Posts Tagged ‘film’


Travel by asteroid

November 15, 2012

David Hardy painting of an asteroid-based spaceship

For a long time scientists and science fiction writers have postulated using an asteroid as either an orbital base or a non-FTL starship. Books like Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow use spacefaring asteroid ships because it appears to be a monumental problem to lift enough material out of Earth’s gravity well to build a starship from scratch. John Ringo’s Troy Rising series uses an asteroid, melted and inflated, as a fortress to defend Earth from aliens entering through a hyperspace gate.

SPOILER AHEAD! In fact, Ringo goes farther and, using an Orion-style nuclear bomb drive, turns his fortress into a mobile battle platform, taking it through the gate and to the battle.

I just finished Dr. Travis Taylor’s new book, A New American Space Plan, and I was struck by something that I never really considered much before. Maybe we can get to Mars using current, or near-future technology. NASA is now setting its sights on a mission to a Near-Earth Asteroid. (Or it was last I looked. NASA plans change every day.) Beyond that – let’s say we want to go to Jupiter – it’s going to be orders of magnitude more difficult. When the AE-35 antenna pointing unit failed in “2001” – OK, Hal did it, but still – they happened to have the parts or whatever to fix it. They didn’t have to, but were prepared to.

So let’s say we’ve got a Discovery-class ship, three crew in suspended animation, two minding the store on the Long Trip Out. Something breaks, or the classic Dramatic Meteor Impact happens and breaks something – something that is not available on the ship. We’re basically screwed. Don’t tell me 3D printing technology will save us. It won’t build a microchip for a really, really, long time. And a whole antenna, say 20 feet in diameter? Probably not. We don’t have Ringo’s fabbers, and if we have to wait for those, we won’t go to Jupiter for a long while.

We could do it by what Robert Zubrin, author of the “Mars Direct” concepts, derisively called the “Battlestar Galactica” approach: a gigantic fleet of ships, traveling together for mutual aid and protection. But if lifting one ship’s parts out of the gravity well is hard, lifting 20 is a lot harder.

So let’s see…maybe we can grab a Near-Earth Asteroid, bolt a bunch of stuff on it, drill it out or blow it out with nukes, and build a habitat inside. Maybe not for hundreds of people – let’s say, 50 or so. That’s a lot of lifting but not as much as the other alternatives. Ion drive, solar sail, Orion or Orion-derived nuclear pulse drive – any of them would probably work. It would just take a while to go someplace.

Look at it as if you are driving your motor home cross country and have to take your machine shop along because nobody stocks parts for your vehicle. The bigger the vehicle, and the more people, the more likely it is you can fabricate what you need. And most of the mass is nickel-iron asteroid, which is also providing a lot of radiation shielding. Instead of thinking of a trip to Jupiter as taking a few years, maybe you’ll take decades. Running a closed environmental system like that isn’t easy, but it’s easier than a lot of the alternatives. Eventually we’ll have some better drives, and we can get around the system faster.

Has anyone ever calculated how much toilet paper is needed for a five-year trip?

I don’t see this happening in the next 10 years, but it could be done a lot sooner than most every other idea I’ve heard for deep space interplanetary travel as long as we lack a superdrive. Those are based mostly on magic and good intentions right now.

Once we know how to do that, we can build bigger ones and send people to the stars. By then we should have a pretty good idea which ones have planets we could live on.

I wasn’t a fan of the NASA asteroid mission scenario until now. Now I hope we can get there. We won’t just be learning how the solar system is put together, but how to build a better spaceship.

A pity, though. I kind of like the Blake’s 7 Liberator as a spaceship design. Of course, it was built by aliens…

Blake’s 7 “Liberator” – lots cooler than flying a hunk of rock!


“Atlas Shrugged – Part II: The Strike”

October 13, 2012

I think in most cases, if you like Ayn Rand’s book, or even found it thought-provoking, you will like the movie. If not – especially if you respond in great horror to Rand’s ideals – you will hate it.

This cast was, by and large, at least as good as the Part I cast, except for Dagny. Samantha Mathis is no match for Taylor Schilling, sorry. Oh, and Rebecca Wisocky was a far better Lillian Rearden in Part 1.

Jason Beghe was a fine, growly Hank Rearden. I can’t think of a TV part where I’ve liked Paul McCrane, so he is a fine Wesley Mouch – even though the name seemed to fit Michael Learner better.

I think the plot modifications and updating to fit the present day worked very well. I know it must have been difficult to edit down all those great monologues, like Francisco’s at the wedding and Hank’s at the hearing. $ 40 per gallon gasoline would have seemed ridiculous a few years ago, but today it just seems prophetic. The most chilling visual to me is any of the scenes of the streets of New York. There are so very few cars on the streets that are normally jammed with traffic, yet it is midday – the first time I didn’t even notice it. When I did, it scared the bejeezus out of me.

The main threads are there – the increasing desperation of the government as the economy goes down the toilet, the opportunistic nature of Mouch and his friends (remember Rahm’s “never let a crisis go to waste”?). Of course, every decision made by the government is exactly the opposite of what should be done…in a black-and-white world like that of the film it is much easier to see the folly of the government’s directives than it is in our daily lives.

Dagny is more and more driven by trying to discover the secret of Galt’s motor and torn apart by trying to save the country singlehanded. As more and more of the men who actually keep the world going disappear she is pushed practically to her breaking point…and she escapes. Her escape is very short-lived, however, and she is compelled to come back to save the railroad once again. For those of you who have not read the book or seen the movie, yet, I won’t spoil any more of it for you.

If you have read the book, and enjoyed it, and saw how it is a cautionary tale for today, then by all means go see the film and take your friends. The really “extreme” – to use a term bandied about too much nowadays – ideas of Rand are not promoted in the film. There isn’t much in here to argue with unless you are an extremely close-minded liberal. Even conservatives of a religious bent can’t argue with the film as much as with the book. Rand promotes the idea that organized religion is almost as bad as government – she refers to religious folks as “mystics” throughout the book. None of that is present in the film. The film really promotes enlightened self-interest over “social justice,” equating required sacrifice for the good of all as a form of slavery.

The Dagny/Hank Rearden romance is downplayed somewhat in the film. It’s used as a plot point as required by the book’s plot, but it doesn’t become overwhelming. In the book the romance is based on mutual respect and an attraction forged by their shared beliefs and passions. This is not a romance that develops between “oil and water” types of people. The only thing that holds them apart is Hank’s marriage, loveless though it may be.

Of course, all of that changes in Part III…after all, at the end of Part II, Dagny looks out of the wreckage of her plane and sees…John Galt.

Is it perfect? No. Does it do a good job of presenting the main points of the book? Yes. I hope a lot of those “undecided” voters see this movie. This could easily be the America of 2016, if we choose unwisely.


“Atlas Shrugs Part II” opens Friday!

October 10, 2012

With a new cast, the second installment of the “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy, based on the Ayn Rand novel, opens in theaters this Friday. It will be interesting how the whole “Galt’s motor” thing will be handled in the near-future setting of the movie series. (The book gives no particular date, but there is a lot of speculation that was to be set in the – at the time of the book’s publication – near future of the mid-1970s.) It will probably not be in theaters for a long time, so check it out right away. It’s important to see before the election. And if you haven’t purchased the first installment, it is available here and is on the Amazon video-on-demand service as well as  on Netflix.


The Apollo 11 lunar landing, in real time

August 27, 2012

Buzz Aldrin on the ladder

Paolo Attivissimo and a team of volunteers have taken the imagery from the 16mm film camera attached at the window of the lunar module Eagle, merged it with CGI of the LM’s orientation and intercuts of the Mission Control team, and synchronized the whole works so to show the last 16 minutes of Eagle’s descent, with all the radio exchanges by the crew and mission control, occurring in real time. They also subtitled it because some of the transmissions were not very clear.

Then went on to do the same with all the work on the surface, digitally restoring the camera work. The whole documentary may be found at and is broken into parts that are streamable through vimeo in 720p. It is stunning work.

The landing, which is all I have had a chance to watch all the way through, is a nail-biter even though you know they land successfully. From exchanges with Mission Control and Mike Collins in orbit about antenna problems to inquiries about warning lights, there is a drama here I never expected. Through it all Armstrong and Aldrin are amazing, as are the Mission Control folks. Steely-eyed missile men, indeed!

Through the window camera you can plainly see the craters Armstrong had to avoid in the last seconds before landing. It is pretty well-known that he landed almost bingo fuel, but he calmly maneuvered the LM around obstacles and put it down gently among the craters. Since all we had at the time was a very limited amount of data from the Surveyor unmanned probes, we didn’t even know if the surface would hold the Eagle. They could have landed in several feet of lunar dust…there were so many unknowns!

Whenever we go back to the Moon, we will of course have far more advanced communications links and automated landing systems. No one need ever land on the Moon manually again…but Neil Armstrong did it, with Buzz Aldrin handling most of the communications chores as well as a host of other things necessary by the state of the art of the time. Truly a triumph not just of American techology, but of Americans.

It has taken Mr. Attivissimo, an Italian, to remind us of this. Thank you sir, and thank you to all who assisted you!

This is the perfect time to watch this. And please, donate if you can.


The critics are sinking my “Battleship”!

May 27, 2012

I saw “Battleship” for the second time today. My son and his fiance had not seen it, and they wanted to see it instead of “Men In Black 3”, so we went to see it again.

The Cinemark theater in Independence, Ohio, had a great screen and decent sound – the sound wasn’t as deafening as a lot of theaters I’ve been in over the last few years, but it was loud enough to give some solid impact.

I’ve read a lot on the intertubes about what a poor film this is, what a stupid premise, poor writing, poor acting, poor casting – pretty much everything but the color of the US Navy ships has been criticized.

OK, I’ll agree that it has some plot issues. You can’t think too much about the astronomy and physics involved. Only six years after sending a signal into space from a Landsat – and that series of satellites were intended to study the Earth, not “deep space” – the nasty aliens appear. (Speed-of-light issues notwithstanding.) Nobody knows if they are really interested in wiping us out or not. We know they need to take over our communications equipment on Oahu to send a message back home. (Their own communications craft somehow had collided with a satellite on its way toward earth, destroying it and scattering pieces of it all over the planet.)

A case could be made that the aliens are just trying to take this set of satellite dishes over to phone home, but otherwise don’t necessarily want to conquer or exterminate us. They really didn’t bring enough manpower to do so. Was the signal supposed to say “Y’all come”? Are they the scout team?

If you can get past that stuff, the rest of the movie is a lot of fun. It’s not the only sci-fi movie with bad science. In fact, I’d wager far more science fiction films have been made with almost no regard to the science than those with even a passing nod to physics, chemistry or biology.

The real positives in this film keep it going when thing otherwise get weak. Taylor Kitsch, a total unknown to me before this, actually does a credible job as the screwup-with-tons-of-potential who comes through in the crisis. He is not terribly likable at the beginning, but you have to admire his dedication in the face of overwhelming odds. I happen to believe we need folks like him, the ones who are willing to go all the way out there, instead of playing it safe all the time.

The addition of so many real-live military personnel is a great touch. They helped us suspend our disbelief, and do so subtly. The tributes to the veterans – both active and passive tributes – was touching. There are always those critics who find such treatment of our men and women in uniform somehow old-fashioned and treacly, but I for one really felt director Peter Berg was honest and respectful in his portrayal of the military. I’m sure there were things that were technically and procedurally incorrect in the goings-on aboard ship. None of that detracted from my enjoyment of the film.

To me, the “third act” was what made the movie work for me. I can’t talk about it without serious spoilers, so don’t go further if you don’t want to know what happens yet. I advise you to see the movie yourself first. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Some years ago my wife and I were fortunate to visit Hawaii and tour the USS Missouri. We had already toured its sister ship in Norfolk, the USS Wisconsin. These World War II era battleships are very impressive even just tied up to the dock. We were told while in Norfolk that the Wisconsin was technically on “active reserve” status  – in fact, that is why we couldn’t go inside. The interiors were kept air-conditioned and humidity-controlled, and should the need arise, the ship could be recalled to active duty, as it was for the first Gulf War.

Since that time, both ships have been turned over to museums – the Missouri to an association in Hawaii, the Wisconsin to the City of Norfolk. That’s only occurred within the last decade, though, so the state of the ships should be pretty good. The Missouri actually was laid up in drydock a couple of years ago for repairs, so she’s probably more seaworthy than she was a decade ago!

If you didn’t know that, the idea of starting up a WWII battleship and getting it out of Pearl Harbor to fight in a matter of hours seems more than far-fetched. One single explanatory line of dialog would have helped make that clear. Otherwise, it’s a reach that the ship could even move! (Of course, where they found the ammunition and the powder bags is a question as well, but at least one plot hole would have been fixed.

The aliens’ behavior was not incomprehensible…but…the lack of an attempt to communicate with humans pretty much flew in the face of one of the main tropes in alien invasion movies – somehow, in almost every movie, we learn what the aliens’ motives are, for good or ill. These aliens were tough, but they didn’t leave their own behind – just like our own military elite units – and they were very single-minded and focused. Is this behavior all that much different from our SEALS or Rangers? Would they be expected to parley with local leaders, or would that be left to diplomats? Maybe all the diplomats were on the communications ship!

In fact, the red/green IDs for people and weapons in the aliens’ heads-up displays indicated that they believed in only attacking threats. If anybody was sneaky and underhanded, it was us!

So yes, there are holes and defects. Pretty much every movie has them. (Think hard about the physics of Iron Man’s flight characteristics – I dare you.) I think the premise that a popcorn movie was being made based on a game, and a game that lacks a real narrative at that, provided the fodder needed by a lot of critics who think they’re clever folk. For the really  lazy critic, sometimes it’s easy to go for the cheap shot, and if he doesn’t have to actually analyze the movie, it’s even better.

I think that’s what happened here. A lot of critics had their minds made up before the movie even came out. Unfortunately, that affects theatergoers and attendance. The presence of so many online critics makes them, as a group, far more influential than a few magazine or newspaper critics were twenty years ago, instead of the reverse.

I’m only going to mention the fact that movies that portray the US military in a positive light usually have a rocky road to go with many critics. I’m not going into that any more in this piece!

So…go see it. It’s the kind of movie that deserves the big-screen, big-sound-system treatment to be appreciated. Watching it on DVD on your 19-inch in the kitchen in six months is not going to work for this one. Make up your own mind. I think far more folks will enjoy this movie than think they might. Give it a try!


Life Imitates Art

May 23, 2012

I just wrote a piece about how the themes in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged are being used by liberals, and particularly by the Obama campaign. It can be found at Keep Americans Free! I invite you to read it, and to read Atlas Shrugged.


Build the Enterprise – in 20 years, for cheap!

May 21, 2012

Build it in orbit, where it belongs…

A gentleman who calls himself “BTE Dan” has put up a very deep web site called He envisions building a spaceship capable of reaching Mars in 90 days, within 20 years, for roughly $ 50 billion per year. That works out to a trillion dollars! (But that’s in today’s money, and I expect that $ 50 billion even ten years from now might not have the same buying power.)

I’m not going on a rant about how we spend billions each year on stuff not nearly so awe-inspiring, or any of that. I just wanted folks to see what Dan was doing. He has a somewhat unique vision, I think: would it be more inspiring to build a spaceship that could travel throughout our solar system if we named it “Enterprise” and made it look like a TV spaceship from 50 years ago? How would you do it?

While his Enterprise is not warp-capable – he’s basing it completely on technology already in place or in development today – he may have a point. I remember the elation in the “Trek community” when the first Shuttle to be rolled out was named Enterprise. Then we found out that it would never go into space – that it was a “test article.” We watched it fly around on the back of a 747 and do some glide tests, but I know many of us felt our dream had been crushed again – held out, then snatched away by realists at NASA.

The name Enterprise has a history unique in our culture. Of course Gene named his after the aircraft carrier, the first nuclear carrier in the world. By the time “The Next Generation” rolled around, rather than trying to use a different name, it was updated but called the Enterprise-D; the continuity of the name was deemed important.

And it is; symbols mean things. I’ll be “Star Trek” inspired hundreds of thousands of young people to become scientists and engineers over the years. (I think “Star Wars” is looked at rather differently, but I’m not ready for that argument!)

And I think Dan is right: the ability to build an “Enterprise-like” spaceship is now technically within our reach. Getting to orbit is getting easier, and over the next three or four years it should get easier still. By the time components need to be put in orbit – and that’s where you build it, J.J. Abrams, not on the ground! – access to orbit will be easier and more reliable, and somewhat less expensive. Such a program might even encourage the commercial space access companies to move faster. Part of the reason they aren’t moving faster now is that the market is too small and too variable. Does any other company have a backlog of 20 missions or more, like SpaceX?

So read through Dan’s pages. I would love to think this would be the start of something really big!