Timeshifted Blogs

The Apollo Plus 40 Twitter Feed reminds me of the Orwell Diaries project.  Each pulls a piece of history forward to the present day, where you can experience it in real-time. (via Kottke).

My inner autistic feels slightly uneasy about the the disparity between dates and day.  For example, The Eagle Lunar Module landed on the moon at just after 8pm EDT, on 20th July 1969, which was a Sunday evening (see Mark’s Livingston’s date-to-day converter).  However, I’ll presumably be reading a tweet announcing “the Eagle has landed” late on the evening of Monday 20th July 2009.  Sunday nights and Monday nights feel very different.

The BBC screened couple of TV programmes a few years ago, Dateline Jerusalem and Bethlehem Year Zero, that operated on a similar timeshift concept for the Easter and Christmas stories.  Not quite real-time, though.  It strikes me as a new way to consume other types of art too:  perhaps reading the entire oeuvre of a given writer by purchasing their books exactly 40, or 50, or a 100 years after the initial publication.  Hansard, the Houses of Parliament archive, would be the perfect resource for an extended “on this day” type feed.

What’s freaky about the Internet, or specifically, the Internet where everyone uses permalinks, is that everything is already pre-archived, ready for this kind of treatment at a moment’s notice.  Many is the time when I have accidentally thought that an archived news story is happening at that moment.  With TV, film and radio, there are certain giveaways like picture and sound quality, colour balance, or even accents and pronounciation, which date the archived item.  In print, the age of the page is easy to discern, by the graphic design style if not by the yellowing of the parchment.  Meanwhile, the division of design and content on the Internet means that old text is constantly inserted into modern designs.

I’m not sure which I like best – going back in time to experience the sights and sounds of a forgotten era; or having the old narratives brought forward into a twenty-first century setting.  There’s room for both, of course, but different approaches conjour different feelings, and teach us different lessons.

To Boldly Twitter…

From Dr McCoy to the Real McCoy.  Another Space Shuttle mission has just launched from Cape Canaveral.  They’re off to the Hubble Telescope.

Atlantis on the pad, ready for STS-125
Atlantis on the pad, ready for STS-125

Two astronauts have the twittering bug.  Mission Specialist Mike Massimino is on Atlantis, while Mark Polansky is the commander of STS-127.   Earlier this year, their colleague Sandra Magnus posted a blog from space.

Thus, right before dawn there is total black and as you look out the window it is as if neither the Earth nor the heavens are there. You just exist, floating in an endless sea of black with one bright light, the sun, illuminating the way. Nothing beyond the light exists. It only lasts a moment, though, as the sun rises higher over the nearing horizon. The Earth starts to pick up some of the rays at last and reappears out of the darkness awash in a faint gray color. Drawing closer you can notice that any high clouds in the atmosphere glow orange or red as they too find the morning sun. It is possible to see the terminator as you cross it. The grey of dawn gives way to the bright blues and whites of day that are so distinctive of our water planet. Looking back in the direction from whence you came, the darkness of night is still noticeable. Only looking forward does the day shine clearly. Soon the night is gone as the Space Station continues on its never-ending trek across the planet. The heavens are now just a dark velvety curtain against the brilliant colors of Earth. No stars are visible. They are there, though, waiting for the night which will come in another 45 minutes or so, to show themselves again.


Anyway, Godspeed Atlantis.


Goddamit! Yet again, I was let down by the online streaming video, crashing as loads of people logged on at the last moment. It happened with STS-116, and it happened with the PopeCam.

On Stars

Via Michelle, I hear that 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy.

This seems a good opportunity to post a link to the Light Cone RSS Feed:

From the moment of my birth, light [that I could have influenced] has been expanding around the Earth and light [which could influence me, from an increasing distance of origin] reaching it — this ever-growing sphere of potential causality is my light cone.

Not quite a Total Perspective Vortex, but still awesome (in the old sense of that word).

Elsewhere, the Boston Globe’s fantastic Big Picture blog recently ran an advent calendar of photos from the Hubble Telescope.

An obscure star designated V838 explodes in 2002
An obscure star designated V838 explodes in 2002

Shoot for the Moon

Here are two responses to the Apollo moon landings. First, Richard Nixon’s famous address on the optimism that the moon landings inspired:

Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. As you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment, in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.

The moon landings are probably the foremost example of what can be achieved when humans endeavour to co-operate. It is a story that has everything: from the insights of Gallileo and Newton; the imagination of Jules Verne; to the Leadership of Kennedy; to the bravery of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins; to the scholarship at MIT that built the computer guidance systems on the Apollo craft; to quick thinking of Jack Garman and Steve Bales, who made a correct, key decision regarding some obscure computer error codes, as Neil Armstrong’s Eagle hovered over the moon’s surface.

However, the poet Gil Scott-Heron was not impressed. He penned this indignant plea to spend the money on something different:

Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,
Airmail special
(to Whitey on the moon)

While it is surely worth a few billion dollars to bring mankind together as one, it is a lofty and imprecise ideal. Scott-Heron’s words ring in the ears, and anyone who is eager to journey back to the moon in our lifetime, or perhaps even to Mars, will have to justify the expense.

As I have said before, I begin with the idea that if one is going to design and build rockets, it would be more satisfying if we were to put astronauts in them, rather than nuclear warheads. It would also be more exciting, and (I think) more healthy for the collective human psyche. Spending several billions on “an ego trip” (as Bob Marley sang it), is a reprehensible thing when compared to the need for schools, a health system here in the UK, or AIDS medicines and mosquito nets in Africa. But compared to Trident, which is designed for the singular purpose of destruction, it is easier to argue that it would be money well spent.

Cancelling Trident and creating a bona fide British Space Programme would surely be an easy task, since the skills required for one project are easily transferred to the other. There is a place for rocket scientists and computer guidance systems engineers. And surely submariners would make perfect astronauts, accustomed as they are to spending long periods of time sealed in claustrophobic capsules?

Supporters of the nuclear deterrent remind us that for Britain to maintain an influence on the international arena, we need to be members of the nuclear ‘club’. Much of the argument is over what strategic advantage the submarines give us (if any), and whether it is relevant when our arsenal is dwarfed by that of the United States. Clearly if we were to cancel Trident in favour of a space programme, that programme would fare better politically and economically if it had some strategic importance too. Indeed, although the American’s cited the noble causes of ‘discovery’ and ‘wonder’ as the justification for their Apollo Programmes, the scientific and military imperatives were just as strong – As were the propaganda benefits.

One strategic project could be a replacement for the Galileo Project, the European satellite-navigation system that intended to rival the USA’s Global Positioning Satellites. The Galileo Project is in crisis, and it needs to be either replaced or reinvigorated. OK, so it is not quite an Apollo Mission… but the creation of a strategic technology that can be used in peace-time as well as war, seems to be a more imaginative side-step for a country like Britain, and certainly a better use of our rocket fuel. Once we’ve succeeded in that arena, we can set our sights higher, to the stars.

Earthrise, as seen by Apollo 15

In The Shadow of the Moon

One of the reasons for being at the various Edinburgh festivals is the opportunity to get ahead of the ‘curve’ on films, plays and actors that are destined to become successful in the coming year. I saw Murderball before everyone else, and it was festival audiences who provided a seal of approval for Black Watch before it went on a lengthy tour of Scotland, England, and television.

This year the gem was In the Shadow of the Moon, a documentary about the Apollo Project. It was actually made by a British film-maker, but features interviews with several of the astronauts who journeyed to the moon. It also includes some newly-released and restored NASA footage of the voyages. It is due for release in the US where it is set to be a success, one which encourages a little bit of patriotism in a country that has been hit with a bout of Iraq-induced self-doubt.

Noticeable by his absence from the film is Neil Armstrong, who is a notorious recluse. This is annoying at first, but when one ponders the enormity of what he did, I think it is an unsurprising result. Who could resist grabbing him by the collar and shouting “MAN, YOU WALKED ON THE FUCKING MOON!” He has probably been subjected to that kind of hysteria for many years.

And in retrospect, Armstrong’s non-participation is a blessing, in that it gives the other Apollo astronauts a chance to shine (no pun intended). Michael Collins, in particular, explodes the notion that he was somehow “unlucky” to be left on the Command Module while Armstrong and Aldrin made history. The intelligent musings of Collins and the other astronauts on the nature of their heroism and how they dealt with the enormous pressure to succeed is what makes the film so inspiring – After all, they have experienced the nearest thing to a Total Perspective Vortex that humans can create, and the footage they brought back from the moon is a delight to behold, especially on a large cinema screen.

My favourite quote is from Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon.

Now, I never complain about the weather. I am just glad that there is weather.

Though the funniest is Charlie Duke’s once-and-for-all put down to conspiracy theorists:

We went to the moon nine times. Why would we fake it nine times?

He has a southern drawl that makes it work. Wise, yet human.

Astronaut Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin walks on the Moon, 1969.
Astronaut Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin walks on the Moon, 1969.

Blast off

Hooray! We’re off to the moon. UK scientists are working on the deisgn of a moon lander that would also be used on Mars missions.

It seems to me that if we are to spend billions of pounds on firing rockets into the air, how much better it would be if they flew off to the moon or Mars, in a spirit of discovery and exploration. Instead we develop rockets designed to vapourise hundreds of thousands of people. We are a very silly species.

Of course, supporters of Trident cite the unreliable regimes of North Korea and Iran as proof that we need to maintain a deterrent. But I reckon a trip to the moon would be better than a deterrent – it would be a demoraliser. Can you imagine a bigger “fuck you” to send to Ahmadinejad, than an YouTube message from the moon?

As an incentive, countries that disarm would be offered a seat on the spaceship. The sight of your country’s flag, billowing in the vacuum by means of a support wire. What could bring greater glory to your land and people?

Your Country Flag Here

Diversity on the Space Shuttle

President Richard Nixon, on 20th July 1969:

Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one, one in their pride of what you have done and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.

Don’t forget that there is another Shuttle Mission in progress at the moment: STS116. I’ve been listening to the cockpit communications this afternoon, which (as I have mentioned before) I find quite medative.

CFrew of STS-116, 9th Dec 2006 (Photo © NASA)
CFrew of STS-116, 9th Dec 2006 (Photo © NASA)

It might be a cliche to draw attention to the diversity of the shuttle crews (much was made of the fact that the ill-fated Columbia crew included an Indian and Israeli astronauts). To point out that this person is a woman, or that person is black, seems an odd thing to do when they are in orbit, hundreds of miles above the earth.

But, when we continue to see so many examples of intolerance and racism in the world, I think it is worth re-emphasising, and celebrating the equality of race, gender and religion we see aboard the space shuttles. These people, the vanguard of human exploration of space, are drawn exclusively from the group of those who have transcended prejudice and tribalism to become representatives of, simply, humanity. Do you suppose someone with Ahmedinejad’s world-view could muster the attitude of co-operation necessary to explore the heavens?

Floating ball in the cosmos

A reader named Ray Storer makes a popular yet pertinent point over at the BBC NEWS Have Your Say pages:

Our common values are; We’re all human: All living on the same floating ball in the cosmos and if we don’t learn to get along with one another then the consequences will be our own doing or undoing.

Whenever a news programme brings us tidings from elsewhere in the world, they invariably begin with a map showing where they are reporting. The BBC uses a globe, which spins around from the Greenwhich Meridian, then zooms in on the flash-point of the moment (sometimes it spins the wrong way, but we can forgive that). During the Lebanon crisis, I felt there was something very disconcerting, about being reminded that we are marooned on ball of rock, immediately before watching images of the house-by-house destruction. Watching the tragic images of war in close-up, one gets lost in the complexity of the situation, and the grievances of both sides. However, the image of the globe, in all its enormous, lonely glory, streches our perspective, and we begin to look like a bunch of Liliputians.

Douglas Adams and his Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. I think that these guys have a better conception of our world and the humans on it, compared with the Holy Books of the God in whose name we maim and kill.

Live Shuttle Landing

The Space Shuttle Discovery is about an hour away from it’s “de-orbit burn”, where they flip the craft upside-down, and fire their engines. It falls out of orbit and becomes a very expensive glider. I highly recommend a trip over to NASA TV where you can watch the transition happen.

What I do not recommend is that you wait until the last moments before landing to load the video stream. Last year, the RealPlayer stream, which I had been running smoothly in the background for a good half hour before landing, failed on me literally seconds before touch down. I blamed all those Fair Weather Shuttle Watchers who hadn’t put in the hours beforehand, overloading the system at the eleventh hour. By the time the stream came back online, the moment had passed and the crew were out on the tarmac.

The same thing happened in April 2005 when the new Pope was chosen. All morning I had been vieiwing the BBC PopeCam, which was pointed at the Sistine Chapel Chimney. So it came to pass that I noticed the white smoke before the crowd in St Peter’s Square. But yet again, when the time came for the actual announcement, the stream became overloaded when thousands of rapturous Catholics followed the same link. “Habemus Papum! The new Pope is…” Crackle. Zip.

UPDATE: Landed at 1315 GMT, and I got to see the whole thing.

Vitruvian Astronaut

An image from the NASA website depicts Briton Piers J Sellars working on the ISS (International Space Station) during an EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity, more commonly known as a space-walk). Sellars had some difficulty during his second EVA yesterday, when his emergency jet thruster back-pack came loose from its tether. Fortunately his colleague Mike Fossum was on hand to secure it in place.

A close examination of Sellars suit reveals a graphic of an astronaut, drawn in the style of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. I love this kind of witty design thinking. Its also an appropriate symbol – The multipurpose logistics module being delivered to the ISS is called Leonardo.