went to work in the aerospace industry, ultimately winding up at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas where I worked for over 20 years. And even after that, what I know is relatively little compared to everything that is out there.

Science is loaded with theories that make fantastic plot material. The subject of physics and how it applies to the Universe is often so weird that it actually makes the story more interesting when you tell it like it is. Like they say, truth is stranger than fiction and that certainly applies to science as much as anything. Science fiction is all about taking science to its limits and showing the effects it could have on mankind. There is nothing more exciting than that.