Music of the spheres

Michael Hann in the Guardian considers the Sonar electronic music festival in Barcelona marking its twenty-fifth anniversary by beaming music segments to a star some twelve light years distant. He then goes on to ruminate on humans taking music into space, from Gemini astronauts in the 60s playing a mouth organ to Chris Hadfield playing music in the International Space Station. And, of course, the famous golden discs on the two Voyager probes, now moving faster than any human-made objects in history, out of our solar system (in fact one has now passed the boundary which marks the edge of our solar system, and is the first human craft in interstellar space).

And his thoughts on this? He thinks it is mostly hubris that drove the science team to include these musical representations of human culture on these probes, on records that could, theoretically, last until long after the Earth itself is gone and the sun burned dim (unless it is found by intelligent aliens and played). Those discs could, in fact, one distant day be all that remains of human culture in the far, far future, preserved forever in the cold of deep space, with music and sounds and languages from around the globe and across the centuries.

That wasn’t hubris. It was something far, far better: it was hope, it was optimism, it was reaching out for a hoped-for better future for an expanded humanity and perhaps, just perhaps, a shared future with who knows what other new friends we might find out there. Who hopefully dig our music. An infinitesimally small chance of ever being found, a message in a bottle on a cosmic ocean; probably never be found or played or even if it is, understood. But it could be, it’s improbably, not impossible. No, not hubris: hope. And wonder. And joy. Far too easy to be cynical and critical, as this journalist has been, at such artistic and cultural reaching out beyond. We need to look with better eyes than that.

“You are here…”

Taken on this day in 1967, from the unmanned test of Apollo 4 on November 9th, paving the way for the soon-to-follow manned lunar Apollo missions which would put a human being on the moon by 1969, a view of our world that until that point no human eyes had ever seen in all of history, taken at an altitude of 9, 544 miles above our world.

This was taken not long before I was born. By the following Christmas of 1968 Apollo 8 would take the remarkable “Earthrise” photograph as they came around from the dark side of the Moon, the farthest any human being had ever been from home, the very first to see the entire globe of our world, and see it rising above the Lunar horizon. The following year Armstrong and Aldrin would land on the Moon’s surface. I was born into the height of the Space Age and as a boy I dreamed of being an astronaut when I grew up.

Sometimes looking at these images I still dream

Where no-one has gone before – The Farthest

The Farthest,

Directed by Emer Reynolds

Another of my slate of screenings at the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival was this gem of a science documentary from Irish director Emer Reynolds, on one of the greatest feats of exploration – the Voyager missions. I’ve been a space geek for as long as I’ve been a science fiction fan, the two interests often cross-feeding one another (the great Arthur C Clarke incorporated new knowledge gleaned from Voyager and other missions into some of his science fiction writing). And I grew up with Voyager, launched in 1977 when I was just a kid, I followed the missions, in those long ago, pre-internet days through the old fashioned media of documentaries on the BBC, the Sky at Night and journals like New Scientist, right through to my teens and early adulthood as this long, long mission progressed, taking us on a “grand tour” of the outer planets and showing sights no human had ever seen before.

The history and the science will be familiar to many who have an interest in space exploration, but this is a story that is well worth revisiting, because it is a magnificent triumph of ideas made real by clever engineering, and that human urge to explore pushing us further than ever before; our ancestors, be they European seaman or the great Polynesian navigators on wood and reed rafts, sailed vast oceans of the Earth, exploring, and with Voyager we sailed a sea of stars to the distant planets… And then beyond.

The two Voyagers took in giant worlds, including a couple we didn’t even know existed until a couple of centuries ago and revealed more complexity and wonder than anyone dared hope for, from the searing radiation around mighty Jupiter and its moons, those wonderful rings around Saturn, those cold, remote outer giants of Neptune and Uranus. It showed us volcanic eruptions on a world other than our own for the first time, and these probes traveled billions of miles from our home, reprogrammed from the increasingly distant Earth for each mission, clever maths taking them on a course not just to worlds, but using the gravity of those worlds to “slingshot” onto their next trajectory (receiving a speed boost into the process). Kepler and Newtown would have approved. All this with 1970s technology…

NASA and JPL opened their archives to the film-makers, and while anyone with an interest will have seen some of this, there is much here that has rarely, or never, been shown. A small amount of CG compliments the real Voyager footage to give us views of the craft themselves, but the images Voyagers 1 and 2 brought us are the main visual focus here; a beautiful scene shows a time-lapse montage of a planetary approach by Voyager, from its perspective, from distant disc to close-up details, even clouds. The clouds scudding across the skies of another world. Astonishing.

But the real heart here – as with The Last Man on the Moon, which I reviewed here last year – is the human element. The people who worked on Voyager. The engineers who designed them, the scientists who worked on the missions, the people who conceived of and executed the famous Gold Disc both craft carry, with two hours of music from different eras and cultures on Earth, and greetings in many languages, including one by a young Nick Sagan, Carl Sagan’s wee boy: “hello from the children of Planet Earth”. A message in a bottle, afloat on a galactic sea. Coming through all of this film, Emer Reynolds draws out the science team, and brings genuine emotion to the film. There’s huge pride at what they accomplished, taking advantage of a rare alignment of the planets for this astounding mission, and how they made new discoveries and saw things for the very first time that no human had even known about, let alone seen.

There’s even a lovely bit of archive footage of a party after the final fly-by, when a special guest arrives to play music to the team – Chuck Berry. Of course he played Johnny B Goode, which is on the Gold Disc, and there among the celebrating science team is dear Carl Sagan, dancing happily to Chuck Berry. It’s unlikely any alien intelligence will ever find Voyager and get to play that disc, but as one scientist noted, it’s not impossible. And the very inclusion of it was a mark of enormous optimism, a reaching out, here we are, we’re just learning our first steps out of the cradle, but look what we have achieved already, please contact us. If it isn’t discovered by some other species in the future, the craft will continue on, possibly outlasting the Earth itself, a slice of human culture preserved among the stars.

And as the film notes, these remarkable wee craft are still working, forty years after launch. Their last encounter with the planets was long ago, but they still send daily data back home – one engineer commented that when they were launched back in 1977 the technology to receive signals from such a distant source didn’t exist, they made it while the probes flew on, to listen into a whisper in the cosmos. After the remarkable planetary encounters there was still science and wonder to be had, from the Sagan-inspired “family portrait” of the solar system (when he argued for turning the cameras back towards Earth, now not even a pixel wide to Voyager’s lenses, the “pale blue dot”), to seeking out the heliopause, the point where the influence of our sun ends, marking the boundary of the solar system. In 2012 Voyager 1, the fastest moving of the pair, finally detected the end of this influence; it officially crossed the boundary, leaving our solar system, the first human-created object into interstellar deep space. No wonder those scientists were so proud of what they accomplished.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017 - The Farthest 02
(director Emer Reynolds and editor Tony Cranstoun talking about The Farthest at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)

And one day, when the power finally fades, and those last reports dwindle into static, Voyagers will still have one mission as they continue on to the stars: the gold disc, humanity’s message in a bottle, that wonderful optimism that permeated the Voyager missions, that Reynolds brings out in her interviews with the science team in the film, will power that final mission, perhaps forever. This is a remarkable documentary, celebrating the ingenuity, the science, glorying in the wonders discovered, but above all it is about the people behind it, who built a dream and sailed it across the worlds. For anyone interested in science and space exploration this is unmissable.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog; The Farthest will be released in Irish cinemas on July 28th

You are here….

Taken by NASA’s Cassini probe earlier this month, the planet Earth is a bright pinpoint of distant light, viewed through the magnificent rings of mighty Saturn. Stunning.

This reminds me very much of one of my favourite photographs from space exploration, the famous “pale blue dot” image taken almost three decades ago by the Voyager craft, when the late and much-missed Carl Sagan argued for the probes, now passed the outer worlds, to be turned around and take a perspective of our world and our solar system, a “family portrait” as Carl put it, giving us a view that no human had ever seen before in all the ages of the world. In that image our world was even smaller, not even a full pixel. It gave a vastly different perspective on human affairs – those who consider themselves so important because they are rich, powerful, connected, from this distance – a small one in astronomical terms, vast in human terms – they mean less than nothing. Perhaps world leaders should all take a moment to look at such images and think about them for a moment… (via BoingBoing)

“Zero G and I feel fine…” RIP, John Glenn

2016 continues its seemingly relentless march to claim famous lives – actors, musicians, writers and now, today, one of my boyhood heroes, John Glenn. Early astronaut, early explorer of the Final Frontier. From fighting in WWII and the Korean War (where he was dubbed “magnet ass” for attracting enemy flak, more than once returning to base with a plane full of holes) to being selected as one of the Mercury Seven, those first NASA astronauts, to being the first American to orbit the Earth, a year after the great Gagarin’s astonishing flight amazed the world. It was an incredible era of heroics and achievement, comparable for me with the Great Age of Discovery and those remarkable voyages which crossed into the blank space of the maps marked only “here be dragons”, with only a glimmer of knowledge of what they faced, true pioneers and explorers.

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And after a long political career in his seventies he would return to space, becoming the oldest person to orbit the Earth, going from the tin-can of the Mercury capsule (when you see one it is astonishing that it flew and brought someone back to Earth, more amazing that anyone trusted their life to such a flimsy vehicle) to the more complex and often shirt-sleeves environment of the Space Shuttle. I guess some people do indeed have The Right Stuff…

Edinburgh from orbit

Tim Peake tweeted a shot today of my gorgeous Edinburgh taken from orbital space – and astonishingly on a clear day instead of one wreathed in clouds! For those unfamiliar with Scottish geography, follow the mighty Firth of Forth along the river, (on the far left you can see the lines of the new bridge being built as well as the older road bridge and the iconic Victorian rail bridge (it’s distinctive red colour obvious even from this distance).

time peake edinburgh from space station

Follow the river along on the south (lower half of the pic) , along almost to the far right, and you can see the squarish blue block of harbour water at Leith Docks. The vast geological bulk of Arthur’s Seat, the great extinct volcano which rises up above the city around the Royal Park and Palace of Holyrood is clear on the far mid-right, and similarly the Castle on its large, imposing volcanic mount is clear. Stunningly beautiful. I wish Tim had said he was taking a picture tho, I would have leaned out my window and waved up to him…

The Last Man on the Moon

The Last Man on the Moon,

Directed by Mark Craig,

Featuring Eugene Cernan, Alan Bean, Dick Gordon, Jim Lovell

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That whole time, that’s the time I call ‘sitting on God’s front porch.”

Those are the words of Gene Cernan, naval aviator, engineer and NASA astronaut, on his three days on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17. The last of the spectacular lunar Apollo missions. Gene was, quite literally, the last man on the Moon. Astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, they’re a select cadre, a group who even now, more than fifty years after the first manned space flight by Gagarin, are composed of only a tiny group of people, the few who have flown above the clouds, above the very air we breathe, to enter space, to float around our glowingly blue world and see it as no-one else in the history of the world could have before space flight.

But among that select group the trailblazers of that first era of manned space flight stand out – Gagarin, Glenn, Shepherd, Leonov. These men really did go where no-one has gone before. Spaceflight is incredibly dangerous – you ride into orbit at vast velocity atop what is basically a carefully controlled series of explosions with a thousand things that can go wrong, to enter an environment Earthbound life was never meant to survive in, where a small mistake or fault can lead to death. And in the first years it was all entirely new – nobody even knew for sure if humans could live in space, could you even eat and digest while weightless in your orbiting capsule? Would cosmic rays kill you or fry your electronics leaving you adrift before you could do anything? Could you survive re-entry?

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(Above: Cernan poses for an official portrait in his spacesuit; below: Cerna in a less formal pose with his young daughter)

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Cernan was there right in the earliest days, one of those elite pilots recruited for the astronaut corps, starting with the Gemini programme, and this film draws principally on his autobiography. Cernan starts as the reserve crewmember but after an awful flying accident to the main crew he is moved up to  the mission – rather mixed feelings, to say the least, getting his dream tickets, a chance to soar into space, but getting that first chance because his friend and fellow flyer died tragically. And that part covering the early years of Cernan’s life at NASA , sets the tone for this entire film – this isn’t just about those first astronauts, about the setbacks and the triumphs. Those have been documented many times – deservedly – but here we have a much more personal and importantly a much more emotional film. This is still about those gloriously heady days, pushing to be the first to reach the Moon, but it is just as much about the emotional and psychological cost for the astronauts and their families.

If you think going to the Moon is hard, you ought to try staying home” – Cernan’s wife on hearing of a flight mishap during Apollo 10.

Cernan, to his credit, does not try to paint himself or his fellow Apollo astronauts who take part in this film as the simple, heroic figures history likes to portray. Which is not to downplay in any way the risks they faced, the amazing science and engineering it involved, the boundaries they pushed, the new frontier they charted. It was heroic. And like most things heroic it is too easy to forget behind those stories there is just a normal person – doing the extraordinary, to be sure, but still a person, like any of us. A person with loved ones around them who have to share that dream with them, who also have to sacrifice, who suffer emotionally. Not just the obvious worry over whether husband/dad/brother will come home safely. We’ve all seen those prim, seemingly serene NASA wives of the period watching the mission on TV with their kids and projecting the expected image of pride and confidence when really they were terrified of what could happen, but would never show it in front of the camera.

Cernan pulls no punches on that front – he comments that in many ways the astronauts were quite simply selfish; oriented totally on their goal, the mission, the training. Meanwhile real life was rolling on and it was the wives who had to make sure the kids were looked after, got to school on time, the bills were paid, household chores and repairs were done. Wives essentially had largely absentee husbands, children absentee fathers; they couldn’t stop training or being focused on the mission, there were only a few flight slots and only the best of the best would get that chance. And so they sacrificed – on the job, Cernan paying his dues flying Gemini then Apollo 10, the last flight before Armstrong’s historic landing, so close he could almost touch the Moon but knowing that first landing was not to be his (his respect for Neil shines through any disappointment at that). And it was a vital part of proving they could get men there and fly home, critical to the success of Apollo 11. As Cernan notes of those preparatory missions – “Not many people remember Apollo 10, but I do. And I’ll tell you someone else who did – Neil Armstrong.”

The Last Man on the Moon -Trailer from Mark Stewart Productions on Vimeo.

And later he gets his ultimate reward – and what a reward, what the calls his “personal moment of reckoning”, command of Apollo 17. With cutbacks looming after several successive lunar missions, it will be the final one leaving some who trained and were ready for their mission to never reach that goal. Where Armstrong and Aldarin have a short time on the surface the later missions had several days and the remarkable Lunar Rover, a hi-tech, Space-Age dune buddy for the Moon, so they could travel further and explore more, pick up more diverse samples to study back on Earth. And in an incredibly touching moment Cernan recounts how he parked the Lunar Rover for the last time, a little away from the landing module (LEM) so it could remotely film their take off.

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(Cernan on the Moon, by the Lunar Rover, the red commander’s stripes marking this out as his suit; below, the view from the trip round the Moon, the Apollo missions the very first time any human being had been far enough away to see the entire disc of our world, and to to share that image with all of us. We’ve grown up knowing what our entire globe looks like hanging in space, something all the thousands of generations before the late 60s never got to see)

last_man_on_the_moon_film_earth_from_apollo

And as he dismounted to walk back to the ship for the final time he paused. And there in the ancient, dusty surface of the Moon he wrote his young daughter’s initials. Which, like Armstrong’s footprints will, in that airless vacuum, essentially remain there forever. As far from home as any humans have ever been, sacrificed so much home and family life to be there, to land on the Moon, and suddenly all he can think of is home and his wee girl. It’s beautifully touching. If any future mission – and who knew back then that almost four decades on we’d still not have returned – lands and visit the Rover, those initials will still be there.

Walking up the ladder was probably one of the most memorable moments for me, because I looked down at my footprints and I knew I wasn’t coming this way again. Why were we here, what did it mean? I looked over my shoulder: there’s the Earth, there’s reality, there’s home. I wanted to press the freeze button, I wanted to stop time, I really wanted to reach out, take it in my hand, stick it in my spacesuit and bring it home to show to everybody, this is what it looks like, this is what it feels like.”

And the last man to walk on a surface not of our Earth climbed the ladder to the LEM and Apollo 17 headed home. But it still wasn’t over, not really. Hard to recall now, but the early astronauts were global figures, international celebrities in a way the preening media darlings of today could never dream of, with tens of thousands lining routes to wave to them on visit. From Gagarin through to the Apollo crews, they travelled the world – presidents, celebrities, scientists, millions of ordinary people, all wanted to see them, to hear them speak, the glare of media followed them, and as Cernan’s then wife notes it becomes too much. They sacrificed for years for his training and the mission, and now it is over, but still they are in the spotlight – when do they get to be a regular family, have an ordinary life again? Too much for many – some sixty percent of the Apollo astronauts, including Cernan, would end up divorced due to the stresses and strains. The physical return to Plane Earth was relatively gentle, a splashdown in the ocean, but the emotional and psychological effects of having to come back to Planet Earth, to real, daily life, was far bumpier.

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(tired and covered in Lunar dust – making history can be dirty)

This emotional core is absolutely central to director Craig’s film here, and it gives a much more satisfyingly rounded and human insight into some of the most remarkable moments in recent human history, and those who made them happen. He doesn’t stint on the astonishing nature of the Moon missions or the glories of Apollo – period film, both NASA and family home movies and photos, all create visuals for both the missions and the families dealing with the effects of training for those historic flights, while some very well-done CG effects are added to the visuals, giving us a view we otherwise simply couldn’t have. But he balances this constantly with what it cost in terms of emotional and family life to do what they did.

And there are some wonderfully emotional scenes from the present day – Cernan returning to the Cape, to the old Apollo launch pad. It looks like the sort of thing any good film-maker would shoot – the subject returning to the scene of their greatest triumphs, where it all happened, where the roar of the awesomely powerful Saturn V rockets lifted men not just into space but all the way to the Moon and back. Except towards the end it is clear Cernan has not entirely enjoyed this stroll down memory lane, looking at the now empty, unused Apollo launch areas and thinking that he really doesn’t like seeing it like this, that perhaps he should not have come back to see it this way.

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(Cernan as he is today, re-visiting the Apollo launch pad, where world-changing history was made, now all silent – a bittersweet moment for the astronaut)

And in another immensely touching scene we see Cernan visit the Johnson Space Center, Houston. And there is the capsule from Apollo 17, from that defining, historic mission, the peak of his astronaut career. And it’s a museum piece, viewed by school children not born until decades after he flew in it. He looks at the capsule, still showing the raging fires of re-entry on the shell, and the dummy astronauts inside. Did we really do it, he muses, did we really reach out and do what humans have dreamed of forever, to touch the Moon? What was it all about? How do young people today see this item in a museum and the old man standing by it, looking just like anyone’s grandfather (and indeed he is). Was it all a dream? Did he really once fly in that small spaceship? What will people in another forty years or a hundred or a thousand think looking back at the Apollo days?

I’ve been in love with the idea of spaceflight since I was a very small boy, born at the height of the Space Age; I’ve read and watched so much of the history of those times and those world-changing events. Despite all the documentaries I’ve watched, the books I’ve read, this film still stood out, largely because of that very emotional core, giving a hugely satisfying new insight into those remarkable Apollo days, the human side to the heroic giants who rode fire into the heavens. For fellow space geeks like me this is essential viewing, but for those who just enjoy seeing epic history being presented at a very human level, this is also a remarkable film.

The Last Man on the Moon opens in the UK on April 8th, and there is a special screening with live link up for a Q&A with Gene Cernan on April 11th in many cinemas around the country.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Cosmos, the next generation…

Space has always fascinated me, perhaps not surprisingly as I was born at the peak of the Apollo programme, just a couple of years before Neil Armstrong’s giant leap on the Moon. I had my little astronaut suit to play in, repeats of the original Star Trek, Doctor Who, UFO, numerous other Gerry Anderson shows – space and an optimism in the future and in our ability to learn to use our own brains and science to better humanity were popular topics (sadly so much more pessimistic today for many). I was a child of the Space Age and then grew up in the early Information Age, I had a stack of astronomy books on my shelves even as a kid (reader then, as now). And then there was Cosmos and Carl Sagan on the television. I read and read, by the time I was 9 or 10 I could tell you the difference between a Gemini and a Soyuz and an Apollo capsule, I knew who Kepler was and how his mathematics shaped our understanding of our solar system.

Carl Sagan – Cosmos (Trailer) (1980) from Xhulian Traja on Vimeo.

I loved my books, but in Cosmos I could see it all – a history of science here on Earth and how it applied to our expanding knowledge of the universe itself, not just showing fascinating glimpses of distant creation, but putting it into a context of accumulated knowledge. I didn’t  realise that aspect of it until I was much older, but subliminally the message was received and somewhere inside my young brain, absorbed and applied and forever after I have taken simple delight and pleasure in finding links between pieces of knowledge, that wonderful moment when you realise that something you are reading or watching relates to some other subject you read previously, connection and connection and connection. I still take pleasure when that happens today, and it was a lesson Sagan taught in the original Cosmos, that knowledge is one thing, but the ability to step back, place that piece of knowledge into context, was even more important, because then you start to assemble the jigsaw that shows The Big Picture. We never actually finish that particular jigsaw, because none of us is omniscient, but there’s so much pleasure to be had from assembling and connecting those pieces…

carl sagan with viking lander

The original Cosmos also helped me humiliate an utter prig of a senior at my school, who tried to make me and my friend feel small and stupid. Back when there was a single BBC Micro for the whole school we were busy programming on it when this senior barged in with a friend, demanding we stop and they get to use it because their science teacher had an “important” programme that “we wouldn’t understand”. I asked what it was, and in a very condescending tone he told us it was to do with Kepler’s laws and we wouldn’t know anything about that. I proceeded to outline the main points of Kepler’s laws and observations and place them in their historical context for good measure. I would only be about eleven or twelve, he was about fifteen. I watched him deflate and become utterly humiliated as it was clear to all in the room that Mr Superior knew less about this subject than a boy did. Thanks to Sagan and Cosmos, where I learned of it then, me being me, I had followed this up by reading more about it. Learning is our friend. And sometimes we can use it in interesting ways, to beat an intellectual bully. Satisfying in itself, and also taught me a lesson too – there’s always someone who knows more than you do…

Sagan’s books and his Cosmos series had a huge influence on me. I think his series and the programmes of the great Jacques Cousteau taught young me an enormous amount about science and what Sagan called “the awesome machinery of nature.” My brain was never terribly good with maths, so studying science at university was never likely, my thoughts were more wired to the arts and language, and I have no regrets over that because I am forever in love with words, but they, and my piles of related books, left me with a huge fascination for an and appreciation of science and learning. And space exploration and astronomy especially, but again there’s that thing about learning being linked – learning about theories of how the other planets became the way they are prompted me to read some geology to understand this better. As a kid I also loved dinosaurs (which wee boy doesn’t?) and of course that linked with geology, which also lead into theories of evolution, which in turn lead to books about why it is humans can think, have language, create abstract thought, the very faculties that allowed for astonishing things like space exploration. There it is again, link, after link after link, all adding layers of context to what was learned.

cosmos neil degrasse tyson

And so this evening the much anticipated new Cosmos made its UK debut, with an introduction by President Obama, no less. Of course dear old Carl has been gone for a number of years now, but his influence is still felt, from his own opening narration and choice of similar location to that he used for his original introduction to the use of the ‘spaceship of the imagination’. And the new presenter, Neil deGrasse Tyson also embodies another link to Sagan – a joyfully personal one too, as he recounts at one point how as a seventeen year old student Sagan had invited him to visit. He arrived during heavy snow and Sagan talked to him, showed him his lab and offices at Cornell and presented him with a signed copy of one of his books (which he still has), an encounter which enthused the young man not only to a career in science but to emulate his role model in communicating science to a wider audience, to let everyone share in the knowledge and consider its implications and possibilities, which is important given how such matters often affect all of civilisation.

Cosmos Trailer from Nat Geo Channels Intl Creative on Vimeo.

And so the new show’s first episode this evening… The format is similar to the classic Cosmos, the mixture of astronomy but interspersed with history, both human history of ideas and understanding and the deeper history of our own world, solar system, galaxy and universe. Again, context, links, without which facts don’t mean much. Of course the graphics are vastly superior to the effects the 1980 show could ever hope to create (although back then I still remember marveling at them). But the most important quality, more important than the scientific facts, the history, the learning, was something Sagan gave me in the original, Cousteau did with his shows, Arthur C Clarke did with his books – and that is the quality of sense of wonder. Simple as that – a sense of wonder that makes you feel like a bright eyed child again staring at the stars and imagining and dreaming.  And yes, the new show had that sense of wonder.

You can read a short interview with the new Cosmos presenter Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Nat Geo site.

Earthrise, 45 years on….

Forty five years ago this week the roar of the enormous Saturn V rocket filled the Florida air, a huge structure carried high on a pillar of fire, raw power and ingenuity overcoming gravity, a technology pioneered as a dreadful new weapon of war harnessed now for a voyage into the final frontier, boldly going where no one had gone before. Apollo 8 took flight for the Moon in December of 1968; Neil and Buzz Armstrong’s historic first walk on the Moon was still a year away, but this too was a tremendously historic flight and a major milestone in the long, long history of human voyages of exploration – this saw human beings, for the first time, leave the orbit of their own, small world and travel beyond, circling right around our Moon. As Christmas 1968 approached those three astronauts were the furthest from home any human being has ever been in the history of the world – as their tiny craft’s orbit took them around the dark side of the Moon even the slender thread of radio connecting them tenuously to home was broken for a brief spell. On the dark side no contact with home, just three explorers in a piece of 1960s tech, circling another planetary body.

And then on one Lunar orbit… On one glorious moment, largely by accident, as the ship was being rotated they saw something out of the small windows on their little craft. The Moon’s surface filled the viewport and there, in the distance, on the Moon’s horizon, the planet Earth rose above the Lunar vista. Earthrise. A cosmic ballet of interleaving gravity wells and orbits that have been taking place for billions of years almost like the beautiful clockwork orrery models of the solar system. But unseen, always unseen. Until December 1968 when three men saw it for the first time – in all the ages of the world a sight no-one had beheld, a view of our entire globe slowly rising above the Moon, the sky deep black, the Earth a magnificent, shining blue, an oasis of life and warmth in the cold distances of space. And they rushed to take a photo, one of the greatest images from the history of exploration, shared with the entire world, our first view of our whole world, not just a part of it seen from low orbit, but the entire Earth seen hanging in space.

earthrise

On Christmas Eve, all alone and so distant in their small vessel the astronauts read out a passage from Genesis about the mythical creation of the world and, looking back at their distant home in a way no-one before them ever could, they concluded “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.” I was born in 1967, a child of the space age, grew up with my little astronaut play suit and my passion for reading took in books of astronomy and space exploration as well as daring tales of science fiction; it’s been in my blood since as long as I can recall, I still get shivers at the image of a Saturn V roaring into the heavens, watching Gravity last month, taking in that spectacular opening scene of the astronauts floating above a glowing Earth I still ached to travel there myself, as I have always dreamt of since I was a very small boy.

For me the Apollo 8 mission has always summed up both the majestic awe and the terrifying dangers of manned space exploration – an environment we never evolved for, but through a mixture of invention and courage we’ve created ways for us to venture into it, to dip our toes “into the cosmic ocean” as dear old Carl put it. So dangerous, a tiny impact on that fragile vessel and it’s all over, no great protective shields like they have on the Enterprise, no transporters and emergency shuttles if anything goes wrong, no chance of coming back if your complex calculations – carried out on primitive computers that couldn’t match a cell phone from today, or on slide rules, if you please – there isn’t enough power, air or fuel, no mighty impulse and warp engines to carry you where you want, just enough thrust and fuel to match a complicated figure of eight orbit around Earth and the Moon, get it wrong and you will drift for ever through the heavens. And yet people still dared to do it. It reminds us of how magnificent our species can be when it turns from our damned destructive impulses and towards something wonderful.

To celebrate the forty fifth anniversary of that historic voyage NASA has created a new visualisation of it, taking in the original images and crew recordings mixed with the very latest research and findings from far more advanced unmanned Lunar probes.

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.

The World Outside My Window

This is simply stunning, brief though it is, a timelapse of footage shot of our world rotating below the International Space Station (ISS), all shot in beautifully crisp HD, creating some wonderfully sharp, clear images of our planet from several dozens miles above the atmosphere. Best viewing experience is to select the fullscreen option and just glory in it for a few brief moments…

The World Outside My Window – Time-Lapses of Earth from the ISS from David Peterson on Vimeo.

Gravity

Gravity
Directed Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

gravity movie poster

I’ve been eager to see Gravity for some time – Alfonso Cuarón’s take on PD James novel The Children of Men was a remarkable and powerful movie. This, originally, was to be his ‘quick’ movie after that long slog, but ended up taking several years instead, not least because they had to invent whole new ways of shooting to create the remarkable visual effects. Creating the effect that a person or a ship is in space is not new, of course, it’s been done with varying degrees of success for decades on the big screen, from the realistic approach of 2001 to the scientifically silly but visually wonderful style of Star Wars. Gravity follows more in the realistic mode of 2001 – no deep bass rumbles of mighty ships in the void (where there isn’t any atmosphere to transmit sound) and no sudden and graceful movements of winged craft that fly like planes (even though that is not how you maneuver in space), instead the only sound is inside your helmet or radio, movement is in line with Newton’s laws and the way a body travels in a gravity free, airless environment.

GRAVITY

What it does differently from 2001 and other films which tried to portray space exploration as it really is though, is the depiction of being in a zero-gee environment. Cuarón and his team had to really battle to come up with filming systems to allow them to make their actors look like they truly are in a gravity free environment, and ye celluloid gods but it paid off. In fact, and I say this as someone who has been fascinated by space exploration since he was a very small boy, studied it, read about, imagined it, this paid off so well that you could be forgiven for thinking it was actually shot on location in Earth orbit. Yes, it really is that realistic looking. And it is also utterly ravishing, visually, right from an opening shot of a glowing Earth below a team of astronauts from a Shuttle working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Bullock’s specialist, a scientist brought into NASA to work on this particular upgrade because of her technical skills but not really an astronaut (apart from basic training), while Clooney’s veteran astronaut on his final flight is happily trying out a new design of MMU (Maned Maneuvering Unit – a jetpack for space, effectively) and flitting around the team. The glowing Earth below them fills the cinema screen and is simply beautiful, awesome in the proper use of the word.

But while the visual aspect of Gravity is remarkable and stunning (even the 3D, something I generally dislike in live action films, is excellent and worth the usual eye strain and headache) this isn’t just an effect fest, there is a story here and it is one which is incredibly tense and indeed intense, seriously gripping the arms of your chair stuff, right the way through. When Mission Control calls a warning to the team that a satellite has been destroyed and the debris is sweeping around the orbit towards them events rapidly spiral out of control into a desperate, against the odds attempt at survival.

gravity movie 02

And survival in an environment no human – no creature on our planet at all – evolved to survive in. It’s a deadly environment that we’ve somehow pushed ourselves and our technology to allow us to live and work in over the last half decade (and it’s worth remembering that in thousands of years of human history it is only a few dozen people over the last sixty years who have gone into space). And it anything goes wrong it can be fatal so very, horribly quickly. Even tiny pieces of debris, even just a bolt, travelling at twenty thousand miles and hour will have such kinetic force it can tear through a ship or a space station like an anti-tank round. And all of a sudden an intricate ship or station, assembled from so many precise components and painstakingly engineered and constructed to be just right to support human life in this environment is turned into Swiss cheese…

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I won’t ruin it for you by expanding any further on how it develops from this accident. Suffice to say it is edge of the seat stuff, beautifully depicted, while the interaction between Bullock’s damaged scientist and Clooney’s veteran of the space programme, even in desperate straits, is perfectly handled (Clooney projects that image most of us have of the calm, unflappable NASA old school astronaut who takes the most catastrophic failures in his stride). This may be vast scale, big-screen, effects-laden storytelling, but it does not neglect either story or character and I found it profoundly satisfying on the emotional level as well as the spectacle. There are some nice nods to other iconic moments from space films tucked away in among the tense moments – a scene where Bullock floats in an airlock, shimmying out of her space suit recalls Barbarella, Bullock in vest and shorts in the space station reminds me of Ripley in the shuttle at the end of Alien, Bullock again floating, exhausted, in an airlock, the sunrise from space glowing through the window port as he floats in zero gee, curling up almost foetal after surviving one part of her ordeal, the cords around her like an umbilical coil, making her seem at the same time both childlike, a newborn and at the same time recalls the ‘star child’ from 2001 and the transformational power of such experiences and travel. It’s gripping right to the very last and as I said the visuals are simply breath-taking – this is one you want to see on the big screen, not on DVD later on, watch it on a big cinema screen and let yourself be drawn into it until you feel you’re there, floating above the world. An utterly remarkable piece of film-making.

gravity movie 03

And I have to add, on a personal note, those visuals played right into my life-long fascination with space travel; that screen-filling vista of the Earth revolving made my pulse race, just as it always has since I was a kid, at the thought of going into space. I had the same feeling watching In the Shadow of the Moon a few years ago; those Saturn V rockets lit up and my pulse went with them, the same excitement and longing I’ve had since I was five years old, in my little astronaut playsuit and helmet, sitting in an empty box for a spaceship, with an imagination as big as the universe. And even after watching a film like this showing the dangers I know that if I were offered the chance I would go in a heartbeat, that it’s the trip I have always wanted to make since I was that wee boy in his astronaut suit, playing and dreaming; I’m literally a child of the space age, born at the peak of the Apollo programme, and I’m forever disappointed that I’ll almost certainly never get to experience it first hand…