Archive for February, 2012


“Smash,” episode 4 – “The Cost of Art”

February 29, 2012

Cattiness abounds as Karen is tested by the members of the ensemble, and by Ivy’s pressure to get her removed from the show. The character of Ivy is developing nicely as someone with very limited self-confidence. I don’t know if New York professionals really play these kinds of games…I hope not, but I expect some do, just like immature people everywhere.

(Spoilers!) The turnaround of three of the ensemble members to befriend Karen was a bit swift, but nicely played. I felt I had to suspend my disbelief somewhat. I don’t know that three performers loyal to Ivy – or at least seeming so – would change their minds so quickly. Of course, maybe they know it doesn’t have to be an “us or them” situation, if they are mature enough!  They are all young 20-somethings, apparently, and all of them need to be validated themselves by the director (and anyone else they look up to). Please don’t let it degenerate into soap opera.

Dev is shaping up as the obligatory outsider. Often in storytelling it helps the audience if there is a sort of a narrator, and if done subtly, the audience doesn’t notice! If somebody has to explain things to Dev it can help us understand things as well.

The staging of the song in Derek’s apartment was particularly cute. I found myself smiling when Tom told the band, “It’s in G, they’re easy changes, just…read my mind.” Heh. And of course, suddenly, there is a fully-orchestrated accompaniment behind them! It was done smoothly enough that we could suspend our disbelief. It helps that we were set up in the previous episodes to follow the slide in and out of the dream world of the fully-produced show.

We’ll see if Karen’s intervention helps her deal with Derek and Ivy.


“Smash,” episode 3

February 22, 2012

The third episode of “Smash” mainly continued plot lines set in motion in the first two episodes. It gave more backstory to the characters, helping to make them less one-dimensional stereotypes. The title of this episode could have been “Affairs and Revelations,” since that theme was played out with several of the characters. Current and past affairs are revealed and discussed, and they add levels of tension not only for those involved but for those around them as well. I’ll not provide too many spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet.

Musical moments include a song from the show of all Bruno Mars tunes that was supposedly playing in New York, sung by Michael Swift (played by Will Chase). It was fully produced – music, choreography, lighting, sets – all put together for one tune in one episode. Chase is a fine singer and did a creditable job in a duet with Megan Hilty that is intended for the Marilyn show. They did it as they did the previous tunes from the show, intercutting the full staging with the rehearsal shots.

I’m still impressed with the level of musical performances on the show, including the covers. The variety of tunes used so far is impressive, The extended versions available on iTunes are well-produced and very enjoyable on their own.

What’s not to like? I really don’t like Tom’s scheming assistant, Ellis. So far he hasn’t any redeeming qualities at all!


“Godspeed, John Glenn”

February 20, 2012

Fifty years ago today, a team of American and former German scientists and engineers took a missile designed to deliver a nuclear warhead and used it to put a highly-decorated U.S. Marine pilot into orbit. He wasn’t the first person in orbit – that honor went to Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, but John Glenn was just about the perfect 1960s American representative in space. Korean War hero, test pilot, and even the winner of a national TV game show, Glenn was unabashedly patriotic and had that boyish grin to boot!

Now, I’m not nearly as happy with his record as a U.S. Senator from Ohio – he was too liberal for me, and I felt he didn’t promote the space program enough – but he was the right man at the right time and he did America proud.

Glenn's Mercury-Atlas

Today, after tens of thousands of hours in orbit by hundreds of Americans and many, many others, Glenn’s short trip should still be thought of as a tremendously brave act. The Atlas was, at best, a pretty unreliable booster. It was getting to be more reliable by February of 1962 but it still had a long way to go to be man-rated by the standards of today. The skin of the Atlas was about as thin as a dime, and it only could support itself when fully fueled – it was a stainless-steel balloon with rocket engines on the bottom. Riding this thing into orbit was by no means a certainty.

Today's ULA Atlas V

The Atlas V that is commonly used today barely resembles the rocket Convair built in the early 1960s. It’s aluminum now, with a single Russian-designed engine. Today it’s a very reliable booster…but it hasn’t ever been used to launch a man into space. Perhaps it will be, since it is being considered as a potential launcher for the Boeing CST-100.

Boeing CST-100

But that reminds me…in 1962 we could launch a man into space on a ballistic missile. Today, we no longer have that capability…sigh.


New rocket-powered vehicle duplicates 1995 takeoff and landing

February 18, 2012


Masten Space Systems, which builds reusable suborbital rockets, recently tested a vehicle that took off, flew to 50 meters altitude, flew 50 meters horizontally downrange, and then landed softly on another concrete landing pad. It did so using new software called the Guidance Embedded Navigator Integration Environment (GENIE), which was developed by the nonprofit Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This is pretty cool, but…the DC-X did the same thing in 1995.


To be fair, the DC-X was controlled at the time, not flying completely autonomously. (Usually, that control was former astronaut Pete Conrad, if I remember correctly.) It did have automatic flying control systems, and in particular used the automatic landing mode several times. On its next to last flight, it flew to an altitude of over 3,000 meters.

Built by McDonnell-Douglas, the DC-X was a 1/3 scale demonstrator for a follow-on vehicle called the Delta Clipper, or DC-Y. The DC-Y was to be a manned, single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) reusable spaceship. It was originally funded through the Strategic Defense Initiative. It flew eight test flights in 1993-1995 but the aeroshell was cracked upon landing on the last flight. The vehicle was sent back to MacDac in Huntington Beach for repair. It was fitted with a new lithium-aluminum LOX tank  and a graphite-composite fuel tank that substantially decreased airframe weight. It was christened the DC-XA and flew four more flights from White Sands in 1996. On the fourth flight, on July 31, one of the retractable landing legs failed to extend on landing and the vehicle fell over. It suffered considerable damage, and it was decided there was not enough money left to fund repairs.

Turnaround time between the second and third flights in 1996 was 26 hours; the vehicle successfully validated a rotation of the vehicle prior to landing – the most difficult part of a tail-first soft landing – as well as a number of software and hardware innovations.

I’m not dissing the work of Masten with the Xombie. It was funded partially by NASA, and it is validating control systems and software that could be used on Earth, on the Moon, or even on Mars. It just bothers me that we could be flying reusable spaceships today that would be the third or fourth generation descendants of the DC-Y today. For a fictional look at how the world could have been if such vehicles were in common use, see the Firestar series of novels by Michael F. Flynn.

Early concept of the DC-Y

The SSTO vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicle idea has been around since the 1950s; the Luna in the landmark film Destination Moon was such a vehicle, even if it did use a parachute for final landing back on Earth.

Luna, which took off and landed vertically, “as God and Robert Heinlein intended”

In the 1960s and 1970s a wide range of designs were promoted by such visionaries as Gary Hudson, Max Hunter (who designed the Mercury capsule) and Phillip Bono. Plug nozzles, drop tanks – all kinds of vehicles were designed. Some very large ships were designed to take off from a body of water!

Gary Hudson’s Phoenix C

Even using very light airframes utilizing “solid smoke” (a silica aerogel), composite fuel tanks and honeycomb aluminum structures, the numbers just never came out in favor of successfully flying a single-stage rocket directly from Earth into orbit and back again. Liquid hydrogen and LOX (liquid oxygen) as fuel and oxidizer are the rocket fuel combination that produces the most energy per pound, but liquid hydrogen isn’t dense enough – the fuel tank has to be so large that a significant amount of the performance of the fuel is lost due to increased airframe weight. Improved engines or even nuclear engines are probably required to make this concept work. That’s why most of the SSTO designs since that time have taken off and/or landed like aircraft. (For a detailed discussion of the DC-X and SSTO, see Halfway to Anywhere by G. Harry Stine.)

Xombie isn’t designed to fly into orbit; in fact, Masten seems to be focusing on suborbital rockets. I have to hope, though, that the knowledge gained through these tests will help to lead to a viable SSTO someday once the propulsion technology is available to make it possible. If nothing else, it might help SpaceX as it tries to build the Grasshopper reusable suborbital rocket and the fully-reusable version of the Dragon capsule and the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. I wouldn’t usually expect such a technology transfer from one company to another, but the GENIE software was written by a nonprofit lab. They may be persuaded to license it to multiple users.

SpaceX Falcon 9 – reusable version soft-lands vertically

Update, October 2013: Nobody called me on it, but Max Hunter, mentioned above, was not the designer of the Mercury capsule. That was Maxime Faget, who was a very interesting guy in his own right. That’s what I get for writing the piece pulling stuff out of my brain without fact-checking.

Also, the Falcon 9 version 1.1, which was first test-launched about a week ago, will have much cooler-looking landing legs than those shown above:

falcon landing legs


This is a clipping from the Falcon 9 page on the SpaceX site. It appears they hinge near the engines, and the landing feet or pads are located at the top. There are rumors that the next Falcon 9 launch may involve an attempt to soft-land the first stage. A restart of the center engine of the first stage was mostly successful in the first test flight. A restart of the second stage was more problematic, and it may delay the next test flight.


I have JFK riding a robot unicorn on the Moon…your argument is invalid.

February 16, 2012

Keeping Luna safe for Americans!

Artist Jason Heuser has a somewhat different view of history than most of the rest of us. He has done a series of pieces revising the history of various American Presidents, including Teddy Roosevelt shooting a sasquach, George Washington fighting zombies, and Abraham Lincoln riding a grizzly bear. My favorite is the one shown above, depicting the real facts behind the JFK conspiracy. See, he was sent to the Moon in 1963 to fight aliens to keep us safe. Heuser’s artwork is available on Etsy. You know you need a print of this. Get it for a friend for, oh, Presidents’ Day…


“Smash” episode 2 – “The Callback”

February 15, 2012
Katherine McPhee as Marilyn Monroe

Katherine McPhee as Marilyn Monroe

Caution – spoilers ahead!

I stand by my previous statements about “Smash” now that I’ve seen the second episode. I didn’t know the name Megan Hilty before, but I did my Wikipedia research since, and discovered that art sort of imitates life. (Yes, I know there are other sources of information. Some are even more reliable, I hear.) Hilty played Glinda in “Wicked” on Broadway and later for a while in the touring show. She has pretty darned good stage credentials. Katherine McPhee, on the other hand, has more experience in the pop music and recording world. Either McPhee is an extremely fine physical actress – and that could be the case, I suppose – or she really is a bit less comfortable with dancing. She really looked much less confident than Hilty, even in the dance segment where she should have it solidly rehearsed. I don’t have a problem with that, but I found it interesting.

The B story about Julia and Frank’s attempt to adopt a baby from China felt a bit flawed to me. First, the resolution of the conflict between the two resulting in Frank’s acceptance was awfully quick. It had that rushed feeling I get at the end of some CSI episodes, when the DNA match comes in and the killer is unmasked two minutes before the end of the episode. I did like the involvement of their son, however. Often teenagers are portrayed as selfish and emotional, and Leo seemed to have a better head on his shoulders than either of his parents.

As I said in my last post, I enjoyed the chemistry between Julia and Tom in the first episode, and I thought that relationship is developing nicely. They have differences of opinion, but they have demonstrated the kind of closeness and mutual respect that you hope to see in two professionals who have worked together for so long. I hope more of the interaction between Julia and Tom takes place on screen. I think a window into the creative process between a lyricist and a composer might be interesting to a general audience, especially if it can be done without being over the top. So far, the show is very subtle and kind of understated. I don’t know if the audience in general will appreciate that, but I sure do!

The scene where Dev expresses his upset with Karen because she didn’t make the dinner with the assistant mayor seemed forced, too. But then, both of them are young and driven. Again, Dev’s sudden change of heart was too abrupt for me. I found her reason for not calling him much more believable. She’s a young, inexperienced girl in the big city, being considered for a starring role in a Broadway musical by a womanizing, temperamental director. No pressure there!

I was so impressed with the pacing of the pilot that those little things bothered me. Many TV dramas today are written with condensed plotline timeframes, so many viewers probably didn’t even notice it. Reading what I just wrote, I feel like I’m writing a soap opera column. The show didn’t have that kind of feel at all. In my view they got it 95% right, and that’s far more than most any other new television drama I’ve seen in years. Theresa Rebeck, who created the series and wrote the scripts for the whole 15 episodes, is to be congratulated. Skillfully done. Kudos to director Michael Mayer as well.

No comment on the reveal as to who was selected to play Marilyn – I think that’s a feint; the star on opening night doesn’t have to be the one selected today.

I wasn’t able to watch the episode when it was broadcast. I was willing to pay the three bucks to get it from iTunes. The sound is great in the HD version, also, even on the iPad!


Robert Zubrin gets it right…Obama thinks we live in a finite environment.

February 15, 2012

Before you get your metaphorical panties in a bunch, just hang onto your arguments about Our Blue Marble, know this: I don’t buy it. Earth is only a finite environment if we can’t get off this planet. If we can travel freely about the Solar System, and if we can exploit the resources found there, we will not have to worry about a finite environment for centuries to come – if ever.

Robert Zubrin has been working on ways to get us to Mars for decades. He has proposed a variety of logical programs, including Mars Direct. Dr. Zubrin has made the exploration of Mars his life’s mission. Still, his recent piece in National Review Online is not the statement of a zealot. It is, instead, a short analysis of the beliefs that guide the Obama Administration and that Administration’s effect on space exploration in general. I invite you to read the entire piece. There are a pasage near the end that is particularly interesting. In discussing Obama’s Science Advisor, John P. Holdren, who co-authored a book in 1971 with Population Bomb author Paul Erlich called Global Ecology, he writes:

Thus, in order to accept the constraints on human aspirations demanded by Holdren, Ehrlich, and like-minded thinkers (whether rationalized by alleged limits to available resources in the 1970s, or by the putative threat of global warming due to excessive use of natural resources today), people must be convinced that the future is closed. The issue is not that resources from space might disrupt the would-be regulator’s rationing schemes. Rather it is that the ideaof an open future with unlimited resources and possibilities undermines the walls of the mental prison that the would-be wardens of mankind seek to construct.

Ideas have consequences. If the idea is accepted that resources are limited, then human activities must be severely constrained, and someone must be empowered to enforce the constraining. But if it is understood that the possibilities for human existence are as open as unfettered human creativity can make them, then the protection of liberty, rather than its restriction, becomes the first responsibility of government.

Dr. Zubrin, you are absolutely correct. If the President and his advisors believe in a closed environment, there is no “hope and change” that can help us as the population increases. (There is evidence that the overall world population may actually level off; that’s a story for another article.) We are trapped here, fighting over increasingly smaller individual pieces of the pie. We are trapped by the small-minded politicians in Washington because of their misguided philosophies and obsession with control.


“Smash” – I think I’m going to like this!

February 13, 2012

Megan Hilty and male chorus in "the baseball number"

The new NBC television series, “Smash,” is an interesting little thing. First – and I’ve only seen the pilot so far – it has every stereotype and trope of the story-about-Broadway genre I’ve ever seen…but they are all handled with great skill by the songwriters, writers and actors. The result is a very enjoyable 45 minutes with enough little chuckles and uplifting musical moments to make want to see what comes next. Isn’t that what a pilot is all about?

Characters are well-drawn but the can be partly because they are so stereotypical. The ingenue from Iowa – yes, Iowa; the womanizing director, the gay songwriter, the struggling chorus girl.

Debra Messing plays her part as half of the songwriting team subtly and with great skill. Her chemistry with Christian Bole is delightful. (Okay, I think in the dictionary under the term “winning smile” there is a picture of Debra Messing.) In fact, I didn’t see a weak cast member in this episode. Even Emory Cohen, who plays Messing’s teenaged son, Leo, does a fine understated job with the few lines he has in two scenes.

Jack Davenport, as director/choreographer Derek Willis, channels his inner Alan Rickman and is the character you love to hate. I hope he can sustain the balance between genius and horse’s ass required of his character.

Katherine McPhee. I have to say, I never watch “American Idol,” so I had no idea who this young lady is. However, her audition solo piece in the middle of this episode show in less than three minutes why it was possible to build a television series around her. She really is a musician. Great sound, great range, with a subtle kind of control. Megan Hilty is a superb talent as well, but her performances just show how much better McPhee is. I’m sure they will be an interesting pair throughout the season – two driven, talented young women competing with each other. That will undoubtably be a major plot point throughout the series.

I realize I’ve been using more superlatives than I usually ever do…and now that I’ve watched it a second time, I stand by my statements. Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman wrote some fine songs, and they know the requirements of both Broadway and television, having experience that ranges from writing “Hairspray” for Broadway to multiple Academy Award and Emmy  Awards shows.

Angelica Huston does a credible job as the angel behind “Marilyn – the Musical,” but she is one of the reasons why HD television is not good for everyone – her makeup seemed heavy, designed to cover her age and creating an almost mask-like appearance. She’s still a more than competent actress – I’m sure having her in the cast will provide the writers with many dramatic opportunities later on in the show.

Students of television should study how this was done – how it was written, shot, acted, and produced. There was one flaw that I detected – the director has to give instruction to a dancer in rehearsal, and it was no more authentic in terminology than the portrayal of any musician in “Law and Order.” (Meaning not very…I loved that show, but dang, they really couldn’t portray a convincing musician or conductor to save their lives.) This show immediately made up for it by going right into “the baseball number,” which was enjoyable on so many levels. It reminded me a bit of the airline number in Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz.”  (Fosse’s alter ego, played by Roy Scheider, takes a campy and downright trite song about commercial air travel and turns it into a stunning, seductive piece full of sexual innuendo. And I mean that in a good way. You should check out that film.)

One cute trick: all the show-related computer users – songwriters, actresses, etc. – are using Macs. The one Windows laptop I noticed was used by Messing’s husband, who is definitely not in the theater or music business. Messing also gets to put in a little plug for the iPad early in the episode.

I’ll probably watch this pilot, or at least the musical numbers, a few more times. It was a real pleasure to watch. I look forward to how the story – and the musical – will unfold.