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…
Directed Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
An infinitesimal dot in a vast space, containing, as the great Carl Sagan once said of another famous image from our exploration of space, the Pale Blue Dot image, every single person you ever knew, your mother, father, brother, your grandfather, his father back to the earliest proto human, every cat, dog, fish, bird, every beggar and king, every famous musician, every humble artisan, all lived on that dot. That’s home. Now Cassini sends us this spectacular image from Saturn, the crown jewel of the solar system, the Earth, a bright, blue dot (arrowed in the pic) glowing in the vast distance, millions of miles away while the magnificent rings of Saturn wheel above.
Every person, everything we’ve ever done is on that dot, from the first single celled creatures through the great dinosaurs to us, all contained inside that glowing dot. And yet look at this picture, look at how far we can reach, further than anyone in thousands of years of human history – look at how far we can reach when we put out efforts and those big brains evolution gave us to some wonderful effort instead of squabbling and fighting among ourselves on that same small dot. When we’re not doing that, this is the kind of thing we can accomplish, and it is magnificent. A little reminder as we see endless bad news of wars, disasters, economic ruin and more every night on the news that actually we are remarkable, our species built this clever probe, worked out a complex flight path around celestial bodies at huge speed, swinging around gravity wells and did so with such precision it can send us back images of our own world as seen from the rings of Saturn and we can share it at almost the speed of light through fiber optic networks of computers across that little globe, instantly.
“The Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. Recently we’ve waded a little way out, and the water seems inviting...” Carl Sagan.
During the epic Voyager missions, after one of those innovative little mechanical explorers had finished with its primary mission to give us our most astonishing close up encounters with the most distant worlds in our solar system in a detail that Galileo and Copernicus could never have dreamed possible, it was re-tasked and reprogrammed to turn around to look back into our solar system from the cold, dark edge of our own little stellar neighbourhood. The late, great Carl Sagan was one of those who campaigned for this to happen – no small feat given the codes to reprogramme the distant probe would take hours to reach it even travelling at the light speed of radio waves, so far was it from home now, and there was no true scientific knowledge to be gained from this move.
Sagan, however, always understood that science has to appeal to both the heart as well as the head, emotion and intellect, and be able to make everyone grasp why it was important to us. The spacecraft was turned and took what is now known as the family portrait, a view of most of the planets in our solar system, a perspective no-one in the entire history of humanity had ever beheld before, a real “going where no-one had gone before” moment. In that family portrait is a pale, blue dot, not even an entire pixel in size – our world, the Earth. As Sagan put it, everything any of us has ever known, every person we have read of, every person who built a monument we’ve gazed at, everyone we have ever loved and all those who came before them, right back to the emergence of our ancestors out of ancient Africa’s cradle to start out human journey, every one of them, peasant and king alike, lived on that tiny dot. Joel Somerfield’s animation is very short but celebrates that moment, using the words of Sagan, a moment when emotion and science, heart and intellect, gave our species a new perspective on the majesty of creation and our own place in it, just a tiny mote floating in the glow of the sun, miniscule in astronomical terms, fragile, but never, ever unimportant, but a wonder in a sea of wonders, a haven of spectacularly diverse life. Our home.
Overview is a stunning short film from the Planetary Collective, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the famous “Blue Marble” photograph (taken by Apollo 17, see above) by talking with astronauts about the ‘overview effect’ – the change in perspective many of them experience when they get to do something that all the thousands of years of humans before the 1960s could never do: see the world from space. I’ve been a space geek since I was a very young boy, happy with a NASA costume and toy helmet, box for a ‘spaceship’ and imagination, and I’ve heard a number of astronauts and cosmonauts talk about this experience, about how viewing the world from above the clouds changes their perspective forever on how astonishing our world is, how remarkably beautiful yet fragile, how everything and everyone is interconnected… The imagery is beautiful…
With the shuttle programme – and NASA’s ability, for the moment, to send manned missions into space – now grounded and the surviving spacecraft being sent to various museums around America today there was a very special moment as a modified 747 carried a very special shuttle flying low over New York City for everyone to watch. The spacecraft was the Enterprise. The ending of the shuttle programme is much like the ending of Concorde for many of us – when we were kids they were the future, now they are history and that would be fine, it would be natural, if they were retired to make way for the next generation of craft to replace them, but they’re not. We’ve stepped backwards, it feels, become smaller. But for a final hurrah this was a remarkable one, the Enterprise, her very name resonates for many of us, flying over New York, captured here with Lady Liberty and the Empire State in the frame by Bill Ingalls:
What a remarkable shot, a couple of the great world landmarks with a piece of flying space exploration history. Enterprise was named after NASA called for a public vote to name the first spaceship; the geek community, of course, got together and made sure to vote en masse that she would be called the Enterprise, because she was the first of a series that would boldly go… Enterprise herself never brushed against the hard vacuum of space though, she started her career at NASA riding piggyback just like she was today – she was designed to test aerodynamics, a bit of a new area for spacecraft design at the time because most were odd shaped objects on the end of a rocket but the shuttle, she was meant to fly back down from orbit through the atmosphere like a conventional plane, hence the tests. As a boy I followed the emerging shuttle programme and remember well watching news reports of the Enterprise’s flights paving the way for the first full shuttle launch.
As a wee boy raised on repeats of the classic Star Trek it made me happy to see a real spacecraft being named Enterprise and, Americans being rather good at marking big occasions, when she was first revealed to the public Trek creator Gene Rodenberry and many of the original cast were there to wish her good skies, way back in 1976 (pic below and following borrowed from Space.com):
And here three and a half decades or so on is one of those illustrious crewmembers of the fictional USS Enterprise giving the Vulcan salute – live long and prosper – to his old friend, the shuttle Enterprise, as she heads for the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Musuem in New York. Rather fitting she will be near the USS Intrepid, which any old Star Trek hand knows was the name of one of the other Constitution class starships in the original Trek, the same class of vessel as Jim Kirk’s Enterprise (Intrepid being crewed entirely by Vulcans, if my memory serves):
As I said, like with Concorde, it feels wrong to know that the shuttle are gone, that something that promised the exciting future of space exploration to a young boy is now a historical artefact in a museum and that we didn’t mothball them to make way for a new generation of faster, bigger, more efficient spacecraft. Still, one of these days there will be another Enterprise, I am sure. Larger, with a greater range, this Enterprise A, B or C ships will boldly go further… As Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself once noted when asked if they would ever build another Enterprise “plenty more letters in the alphabet”.
One day, another Enterprise, please, make it so…
(Enterprise comparison chart from Cygnus X-1 site)
How can it really be forty years to the day since the first human beings walked on the surface of a celestial body that was not our own little world? How can it be that we’ve never surpassed that magnificent achievement after four decades? Oh don’t get me wrong, there have been other incredible, world changing endeavours – the Human Genome project springs to mind – but after four decades not to have striven beyond that Moon walk is dreadfully sad. Its like Concorde being retired without a next generation bigger, better, faster, more efficient replacement coming in, or the Shuttle due to finish its flights next year. Sometimes it feels like we’ve gone backwards a bit, not a good thing as a species.
Yes, I know there are other important priorities needing world resources, not least feeding the hungry and controlling runaway populations. And some will say we shouldn’t ‘squander’ money on space when we have these problems to look at here. But as Bill Hicks used to say, if we didn’t spend so much on every more devious ways to kill one another we could spend the money we spend on weapons to feed the hungry and still have plenty left over to explore space. Hell, if we took what women collectively spend on make-up every year we could do that! But still I feel sad that those things which marked the wave of a bright future when I was a wee boy now turn out to have been the highwater mark and the tide of progress has receded. Although I did really enjoy the image of all three of the Apollo 11 crew with Obama on the news. Three of my boyhood heroes. Still three of my heroes.
Hard to believe that on this day forty years ago human beings, for the first time in all of recorded history, were on their way to the moon. July 16th, 1969, and the enormous Saturn V lifts from its pad, its gigantic bulk suddenly no longer earthbound, and it reaches into the sky… and then beyond the sky. Humans have made many great explorations of new lands, uncharted oceans, jungles, deserts, mountains, but this, this was something completely new. Less than a decade after Gagarin had become the first man in space (an event itself which came only a couple of decades after jets made their first appearance, those in turn coming only four decades after Orville and Wilbur’s historic first flight at Kittyhawk) humans were travelling to the Moon.
Its hung over every human culture there has ever been, since the days of hunter-gatherers, its been observed by the early priest-astronomers of the first civilisations in what we now call the Middle East, worshipped as a goddess by many cultures, observed by the first modern scientists like Galileo and Copernicus, its affected our weather and our tides for billions of years. But the idea of men on the Moon was a dream, a work of fantasy. Until July 1969. When it became something truly remarkable. An event that for one brief spell drew together all the peoples of our divided world into one species, dreaming the same dream, hoping the same hopes, willing Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong to succeed in the daring, dangerous endeavour. A magnificent moment.
NASA’s restored video of Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap’ (link via Boing Boing)
This afternoon at the Edinburgh Film Festival I caught the UK premiere of the documentary by David Sington, In the Shadow of the Moon, detailing the glories (and the tragedies) of one of the biggest undertakings humans ever launched themselves on, the Apollo programme. As soon as I saw this in the EIFF programme this year I knew I was going to see it. I was born at the height of the Space Race; Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong’s astonishing, history-making flight to the Moon on Apollo 11 was still a year and a half away. I grew up with an astronaut space suit costume to play in while Gagarin and Armstrong were on posters as my boyhood heroes (they still are, some things you never grow out of); the idea of space exploration has lived inside me my entire life and as I approach the big four-oh birthday on the last day of this year I get a little sad that those promises of holidays in space we were told the future would hold have never materialised and it looks less and less like that boyhood dream will ever come true.
But still it weaves a magical spell on me; as the footage of those enormous Saturn Vs ascending the heavens on a column of fire flickered across the screen I could feel the old excitement rising – the boy in me is never far from the surface and images and ideas like this always bring it out. Much of the footage has never been seen before and is literally out of this world. The story of our first tentative steps out of the cradle of the Earth to our nearest neighbour is told in their own words by many of the NASA astronauts who made those epic journeys, voyages of discovery that stand in a long line of human endeavours such as the explorations of James Cook, Magellan or those unknown Polynesian sailors who crossed vast oceans on small boats made of reeds.
One of those men featured was David Scott, an Apollo commander – a man I actually met a few years back when his publicist came in to my old bookstore to say he was across the road in the Balmoral Hotel doing interviews with the Scottish press and would we like him to come across and sign some copies of the book he had co-authored with his friend the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (the first man to walk in space; his friend Arthur C Clarke would name a spaceship in his honour in the sequel to 2001). An ordinary day at work and then suddenly there I am chatting to a former astronaut and shaking hands with a man who had walked on the Moon; a man who got to live that boyhood dream of mine. Naturally I got one of those signed copies for myself; I’ve many signed books in my collection but only one signed by an author who has traveled far enough into space to look back and see the entirety of our world hanging in the void. We’ve all seen the pictures, but it wasn’t until the crew of Apollo 8 voyaged around the dark side of the Moon that humans actually saw the entire Earth from space. They took the famous ‘Earthrise’ photograph, our world rising in the dark above the surface of the Moon, the furthest humans have yet been from our world.
Only a tiny handful of humans have ever seen that sight with their own eyes to this day, all now old men – to look at them in this film you could easily mistake them for someone’s favourite uncle of grandfather. But in their prime these men dared death, road on a column of scientific dragon’s fire further than anyone in the entire history of the world and in the process changed the way we see our little, beautiful world. It’s so sad we’ve pulled back from those days; I’m not stupid, I’m well aware of my history and understand much of the colossal cost of the space programme was only met because of politics of the Cold War. And yet I can’t help but feel we let ourselves become that much smaller as a species when we stopped pushing at the final frontier. Yes, I know we can spend the money on problems right here on Earth, but if we weren’t so busy squabbling among ourselves we wouldn’t need to waste so much on creating weapons – then we could spend that money on feeding and taking care of people here on Earth and have enough to explore, to go where no-one has gone before.
I still want to go.
JPL and the ESA have announced that the Cassini probe has found a small, previously unknown moon around the giant world Saturn the sixtieth so far discovered around the ringed world. It may be a tiny lump of rock and ice but I love the fact that almost 50 years after Gagarin’s first space flight our own solar system is still surprising us. Makes me wonder what we will discover when we finally get further out (and why haven’t we pushed further, we let ourselves get so small after the Apollo missions…)
Elsewhere on the ESA site there’s a function to listen to the Huygens probe which descended into the large moon Titan from Cassini. The sound files aren’t especially interesting as such, in fact is is just a rather dull sequence of white noise, but the fact the first one is a recording of sounds heard on an alien world is. Sounds from a world no human has walked on, beamed across millions of miles to be heard for the first time in human history. Now that is impressive.
The Space Race series on BBC2 is shaping up to be quite excellent, in my (not very) humble opinion. So far we’ve gone from Von Braun and his engineers trying to escape to American forces in the crumbling Third Reich to the early 1960s. 1961 to be exact. Tonight’s documentary covered the wonderfully tense desperation between the USSR and NASA to put the first human into space. Despite being quite familiar with the history I found myself utterly gripped by this episode; how close NASA was, the dreadful explosion in the USSR. The series has the hallmark quality documentary level of detail you would expect from the Beeb mixed with re-creations.
Only 16 years before the most advanced rockets were the V2s being unleashed by the Nazis, raining destruction down on Britain – the dawn of the ballistic missile, which would cast a long and terrifying shadow across the succeeding decades. And yet 16 years later here was Yuri Gagarin climbing into a primitve rocket, knowing full well just how dangerous it was. That acceptance of danger was something astronauts and cosmonauts had in common; the willingness to push themselves into the unknown.
The Space Race was driven very much by Cold War considerations relating to those ballistic missiles and national prestige, but that doens’t mean for one moment we shouldn’t regard some of those achievements with reverence. Picture Gagarin in a violenty shaking tiny capsule, hurled into orbit; the rocket could explode, the capsule may not make it back – hell, they weren’t even sure a human being could actually survive spaceflight even if the machinery worked perfectly. And yet there was no shortage of pilots willing to fly.
So there is Gagarin, being shaken around and experiencing enormous G-force and suddenly it goes quiet and he is floating in orbit around our little world. The first man in the history to look down on the clouds scurrying across the face of the globe from above; the first to travel round the entire world in less than a couple of hours. Short centuries before the first circumnavigations of the globe were celebrated and took months or even years. Now Gagarin flashed round the Earth in just over 100 minutes.
We tend to forget just how big an adventure space exploration is today – we make jokes about Shuttle flights being delayed and are only reminded how dangerous an endeavour it is when tragedy strikes. We complain about costs (which may be big but are a fraction of what we waste on weapons) and lose sight of the sheer wonder of it all. And yet back then it was far more dangerous and raw and yet they did it. But Gagarin was the first to see our world from space and it was wondrful.
Alexei Leonov (the first man to perform a spacewalk and honoured by Arthur C Clarke by having the ship in 2010 named for him) recalled those days and his friendship with Yuri in his portion of Two Sides of the Moon which details the early space programme from both sides (reviewed here – I treasure the copy I have signed by Alexei’s co-author, Apollo astronuat David Scott (how blown away was I to talk to a man who had walked on the Moon?!?!)). Yuri Gagarin was one of my heroes when I was a boy and this series reminded me of the mixture of fascination and excitement space exploration sparked in me back then; no wonder I ended up selling SF! Perhaps Ken MacLeod’s books are partly a substitute for space travel for me. I don’t have a poster of him anymore, but Yuri is still one of my heroes; I think he always will be. He really did go where no man had gone before and he did it boldly.