Movie Review: Gravity (2013)


Here’s my first review this week for a mini-series of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s.

Title: Gravity
Release Date: October 4, 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Production Company: Heyday Films | Esperanto Filmoj
Summary/Review:

The explosion of a satellite in earth orbit leads to a chain reaction of destruction from a cloud of high speed space debris. The debris destroys the Space Shuttle Explorer leaving only two survivors who were performing extravehicular activity at the time of the strike.  Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist on her first mission to space while Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a garrulous NASA veteran on his final mission.  Together they need to make their way to the International Space Station and then to China’s Tiangon space station to find a spacecraft that can return them safely to Earth. The film attempts to be scientifically grounded (although I’m sure that nitpickers can find many errors) and prevent a plausible if extremely unlikely series of events in their attempt to reach safety.

I did find it weird that Kowalski and Stone talk to one another like they’re just getting to know one another when they would’ve been training together for months.  I also was a bit annoyed that Kowalski got to be confident and competent all the time while Stone panics and makes mistakes, although this does pay off later in the film.  In the 21st century, movies have been getting longer and longer, which isn’t always a bad thing, but I appreciate that Gravity is taut 91 minutes long.  It’s really all action from beginning to end, and Bullock puts in a great performance for someone who is basically carrying the movie on her own for the better part of it’s runtime.

I’m growing to appreciate the work of Alfonso Cuarón, who directed the best Harry Potter movie and one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen, and seems to excel at making wildly different styles of film.  I’ll have to watch some more of his films.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: What’s It Like in Space? by Ariel Waldman


Author: Ariel Waldman
TitleWhat’s It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who’ve Been There
Publication Info: Chronicle Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

One of my favorite science writers, Ariel Waldman, collects anecdotes and quotes from astronauts about their experience in space in a small, illustrated coffee table book. Did you know that one cannot burp in space?  And while farting is possible, it is not possible to propel oneself in microgravity using only flatulence.  There’s a lot of bits about “functions” such as eating, sleeping, and excreting in space.  But there are also more inspirational stories such as an astronaut not wanting to sleep so as to not miss a moment of the mission or the experience of watching the Earth rotate beneath one’s feet while on a spacewalk.  It’s a fun, charming, and colorful that’s a quick read, and especially enjoyable if you’ve ever wanted to go to space.

Recommended booksPacking for Mars by Mary Roach and An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach


Author: Mary Roach
Title: Packing for Mars
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton, c2010.
ISBN: 9780393068474

Summary/Review:

With plans for long-term space exploration afoot, Mary Roach explores the many challenges of putting human beings in space.  This is less the physics of rocket propulsion and more the psychological and cultural  problems of human space exploration.  Roach is a good investigator in that she asks the questions we always wanted to ask and many more we never even thought to ask.  She’s also an amusing writer in that she seems to challenge the mindset of a 12-year old boy.  Issues explored in this book include the effects of  isolation and working in close quarters with others for long duration, the physical and psychological effects of weightlessness, illness and vomiting in space, personal hygiene, sex in space, evacuating from space disasters, and everyone’s need to eat and thus need to poop.  Roach draws upon astronaut memoirs, technical documents, and interviews with people around the world who are directly involved in the fascinating and often absurd work that goes into human space exploration.

Recommended books: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, Moon Shot by Alan Shepard, A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, & Lost Moon by Jeffrey Kluger,
Rating: ****

Christmas Eve


It’s Christmas Eve.  As you wrap (or unwrap) gifts, sip eggnog, and/or get ready for Midnight Mass, you’ll want to start off by clicking the youtube link below:

Then you’ll want to click this youtube link, and replay it in a loop for about 3-4 hours.

If you need more music, check out these podcasts.  I guarantee that there is good holiday themed stuff  here that you’ll never here on that Light Rock station that’s playing holiday music 24/7:

For a more sobering  Christmas Eve viewing experience, watch this vintage propaganda film “Christmas Under Fire” about Christmas in England during the Blitz:

Via Crooked Timber.

Finally, for even more uplifting memories, celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Apollo 8’s Journey to the Moon.

Happy Christmas to all!

Book Review: Where’s my jetpack? : a guide to the amazing science fiction future that never arrived by Daniel H. Wilson


We live in the 21st-Century, that magical century heralded in the past century as The Future, yet The Future has been somewhat disappointing. Where’s my jetpack? : a guide to the amazing science fiction future that never arrived (2007) by Daniel H. Wilson recounts all the great inventions promised to an eager public by science fiction, comic books, World’s Fairs, and documentaries that seemingly have never come to pass.  Wilson goes through several of these fantastic devices and describes what advances have actually been made and tells how several of them actually exist.  Albeit in less than fantastic guises or far to expensive/exclusive for the general populace.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • The jetpack, which works, just not for very long due to fuel limitations.
  • The zeppelin which once sailed elegantly through the sky until the Hindenberg disaster, but may be making a return.
  • Teleportation which is possible with particles if not with human beings.
  • Underwater hotels: one exists but it’s not very luxurious.  More luxurious hotels are in the works.
  • Anti-Sleeping pills are available under the brand name Provigil (I’m tempted to get a prescription).
  • The Space Elevator is theoretically possible and Wilson suggests we submit our plans to the Spaceward Foundation and win a prize (Hey, there’s a space elevator blog too!).
  • And a Moon Colony?  It’s in the works!

This is a fun little book with a good mix of science and humor that will appeal to anyone’s inner geek.

Author Wilson, Daniel H. (Daniel Howard), 1978-
Title Where’s my jetpack? : a guide to the amazing science fiction future that never arrived / Daniel H. Wilson ; illustrated by Richard Horne.
Publication Info. New York : Bloomsbury USA : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, c2007.
Edition 1st U.S. ed.
Description 192 p. : ill. ; 20 cm.

links of the day for 23 January 2008


  • Origami spaceplane to launch from space station (Pink Tentacle, 1/16/08) – from the cool but otherwise pointless file.
  • Kaplan’s Korner, or How Yo La Tengo got their name – my favorite band, my favorite team, a tribute to Ralph Kiner, and Ed Kranepool! Who could ask for more?
  • While you can (Hoarded Ordinaries, 1/23/08) – Lorianne gives some love to the big Shell sign on Magazine Street in Cambridge.
  • First black lesbian mayor in Cambridge (Feministing, 1/23/08) – speaking of Cambridge, the city elected the first black lesbian mayor in US history last week, Denis Simmons. I’m only in Cambridge like every day and this is the first I’ve heard the news, which shows you how clueless I am. On the other hand, it’s nice that we’ve reached a point in our culture where this isn’t seen as big news (or worse, a scandal).
  • 25 Yiddish Words You Should Know (List of the Day, 1/23/08) – it’s always good to know a bisel Yiddish.

MESSENGER’s Mission to Mercury


I’ve learned from the Bad Astronomy Blog that MESSENGER – NASA’s mission to Mercury – will make a flyby of the first planet from the sun today! This is cool. There seem to have been a lot of high profile space exploration to the outer planets, so it’s interesting to see them heading closer to the sun.

MESSENGER means MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry, and Ranging. The official MESSENGER website has all the details for the mission, including a countdown until the time for the closest approach of the flyby. There’s also a countdown for when MESSENGER goes into orbit around Mercury starting on March 18, 2011.

Mercury

Movie Review: The Right Stuff


Thanks to Craig for our new Netflix subscription, Susan and I were able to watch one of my favorite movies of all time, The Right Stuff (1983).  I watched this movie repeatedly on cable and VHS as a child and had much of the dialog memorized.  The excellent dialog plus the skillful acting and the wonderful blending of special effects with human interest make this movie for me.  Plus it’s about astronauts, so it’s got to be wicked cool.

This lengthy film can be broken down into three parts.

The first part shows the harbinger of the Space Age with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaking the sound barrier.   This was my favorite part as a kid, mostly because Yeager is such an engaging character.  If you read up on what actually happened you’ll learn that like many parts of this movie the facts have been rather loosely dramatized but gets at the gist of things.  I’ve always been perturbed by the reporter saying “the Russians are our allies” even though US-Soviet relations had deteriorated quite a bit by 1947.  After Yeager’s historic flight, we see another flight where he once again sets the speed record to top a civilian pilot before the 50th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.  Young cocky pilots descend on Edwards Air Force Base including Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin)  while their wives nervously discuss the risky lives of test pilots.

Then Sputnik orbits the Earth.   The frenzied Eisenhower administration wonders how the Soviets got ahead of the US and plans on manned missions to space.  In one of the funniest sequences in the movie, two government agents played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer show films of potential candidates for the astronaut corps, but when Ike insists on test pilots Goldblum and Shearer are dispatched on a recruting mission.  First they go to Edwards where they pick up Cooper, Grissom, and Slayton, to Yeager’s ridicule.  Then they watch clean Marine John Glenn (Ed Harris) on a tv game show.  Finally they board an aircraft carrier and meet Naval aviator Alan Shepherd (Scott Glenn).

The astronaut candidates go through a series of brutal and often bizarre tests in another of the really funny parts of the film.  I especially like the part where Shephard is given a talking to by an Hispanic orderly because of his Jose Jimenez impersonation (all while Shephard has an enema).  Once the seven candidates are selected they are introduced to the media with great hype.  It takes a while for these seven men to gel as a team, but they come together to defend their positions as pilots of spacecraft as opposed to being “astronaut-occupants” of a capsule.  In an interesting sequence the astronauts play the media off the engineers and insist on a redesign of the spacecraft to have a window, a hatch with exploding bolts and manual controls for reentry.  While the exploding hatch plays a big part in Grissom’s mission, it is interesting that the filmmakers chose to leave out that the manual controls proved vital for Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) to return safely to the Earth on his mission.

But Carpenter and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen) are only minor characters in this film.  The filmmakers also never mention that Slayton was grounded due to a heart condition but became a respected member of NASA as head of astronaut selection.  And so the film only dramatizes four of the Mercury missions, which is good in the interests of time and storytelling works pretty well.  Each mission has a particular point of tension.  The humorous incident of Sheppard needing to urinate is followed by the harrowing case of Grissom needing to swim to safety after the hatch blows accidentally. Glenn’s historic orbital flight is given a long, heroic depiction underscored by concerns about a faulty heat shield.  The film ends with the launch of Cooper’s flight.  The movie keeps in mind the wives dealing with the stress and the overbearing press corp as well as astronauts on the ground monitoring the missions of their fellow astronauts.

Yeager’s presence is never overlooked in this film and his character acts as kind of Greek chorus to the Mercury program.  In the penultimate scene Yeager is shown testing (and crashing) an aerospace trainer aircraft in what proved to be his last mission as a test pilot.  These scenes are contrasted with the Mercury 7 astronauts being feted Texas-style at the opening of the new NASA space center in Houston.  The Right Stuff asks but never answers, who is the best pilot?  The unsung fliers of experimental  jets or men who sat atop explosive rockets in front of millions of viewers?

Book Review: Children of God by Mary Doria Russell


Children of God (1999) by Mary Doria Russell is the sequel to The Sparrow, but unfortunately in its great ambition fails to live up to its predecessor. Russell introduces a flurry of new characters and overlapping plotlines that make the novel more confusing than complex, and then tries to resolve them all in a way that feels contrived. The strength of The Sparrow is its characters but I don’t feel that the new characters are developed as well. Particularly three Jesuit priests who are Lakota Sioux, Afrikaner, and from Belfast just seem to conveniently tied in with the issues of genocide, partition, and apartheid that occur on the planet of Rakhat. That there is not one, but two idiot savants who mystically show the way to God just seems too much for me.

On the plus side, is still a fine yarn and a good read. There’s a lot of reflection on civilization, spiritual matters, and humor as well.  I particularly like the part where Emilio Sandoz mistakes the Pope for a research assistant.

Children of God picks up where The Sparrow left off. Emilo Sandoz having confronted his past and begun healing leaves the priesthood but agrees to work as a linguist/translator for the Jesuits. He meets and falls in love with Gina, a cousin-in-law of the Father-General, but before they can marry he’s shanghaied into going on a return mission by Gina’s gangster ex-husband Carlo. I found Carlo another poorly developed character and an unbelievable deus ex machina means of getting Emilio back to Rakhat.

Meanwhile on Rakhat, a revolution is taking place spearheaded by the stranded Earth woman Sofia Mendes and outlaw Jana’ata Supaari VaGayjur (we do get a good explanation of what Supaari’s motivations were for basically selling Sandoz in to sexual slavery in the first book). With their greater numbers the Runa are able to overthrow the Jana’ata and create an uncomfortable new society.

Alternating across the time divide with flashbacks and flash forwards it all comes to gather rather to neatly in the end.  Still worth reading if you liked the first book.

Book Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell


Jesuits … In … Spaaaaaaaaaaace!!! That’s the basic plot of the science fiction novel The Sparrow (1996) by Mary Doria Russell.

The novel proposes a future in which the exploration of new worlds, much like the age of discovery in the 1500’s & 1600’s, is led by a vanguard of missionaries. While this is a work of science fiction set in the future, it reads like a historical novel, perhaps because its story reads of historical experience such as that portrayed in The Mission.

The prologue of the novel sets the tone perfectly:

The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God

They meant no harm. – p. 3

The chapters alternate between those set after the mission and those during the preparation for and the time spent on Rakhat. In one set of chapters the experience of the only survivor of the mission, Father Emilio Sandoz, his hands maimed, his psyche destroyed, and his faith lost must face intense scrutiny from the media and his fellow Jesuits. These alternate with Sandoz and his friends and colleagues discovering signals from a distant planet of singers, and his efforts to form a team to travel to Rakhat to meet and live among these people. The joy of collegiality of the earlier chapters contrasts starkly with the hollow shell of a man that Sandoz is presented as upon his return to Earth. Yet as the book proceeds, the stories come together. As things go to hell in a handbasket on Rakhat, Sandoz is able to come to terms with the horrors he faced.

This novel works well due to its competently executed and complex characters. There’s Sandoz, from a background of poverty in Puerto Rico who grows up to become a priest and a talented linguist. Sofia, a determined, reserved woman of Sephardic heritage who serves as computer specialist and general contractor. Jimmy Quinn, the large, affable but shy astronomer who discovered the singers. Finally, Anne and George Edwards, a doctor and an engineer who though atheists are devoted friends of Emilio’s and share with him sardonic wit. Even the beings of Rakhat are given unique perspective and backgrounds, and presented realistically as sentient beings who happen to be predators and prey.

Favorite Passages

 

“The poor you will always have wit you,” Jesus said. A warning, Emilio wondered, or an indictment. – p. 53

Once, long ago, she’d allowed herself to think seriously about what human beings would do, confronted directly with a sign of God’s presence in their lives. The Bible, that repository of Western wisdom, was instructive either as myth or as history, she decided. God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf. God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before… – p. 100

“Sailing is the perfect antidote for age, Reyes. Everything you do on a sailboat is done slowly and thoughtfully. Most of the time, an old body is entirely capable of doing whatever needs to be done while you’re cruising. And if the sea is determined to teach you a lesson, well, a young back is no more capable than an old one of resisting an ocean, so experience counts more than ever.” – p. 203