Monday, May 29, 2006

Mavericks Part Four: The Aughts

2000: The year we didn’t blow up!

In the next century there appeared someone who could, finally make a comic book based film that surpassed all my expectations. That man is Bryan Singer! Sure we all went to see Spiderman and the Hulk and Daredevil and Catwoman. Didn’t we? Well we all saw Spiderman. That was a pretty good film. Spiderman 2. That was a little better. But damn, what Singer did with X-Men just blew me away. He took these guys and made them more real than any character in any movie out today. Granted he had good material to draw from but the way he updated the look and storyline was brilliant. In both films he was able to build the tension a little more with subtle character twists and backgrounds that make us care for the characters in a way that we never felt for mutants before (or since!) Too bad he’s not directing the third film but he is giving Superman another shot on the big screen. So far the best thing about the new Superman previews is that he preserved the John Williams theme song. That’s a good move, Bryan.

This next guy knows how to make a movie. He took the greatest story ever told – next to the bible – and made it into the greatest movie ever filmed. Just on the strength of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson deserves to sit among the greats. It seemed like the guys came out of nowhere. His attention to detail and uncompromising faith to the source material made for a movie that could never been made at any other time, and reminded us of those large Cecil B. deMille-type epic movies with a cast of thousands. These days a cast of thousands only exists inside a computer somewhere but he made it look like they were all right there on set. In some places the effects outshined the characters and story but it was welcome and expected at that point, especially the climactic Battle of Pelennor Fields in Return of the King. He makes gigantic films that make you believe in magic and his sensitivity to the story and characters at times is his greatest strength and weakness. In his follow-up project to LOTR, King Kong he followed the same format that he used before which seemed to be his downfall. While the effects on Kong and during the fight with the T-Rexes were great the action sequences were a little shaky and predictable. The movie was long, drawn out and authentic looking. In LOTR that was a strength because the story needed that type of treatment, in Kong it held us back from seeing the monster, which is what everyone really wanted. In LOTR it held us back from seeing Frodo toss the Ring into Mt. Doom, which is what none of us really wanted. My fantasy project list for Peter Jackson: The Bible, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, History of the World Part 2.

Again this next guy probably belongs to the decade before but there is no denying this guy hit his stride on a major level in the Aughts. Robert Rodriguez delivered El Mariachi and Desperado to us and introduced the world to his twisted mind. He blended violence, revenge and style in a way that rivals the big Q. But unlike our Gen X friend, Rodriguez goes on to direct more films of style and substance. He bakes up a concoction that in my wildest dreams I couldn’t picture as a follow up to Mexican gang films, Spy Kids. If you thought these films were for kids, you’re right. But they are also for you. In kid world, there are movies made strictly for them, and then there are films that the parents can enjoy as well. Stylistically, Spy Kids is a step above, creating an amazing crayon swirl of a world. He never stops. His signature is that if it seems unbelievable and cool, then he can make it happen. He adapted Sin City to the screen, actually making you think that you’ve delved into the pages of a comic book in a way that Ang Lee’s Hulk never could achieve with it’s flying panels. I actually had to scrub my eyeballs my Disney collection to keep from killing myself in agony and despair after watching Sin City. With that movie he took The Crow to the bottom floor, and that’s a good thing.

I’m sure I missed a few directors along the way but as for visibility and style these guys are on top of the world. If you can forget all the fluff that comes in between the mavericks you might begin to respect Hollywood again. Almost.


Saturday, May 27, 2006

Mavericks Part Three: The Nineties

Does this guy belong to the Eighties or the Nineties? No one knows because he seems to exist in a world of his own. His style is immediately recognizable, his stories twisted and dark, his characters, characters, his art direction second to none. Tim Burton has created a look and feel for his films that you can’t miss. His flourished are curled, his shadows cross-hatched and his textures, textured. Beginning with Beetle Juice we see Tim Burton’s unique vision come to life. Who would’ve thunk that Michael Keaton, that zany guy would also make a perfect Batman? And that Tim Burton’s vision of the world would perfectly fit the Dark Knight Detective. In Edward Scissorhands, he practically rewrites the fairy tale. Then, Disney Studios let him go wild. A good thing too because the genius work, Nightmare Before Christmas was the result. I was floored seeing this. He also has his go to actors who trust him implicitly like Michael Keaton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Good thing too because if they didn’t trust him some of his hits would never have been as successful. Like every director on this list, his hits and flops. This guy’s record is littered with both, but when he hits he hits big. Somehow he gets the Hollywood studios to go along with him.

If the names Zed, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny mean nothing to you then how about, Vinnie Vega and Jules? No? Well then you missed out on the movie event of the Nineties, if not the Century. Like the music group, Nirvana, Pulp Fiction and its director Quentin Tarantino practically remade the tone, look and feel of movies all the while reviving the old girl. Quentin’s dialogue, referential humor and imagery and brutal no-apologies violence infected the movie public. Along with his unique story telling style which jumbled the story up so much that the intertwined subplots only made sense when it was all over and you talked about it over a cup of coffee at a diner with your buddies while planning to make a version of your own. That’s just what happened throughout the 1990s when independent film meant plots that were esoteric, stories about people who occupy the corners of attics pulled from the Seventies and violence to the innocent and guilty alike. Though he’s only made a handful of films his fingerprints are all over his inspirations and imitators, not all of them bad.

If you borrow your story elements from just about every comic book and science fiction staple from all times and then borrow the look and feel of all of the movies mentioned above, have you created something new? I don’t know. I have a hard time with the Matrix Trilogy. Not because the special effects were first rate and blended perfectly with the storyline. Not because Mr. Reeve is my least favorite actor of all time. Not because I heard on of the Wichowski brothers had a sex change. No. Alone those things would make me not want to put this movie on my list. There is something in the way they used the ingredients to whip up a concoction that, while uneven, still managed to impress me and win an Academy Award for Special Effects along the way. It’s like the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling may have or may not have intentionally borrowed all her elements from the great books that came before, or she may have been etherally influenced by them. Like being born into a world where you can’t help but think all clocks are digital and all phones portable, is it your fault that the clichés are clichés for a reason?

Honerable mention: Meet Tim Burton’s less prolific and less well known brother. As Goth goes, Alex Proyas has it covered. If you haven’t seen The Crow, you haven’t seen The Crow. Not only does it have a creepy storyline surrounding the real actor, Brandon Lee, but the movie’s pretty creepy too. It helped many NIN fans embrace their inner leather-bound ids on Halloween and look cool to the chicks doing it. Not only is the story, plot, look, feel and characters cool but the soundtrack itself could get you into the Goth hall of fame. I don’t know anyone who didn’t have a copy of this soundtrack in constant rotation circa 1994. Then he made Dark City. It’s the city the Crow inhabited but didn’t know it. This is a sci-fi masterpiece and probably one you never saw. If you did, feel lucky. If not go to your Netflix queue and queue it up! I, Robot was a good film and it had some of the signature urban misery of The Crow and Dark City but it just missed the mark because he succumbed to formula.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Mavericks Part Two: The Eighties

In the Eighties we had a new resurgence of these mavericks. Not exactly the same but they did bring a different point of view to the screen.

Oliver Stone came at us with his post 1960s, Vietnam era disillusionment and brought great, if controversial films. I remember watching Platoon as a teen with my father. He never served but he has always felt a great respect for the military and of course that era evokes strong personal memories in anyone who was alive at the time. Historically fifteen year olds have very little empathy and understanding for others especially ancient history like the Vietnam War. Walking out of the theater that day was unlike any I’ve ever experience since or before. It was silent. So talking about how cool so-and-so was or how sad the story was or even how controversial. Everyone walked out silent, even my father. At the time I remember feeling uncomfortable at his silence, now I have only respect. He followed that movie with controversial hits like Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK and Natural Born Killers, all movies that make my personal Top 100 list. Not everything he did was gold (have you seen Alexander?) but he’s a maverick of the time.

Also, from the most unsuspecting source came a director who to this day brings quality films: Opie! Or as we knew him: Richie Cuttingham. Or the name some in the Academy know him: Ron Howard. No director to my knowledge has made a jump from child actor to major movie director with a real passion and heart like this guy. You cannot in any way not like this guy. He survived the dark pit that so many child actors fell into to emerge as even more successful than ever. He shifts between comedy and drama so easily that you might never think his movies are made by the same man. He may not have that signature style that other directors bring to their films but that is probably a good thing. Every movie he does is from the heart. If you’re playing Six-Degrees of Separation then Ron Howard starred in American Graffiti, written and directed by George Lucas and co-starring Harrison Ford and Richard Dryfuss who also starred in Jaws directed by Steven Spielberg.

Beethoven (the dog movie), Home Alone, Christmas Vacation, Uncle Buck, She’s Having a Baby, Planes Trains and Automobiles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Mr. Mom, Class Reunion. What do all of these movies have in common? Two words: John Hughes. Don’t know him, you should. If you are a Generation Xer then he helped define your generation with dramatic comedies, zany comedies, melodramatic comedy and just plain comedy. If you’re like me you know all the key lines from almost everyone of the movies listed above. They made you laugh, cry and feel good to be a smart-ass teenager in tapered leg jeans and a dollop of mousse. Besides, John Hughes movies single-handedly jump-started the careers of the so-called Brat Pack actors in the Eighties.

James Cameron. If there was ever a man who made me cry it was James Cameron. Remember that scene when the ship went down and that woman was trapped in it? Then the Marines she was traveling with encountered Aliens? Tears. How about the one where that girl looses her lover to forces beyond either of their control? Despite the fact they had just met they fell deeply in love, soul mates destined to meet. Then that big robot came and smashed their windshield? And he was all metal inside and wouldn’t quit coming and coming after them? My heart aches for young love. Then the one where that couple goes on the boat and find true love again after loosing almost everything that they had? In the end they found alien life underwater that saved them from certain death! Yes. Aliens, Terminator, The Abyss. I remember those films well. They were some of the best sci-fi produced in the 1980s. They were relentless and well ahead of their time in Special Effects. They were inventive in their storytelling. He directed the crap out of those films. Then he had to ruin it by coming up with a movie that I can’t stop watching because the Special Effects are the best I’ve ever seen and the story, though dramatic and full of sappy love lines, Not only that he pretty much captured the title of most successful box office flick of ALL TIME! He did what those who came before him have been trying to do forever: Make a movie that both men and women can find something so intriguing they can’t take their eyes off of it and want to go back to again and again. For me it was an hour or so of watching the Titanic sink. Then there was that brief, little moment of pure emotion, Kate Winslet’s breasts.

“You wanna get outa here,” Max said. “You talk to me.” Thus were spoken the words of a man whom all in the post apocalypse looked to as savior: Mad Max. This guy went on to make Babe but before that he single-handedly inspired such poor imitations like Waterworld, and the pretty cool but still cheesy music video “Wild Boys” by Duran Duran, which was featured in a James Bond film. George Miller went on to direct other films besides Mad Max and Babe but really, who cares? The post apocalyptic vision of the future in Mad Max was only surpassed by the even scarier post apocalyptic future of The Road Warrior. Mad Max & The Road Warrior cannot be compared to anything else in style. Mad Max III: Beyond Thunderdome was the movie that would have been made anyway if Mad Max and Road Warrior weren’t, meaning it was one of the best imitators of itself I’ve ever seen.

Time travel was never as fun as when Marty McFly did it. The Back to the Future trilogy was one of the favorites of the eighties. It dealt with the paradox of going back in time and having your own mother want to make out with you in 1955. Technically since in 1955 you’re not born yet, she’s not your mother so it’s not like you’re really having an affair with you mother but despite the time paradox, it’s still plain creepy. Then in a key marketing move of the decade, Robert Zemekis made a movie so long that the second half became its own sequel. Now that’s a science fiction story all on its own. Robert Zemekis could have stopped there but he didn’t. He went on to make Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, one of my all time favorite films. In another coup of genre movie making Zemekis made a film that combine not only real actors with cartoon characters. That’s not the most amazing part. He made a movie with real characters interacting realistically with Disney AND Warner Brothers characters, my goodness that must have cost a small fortune. Not only that, Zemekis is personally responsible for hundreds of male viewers having to explain why a cartoon vixen gives them a Woody, Woodpecker, that is. Then to top it all off, the guy goes and makes one of my favorite science fiction books by great Carl Sagan into a pretty good movie with Contact.

Honorable mention must go to Ridley Scott for Blade Runner because that film has equally influenced the look of sci-fi that came after it. You have to see its affect on George Lucas’ Star Wars Prequels, The Fifth Element, and just about every futuristic movie in an urban setting. Also, the 1979 film classic sci-fi/horror flick, Alien. It took the idea of truckers and put them in space and made the “used universe” that George Lucas invented in Star Wars, dirtier and more realistic. Gritty Realism in genre film = Ridley Scott.

Also if I’m going to make a category for honorable mentions, then I have to mention John Carpenter if for nothing else than a great character like Snake Plissken and a great title like Escape From New York. That alone could get him the mention but then combine The Thing, Starman and Halloween and you’ve got yourself a winner. This guy is all over the place but how many directors get their name in front of just about every movie they ever direct. It’s generally called John Carpenter’s The Thing, or John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. It is not calle Steven Speilberg’s Jaws! 1980s sci-fi would not be the same without the dark vision of John Carpenter. Oh, yeas, did I forget to mention the movie with two of the most awesome gems of Eighties cinema: John Carpenter’s They Live! Who could forget the full five minute twenty second fight scene between Roddy Piper and Keith David. It has got to be the longest fight between two straight men over a pair of sunglasses ever in life or on film. Then there’s the most narly line every to be delivered on screen: “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubble gum.”

There’s more but we’re “Outta Time” and the Nineties are coming to save the day.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Mavericks Part One: The Seventies

Is there something in the genes of mankind that forgoes the type of entertainment that makes you think over the kind that lets you gel into the seat while the formula plays itself out on the screen? There must be if you track the evidence by the type of movies Hollywood regurgitates year after year.

Though this is probably not a new concept, just one that is a little more prevalent nowadays than before, every decade has its mavericks who redefine what it means to make popular films. Sometimes they succeed in raising the bar, sometimes they just add a little to the equation. These filmmakers do not just spit out fluff for public consumption like gallons of frothy white suds. Sometimes it is a director or writer who is a lone wolf among Hollywood clones.

In the early seventies we had the breakout of some of the most influential directors to come along in the history of filmmaking. These guys single-handedly remade Hollywood and American movie going experience in a few short years. What they did has been summarily corrupted in recent years but even the best of intentions can go awry. If you look at their initial hits you can see the greatness and the style come through. Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg all turned the world on its head with their unique visions and large egos allowing them to buck the system and remake filmmaking not because it needed to be remade but because of their love for the art itself. Unfortunately people age. These guys went from the men who made classics like Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, The Outsiders, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and American Graffiti to the men who made War of the Worlds and The Phantom Menace, not to mention Howard the Duck!

Look at their earlier films. They define American Movies. Very few people out there, especially genre film lovers, can say they haven’t seen and loved each of those films. What happened? Except for Spielberg, who has enjoyed more consistent success over the years (I mean c’mon, everyone makes a clunker now and then,) these guys have not been spectacular. Even Spielberg has been victim to his own sense of revisionism and the Special Edition disk of ET was toned down by digitally removing the guns from the Federal Agent’s hands. Forgive them. In the 1970s they were young and full of piss and vinegar. Now they are older, wealthier and have their children to think about. Don’t we all go a little soft when we get older? Don’t we all look back to out youth and cringe a little at the things we said and did? These guys have their youthful anxiety out there for the entire world to see! I can’t blame George Lucas for wanting to go back and tweak his masterpiece. As he and others have said for many years: A great work is never finished it is merely abandoned.

Of course no one can mention the 1970s without paying homage to a few directors who, though they did not produce strictly genre films, flirted with the concept. Woody Allen movies have always had some fantastical element. He also made one of the best Science Fiction films of the 20th Century, Sleeper. If you’ve never seen it, watch it, it’s a good one.

While we’re on comedy, Mel Brooks can’t miss. History of the World and Spaceballs both were satires of genre movies and genre movies in their own right. If you can’t laugh at yourself then Mel Brooks proves that someone else will laugh at you anyway. The man is nuts: N-V-T-S, nuts!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Babylon 5: On Religion

After watching two seasons of B5, I have noticed one thing: A very purposeful and intentional focus on religion. The characters all seem to be motivated by issues that are much larger than themselves. For many of these characters religion is either a driving force behind their motives or they guide their decisions by their religious background, for better or for worse.

Most obvious is the Minbari civilization seem to be the most advanced society of the younger races. Their culture is divided into three distinct castes of which the religious caste is one. The castes act as a check and balance between them. In fact one of the major plot points in B5 is that the religious caste demanded that the Warriors surrender to the Earthers on the brink of victory based on the belief in the eternal soul. The Minbari discovered that the Human souls and Minbari souls were related. Though they do not have a central god figure-they believe the entire universe is sentient-Valen is a figure from their religious past, a prophet who helped save the Minbari from the Shadows and rebuilt their society, instituting the Gray Council.

The Narn have various religions but G’Kar the main character represented from the Narn frequently calling on or reading from holy Book of G'Quan. The deep patience and ability to suffer greatly all the while quietly building strength and resistance probably comes from their religious beliefs.

Though the Centari are thought to resemble the Napoleonic Era in their costuming and design their society is most akin to the Roman Empire with a Manifest Destiny to rule and conquor. In several episodes Londo celebrates the main religion of his world but mostly by drinking heavily. There seems to be no greater thing to the Centari than military rule and their family clans. In a unique way it may have been revealed that the Centrai have no true religious soul when Kosh revealed himself to the populance saving John Sheridan’s life all the races saw a prophet or angelic symbol of their world’s religion except Londo who admitted he saw nothing. This was a very telling line. Do the Cebtari have no true religion or were they not favored enough by the Vorlons to visit them in the fashion of their religious figures?

The Vorlon place is confusing. It seems so far that they are a very old race, one of the First Ones along with the Shadows. They stayed behind when the First Ones left the galaxy to help the younger races evolve. When they appeared to the other races their visage was so beautiful that each race worshipped them as gods. It is not clear at this point if it is the reason for religion or if the Vorlons only closely resemble angelic and godlike figures across the cultures of the galaxy. Their forms seem to be pure glowing energy able to take many forms and their technology is far in advance of anything the inhabitants of the B5 galaxy have being organic in nature.

Humans have the most diverse religious beliefs in the show. This is evidenced in an episode from Season 1 Parliament of Dreams. In that show Jeffrey Sinclair shows that Earth has many varied religions and that none is dominate for our world. This may be why Earth is seen as the crux point for all races and the co-supporter of B5, because it is a very diverse planet with many different cultures.

One of the most intreiging things about the show is how integrated religious ideas and characters are interwoven intot he plot. Religion both moves along and helps in B5’s plot. In one episode, Susan Ivonova must face her father’s death by sitting shiva, a Jewish ritual of honoring the dead. In another a group of monks come on board the station seeking God in all the many alien races. And of course the as-yet unresolved plot point where Kosh is shown to be interpreted by all the alien races as a prophet from their individual religious belief systems. This moral sensitivity is a basis for the entire show as many of the characters are constantly faced with problems and conflicts that seem large and consequential to the future of all races in the galaxy. It seems to me that J. Michael Straczynski wanted to explore all sides of culture from moral issues, to pilotical and militaristic ones on both galactic and personal levels.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Science Fiction Hall of Fame

On June 16th, Master of Ceremonies, Neil Gaiman, will induct George Lucas, Anne McCaffrey, Frank Herbert and Frank Kelly Freas into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle.

Neil Gaiman is probably best known for his Sandman series of comics that inspired Goths everywhere to pick up comic books, t-shirts and other paraphernalia. The series, published by DC Comics started as a cult book that exploded by the time it ended. He is also author of novels such as American Gods and the children’s story Coralline. Two of his books are currently in pre-production for movie versions.

George Lucas has influenced almost every movie made since he became a filmmaker back in the early Seventies. Even with films such as American Graffiti, Lucas has been changing the way stories are told and the technical aspects of filmmaking. Most famous for his Star Wars series, which has continued to push the limits of filmmaking from stop motion to digital animation. He was also co-producer and co-writer of the Indiana Jones series of films. He single-handedly made the career of Harrison Ford by placing him in many of his films. Along with maverick filmmakers of the 1970s like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman, George Lucas breathed life into an ailing and stagnant industry. Some may argue that the blockbuster was invented with films like Jaws and Star Wars and that the industry has suffered since with ever increasing fluff produced trying to capture the bang-whiz of those films but the intention at the time was to make really good films. The Star Wars films (yes, even the prequels) are probably the biggest and most expensive independent films ever produced. If there is one thing that George Lucas has, it’s vision. His “Empire” has expanded beyond movies to all types of merchandising. Many a kid, on Christmas Eve in the late Seventies and Early Eighties went to bed dreaming that the next morning there were Star Wars Figures waiting to be opened. He inspired a generation and changed the way movies were made – for better or worse. Of course we can all forgive him for Howard The Duck, right?

Frank Herbert wrote the first Dune book in the 1960s and it is fitting that he and George Lucas are inducted in the same year. Many have commented on how Dune is an influence on the cinematic space opera from the desert planet of Arrakis inspiring Tatooine to the Bene Gesserit influencing the Jedi. Herbert’s vision of a future world dependant on Spice for youthfulness and interstellar travel where political and religious groups vie for control delves into the most important human themes of politics, religion and survival. The Dune series spanned thousands of years in the story and decades in the telling. Comparable to Tolkien in his detail and realistic depiction of the world he created, Herbert surpasses what most writers working today can achieve in drama, emotion and braiding of plot and subplot. His characters weave through and around each other with clear motives and hidden agendas. What stands out most of all is that all his characters seem so human. This explains why each generation rediscovers the Dune saga through books and movies. When Herbert passed, the mantel of telling the tales passed to his son who continues to write in his father’s memory from notes he left behind.

Anne McCaffrey wrote the Dragonriders of Pern series and became the first woman to win a Hugo award. In 1967 she published her first novel and changed the way we thought about women in Science Fiction. Her female characters broke from the mold of the 1950s cardboard cutout, damsel in distress or the vixen. Since then McCaffrey has been quite prolific writing more than 50 novels and 14 in the Pern series alone and 8 in her Ship series. Being different and opinionated are traits that she applies to herself and a good thing too or we may never have known Anne McCaffrey’s books. She currently lives in Ireland and although arthritis has now prevented her from enjoying her love of horses she still can spend time with them on her farm, Dragonhold-Underhill.

Frank Kelly Freas is one of the most prolific science fiction illustrators of all time. His paintings have graced nearly every major magazine published in the genre at one time. His work began in the 1960s and ended in January of 2005 when he passed away in his sleep. In addition to illustrating for science fiction periodicals, Kelly painted album art, books, and Mad magazine. He was commissioned by NASA to paint the Skylab insignia and when in the Army Air Corps he painted pin-up girls on the noses of WWII fighter planes. Among other awards, Kelly was the recipient of 11 Hugo awards.

Finally, the Science Fiction museum was opened in 2004 and funded by Paul Allen, co founder of Microsoft. The museum offers guests a comprehensive view of science fiction on television and the movies through props and costumes. It also traces the roots of science fiction as far back as Leonardo Da Vinci!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

STS-1: 25 Years Later

Last month was the 25th anniversary of the launch of STS-1. If anyone doesn’t know what that is, it’s the first flight of the Space Shuttle. On April 12, 1981 the Space Shuttle launched to much fanfare with a mission objective, according to the website was “Demonstrate safe launch into orbit and safe return of the orbiter and crew. Verify the combined performance of the entire shuttle vehicle - orbiter, solid rocket boosters and external tank.”

Columbia, named for the Boston based sloop and the Apollo 11 command module, was the first Shuttle to go up for a two-day ride piloted by Robert Crippen and commanded by John Young. Young was picked as an astronaut in 1962 and flew in space Gemini and Apollo missions, walking on the moon on the Apollo 16 crew. He was a very experience astronaut and the STS-1 flight was his fifth space flight. Crippen was on the Skylab mission in the Seventies but STS-1 was his first space flight. He was on four Shuttle missions all together.

The Space Shuttle is the infamous and often troubled reusable space vehicle. In the new millennium or the 2000s we are still using a shuttle that was built on 1970s technology. Despite President Bush’s bravado, I have my doubts about the new Moon and Mars missions. This grand plan, in typical Bush style, excited the imagination but lack substance and thought. We will be redirecting billions of dollars away from unmanned space missions, like reconditioning the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been a huge success (after a small hiccup with the multi-million dollar lens being out of focus!) to waste dollars on new technology.

Not to sound like a hypocrite or a flip-flopper, but while I believe the Space Shuttle has outlived its usefulness and should have been replaced with newer technology long ago, I also think NASA needs to concentrate government funding on pure research and leave exploration to private companies. In thirty years we have regressed in the actual distance from earth we’ve attained on every manned space mission. Instead of going further we’ve actually stuck closer to home. Going to Mars was a 1980s mission that we never flew. Now with the accessibility of technology in the hands of private companies (see the X-Prize) NASA should encourage and support these private endeavors while placing its focus on missions that result in real science.

Flying a man (or a crew of people) to Mars accomplished little more than what we can do over the next few years with a robotic explorer. Lots of leaner and meaner missions that have specific objectives or multiple small objectives should be the order of the day, not grandiose dreams. America is loosing the manned space race but who cares? Is it really that important to fly the first man to Mars? If so we need to establish a multi-national accord with the European, Japanese and Chinese space agencies to accomplish this goal. By sharing the cost among nations we can continue to accomplish real science mission while also achieving big dreams.

Some of the recent successes at NASA should show how unmanned space missions should be at the forefront of their agenda. From the Mars Rovers both outliving their projected lifespans to the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn to the Deep Impact mission testing comet density and make-up to the sun-studying Ulysses to New Horizons going to the far reaches of the solar system, NASA has proven it can get a successful missions up there and working to the benefit of science advancement.

As a fan of Science Fiction, I do wan to see a man on Mars, a real man (or woman). I don’t care if he’s American. I do care that America is a part of that mission. I do care that we don’t do what we’ve been doing to ourselves for many years now in this country, sacrificing science, math and physics education and research for unrealistic versions of the future.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Star Wars Really!

I was surprised this morning when I looked on Yahoo News to find the headline read, “US seeks laser weapon to shoot down enemy satellites.” Now this is cool. According to the news report, NASA is developing a ground-based weapon that uses a concentrated light beam to destroy enemy satellite floating in space. It was a secret project, uncovered by New York Times reporters sifting through Air Force budget documents. That’s what I call investigative reporting. This is huge news. Though they are years away from effectively using this weapon, which relies on motor controls and mirrors to counteract atmospheric disturbances while delivering the high energy beam to space, this is a step in the right direction for all of us space battle fans. Imagine that we can use this laser to shoot down not only space satellites but alien invaders as well. Pentagon officials have said that the White House wants them to look into this type of technology to protect American assets and I couldn’t agree more.

That being said, I am not sure who has the type of technology that we need to defend against. In the days of the Cold War and the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union I could see this initiative taking great priority in research labs and large defense companies all over the United States, but now? Isn’t our major enemy a group of rugged, dirty, terrorists located somewhere in the hills between Pakistan and Afghanistan? I can imagine that when we find Osama Bin Laden we’d need a precision laser pointed at some cave to fry his ass but unless he’s hooked up with the Chinese there’s little chance he’s floating around space waiting to drop Jihadist weapons from up there.

Unless they know something we don’t.

Are there threats from space that we haven’t imagined yet? Are the Chinese planning on launching satellites that can drop bombs on us or worse yet, destroy the treasured XM satellite? On the other hand, perhaps that’s not so ridiculous after all. If some rouge government like the Iranian or Koreans can get something into space they’d probably have no qualms about using it against us. They would take no issue with using a small floating vessel to destroy our GPS the Hubble or Spitzer Space Telescopes. That would be a tragedy.

Alas, the weapon is “years and years and years into the future” according to a senior Pentagon official. Those damn officials, always unnamed, always vague.

Check out the news article on Yahoo.


Titan, the Death Moon

If you’ve been following the news about space then you know that last year the Cassini Probe launched its Huygens aspect into Titan, one of the 35 named moons of Saturn. As it descended the Huygens probe snapped pictures, listened to the wind and tested the atmosphere. If you remember the moon had an eerie orange tint because of the Nitrogen haze. The atmosphere is like thick smog that covers most of our cities but much worse. Not something you’d like to see on any day in Los Angeles. Titan’s atmosphere is so thick that scientists originally calculated the planet’s size much higher than it actually is. At the surface the temperature is about –270 F. This allows Methane to run as water and has cut deep channels and islands out of the surface much like water does on earth. This makes for a very haunting and harrowing environment, not much suitable for humans unless you were wearing a very durable spacesuit. The effect would probably be much like our mythological visions of Hades, dark, cold, lonely and deadly.

Space is cold and they can’t hear you scream. My previous post was about the Death Star. Well, this is the Death Moon.

A new clip came out from American and European Space Agency on the internet showing the Huygen’s point of view of its landing on Titan. The movie was stitched together from over 3500 images taken by Huygens on its decent to the surface. Though the actual landing took over 147 minutes the movie clip is a little over 4 minutes.

See the movie here:


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Star Wars Death Star

Did they really have civilians on the Death Star?

I’ve heard from very bizarre sources that people believe that civilians were aboard the Death Star keeping it running including, families with children and hired help. This, in effect, makes Luke Skywalker’s heroic act more like an act of terrorism. I couldn’t disagree more. In a forward position during a war-as I suspect everyone would consider the Imperial fight against the Alliance a war-there is never a soldier who brings along his family. Enlisted officers carry out most of the utility jobs like food service and maintenance and anything else is outsourced to people who know the risks that come along with being in a military zone. I can’t imagine that The Dark Lord of the Sith would allow children and wives to come along with his Stormtrooper brigades-those that weren’t clones, I mean.

The Death Star is a floating war machine. It’s the ultimate mechanized weapon. The most powerful force in the galaxy. How many people really think that civilians are bopping around that thing, getting in the way, growing gardens and teaching little children to read and do arithmetic. I think not.

In a forward position the military mindset seems to be that the less distraction from the job at hand, the better. I assume that Darth Vader and his Grand Moffs will want the utmost attention and precision from their troops. Stormtroopers get kinds soft when they have to change dirty diapers.

All of the people aboard that Death Star and especially Death Star II were soldiers, contractors or mercenaries. None of them were innocent, they were waging war. If anything, the Rebels would be the ones who harbored civilians within their ranks. Sure many of their best pilots and soldiers were defected Imperials but there were also the believers in the cause, regular folk who joined the rebellion to fight the great oppression of Emperor Palpatine and Anakin Skywalker.