Tag Archives: space shuttle

Challenger’s legacy

challenger

“The shuttle blew up.”

When my friend Robbie told me that in the afternoon of January 28, 1986, I thought he was kidding.  I may have even said “You’re kidding,” in response.  For a ten-year-old who’d been fascinated with space exploration and NASA ever since he first asked his father what those little twinkling lights in the night sky were, and indeed for a country accustomed to unqualified success in the exploration of space, it was a kick to the gut.  The Space Shuttle Challenger, lost only a few moments after launch on a beautiful Florida morning.  How could this have happened?  Over the months and years that followed we’d learn about SRB’s, Morton Thiokol and O-rings and shake our heads at the realization that a faulty piece of rubber could have cost the lives of seven courageous astronauts (including the first schoolteacher in space) and dragged the triumphant American space program into a downward spiral of limited ambition.

It’s perhaps a lingering tragedy of the human experience that we quickly become inured to being awed, that the miraculous can become routine in the course of time.  The Apollo program ended when the voices questioning its cost finally became the majority, when it seemed that after achieving the ideological goal of beating the Soviets, the moon was “been there, done that.”  And the shuttle looked more like the beginnings of the starships we’d watched whipping across the galaxy in our favourite science fiction adventures, but its missions had become predictable, stale – Challenger and her sister ships were workhorses instead of explorers, deploying satellites and touching down again like an orbital version of FedEx.  Forgotten, largely, in that routine, was how dangerous space flight remained, even after nearly thirty years.  Until 1986, no American had ever died in space – the fire that claimed the lives of the three Apollo 1 astronauts occurred during a routine test on the launch pad.  Even the infamous Apollo 13 “successful failure” returned its crew unharmed.  It was inconceivable, even as we looked at that strange image of the two-pronged trail of smoke in the sky that such a thing could happen, given the reach of our technological genius.  When it did, we were shattered, and we stepped back.  And failure became a meme – telescopes broke, probes disappeared without trace and Columbia broke apart, killing its entire crew (including another first, the first Israeli astronaut), on re-entry in 2003.

Twenty-seven years after the Challenger tragedy, the space shuttle has flown for the last time.  In a political climate where the number one obsession is deficit and debt, the expensive notion of space exploration, where the financial return on billion-dollar missions is difficult to explain to the Tea Party congressmen who control NASA’s budget, is unpalatable to say the least.  Yet the promise and the appeal of what waits up there remain potent and meaningful, and retain their ability to stir the soul and set dreams alight.  Over the last several weeks Canada’s astronaut Chris Hadfield has been tweeting from the International Space Station, offering stunning pictures of our world from high above, where one cannot see a single trace of war, hunger, poverty or pop star shenanigans – merely the peace of a beautiful planet.  Hadfield nearly broke the Internet with his much-retweeted exchange with William Shatner, advising the “Captain” that he was in standard orbit and detecting signs of life.  When considering the scope of the universe beyond our little world, our recurring conflicts over lines on maps and ever-dwindling resources seem to be the apex of Lilliputian pettiness and futility.  Yet we still hope.  Could the final frontier unite us as everyone who’s ever seen an episode of Star Trek hopes it will?  Could we at long last stop obsessing about who has the most toys and instead devote those energies toward a higher pursuit?

It seems to me that when Challenger died, much of our collective imagination went with it.  We chose to cut back, to scale down, to play things safe.  To outsource much of the work and the risk to the same Russians everyone was once desperate to defeat in the cosmic theatre.  When it comes to the exploration of space, we think small, cheap and forgettable.  Newt Gingrich absorbed his fair share of ridicule for suggesting during the GOP presidential primaries that the U.S. should try to build a lunar colony, and as far-fetched as that might seem, so was John F. Kennedy’s declaration in 1961 that America intended to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth by the end of the decade.  Between promise and realization it took 8 years.  What’s even more frustrating is that when Kennedy spoke those words, scientists had no idea how to accomplish the task.  Today, we have all the technology we need to get us back to the moon or to Mars or even beyond; we lack only the will to do so.  (The cynic in me believes we might get there faster if one of these heavenly bodies is proved to contain vast reserves of oil.)

In his commemorative address offered to the nation on the evening of January 28, 1986, President Ronald Reagan spoke about the sacrifice of the Challenger crew and promised that they would never be forgotten; that the exploration of space would continue.  Yet I don’t believe that the lethargic careful dipping of our toes into the interstellar ocean is paying tribute to them in the way the substance of Reagan’s speech intended.  We should be doing more.  If humanity is fated to disappear from the universe without ever spreading itself beyond the confines of the pale blue dot it inhabits, it will be solely because of our lack of will.  Do we truly want our epitaph to be a Douglas Adams-esque pronouncement like “Galactic Chickenshits”?  Or is getting the chance to touch the face of God, as Reagan described it, worth the risk?  The Challenger crew believed it was.  The Columbia crew believed it was.  Deep down we know it is too.  The greatest tribute we can pay those who have lost their lives is to make their sacrifice mean something – to go on, to shake off the creep of apathy and to continue charging toward the blinking lights in the night sky on a tail of flame, carried by our science and propelled by our dreams – for they, like the spirits of the Challenger crew, truly have no limits.

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Skyfall Countdown Day 13: Moonraker

“Why are we together again?”

I’m a NASA junkie and have been since before I can remember.  My family took me to Cape Canaveral when I was eight, and my most treasured acquisition from that trip was a plastic model of the space shuttle Discovery that my father and I built and painted together.  When Moonraker’s iconic gunbarrel opened to the sight of a space shuttle being carried on the back of a 747, my younger self was utterly enthralled.  The funny thing about James Bond for me is that I look at them with two sets of eyes – the kid who can be wowed by anything, for whom watching Bond was a way of bonding with his dad, and the older, more cynical bastard who always notices the wires dangling from the spaceship.  Everything critics say about Moonraker is true:  it’s silly, it’s out-there space fantasy, it’s the worst of every excess the Bond series ever suffered, and it’s fundamentally a transparent attempt to leech off the success of Star Wars.  But damn if I don’t still dig it.  I can acknowledge its flaws, I can shrug at the ludicrous spectacle of lasers flying left and right and the outright goofiness of the entire endeavour.  But I can still load it up on a rainy Sunday afternoon and groove on it.  Perhaps it’s just that the brand of James Bond is so enduring that even the lesser movies contain something of value – perhaps its “wow factor” continues to appeal to our inner kid.

Ian Fleming’s original novel, which takes place entirely in England, revolved around an English industrialist named Hugo Drax who has built a giant rocket to be deployed as part of Britain’s defense system.  Bond discovers that Drax is actually a German consumed with loathing for all things English who intends to aim his rocket at the heart of London instead.  For the movie however, trying to top the spectacle that was The Spy Who Loved Me, and seeking to cash in on the late 70’s cinematic space craze, anchoring the plot to earth was not even in question.  When the aforementioned space shuttle is hijacked in midair, and after a breathtaking opening freefall fight that required 88 separate jumps to capture on film, 007 travels to California to investigate the shuttle’s disappearance and match wits with Drax (Michael Lonsdale), rewritten here as the billionaire private contractor behind America’s space program.  Pursuing the trail from a glass factory in Venice to the carnival-filled streets of Rio de Janeiro and finally deep into the Amazon jungle, Bond and CIA agent Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) discover Drax’s plan to wipe out the human race using a nerve gas developed from rare orchids, prior to repopulating the planet with his version of a master race of perfect physical specimens.  Rocketing into orbit, and with assistance at a timely juncture by U.S. space marines, the two agents lead a battle aboard Drax’s space station to destroy the gas and save humanity.  The kid thinks “This is the most awesome thing ever!”  The old guy grumbles “Good grief.  Where’s my copy of From Russia with Love?”

But there are a couple of things both sides of me can agree on.  Ken Adam, in his 007 swan song, does a masterful job.  He takes clunky real-life NASA equipment like the centrifuge trainer and gives it a polished, futuristic look.  Drax’s Amazon base, which combines modern, almost German expressionist vertical lines with the crumbling limestone of an Incan temple, would be a suitable enough locale for a Bond film finale.  But even it pales next to the space station, for which Adam’s challenge was to differentiate it substantially from the Death Star and the rotating wheel of 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  It’s a modular creation (described as a mobile in space) and its interiors are a perfect balance of practical function based on extrapolation from then-current NASA technology, and a sleek designer’s touch.  With all respect to Adam’s successors, no Bond villain’s lair would ever look like this again, or make such a lasting impression on first view.  It had to, really, given the images throughout the movie that precede its grand reveal.  The visual effects throughout the climactic battle, supervised by Bond veteran Derek Meddings, still hold up extremely well today, and credit must be given to Meddings’ team for a reasonably accurate depiction of the space shuttle’s takeoff and flight in 1979 given that the shuttle did not launch in real life until 1981.  The action beats are solid, with the opening fall from the sky, a gondola chase through the canals of Venice and a fistfight aboard the cable cars of Rio standing out as highlights (spoiled somewhat by being punctuated with misguided attempts at comedy, but more on that later).  One of the most haunting deaths ever depicted in a Bond movie occurs when Drax’s assistant Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery) is hunted down through a forest by killer dogs.  John Barry returns and abandons the electric guitar and swinging percussion that characterized his early Bond work in favour of a more mature sound that uses sweeping strings and a choir to depict the vast emptiness of outer space.

Now, to the elements that the older man can’t forgive so easily.  As I indicated yesterday, I love the spectacle of Bond, but I want that spectacle to have some meat behind it, otherwise it becomes, as Shakespeare would put it, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Bond himself really has no character arc here, no personal journey to fulfill other than serving as the wrench which jams the engine of Drax’s master plan, nor is his relationship with the underwritten Holly Goodhead anything more than a happenstance of proximity – that is, she’s the only “good girl” in range.  As sinister as Michael Lonsdale is, with his refined French accent draping itself lovingly around lines like “You defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you,” he, like Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, is too straightforwardly evil to be a truly compelling foe for our hero – there are no layers to his villainy, no motivation other than the usual line about civilization having become corrupt and needing a reset.  In fact, the only character who has any kind of growth in the movie is Jaws (Richard Kiel), who finds love and morphs from remorseless killer-for-hire into a just-in-time good guy (apparently a request made by director Lewis Gilbert’s grandson).  Instead of character beats, we get comedy, and a regrettable trend toward silent movie era slapstick that will only grow over the next few films.  Jaws himself is portrayed as too much of a bumbling oaf to ever represent any kind of threat to Bond, and as a result the first two thirds of the movie are devoid of any serious suspense.  Even in Live and Let Die, Bond had to occasionally use only his wits to extricate himself from danger, but in this movie he always has the right gadget at the right time.  (A couple of machine-gun toting thugs oblige Bond by simply watching agape as his gondola transforms itself – verrrrrry slowly, mind you – into a car for an escape across the Venice piazzas.)  We need to have at least some sense that Bond might be in over his head to invest ourselves in his surviving, and unfortunately it doesn’t happen in this movie.

But there come moments, however, when you simply say the heck with all of that, and let the kid take over and get lost in the fantasy.  Moonraker is such a strongly designed film that the visual elements forgive the flaws in performance and narrative choices, and is worth a look by the older, more discriminating you for that reason if nothing more.  The kid will be wowed by the laser beams and the explosions and the half-naked gorgeous women, and whether we want to admit or not, sometimes, especially with James Bond, that’s enough.

Tomorrow:  For Your Eyes Only comes down to earth but brings the wrong luggage with it.

Ex astris, somnia

The centre of our galaxy, as imaged by NASA.

They are pinpricks in the dark mantle of heaven, tiny oases of light in the desert of the night.  We stare at them when the clouds have parted and the artificial lights of the cityscape have gone, looking out into the universe, into the past.  Their shape has found its way into the iconography of every culture on earth.  They are a deep well of mystery to be unraveled, a trove of endless knowledge waiting to be decoded by scientific observation and analysis.  We entrust them with our wishes, and they are the vault of our dreams.

It is impossible to look up at the “heaventree of stars,” as James Joyce called it in Ulysses, and not experience a moment of transcendence.  Even astronomers, whose lives are spent cataloguing the universe and translating it into numbers, are still humbled by the beauty of stars.  Historical stargazers like Galileo, facing the wrath of the Church for casting doubt upon God’s divine order, could not stop peering up into the night sky.  Some, like Giordano Bruno, went to their deaths transfixed by the possibilities of worlds beyond the confines of Earth.  Stars may be, scientifically speaking, massive balls of burning hydrogen, but more than that, they are the very fires of imagination, reaching out to us from so far away.

Dreamers often trip over the sidewalk because they’re busy looking up.  I remember visiting my grandfather’s cottage as a boy and sitting on the dock long past sunset, armed with a pair of binoculars, and feeling overwhelmed by the sight above my head – where metropolitan light pollution back home kept the players restricted to familiar constellations like the two Dippers, out here in the north was an entire galaxy revealed; the Milky Way in all its splendor and sublimity.  The plethora of mosquito bites that revealed themselves the following morning was testament to how long I spent out there that night, lost in the possibilities of the grand everything.  Not appreciating it at the time, but understanding now that on that evening I was connected to the entirety of human history, to everyone who had ever stopped in the night, cast their eyes to the sky and if even for a moment, wondered.

From a purely scientific viewpoint, stars are fascinating.  The cosmic cornucopia of star types, from blue supergiant to brown dwarf.  The cycle of their birth and death, the clever universe recycling the debris left by a supernova into new stars and planets, and in our case, new life.  Black holes, pulsars, quasars, nebulae.  Beyond every turn in the cosmos lies a perplexing new construct to enthrall the curious and the seekers of truth.  Yet stars have an indelible spiritual quality also, something that cannot be reduced to an equation, a chemical reaction.

When we feel smallest, when we are walled in by the borders of our lives, the stars remind us that there is so much more – more than anyone can conceive in the longest lifetime, more than our species will ever be able to experience in its entire existence.  It is no surprise then, that many wonderful narratives have been written that take place out there, and that the ongoing narrative of humankind’s fledgling exploration of the stars continues to compel.  I’ve been a fan of both science fiction and science fact my entire life:  books about the U.S.S. Enterprise and the Apollo missions have rested side by side on my nighttable.  A most treasured possession was a plastic model of the space shuttle Discovery, acquired on a visit to Cape Canaveral and painstakingly assembled and painted by me and my father, with a place of honor among my collection of classic Lego Space.  The stars call to our very souls, inviting us to follow like beacons of inspiration.  Lighthouses of friendship and warmth amidst endless, oppressive darkness.  And we are more than willing to answer.

As we craft our tales of imagined far-off worlds, or calculate the gravitational pull of a red giant, the question remains:  what exactly are we looking for when we look at the stars?  The simplest answer may be that in kindling our dreams, the stars are ultimately like distant, tantalizing mirrors.  We look into them, squinting, peering long and hard, hoping to discover the missing elements of our own equation staring back at us.  Out in the farthest reaches of the universe, we are looking for ourselves.  That connection to the purest spiritual truth that has eluded us since our dawn and remains for now at least, like the stars, just out of reach – what it means to be human.