Space Exploration Archive

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Somewhere: The Intersection of Space and Symbolism

A cursory glance at Nicholas Ménard’s Somewhere suggests it is the sort of animated short film that would be at home within a National Film Board exhibition. The intentional contrasts in colour, the disfigurement of the human form, and raw emotion contained within the work suggests a director who is well established within his field. Naturally, I was pleasantly surprised upon discovering that Mr. Ménard submitted Somewhere as part of his first year curriculum at the Royal College of Art.

Art project or not, I found myself preparing a deeply symbolic reading of this short film. I had thoughts on the squaring of the astronaut’s posture on Earth and within his space ship as a commentary on humanity reshaping itself to better integrate with technology. I assumed the astronaut’s arm was somehow deemed unnecessary for the mission, thus surgically removed in some sort of Kafka meets Foucault horror story. The blending together of reds and blues on the alien planet were to be a statement on the universality of life as personified though the astronaut and the woman left behind on Earth. Naturally, the T-Shaped pattern on the astronaut’s space suit would work as either a call back to the Fordist iconography of Brave New World, literally apropos of an astronaut crashing on an alien world, or an invocation of Christian symbolism – for some reason I couldn’t quite figure out.

As I rapidly approached the danger zone of overly-academic wanking, I thought it best to do a little more research on the film. What follows is a quote from Ménard as found on the Creators Project Blog.

The film was actually ‘art therapy’ to get over a past relationship that didn’t make it when I moved to London…When I arrived in London last year, I had this constant, weird feeling of having left a part of me behind; like if part of me was still living my old life in Canada. I wanted to illustrate this feeling that comes with immigration in the film — and the feeling of missing someone in the distance.

Well shit. Give me an inch, and I will give you a yard of words which over-complicate a story about love, loss, and relocation. Despite Mr. Ménard’s peek behind the curtain, I still think a case can be made for some deeper subtext within this film, even if it is unintentional. For example, the astronaut’s contortion act on Earth compared to his ability to stand freely on the alien world might be a personal allegory, but it’s oblique enough that a third-party could internalize the motif of restriction versus freedom into any other number of narratives. Granted that might not be the artist’s intention, but ultimately the ability to engage with the audience, without offering an explicitly didactic message, is one of my measures for a good piece of art.

Bravo, Nicholas Ménard. We can’t wait to see what you come up with next.

Somewhere (2013) from Nicolas Ménard on Vimeo.


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Curiosity is My Apollo 11 Moment

The view from Gale Crater

Late Sunday night, or in the wee hours of Monday morning depending on where you are in the world, NASA’s JPL rover “Curiosity” did what Arnie told us to do back in 1990, it got its ass to Mars.

Huzzah for another triumph of humanity over near space.

At 10:32PDT, under the gaze of the internet, the Mars Odyssey Orbiter, the finest faux hawk in the history of space exploration, and a Dr. Carson Beckett body double, a rover that weighs as much as a small car gracefully landed in Mars’ Gale Crater. During Curiosity’s eight month voyage to Mars it covered a distance of roughly 352 million miles. And unlike NASA’s previous two rovers which fell to Mars cushioned in giant airbags, Curiosity employed a controlled descent via detachable rocket pack and sky crane. Landing at a velocity of about two miles per hour, Curiosity touched down on the red planet with more finesse than most of us employ in getting out of bed.

A lot of thoughts passed through my mind while watching NASA’s live web feed. Foremost among them was what the hell is going to happen to NASA if this two and a half billion dollar space buggy crashes and burns? I quickly pushed such thoughts away, instead letting myself reflect on how I would remember this moment if it happened. In a flash it occurred to me that baring something truly extraordinary occurring in the near future, Curiosity would be my generation’s Apollo 11 moment. And damn if we haven’t needed one.

In my thirty years I’ve seen two space shuttle missions end in tragedy, landers crash into Mars because astrophysicists and engineers couldn’t tell metric from imperial measurements, and the over-budget and underwhelming construction of an orbiting space station which is nothing close to the gateway to the moon that we were promised in the late 90s. Where are my generation’s Neil Armstrongs and Yuri Gagarins? What name is more familiar to the public, Chris Hatfield or Lisa Nowak? Where is the BIG THING that in fifty years will let me preface conversations with “I remember when…” My generation’s relationship with space flight has been one of tragedy, budget cuts, and outsourcing to the private sector.

Like everybody else, I made a few jokes on twitter while I sat and waited. When NASA cut to a video that showed how the orbital paths of Curiosity and Odyssey lined up, I cracked wise about Missile Command. For gamers who remember the 90s, I alluded to a nuclear powered rover being a cover for an XCOM Avenger intent on attacking Cydonia. There may have also been a tweet or two about finding Prothean ruins in Gale Crater. But when Curoisty made its final descent into Mars’ atmosphere, I hoped.

I hoped for more than a safe landing. I hoped Curiosity might be the sort of thing people rally behind. I hoped the collective anticipation and enthusiasm of everybody who was flooding my twitter feed might inspire others to remember that optimism and ambition are good things. And I hoped in the fullness of time Curiosity might find evidence of something that will make this world seem like a smaller place. I also got confused about the time delay between Earth and Mars, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. When the seven minutes of terror ended and the words “touchdown” came through the feed, I cheered. Then I broke out my bottle of special fifteen year old “victory” scotch and had a toast to the collective awesome that is the human race.

The shouts from NASA’s live feed, as well as my own, woke my girlfriend. I told her the good news, she smiled and went to check the non-internet news for coverage.

CBC Televsion was revelling in banalities with re-runs of Dragon’s Den.

CBC News was airing a re-run of a picayune documentary on lottery winners.

CTV 1 and CTV Newsnet were showing repeats of Olympic coverage from the day before.

Canada’s national broadcaster and Bell Media’s flagship stations couldn’t be bothered to interrupt reruns and old news to dedicate five minutes to a story that forced us to redraw the frontiers of human experience. How embarrassing for them. How sad for them to have a moment of live news befitting the likes of Walter Cronkite scooped by Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day, John Scalzi, David Hewlett, and us common folk who are so paternally labeled as “citizen journalists”. How utterly tragic for “legitimate” media to perfectly prove its disconnection from the reality of our digital culture, despite pretensions otherwise via flatscreens, ipads, and title cards that include twitter handles. While the CBC and CTV slept, we were there.

And those of us who were there, through the benefit of NASA’s brilliantly executed live feed, were part of something fantastic. Who can say right now what that something might turn into, but we were there for the start of it. Generation X and beyond finally has an Apollo 11 moment. And for the benefit of those among that demographic who look at space exploration with all the cynicism this world can muster, those of us who were there will continue to hope.


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Shaftoe’s Rant: Arrivederci, Atlantis

The Short Version: Is anybody else afraid that the sun has set on humanity’s ventures into space?

The Long Version:  Sometime between my passing out while reading a Jack Aubrey novel and my cat deciding that his need for breakfast far outweighed my desire for slumber, humanity ended a significant chapter in space exploration.  This morning at 5:57AM ET the space shuttle Atlantis touched down in Florida to a crowd of 2,000 supportive on-lookers.  I read this news and couldn’t help but feel a profound sense of loss.

The space shuttle program is only slightly older than I am. As such, shuttle missions have been a ubiquitous part of my life. Now America’s future in space – and Canada’s because let’s face it, when it comes to space exploration we’re a nation of hitchhikers, hangers-on and skilled adjuncts – lay in Soyuz modules, yet to be built American rockets that make me think we should just rebuild the Saturn V series, and free market space entrepreneurs.  In Richard Branson we trust? How very disheartening.

With the American government on the verge of defaulting on its fourteen trillion dollar debt, I can’t find it within me to get excited about NASA’s plans for building an experimental craft that might take us back to the moon.  Cuts to NASA’s budget, just like the space shuttle, have been a constant in my life.  Even in Clinton’s post-Lewinsky years, a time I like to call the “Big Willy’s bulletproof bonanza”, I can’t recall any public rallies that saw massive increases in NASA’s budget.  Hell, NASA is the venerable poster child for doing more with less.  Considering the world in which we live, I find myself hard pressed to put any stock in the timely execution of an exploration program that will require the construction of new launch facilities as well as the crafts themselves.  Too bad space exploration isn’t “good” for the economy.

Oh sure, back in the 50s and 60s, space exploration was great for the economy.  Smarter people than I have already charted the relationship between early space exploration and the birth of consumer electronics.  In the intervening years, however, consumer electronics grew up and moved out of its parents’ basement, so to speak.  Now the processing power that I use to run a game of Starcraft or record a podcast could power ten space shuttles in simultaneous orbit.  Barring the discovery of Helium-3 a la Duncan Jones’ Moon, where’s the fiscal argument that is going to drive the next wave of space exploration?

That lack of immediate and tangible benefit fuels a public malaise about space exploration and the space shuttle mission that vexes me more than anything else.  The refrain always begins with, “Why should I care about space when…”  It started one March Break when lil’ Shaftoe and family were in Florida and he got to watch an actual shuttle launch. When I returned to school and bragged about how I was going to become an astronaut, one of my classmates, a born-again Christian named Kathleena, snarked that people had no business in space because there were too many problems on Earth.  Ever since that day, it’s been the same tired line.

Why should I care about space when people are dying of cholera in Haiti?   Why should I care about space when half the people in the world live without clean water?  Why should I care about space when crack kills people in the inner city?  Why should I care about space when hegemonic governments do nothing to stop people from being displaced from their homes?  In the face of such a negative discourse, how the hell does a person make an argument for space exploration without seeming like a pie-in-the-sky head-in-the-sand altruist/crackpot?

The best answer I can come up with is that space exploration is as much about exploring the Earth as it is exploring that which lies beyond.  Modern climatology, geography, oceanography and countless other fields couldn’t exist as they do without the capacity to look down upon our planet.  These are the sciences that will be essential in helping humanity deal with the fact that we will soon find ourselves living on a planet populated by ten billion people.  Bad as are problems are now, they would be worse without space exploration.  In retiring the space shuttles, I fear that North America is losing a vital tool in its ability to examine itself, its role in the world and how we might be better stewards of this planet.

I recognize the challenges of creating space vehicles for a world where innovations in computing, nanotechnology and human biology are ever present.  The shuttle fleet were analog devices that survived the digital era to sail into aerospace Valhalla on the cusp of the quantum era.  That is no small achievement.  Still, the question remains, does the completion of the space shuttle mission move America into the company of the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Spanish and British?  Is America a nation whose reach has finally exceeded its grasp?  If the epoch of American space exploration is indeed at its end then I can only hope for a timely and suitable successor.  The Earth can ill afford humanity turning inward upon itself.

Arrivederci, Atlantis.  Let’s hope we don’t go the way of your namesake.