One of my friends recently dumped his collection of “Farscape” on me, and I just finished up with the finale miniseries  yesterday.

Farscape splash
Farscape splash

I think the show got off to a slow start. It took me a good number of episodes to really get into it – (was Crichton’s big scientific theory that catapulted him across the universe really the gravity assist plus atmospheric drag?!) – but, I have to hand it to the writers and actors of this show. They hooked me. This show worked really well for me in a lot of ways that many other recent sci-fi shows didn’t. I’d rank this one over Firefly. (It still doesn’t beat Galactica – maybe it was better than seasons 3.5-4.0, though.) At its heart, Farscape falls into the “Star Trek”-style journey-through-strange-worlds genre, but with a liberal chunk of the lost-in-space, half-a-dozen-of-us-cooped-up-in-a-boat, and epic-plot-arc stuff thrown in there. But it’s got a very different take. It’s kind of the anti-“Voyager.”

The thing I really love most about this show has to be John Crichton. I don’t think I have ever met a character who felt this much like a real live human being ripped out of contemporary society and into strange situations. It’s not just that he’s always trying to rationalize things into a perspective that he (and we) will be comfortable with. Sometimes John meets situations that he’s not comfortable with, even after re-expressing them in American slang, and sometimes he just has to throw his hands up and scream at the universe. He is always amazed to discover that his alien friends and their ship Moya have previously unknown capabilities, and sometimes he gets frustrated when they can’t magically pull themselves out of any situation. His constant stream of pop culture references really added something to the whole effect (he nicknames a bunch of aliens Skeksis in one episode, calls an alien planet Dagobah, and goes into one scene of the miniseries finale with a reference to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”). Sometimes it seems like a parody of contemporary sci-fi, though whenever I think back on that, I have a pretty hard time coming up with how I might react in those situations, and Crichton seems much more understandable! It was also a good way of getting out of the “Didn’t you guys ever watch the show?!” problem highlighted in “Galaxy Quest.”

As the protagonist of the show, the writers did a great job with Crichton, but the rest of the rotating cast of characters also stood out in my mind. While one core group stays with the show from beginning to end, there are at least eight characters I can name offhand who get picked up partway or dropped off at some point. Sometimes Moya picks someone up for just a few episodes before dropping them at the nearest planet, sometimes they show up again later, sometimes they join the crew, sometimes they convince a member of the crew to leave. The same is true of the antagonists of the show – meaning that sometimes one character would be an adversary, and sometimes an ally, depending on the situation at hand. Even the crew of Moya, thrown together by accident, isn’t always working towards the same goal. One episode that stands out in my mind as really showing off the ensemble cast – and the actors – was “Out of Their Minds,” in which the crew gets repeatedly zapped between each others’ bodies. That may sound hackneyed (how many times has Star Trek used that mechanic?) but the actors did a phenomenal job of playing each others’ characters in a way that was instantly recognizable. And, going back to my comments on Crichton, he had some of the typical reactions one might expect of a contemporary guy in that situation….

The alien races on the show were pretty wonderful, too. For starters, “Farscape” goes way beyond the funny-forehead phenomenon (though that does happen from time to time – for budgetary reasons, I forgive them). We see a lot of complicated prosthetics and animatronics, many of which look surprisingly lifelike; and, of course, this is so because all the aliens came out of the amazing Jim Henson Creature Shop! But there was more than the quality of the alien puppets and “Fifth Element”-esque costumes. Most of the time, when we met an alien species, we met individuals of that species with several different points of view, political opinions, or faction memberships. This show definitely didn’t follow the Star Trek trope of homogenized alien species that all share the same trait. No, the Farscape universe is populated with neither absolute good nor absolute evil, but instead with…people.

I really enjoyed the way the show handles the Crichton/Aeryn relationship. If you haven’t seen the show, I’m really not spoiling anything if I tell you that the romantic tension between these two characters is a major plot mover. That’s obvious from the moment Aeryn appears. And, of course, for this to be an episode TV show, they need to have a very difficult, tumultuous relationship that doesn’t quite reach closure until the series ends. But these two have a difficult relationship for what seem like very good reasons, and Farscape played with some really interesting ways to get the two of them together and apart again. And more than that, the characters actually get frustrated by this dynamic, too! Like when Crichton and Aeryn seemed to be going somewhere at the end of one episode, and the next one picked up with nothing happening – just after I started to wonder as an audience member, “hey, what’s going on between them?” Crichton actually went up to Aeryn to ask her that very question. It’s like this show was actually playing with reality, by turning a lens on the typical television plot devices.

Finally, several of the episodes were memorable for their cinematography. I haven’t seen other sci-fi shows really play with the way they’re being shot to try and tie things together – the SF Farscape seems to have the most in common with in this regard is “The Fifth Element.” Yeah, Battlestar went for a “documentary feel” and all that, but I’m not just talking about a style for the show as a whole. There are some great dream sequences and some episodes in which the point of view of the characters really comes out in their editing.

I’m feeling bittersweet about Farscape now. Bitter, because I missed it while it was on, I’ve blown through it all, and it’s not around any more. But sweet, because that was a pretty good evening diversion for a couple months, it was a great show, it handled itself well, and it ended in a satisfying way.

In Which I Disagree with the Smartest Man on the Planet

Stephen Hawking has been in the news recently for saying that aliens will likely be hostile to us poor Earthlings.

In a series for the Discovery Channel the renowned astrophysicist said it was “perfectly rational” to assume intelligent life exists elsewhere.

But he warned that aliens might simply raid Earth for resources, then move on.

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” he said.

Prof Hawking thinks that, rather than actively trying to communicate with extra-terrestrials, humans should do everything possible to avoid contact.

He explained: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

That last statement is the source of my disagreement with him. Aliens are going to be, well, alien compared to us. They will have completely different evolutionary and cultural histories from us. They probably care about entirely different things than we do. Just about the only thing we are likely to share with aliens would be the assortments of atoms that make us up (and maybe not even that). Hawking’s last statement pertains more to the possible human reactions to finding alien species. As I said to my roommate, I can only speak for humans. In fact, I can really only speak for one human.

This is especially important because human history is littered with examples of different cultures having radically different beliefs, holding different things to be important. For example, looks at the Native Americans and their interactions with colonial Europeans. The issue wasn’t really that the colonists were more technologically advanced – in many ways, the Native cultures had superior technologies for their environment. But they had entirely different cultural values, and disease decimated the natives early on in the interaction. With aliens, we won’t even have the disease element.

So, I’m not comfortable making any statements about how aliens are likely to behave – even given human history as an example. And if the aliens do want to just pillage our Solar System for resources, they could scour 99% of them on planets other than this rock filled with spunky creatures who would be hell-bent on making life difficult for them.

Astronauts in space

STS-131 / Exp 23 group photo
STS-131 / Exp 23 group photo

The Space Shuttle mission which just undocked from the International Space Station, STS-131, has beamed down from orbit some great photos of astronauts in space. This is a wonderful chance for us stuck planetside to remind ourselves that we have people living and working in spaceships!

The Discovery crew in the Cupola
The Discovery crew in the Cupola

And, of course, this mission is historic for having the largest number of women simultaneously in space – four out of the thirteen total crew. Considering small-number statistics, that is pretty close to a fifty-fifty split! Here is the orbiting Bay Stater, Stephanie Wilson:

MS Wilson in the Kibo laboratory
MS Wilson in the Kibo laboratory

And here’s JAXA’s Naoko Yamazaki in the Destiny laboratory at a robotics console made of lots of ThinkPads taped to the ISS wall,

MS Yamazaki in Destiny
MS Yamazaki in Destiny

although I think this is my favorite picture of Yamazaki!

In the Cupola!
In the Cupola!

That’s where JAXA astronaut Soich Noguchi has been taking and Twittering down amazing Earth-observation and Space Station photos. (That is the single best application of Twitter I have ever seen, and is not likely to be surpassed, ever.)

Finally, I will leave you with astronaut family dinner!

I love astronauts (PS - obey the speed limit: 28,000 kph!)
I love astronauts (PS - obey the speed limit: 28,000 kph!)

Some brief comments on President Obama’s NASA speech

While President Obama’s speech this afternoon wasn’t a slam-bang Kennedyesque dream vision, I thought he expressed some good ideas. Of course, there aren’t too many substantial differences between the plan we heard and the plan Charlie Bolden presented in February; the President’s remarks today sounded much more defensive than visionary. Given the amount of criticism his NASA ideas have received, I don’t really blame him…but still.

The most frustrating thing to me about the new NASA plan is how distorted it has become in the media. The first thing Obama said this afternoon was that he is increasing NASA’s budget by $6,000,000,000 – at a time when he has frozen discretionary spending and we are looking for ways to deal with crisis after crisis. There were even headlines two days ago to that effect. Ohmigosh, the budget is going up! Well, yeah. It went up in February. It’s a wonder that the story in the media since then has been uniformly about NASA budget cuts; that attitude has permeated commentary even from sources inside NASA. It’s amazing how an idea like that can spread, even in the face of direct evidence of exactly the opposite.

Most of President Obama’s remarks today were familiar to me. Billions of dollars for robotic precursor missions, game-changing technology research, technology demonstration missions, and new human spaceflight capabilities. Buying launches from American companies rather than having NASA contract out for launchers to call its own, to close the LEO access gap. Extending the Space Station. All this we’ve seen before, and I still think all this sounds good.

We heard about two new development programs this afternoon: an ISS crew-escape vehicle based on the Orion capsule, which will evolve into our deep-space crew vehicle designs, and an accelerated heavy-lift program with the goal of having ready-to-build designs by 2015.

The Orion-derived crew lifeboat I think is stupid. To me, this looks like either pandering to the people at Marshall Space Flight Center who were annoyed that they didn’t have a capsule to build, pandering to the people who think tat a Dragon capsule wouldn’t meet NASA safety requirements, or pandering to the pining-for-the-Cold-War neocons who have been crying about how our ISS astronauts will be “held hostage” without US access to space. Having an ISS lifeboat may sound like a great idea, but the station already has a few reliable Soyuz vehicles for exactly that purpose. An Orion lifeboat is a waste of money and effort. The one good thing about this program is that it is supposed to feed into our designs for true space vehicles – but I would have preferred it if the President had just told the Orion teams to concentrate on that purpose.

The accelerated heavy-lift program is more exciting. I’d love to see NASA developing the capacity to fling wonderful new hardware to high Earth orbit and beyond, and I understand that it is valuable to keep the engineering expertise to develop such a vehicle within the NASA organization.  I’m very happy to see a date of 2015 attached to the designs for that system – and remember that Ares I was projected to be ready no earlier than 2018, and Ares V around 2030 – so the new heavy lift program is a much more ambitious one than either of these!

In addition to these new programs, President Obama finally announced a series of targets and dates. Criticisms of the new NASA vision have come from all across the board and contained all sorts of specific elements – but the one shared element, heard from ’round the space community, were: where is NASA going? and when is it supposed to get there?

Well, today we heard the following:

  • Ready-to-build heavy lift designs complete by 2015.
  • Human crews fly beyond the Earth-Moon system before 2025.
  • Human crews land on an asteroid sometime between 2025 and the mid-2030’s.
  • Human crews orbit Mars by the mid-2030’s.

Human landings on Mars are supposed to follow “shortly thereafter.” I’m thrilled to see these dates; they are nicely within my lifetime and identify specific targets. Perhaps they could have been presented with a bit more polish and panache, but I’m happy to have them!

(Side note: The Augustine Commission found that, with $3 billion/year extra funding, the Constellation Program would miss its 2020 deadline and get us to the Moon around 2030. So….eat it, Mike Griffin.)

Finally, I want to comment that it occurs to me that a lot of people in the space community have been contrasting Obama’s new plan to Kennedy’s speeches in the early ’60s. Obama’s speech today couldn’t have illustrated the differences between the two Presidents’ characters better – Kennedy seemed to run on pure emotional vigor in his space speeches, while Obama was his usual cool, collected, rational self. I like what he’s planning, but it wasn’t exactly couched in stirring rhetoric. However, I don’t think that speaks poorly of Obama’s commitment to space exploration. I think the difference between Obama and Kennedy is simply one of pragmatism. When I look at the goals he laid out, and compare them to Norm Augustine’s comments at the opening of the space summit (made as I began this post!), they make a lot of sense in that light. What Augustine said is that NASA’s goal, in the eyes of his commission, the NASA administrator, and the President, is to land people on Mars – but the trouble is that we just don’t have the technological capability yet to do that. Obama’s vision for NASA starts with developing that capability.

Put another way, imagine Kennedy had Obama’s character. His stated goal, expressed in that famous speech to a joint session of Congress shortly after Alan Shepard’s first flight, would not have been to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth. It would have been to develop and demonstrate technologies like orbital rendezvous, multi-person spacecraft, computer control of spacecraft, heavy lift, and planetary landing stages. Essentially, it’s as if Kennedy’s goal had been to complete the Gemini program. But the deadline for completing that goal would have been shorter than a decade, and the story wouldn’t end there. The groundwork would be in place for whoever was President at the time of Gemini’s completion to say, “okay, we’ve got that under our belt…now let’s get to the Moon!”

In short, Obama could have said something like, “Let’s land on Mars by 2040!” But instead, he gave us more incremental, shorter-term goals with a much higher chance of success. And he laid the groundwork for a future President to say, “okay, we can keep people alive in space for years and get to Mars orbit…let’s put boots on the ground!”

Hey, Joe! What’s your research about?

I recently spent over a week in full research-promotion mode, and I’m finding it tough to switch back into research-doing mode. Coincidentally, I don’t think I’ve actually written a blog about my graduate research yet, though I’ve put descriptions of it on both my personal web site and Cornell group web site. So, I’m going to try and get it all out of my system…

Suppose you ask: Hey, Joe! What’s your research about?

Well, it’s about building Transformers in space out of Legos connected by tractor beams. Seriously. Okay, fine, they’re not “tractor beams,” more like…”tractor fields.” But other than that, not a bad description. Here’s an old-ish video version:

I demonstrate flux pinning

First: Why?!

There are a lot of possible reasons why we ought to be thinking about building large-scale structures in space. Imagine assembling a huge space telescope out of hundreds of mirror segments, giving the telescope an effective light-gathering area of hundreds of meters and letting us peer into the dimmest corners of the Universe – from the most distant objects to extrasolar planets. Or, if we’re interested in space-based solar power (putting solar power collectors in space, where they could gather sunlight 24 hours a day without atmospheric filtering, and then beaming that power down to Earth) we would want to make the biggest collector area we can. Proponents of geoengineering approaches to climate change mitigation have been seriously considering constructing a giant sunshade to reduce solar incidence on the Earth, a short-term solution that could stave off environmental impacts while we work up longer-term fixes. And finally, if we want to maintain a long-term human presence in space – from Mars explorers to microgravity research and manufacturing technicians to paying space tourists – we will need vehicles and stations with enough room to accommodate many people, hold life support and other supplies, and provide equipment to stave off the detrimental effects of microgravity on human physiology.

All of these possible applications – any one of which would have tremendous implications for our lives on Earth – demand that we build a large structure in orbit out of smaller components. The reason for this is simple: launch vehicles can only carry so much mass and volume into orbit. Those limits are on the “stowed” size of spacecraft, so we do have the option to build craft that deploy, or unfold, out of their tightly-packed, mostly cylindrical launch configuration and into some more spindly and useful shape. For example, most Earth-orbiting satellites get their power from large solar panel “wings” that would not fit into a launch vehicle fairing unless rolled up in some clever way. There’s a lot of research these days on inflatable spacecraft, that could expand to many times their stowed size and get structural support from their internal pressure, but even those balloon-like craft cannot get indefinitely bigger than their launch envelope. Deployments and inflatables only make the volume or length of the spacecraft larger – so, for the same mass, you end up with spindlier structures, which might be fine for some applications but not others. So, in order to get the really big spacecraft, we must assemble smaller pieces to make the final system. Think of the International Space Station assembly processContinue reading Hey, Joe! What’s your research about?

Who needs an SLR?

This past Saturday, I biked to upper Robert Treman State Park with some friends. Lots of hills between the lower and upper parks!

I brought along my little Canon PowerShot SD1000 – a pretty simple point-and-shoot – and GorillaPod. This camera is obviously designed for sliding into pockets and taking snapshots with a variety of presets, not for taking really high-quality artsy, landscape, or action photos. Still, this camera has been my personal mainstay for a while. (And given the right subject matter, who cares?!) Along with the GorillaPod and CHDK, it can actually be quite powerful. Most of my pictures on Saturday were high-dynamic-range composite photos that came out quite well in postprocessing. (Okay, still not as well as I could have done trying the same thing with a really good camera. But still: this is a great way to get excellent photos for about $220.)

High-dynamic-range, or HDR, photos are composites of several sub-images with varying exposure times. I followed this article and used Qtpfsgui to composite the images.

Lucifer Falls
Lucifer Falls

HDR images essentially combine the dark areas of overexposed photos with the light areas of underexposed photos. The net effect is an image that seems more like our everyday perception: you can see the details in both lit and shadowed areas of the resulting image. Of course, there are several algorithms that do this, and tweaking the settings can result in various realistic or artistic effects. Continue reading Who needs an SLR?