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Guess Who’s (nearly) back…

Big night for British sci-fi fans – and for fans across the world, too – last night as the BBC aired the latest trailer for the new series of Dr Who, which returns “at Easter”. I missed seeing it live because I was at work, but I caught up on it this morning, on YouTube and various fan sites, and it’s left me thinking, I have to say…

…but before I say any more about it, I really need to get something off my chest about the whole “Dr Who” thing.

I am a fan of the series, a huge fan, always have been (well, apart from those horrific Sylvester McCoy years, which, like many Who fans, I still shudder at the very thought of… WTF were they thinking?!?!?!?!?!)  and always will be, and I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to admit that. Many people look down on Dr Who, dismissing it as a “kids programme”, or as “silly” or worse, and even make snide “grow up” comments to people like me who express an interest in or a passion for it. That really, really hacks me off, to be honest, because those people just don’t “get” that it’s simply meant to be entertaining and fun. It’s not for kids, its a family show, with monsters and romances and adventure and aliens and weird creatures and bizarre planets and more. What’s wrong with that?

People who don’t like it because it’s sci-fi generally don’t like ANY sci-fi; they seem to think that, at best,  sci-fi shows are too light and fluffy and at worst it’s simply beneath them and their planet-sized intellectual brains. That may be the case, but why do they insist on being sniffy and snobby about it? Why can’t they just let the fans enjoy it and not bother them? I don’t “get” TOP GEAR, or cookery programmes, or property programmes, but I don’t rant and rave about it; I realise and accept that many people do “get” them, so fair enough, they can watch them.

Me? I like – no, I love – shows that take me to fantastic places with larger than life people, crazy storylines and adventure! I love Dr Who because of the relationship between the Doctor and his companion; I love it for its own history, which is actually quite epic and dark when you look into it; I love it for its writing, which is pure genius sometimes, (“Blink” is an absolute masterclass in dramatic writing, as is “The Girl in The Fireplace”, and anyone ‘into’ drama who is sniffy about sci-fi really should watch them, just to see how good TV sci-fi can be).

Most of all, I love Dr Who because it’s pure, unashamed fun. For pity’s sake, real life is often dark and wearying enough without having to watch it on TV, too. When I come back from work – and I work in a care home, so you can imagine that’s often chellenging, upsetting and very difficult – I like to kick off my boots, rip the ring pull off a can of Strongbow and plop myself down on the sofa and BE ENTERTAINED. I don’t want to think too much, or ponder the mysteries of life, or relationships, or politics; I want to forget about the real world for half an hour, or an hour, and Be Somewhere Else, you know? And Dr Who is perfect, absolutely perfect, for that.

I don’t know why sci-fi shows attract such hostility. No-one has a go at the fanatical and passionate viewers of “24”, or “The “Wire”, or “Coronation Street”, they’re somehow accepted. But say you’re a fan of Dr Who, or Star Trek and eyes roll, mouths twist into a smirk and the tittering and sneering begins. It’s a bit pathetic really. Each to their own, and all that…

So, if anyone’s tempted or moved to write a comment after this slagging off Dr Who, or me for being “into it”, then of course you’re free to, but seriously, save your time, I won’t care. Dr Who Isn’t For You, okay? Live with it. Move on. Go watch something else, and leave Dr Who – and Star Trek, and BSG, and Stargate, etc – to the people who find joy in them. Thanks! -)

Now, if you’re still reading then that means you’re either a) a Who fan, or b) a Who hater who is determined to write something nasty at the end of this post, so wants to read it all so you have lots of material to use. Fair enough. Here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth, on the new trailer.

First of all, it’s important to remember that it’s essentially a cinema-style  trailer being shown on TV, so it looks and feels very different to the trailers we’re used to seeing. You also have to bear in mind that the trailer will be shown in 3D when it’s shown in the cinema (before the new Tim Burton “Alice In Wonderland” movie, I think?), so the screen is VERY busy, with lots of shrapnel and sparks flying about, and the Dr’s and Amy’s arms and legs flailing about in that old-style wooooo-poke-a-stick-out-of-the-screen way. I can’t wait to see it in 3D!

It might surprise many people, but there are no clips of forthcoming episodes, nothing like that. Instead it sets up the new series by showing the new (still feels a bit weird writing that!) Doctor and his new companion, Amy Pond, cartwheeling and spinning through the air as they tumble into a whirly-swirly vortex thingy, encountering several Season 5 alien “baddies” along the way. And yaaay! Look who’s back…

The creepy Weeping Angels from “Blink” are back! The Daleks are back too (tho I guess we all saw THAT coming; the idea of a Dr Who series without an appearance by our favourite metallic monsters is unthinkable!), and, right at the end, there’s an appearace by a lizard-like creature which must be a Silurian (not heard of them? Google it, you’ll see you’re in for a treat when they appear in S5!)

What about the series’ two main characters?

Well, even though it’s barely a minute long, the trailer really does, I think, flesh out their characters a bit more, especially when you mentally add it to the trailers released already. Matt Smith is clearly going to play the new Doctor as a very enthusiastic, very wide-eyed-with-wonder traveller. Which will be something of a relief, to be honest, afterthe last season of Who which saw David Tennant’s Doctor becoming progressively more and more worlds-weary and depressed and sad. Which was great, don’t get me wrong, I loved him and loved the drama and the pathos of following the tortured soul of Tennant’s Doctor towards his death and rebirth, but it was sooo dark and soooo sad at times that it threatened to overwhelm the underlying joy of the show. Matt Smith is going to make Dr Who – the series and the character – feel young again, I think. :-)

Having said that, I am a bit concerned about his gurning.

Matt Smith twists his face into all kinds of strange shapes, which might just edge a toe over that line between “quirky” and “b****y annoying” if he’s not careful. Yes, Tennant gurned a bit, but not as much as Smith appears to like to do. Watching the trailers so far, and the regeneration scene at the end of S4, I couldn’t help thinking of a floppy-haired younger version of Jim Carey, who simply can’t resist contorting his face into bewildering and unnatural expressions. Hopefully this won’t be the norm for the new Doctor, and he’ll keep the gurning to a minimum. We’ll see.

I don’t think anymore that Matt Smith’s age is going to be a big deal, tho. In the new trailer he looks young, yes, but there’s definitely a darker side to him, a shadow residing inside him. So, while he is obviously going to be a very ‘keen’ Doctor, very energetic and delighted to be on his great adventure, I think we’ll see other sides to him too.

But this trailer, I think, is stolen by Karen Gillan, who plays the new companion, Amy Pond. She looks absolutely stunning in it. It’s a bit twee to say that the two of them make “a lovely couple on screen”, but it’s true, they do…

They’re both good looking kids (which has led to many fans raising concerns that the BBC is “youth-ifying” Who and going for the younger market. “Whollyoaks”? I hope not… naah, they’d be stupid to go too far down that route) and even in the trailer there’s a real chemistry between them, which bodes very well for the series to come.

The Dr Who fan forums are already going into meltdown over Karen Gillan’s looks, and her fanbase is already huge and growing. She could be as big a hit as Billie Piper was when she played Rose. (Personally I am much more of a Martha fan, but you knew that already!) In the trailer she looks great, and the Beeb are obviously going to exploit take advantage of her looks during the series. Pictures taken during the filming of the new series are already all over the net, and show why she’s going to be so popular with the series’ male viewers…

(Are police women’s skirts really that short in real life? Not here in Kendal, they”re not!) No getting away from it – she’s a tall, gorgeous, long-legged redhead, and she is going to dominate the new series until Matt Smith settles into the role, and will be worshipped and adored by a whole new generation of young Who fans (whose parents will be, let’s say, ‘quite surprised’ if they walk in on their kids while they Google for pictures of Karen, and see screengrabs of her wearing high heels, basques and stockings and suspenders in C4’s “The Kevin Bishop Show” – um,  apparently; obviously I’VE never seen them…)

So, there you are, the new trailer is out, and now we wait for the actual series to appear on our screens. If ou haven’t seen it yet, here’s a link to it on YouTube…

New Dr Who Trailer

I think we’re in for quite a ride…!

Let’s look through… the ISS window…

( That title and picture won’t mean a thing to you unless you’re a Brit old enough to remember watching a BBC kids TV programme called “Play School”, sorry! )

The International Space Station is in the news again, big time. Not because its construction is nearly complete; not because it is now close to becoming a fully-functioning, international scientific laboratory; not even because President “Constellation-Killer” Obama has just secured its future for another decade at least. No. The ISS is all over the TV and internet news sites like Katie Price over ITV2 because it has this huge, shiny new “observation dome” window, which offers its crews “breathtaking views of the Earth below”.

The fitting and grand unveiling of the new “cupola” – which is, come on, truth be told, more like one piece of an egg box than an “observation dome” – is everywhere on t’internet. It’s all across the spaceflight forums, and on Facebook and Twitter too. A couple of hours ago I myself was sitting here at this computer, watching NASA TV coverage of the first astronauts to drift up into the cupola and look outside. The images were genuinely stunning – as the video camera swept and panned from right to left NASA TV viewers were treated to gorgeous views of the space station exterior, then the docked shuttle Endeavour…

…and finally the glorious, glorious blue and white Earth, which looked absolutely HUGE! Pictures taken off NASA TV are now everywhere, and this image “tweeted” back to Earth by  one of the ISS crew has already had over 12,000 views…

Doesn’t this tell us something fundamental about the public’s real interest in space? There’s a message here, and it’s this: “We want to know what we’d see if WE were there!”

And this is part of the reason why I always argue – often in the face of very hostile opposition – that while spacerobes are very useful, very effecient and very cost effective ways of gathering information, nothing, NOTHING can compare with a real human’s eye view of something Out There.

I have found over the years that the most positive reactions from my Outreach talk audiences are to images taken by cameras showing a genuine human view, simply because the audience can actually identify with them. The Kaguya spaceprobe sent back thousands of achingly beautiful, pin-sharp, crystal-clear HD images of the Earth shining above the charred bar-b-q briquette of the Moon, but they haven’t entered the public consciousness in the same way that the famous and iconic “Earthrise” image has. Why? Because that image was taken by a human being, leaning towards a window, with a camera, that’s why, and everyone who sees it can put themselves in the photographer’s place inside that Apollo capsule.

In orbit around Mars right now are several spacecraft which take and send back unbelievably detailed images of the Red Planet’s surface, but they aren’t regularly shown in the media, and when I show them in one of my Outreach talks I can tell the audience aren’t excessively impressed by them. Ah, but when I put up one of the images returned by the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, they literally amaze and delight people. Why? Why are the pictures sent back by the two rovers so adored and are praised and drooled over so much by millions? Mainly, I think, because they are taken by cameras mounted on a mast that gives them a roughly human view. When we see an image like this, of Concepcion Crater…

…it strikes a chord with us because we can imagine actually seeing that view through our helmet’s visor as we stand on Mars. But HiRISE images of boulders rolling down the side of a martian crater, or Mars Express images of meandering valleys and chaotic terrain don’t call to us in the same way.

Spaceprobes can take images. Only people can see places, drink them in in all their beauty and communicate that beauty to others. This has to be true. If it wasn’t, if pictures taken by machines were just as good, just as worthy, just as emotionally-engaging as pictures taken by people, then no-one would bother to climb Everest or even go hill-walking here in the Lake District, because everyone would be content to just go online and look at images returned by a webcam set up “up there”. But that’s not enough. And that’s why people risk their lives to trek up K2, or hike up Skiddaw and Cat Bells; they want to see, with their own eyes, the view from the top.

And this is why I firmly believe that there’ll be no real surge in public interest in, or public support for, manned space exploration until astronauts start actually GOING somewhere and SEEING somewhere new with their own eyes, lifting a camera up to their spaceship window and taking a picture of it, to share with the rest of us back home.

So, this cupola isn’t just a fancy window. It will change not just the way ISS crews see, and appreciate, the Earth, both whilst working and in their freetime; it will also change the way people down here think of what it’s like to be “up there”.

The best thing NASA could do now is regularly set up a video camera inside that cupola, point it out the window towards Earth, and broadcast the view ‘through the window’ to the world live over the web. That would be a wonderful, wonderful thing.

I wonder if they’ll do it?

And I wonder if one day astronauts in orbit will have a window like this one, which was seen in the much-derided but also much-loved TV sci-fi drama series “Defying Gravity”…

Now THAT’s a window! :-)

Amazing times we live in…

While waiting to see the new “raw” Cassini images of Saturn’s moon Mimas this morning, it hit me, like a slap across the face, just how amazing the times we live in are…

As a member of the popular Unmannedspaceflight.com forum I frequently read posts from people moaning about how long they’re having to wait for images to come back from CASSINI, or LRO, or the Mars rovers, and it makes me laugh, it really does, because compared to how things were back in the “Voyager” days of the 70s and 80s, space enthusiasts like me are spoiled absolutely ROTTEN nowadays! The kids who are “into space” today don’t know they’re born!

I vividly remember how frustrating it was waiting to see the images when Voyager 2 flew past each of the giant planets during their Grand Tour. A handful appeared on the TV news on the night of each encounter – the few given to the media by NASA – and the next morning, if we were lucky, a couple more appeared in a daily paper, but seeing any more meant waiting months, and I mean months, for a special issue of “SKY & TELESCOPE”, “ASTRONOMY” or “NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC” to hit the shelves, featuring lots more pictures of the planets and their moons. I still have some of those NAT GEO specials over there, on my bookshelves, which are straining under the weight of all the Mars books crammed into them…

Of course, things changed radically with the rise of the web, and by the time Pathfinder landed on Mars, and Sojourner started to drive across the surface of the red planet, NASA was releasing images freely onto the internet for everyone to see. I wasn’t online then yet, so I had to rely on the generosity of friends who printed out the pictures taken by Sojourner and pushed them through my letterbox while I was at work, but it was still quite magical to see those pictures of Ares Valley’s rocks and boulders and dust dunes just a matter of hours after they were taken on Mars…

Today, things have moved on even more dramatically. Today, when I woke up, I was able to go online and download new images of the surface of Mars, taken by the Mars rovers, even before the kettle had boiled and before my eyes were properly open. And jjust an hour or so ago I sat here, at this very computer, looking at this very screen, and watched wide-eyed as dozens of “new” images of Mimas, Saturn’s famous “Death Star moon”, like this…

…were posted online for the whole world to see, just hours after they were taken way, waaay Out There.

It’s unbelievable, it really is.

But now I don’t even need to be near my computer to do this! Now I can sit in the car, or in a quiet corner of a busy pub, or pause in a shop doorway while out on a trip to Iceland to buy milk and toilet paper, and see new images from space on my phone!

I know many people take this for granted, but I can’t, not just yet, anyway. You see, in my heart I’m still the same frustrated teenager who went into his local – and very tolerant! – newsagents every day (and I do mean EVERY day!) at the start of each month to scan the shelves, without success, then go up to the counter and ask impatiently and forlornly, yet again, “Are any of my magazines in yet?” as I threatened to explode with the anticipation of seeing new images from spaceprobes and telescopes.

And that’s why I don’t allow myself to get frustrated when some images from Saturn, or Mars, or Mercury or Venus or some other planet or moon don’t appear on the net at exactly the time promised. I remember what it was like around my 21st birthday to watch TV news after TV news in the vain hope of seeing just a few more pictures of Uranus as seen through Voyager 2’s eyes, and I remember, with a shudder, what it was like to go into that newsagent’s and be told that he had accidentally sold my reserved copy of the SKY AND TELESCOPE featuring the first images returned by Pathfinder. I eventually found a copy in a shop 30 miles away (as you can see from the picture at the top of this post) but I wouldn’t want to go back to those dark, dark days for anything…

And I tell you what’s even MORE amazing: when I started doing Outreach talks it was back in the Days Of Slides, when Powerpoint hadn’t been thought of and laptops and video projectors were science fiction. If I wanted to show a picture at a talk at a school, or to a Women’s Institute or some other organisation, or at my astronomy society monthly meeting, I had to use my SLR – with its fancy zoom lens – photograph a magazine page, or a paused image on a video tape, onto slide film… post that slide film away and wait a week for it to come back… go through the rattly-rattly box of slides and pick out the best ones… put them into a long slide magazine and then show them with my Jurassic era slide projector, that threatened to jam every fourth or fifth slide… How I shudder at the memory!

Many years ago “doing a school talk” meant lugging a slide projector and a box full of slides, packed into rucksacks, to the school in question and setting everything up on a table in the middle of the room, just waiting for one stupid poor kid to bang into the table and send the hundred slides hissing and skimming across the floor, ruining everything. Now? Now I have a folder full of Powerpoint presentations, which are all updated regularly with new images, and “doing a school talk” means transferring one of those presentations onto a USB stick, putting it in my pocket, going to the school, sliding the stick into the classroom’s PC and showing it on their hi-tech Smartboard. It’s a different world.

AND… most amazing of all… last night one of my colourisations of Spirit stuck at Troy was used on THE SKY AT NIGHT!!!!

:-) :-) :-)

Spirit stops roving, and soon will sleep

Well, the day rover fans and followers have been dreading for almost 6 years has finally come – NASA has announced that driving commands to Spirit have stopped, and she’s officially parked up for the forthcoming martian winter. Spirit will not move for many months – it’s possible she will never move again, because attempts to tilt her solar panels more favourably towards the Sun didn’t go as well as hoped, and with her power levels already low, and destined to drop even lower, she really is in for a very, very hard time over the next few months. Spirit will now probably go quiet in March, into a kind of hibernation effectively, and if I understand the situation we won’t hear from here again until September. We might not hear from her ever again – she might die in her sleep during the winter, succumbing to the cold.

This is a horrible, horrible time for us rover fans. Of course, we’re all trying to convince ourselves that this isn’t the end, it’s just a pause in her epic Lewis and Clark trek across the floor of Gusev Crater, and comforting ourselves and each other by rolling out cliches like “She’s lived far longer than we dared hope”, “she will still do great science even if she can’t move”, and “she’s done amazingly well” but the bitter, inescapable, bile-in-the-mouth truth is our brave, proud girl is stuck fast, like a baby mammoth that’s blundered into a tar pit, and she might not ever get out again. She might die where she stands now, in this damned dust-filled hole that evil, evil Mars, the murderer of space probes – having failed miserably to kill her with dust storms, low power levels, computer glitches, memory seizures and a broken wheel – put in her path, hiding and camouflaging it beneath a thin crust that gave out beneath her wheels when she drove innocently over it.

This is a close-up of Troy, taken yesterday (I’ve added colour, which I;m not claiming is 1000% accurate, ok?), showing the foul, wickedly fine dust Spirit has become trapped in…

God, I HATE that stuff!!! If I could click my fingers and transport myself to Mars right now I’d drop down to my knees and shovel the ***** stuff out from under her with my gloved hands, like a dog digging a hole for a bone, and then physically push or pull Spirit free, heaving her out of Troy and putting her back safely on the path that leads south to Von Braun and Goddard. But after clicking my fingers for the past half hour clearly that’s not going to happen. There’s nothing I can do. Damnit.

Above is a picture of Spirit, taken a few months ago by MRO’s HiRISE camera. She’s the bright shape to the left of the raised plateau of Homeplate. And there she will stay, for months, possibly forever. And it’s just not fair! Spirit is a ROVER, she’s driven miles – miles! – across Mars since landing, much farther than we ever dared imagine she would. We all knew that one day her mission would end, but I think most people imagined she’d either slowly wear out until one day she ground to a shuddering, broken-down-clown-car halt, or that she’d simply not phone home one day after suffering some catastrophic systems failure overnight, with no chance to report back to us on what had happened to her before her inner light faded like a dying Terminator’s eye. That would have been hard, true, but this… to actually have to sit here and watch her floundering in this sucking dust pit, to have to sit by helplessly and witness her trying bravely to dig herself out of Troy, wheels spinning defiantly, dust churning and spraying out behind her as she fought to haul herself out of her horrible hole… it’s just been torture, it really has.

What the rover drivers and MER team members are feeling, I dread to think.

Of course, many people reading this will be laughing and thinking “Idiot, it’s just a stoopid machine!” but I honestly don’t care any more about them; they’re never going to “get” why these wheeled machines have affected people like me so deeply over the past half decade and I’m not going to try to explain it to them anymore, I’m done with them.

But for people like me, who DO “get” the romance, the drama and adventure of Spirit’s mission, who have walked – virtually, at least – faithfully beside her since she landed, crossing stone-scattered deserts with her, climbing hills with her, sheltering from dust storms with her and watching over her while she slept, bathed in the soft light of Earth and a million diamond dust stars, this is genuinely upsetting. We care about the rover; she’s become a part of our lives. We’ve spent the best part of a decade following her journey. We’ve spent hours and hours looking at the pictures she’s sent back to us across the gulf of space, and many of us have shown them to many thousands of other people, in talks and lectures, feeling a real pride every time one appeared on the screen of the school, theatre or church hall where we were speaking, thinking “That’s my girl…!” as the audience smiled with appreciation and amazement at the image before them.

After seeing new pictures taken by her every day for the past six years, after delighting in a new view of new rocks, new dust dunes and new horizons for all those hundreds and hundreds of days, now we face the prospect of not hearing anything from Spirit for half a year. We might hear now and again that she’s still alive, we might not. All we will be able to do is sit here and wait, with fingers, toes and everything else crossed that Spirit wakes from her martian hibernation and phones home again, letting us know that she beat Mars’ latest and cruellest attempt to kill her and is ready to try to get out of her sandtrap again. I hope that’s what happens; I hope that come September Spirit shudders back to life, blinks open her electronic eyes, sticks two fingers up at Mars and laughs, contemptuously, “Ha! Is that the best you’ve got? I’m still here!”

We’ll see. The odds aren’t good, but as my rover driver friend – and how proud I am to be able to say that! – always says, “Don’t bet against Spirit…”

No! This can’t be it! You know what? I’m going to try clicking my fingers again. Maybe if I do it hard enough, and if I wish hard enough, I CAN magically transport myself to Mars. Then, even if I can’t dig Spirit out I can sit down beside here, on that frigid, dusty ground in the shadow of the Columbia Hills and just sit with her, keeping her company through the long cold days and circuit-shatteringly cold nights that stretch out ahead of her. Maybe, if I wish hard enough, I can go to Mars, drape a load of my warmest, thickest coats, fleeces and jackets over her and keep her warm enough to survive through the bleak Barsoomian winter that’s looming on the horizon -

No. It’s still not working.

Damnit.

So. As you read this, a plucky little rover stands quietly on the surface of Mars, trapped in a bowl of dust as fine as flour and as foul as can be. She has given her makers, her drivers and her fans everything. She fought hard and long to get out of the pit she fell into, but she just couldn’t do it. Now, as the temperature at Homeplate falls, as icy fingers of cold start to scratch over and dig into her, she’s preparing to close her eyes and, like one of those penguns at the south pole, brace herself against the winter that’s rushing and howling towards her. If she makes it through thatw inter, if she comes out of the other side, it will be the most amazing, the most incredible survival story in the history of unmanned space exploration, the robotic equivalent of Shackleton’s party surviving their terrible time on Elephant Island. If she doesn’t survive… well, her place in history is already assured.

It’s hard to leave her, but we have no choice. There’s nothing more we can do. She’s on her own now – or will be, soon – and what happens then is completely out of our hands. But I know that we won’t abandon her. We’ll check on her status every day. We’ll check our email inboxes for reports from JPL; we’ll check Exploratorium just in case, against all the odds, she sneaked a new image back home in the night, just to let us all know she’s still alive. And at least once every day we’ll think of her and mentally drape an arm over her shoulders as she shudders and shivers in her sleep, hoping to warm her, if only just a little, as she dreams of climbing hills once again, of  watching dust devils whirling and whorling across the wide open plain once again, and seeing the Sun set behind distant hills just one more time.

Soon it will be time for some poor soul at JPL to send a command to Spirit to stop taking pictures, and gathering data, and just rest. I can only imagine how that person will feel as they type in the command and hit the ENTER key; it would feel like putting down a pet to me, I’m sure. But I know that as they send that command sequence there’ll be other people around them, sharing their pain, and reassuring them that it will be alright, it will be alright, there’s nothing else they can do…

And if I know Scott, and Sharon, and the rest of the rover team like I think I do, then I know that they’ll all be thinking the same thing as those commands fly away from Earth and beam towards Mars…

“We’ll come back for you, we promise…”

——————————————————————-

“The Sandman” by Margaret Thomson Janvier

The rosy clouds float overhead,

The sun is going down;

And now the sandman’s gentle tread

Comes stealing through the town.

“White sand, white sand,” he softly cries,

And as he shakes his hand,

Straightway there lies on babies’ eyes

His gift of shining sand.

Blue eyes, gray eyes, black eyes, and brown,

As shuts the rose, they softly close, when he goes through the town.

The Beauty of Endeavour…

There have been some beautiful and iconic pictures taken since the start of the Space Age: Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon… Earthrise… This week a new image was taken and returned to Earth that will join these photographs in the file marked “Wow… look at that…” Taken by an astronaut onboard the International Space Station, it shows the space shuttle orbiter Endeavour – but not in any way you’ve ever, EVER seen before…

You absolutely HAVE to click on that picture to do it justice.

That picture is, in every sense of the word, beautiful, don’t you think? It’s like a painting – the composition, the light, the colours, they’re all superb. I can’t think of any other image I’ve ever seen from the shuttle era that shows so perfectly just how beautiful and elegant a spacecraft shuttle is. Wings in space… high above the Earth… silhouetted against the Monet-painted atmosphere of Mankind’s Homeworld… Nothing proposed in the now-cancelled Constellation program would, or could ever, come close to offering us the sheer beauty of that image.

We just lost the Moon… for now…

( Readers, please note: this is a long, personal ramble, one of those stream-of-consciousness posts that comes out when I’m trying to “get my head around” something and sort out how I feel about it, so it might not be particularly well structured, or make a lot of sense, and I might contradict myself here and there, but I’m still trying to make sense out of this Brave New NASA World so bear with me, ok? And if you disagree with me then fair enough, thanks for stopping by; as usual, I appreciate your company here, but don’t send snotty comments, please. I can guarantee you none of you love NASA, or space exploration, more than I do, so it’s a waste of time criticising me for feeling p’d off about all this. If you think I’m wrong then set up your own blog and put the counter argument, I’d like to read your thoughts! :-) )

Last Monday was a big day, a HUGE day for everyone involved in or just interested in space exploration, because NASA’s new budget was announced. After months and months of speculation, which followed the eagerly-anticipated report of the Augustine Commission, set up to review the US’s manned space program’s future and goals (and which basically concluded “Without a lot more money you are going nowhere and will be able to do b****r all”), President Obama gave his verdict on NASA’s ambitions plans to send astronauts back to the Moon, and on to Mars, via the ‘Constellation’ program of Ares rockets, Orion capsule and Altair lunar lander…

Some had expected NASA to be told to trim down its lunar and martian ambitions. Some had expected NASA to be be given more money in order to allow Constellation to sputter on. Not many expected the entire Constellation program to be scrapped – but that’s what happened. President Obama has basically tossed the whole thing – all the rockets, all the capsules, all the plans for Moon bases – in the bin, slammed the lid down on them, given the bin a good kick and then walked away.

When I heard the news I must admit I was very, very upset. As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my dreams is to see a man (or woman, before anyone writes in!) walk on Mars before I die. Hearing that the Constellation program had been crumpled up and tossed in the trash like a paper cup from MacDonalds was like the death of that dream, because if NASA isn’t oing to put people on Mars, who is? No other agency, or country, is anywhere near them technically (or financally), so the cancellation of Constellation’s Moon Base and launch architecture was essentially the cancellation of any manned Mars missions – by NASA – in the next 30 years, the way I saw it as I sat at work, in the staff room, reading the breaking news on my mobile phone. That was it. I was never going to see people bounding across Mars. In fact, I was probably never even going to see a Moon Base.

Yes, I was angry. “Short sighted ******* politicians!!!” “Penny pinching bureaucrats!!” etc etc growled out of me. Selfish, I know, but you know me, I love and live this stuff. It matters to me. I want to see people, not just robots, exploring Mars damnit!! :-(

A few days later tho, after giving it some thought, although my head is still spinning with the repercussions and significance of this, I can’t help thinking that this might actually, in a bizarre, strange, twisted way, be just what NASA needs. It might actually, in the long run, be A Good Thing. It might actually be NASA’s salvation rather than its doom.

Because, let’s face it, the whole Constellation program, the Constellation dream, was a complete mess from the start. Way, waaay over budget; rockets and spacecraft that shrank – in size and ability – more and more as time passed; a schedule written in sand, that slipped more often than Bambi taking his first steps on an icy pond…

I don’t know about you, but Constellation just never felt, well, real to me. It had no heart, no soul. It was a Powerpoint space program, a YouTube away team, and little more. My PC hard drive has folders crammed full of MPEG4  and Quicktime animations showing Ares rockets thundering into the sky, or astronauts rolling across the Moon’s surface in sexy-looking rovers and buggies, always to soaring, inspiring music and usually with lots of trendy, shaky, Battlestar Galactica-type camera effects. I’ve shown them again and again during Outreach talks, and they’ve always gone down pretty well… but watching them I don’t think I ever truly believed any of them myself. They looked fantastic, and represented a bold, exciting future, but that future didn’t seem… real.

There was no public interest in or excitement about Constellation because, cards on the table time, NASA did a crap job of promoting, selling and justifying it. They never, NEVER, made a convincing case for WHY people should go back to the Moon, for WHY a mountain of money should be spent on building a Moon Base. Many people I met at my talks and Outreach events asked “They want to go to the Moon again? Why? We’ve already been there, haven’t we? What’s the point?”

I think NASA actually managed to make missions to the Moon seem boring with Constellation – it was all about the launches, and the rockets, and astronauts jiggering about in sexy, gleaming rovers, and not WHY going to the Moon is a good thing to do.

Hardly anyone I know – outside of “space circles” – had a clue what NASA was planning re the Moon and Mars, or why, and most were horrified by the cost, and bewildered why they basically just wanted to repeat Apollo. That wasn’t the case, you and I know that my dear readers, but Out There, in the real world, people just didn’t know, because NASA hadn’t told them. Constellation was a kind of fantasy space-based role playing game for NASA employees and fans to enjoy, but no-one else.

Actually, sometimes I got the distinct impression that NASA itself wasn’t all that excited by Constellation, but that just have been me.

I always thought that, amongst space exploration enthusiasts, there was a huge white Constellation-shaped elephant in the room whenever the subject of “future exploration” was raised. It was as if everyone knew, but no-one would admit, that Constellation was too expensive, to ‘yesterday’, too badly thought out to ever work. But everyone kept their heads down, kept beavering away, and continued as if nothing was wrong.

When the first – and, we now know, only – Ares rocket blasted off on that test flight, the media got a bit breathless, but most people’s reaction was “Hmm, so what?” I remember thinking at the time, as I watched the launch live on TV at work, “Ok… but that’s the last time I’ll ever see THAT fly”, and I was right.

I know a lot of people had real hopes and dreams pinned on that rocket, and I know that many thousands of people at NASA and its contractors worked themselves to the point of exhaustion to make and fly it, but I could never warm to the Ares I. I’m a self-confessed and defiantly proud shuttle fan, and Ares always struck me as an ugly, shaky, glorified firework of a rocket, with an ugly, glorified squashed Coke can of a capsule stuck on the end, with astronauts crammed inside it like fat white sardines in a can, facing an inglorious, undignified splash down at the end of their mission. I’m always criticised for sticking up for the space shuttle – “It’s too expensive!”, “It’s unsafe!”, “It has a bad safety record!”, “It’s ancient technology!” but even if some of those things are true I don’t care, I still say that, compared to the graceful return to Earth of a shuttle – with its nose rising into the air, its wheels softly kissing the tarmac and its wings shining in the sunshine – the return to Earth of an Orion capsule would be a timid, almost pathetic way for astronauts to Come Home. As for Orion missions themselves, well, Orion-riding astronauts would have been little more than spacesuited crash test dummies – certainly not Explorers! Explorers GO places, SEE and EXPERIENCE them, head for and reach their horizons. Explorers bring things home. CEV riding astronauts would be little more than tourists, or sightseers. We might just as well mount a camera on the capsule nose cone and launch them as pseudo-spaceprobes…

But Orion has gone now, dumped in the Big Obama Bin along with the Ares rockets, Altair lunar lander and everything else related to Constellation. In its place, a “new, focussed” space program that commits NASA to studying Earth more, to exploring the solar system with robots more, and to get back to its glory days of inventing new technologies – propulsion systems, etc – which will, hopefully, drive forwards future exploration. The great news to come out of this whole mess is that the ISS’s future has been secured under the Obama spotlight, with a new commitment to expanding its capabilities and increasing the amount of science done on it. As for the business of getting people to and from the ISS, the plan is to encourage – and help fund – private companies to build their own spacecraft, capsules and spaceplanes, which would then carry ISS crews. This is a HUGE step towards the commercialisation of space, and might kick start a new era of “citizen spaceflight”. That’s the hope, anyway.

So, Constellation is dead, and many people won’t mourn its passing too deeply. What comes next will either begin a new golden age of commercial space travel, and reinvigorate NASA and help it get back to actually exploring again, or it will hit manned spaceflight’s PAUSE button for years and see us all imprisoned in low Earth orbit for a(nother) generation.

I’m fearful that it’s the latter, because NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recently said that the development of a heavy lift launcher – a huge rocket needed for interplanetary missions – would not bear fruit until “the 2020 – 2030 timeframe” Good. God. If it’s not ready until 2030 (and that probably means 2035 in real life, because these things NEVER stick to a schedule set down at the start) then that would mean several more years of testing… I can’t see a manned return to the Moon until, what, 2040? That would mean Mars expeditions maybe ten years later? For pity’s sake, I’ll be 85! Eighty ******* five!!!! I don’t want to have to wait that long to see people bounding across Mars! I don’t want to watch the first manned Mars expedition from my deathbed, like Dave Bowman at the end of 2001!!!! What the hell are they playing at? How did my generation lose not just the Moon, but Mars too?

This is a real fear for me now – that I will never see people on Mars. I know some people are of the opinion that this refocussing of NASA might actually mean we get to Mars quicker, and they may be right – but not for the reasons they have in mind. This might mean that people will reach Mars more quickly than we we were thinking – but they won’t be Americans, or Europeans, they’ll be Chinese. I really think that’s a possibility now. The Chinese space program is moving ahead steadily, and who’s to say that they won’t now set their sights on Mars and try to upstage the US?

Part of me thinks – as many people do – that it doesn’t matter which country puts the first people on Mars, as long as someone goes. But a bigger part of me – maybe a more selfish part, I don’t know – thinks that hell, yes, it does matter, because a “Western” Mars expedition would be much, much more open than a Chinese one. We’d get to see the crew selection and training. We’d get to follow the mission’s “behind the scenes” action.We’d have media briefings, press conferences galore. We’d see every single stage of the mission. We’d know the crew members inside out. We’d be able to “ride along” with them on their flight thanks to cameras inside the ship. We’d ride down to the surface with them, and be there with them during the landing itself, for every historic moment of it, and in the days and months that followed we’d have live footage daily, along with countless thousands of images to drool over. We’d be able to correspond openly with the astronauts, read their blogs, send them messages…

Would all that happen with a Chinese mission? I honestly don’t think so. So, while it would be great to see anyone on Mars before I die, I don’t want “seeing it” to involve just watching some “highlights” on TV and being drip fed photographs from it. I want the full, open, global experience, and with the greatest respect I genuinely don’t think we’d get that with a Chinese mission.

And you know what? I really don’t think Americans realise just how politically and culturally shocking it would be to see the next footprints on the Moon being made by a Chinese astronauts. Although other countries have space programs, the US’s space program has dominated the public’s consciousness because it’s a) so succesful, and b) so open and media friendly. Consequently, the US has “owned” space for generations. THEIR shuttles have had all the headlines; THEIR astronauts have been the ones on the TV news; THEIR spaceprobes have flitted around the solar system exploring Earth’s sister worlds, thrilling us back here on Earth with their photographs. Europe has a space program, and a space agency, but to be honest their PR and publicity efforts are so lousy that very few of the people I meet at my talks etc are even aware there IS a European Space Agency, never mind that it has sent probes to Venus and Mars and beyond.

So, in a few years time, when the shuttle fleet is retired, and the US becomes reliant on cadging and begging lifts up into orbit onboard Russian capsules, ouch, that’s gonna hurt America’s pride, I really think it will. But that hurt will be nothing, NOTHING compared to the hurt, then humiliation, then anger the US will feel if the next manned expedition to Luna is a Chinese one, and a Chinese astronaut steps down the ladder to plant a Chinese flag in the lunar dirt, and this picture is all over the net and on every TV news program and on every newspaper and magazine…

That will be like a slap across the face. That might actually be what kicks the US manned space program hard up the a** and makes it get its act together.

But that’s the future. Where are we now? Well, we’re here…

No, really, we are: for the forseeable future no astronauts will go any further than the hull of the ISS. They’ll go out of the ISS airlock, crawl across and along its struts, trusses and gantries, going about their work professionally and thoroughly. But when they take a moment to grab a rest and take in the view, they’ll look out into the heavens and see the Moon, and Mars, and know that they will not be going there, as they had hoped and dreamed of doing. The ISS will almost certainly be as far as they will ever go…

Many people are reacting to the cancellation of Constellation by hurling abuse at Obama, accusing him of “Killing NASA” and “destroying the space program”. I can understand their hurt and frustration, especially those of them who work inside the space program and had very real hopes of helping build and fly Constellation missins, or even fly on them in person, but looking in from the outside I can’t really imagine what else Obama could have done. If he’d just said “Yep, fine, carry on”, he would have been guilty of hiding his head in the sand and not facing the reality of NASA being underfunded and having no chance of getting back to the Moon or going to Mars without more money. If he’d simply given them more money, enough to keep Constellation ticking along, he’d have been accused – and rightly so – of simply throwing good money after bad and ignoring the underlying problems and issues, namely that Constellation was too expensive and too blurry to actually work. If he’d gone all JFK on us, and, in a big, rousing speech, announced he was giving NASA a huge cash boost, enough to send a single, flag-and-footprints manned mission to Mars, he’d have been accused of ignoring the US’s sick economy and of throwing money away (space enthusiasts know that’s not the case, I know, but many people Out There don’t. He’d have been crucified.)

Obama’s decision to scrap Constellation doesn’t mean he is “the next JFK”, as some – including Buzz Aldrin – have suggested. Obama is no JFK. He simply doesn’t have the opportunity to be, not in the current political and economic climate; there’s just not the money available for him to send NASA off on a bold new adventure, nit that I think he has any desire to do that anyway. For all his bold talk and great speeches, I don’t think he’s a “space person”. Science, yes, absolutely. Space? Not so much. There’s no fire in his eyes when he talks about it. So, Obama will never be able to do the Grand Thing, but this time I think he did the Right Thing, as hard as it is for me, a lifelong space enthusiast and dreamer, to say that.

I can imagine Obama sitting at that big desk in the Oval Office, with a well-thumbed, coffee ring stained copy of the report of the Augustine Commission in front of him and new NASA Administrator Charles Bolden sitting in one of the plush chairs there, and saying “Charlie, I’m sorry, but there’s no getting around it – Constellation’s dead. We can’t afford it, and you can’t build or fly it. It’s gone. It’ll p*** people off, I know, at NASA and up on the Hill, but I’ll take those punches because it’s time to get real, no more fantasy missions, no more messing about and hoping everything will turn out right in the end. Everyone sees what a great job the rovers are doing on Mars, and loves the pictures from Cassini, but they can see the shuttle’s become a glorified damned taxi. I’m going to give the privateers some money and let them take care of getting your astronauts to the ISS, so you can concentrate on pushing back that frontier. Now get out of here and go find us a real space program.”

Will that happen? Only time will tell. But this is a turning point for sure. Things Have Changed. How? We can’t know yet. This will either go down in history as the time when, after years of floundering around aimlessly, the human spaceflight side of NASA actually found a direction and a purpose and got its act together – or it will be seen as the time when NASA turned its back on sending human explorers to the Moon, and Mars, and settled for a life in low Earth orbit onboard the ISS, waving sadly and jealously at the expeditions from China and other countries as they flew past.

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