The Constellation Program & The Future of Spaceflight

Over the weekend, it was widely reported that the Obama Administration has proposed cancelling NASA’s next big project, The Constellation Program, which was designed to return humanity to the Moon, but instead, increased NASA’s budget by $6 Billion. The official explanation was that Constellation would largely be a repeat of the Apollo program by returning Americans to the moon, and was rejected by an independent review panel. While there has been a considerable amount of press regarding this, it is most likely better for the US space program as a whole.

I was happy to see President Bush announce the Constellation Program, but in the couple of years since its announcement, it’s become increasingly clear that this was a project that wasn’t going to work in the long run. In the history of space exploration, numerous presidents have used the space program as a way to launch legacies and to bolster public support for their administration, most notably with the Kennedy Administration, as well as the Nixon Administration. Undoubtedly, this was a goal of the second Bush Administration, which faced flagging support as the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars were getting worse. This sort of support from an administration isn’t unwarranted, or really unwelcome, but given the absolute complexity of something such as Apollo or Constellation, there needs to be broad public support and administrative support for the program. This worked extremely well during the 1960s, as politicians were able to use the advances of the Soviet Union as a way to link both spaceflight and military technologies together. If the Russians were able to reach the moon first, they would be perceived as being technologically superior. In a world of unorganized terror and irregular warfare, this threat doesn’t exist. While it’s clear that Iran and North Korea has experimented with IRBM and ICBM technology, there isn’t a race to see who’s better. Thus, public and political pressure for a successful moon landing project isn’t behind a push to go to the moon, which will hurt the project in numerous ways, such as budget cuts.

Beyond that, however, is the entire purpose of a moon landing program. The Mercury and Gemini programs were both designed with much different criteria in mind: Could humans go to space, and could humans live in space? The successes of both and the subsequent Apollo program indicated yes, making them an unparalleled success. When it came to Apollo, the end goals are more limited: Could humans land on the moon? While Apollo proved that this was true, it was far more limited, with no aftermath plan put into place, and with fewer tangible results that could come out of it. Once humanity reached the moon, public support slowed, and the last three Apollo missions were cancelled, despite the hardware and training that had gone into them. A repeat of Apollo wouldn’t prove anything new, other than advancing some of the known technologies. Until a good reason is found to return to the lunar service, it shouldn’t be subjected to the constraints of taxpayer whims and political points, and this is what would have happened with Constellation. A return to the moon would be a tremendous boon to the United States, but it would be a superficial one, without real substance.

While this shuts out a lunar moon program on the part of NASA, this does open the doors for private aerospace companies, new and old. Earlier today, NASA announced five companies were receiving large grants, while other companies, such as SpaceX, will be tasked with shuttling people and materials back and forth between the earth and orbit. Private industry will likely be a better choice for space technology, because it is freed from the constraints of public funding and politicians. This doesn’t necessarily mean that NASA will be out of the space business either – several programs that will be brought up will be focusing on robotics and orbital stations, as well as investigating new equipment and technology, which will undoubtedly help create a foundation for further exploration to the moon and solar system.

There are some drawbacks to this. It’ll take longer, which will push the United States back a bit, and it will place some exploration in the hands of machines, rather than people. That, however, is a smaller price to pay if it helps to put the United States and humanity on track to reach the stars on a bit more of a permanent basis. What I can foresee, is a buildup of additional companies such as SpaceX, which will help to build a large industrial and commercial basis for human habitation in space. That, I believe, is incredibly important, especially given the problems with the economy as of late. This would provide the US with a wholly unique industry, something that is badly needed.

The problems with going to space are complicated, and returning to orbit will be a very different thing after twenty years of depending on the space shuttle. Hopefully, these changes will be the start of new priorities for the space agency, and hopefully, exploration to the Moon and Mars won’t be too far behind.

Remembering Gus Grissom

On January 27th, 1969, the three members of Apollo 1 were conducting a routine test of their spacecraft when the unthinkable happened: a spark, most likely caused by a short in the cockpit wiring and fueled by a pure oxygen environment, caused a flash fire that killed the crew. The tragedy pushed America’s spaceflight ambitions back as many elements of the program had to be redesigned to better crew safety.

The commander for the mission was Gus Grissom, a forty-one year old astronaut who was the likely candidate to become the first man to land on the moon. Born to a Midwestern family in 1926, Grissom joined the US Army Air Corp during the Second World War, but never saw flight time, as the war ended. Using the GI Bill, he attended Purdue University and obtained a degree in Mechanical Engineering. In 1950, with the United States headed back to war with Korea, Grissom rejoined the US Air Force and trained as a pilot, eventually flying 100 combat missions. In 1959, Grissom was summoned to Washington, along with over a hundred other test pilots, where he learned that he was selected for a number of tests to screen out qualified pilots for the newly established space program. In the end, he was one of seven astronauts chosen for the program, who would later be known as the Mercury 7. The next couple of years would see intense training and preparations for the missions. In 1961, John Shepherd Jr. become the first of the Mercury astronauts to be launched into orbit; Grissom would be the second, in the Liberty Bell 7, on July 21st, 1961.

Arguably, Grissom held what was the more important of the two launches. While Shepherd is better known for being the first American in space, Grissom should be better known for the astronaut who proved that American spaceflight was on the right track, and that the flight of the Freedom 7 was not just a lucky break. Grissom demonstrated that spaceflight was a repeatable event, and did so at considerable risk, as his spacecraft was lost when the door blew off after landing. Grissom almost perished in the accident, but was pulled to safety.

Grissom was also scheduled for the second flight of the Gemini Program, but when Alan Shepherd was grounded due to illness, Grissom and astronaut John Young were tasked with the first flight, which launched in 1965. The flight went well, orbiting the earth three times before splashing down, helping to demonstrate that men could do more than merely go into space for short periods of time: the Gemini project helped show that people could live in space, and set the groundwork for Apollo. Following that mission, Grissom and other astronauts helped with the design process for the Apollo module, although their frustrations grew as more errors were discovered with the spacecraft.

At the point of his death, Grissom was one of the United State’s most experienced astronauts, having completed missions on both the Mercury and Gemini projects. The astronauts were integral to the development of the space program, and Grisson’s background in Mechanical engineering, as well as his experience as a test pilot, made him an ideal candidate to lead the way into space. Despite Grissom’s death, space travel did continue onwards, although it would be another two years before Americans would set foot on the moon, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin manning Apollo 11. There is much speculation that Grissom would have been in charge of that mission, had he survived.

Interestingly, one of the quotes attributed to Grissom sums up one of the harsh realities of space travel: “If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it wll not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” (Gus Grissom, John Barbour et al., Footprints on the Moon, Associated Press, 1969, p 125.)

Source

Top Geek Things of 2009

Now that it’s close to the end of the year, it’s time to look back, like everyone else and their mother on the internet, on the past year. 2009 has been a fantastic one for all things geek. There have been a number of fantastic movies, books, television shows and so forth, as well as a bunch of things that really didn’t come off as well. Here’s what I’ve been geeking out (or complaining about) this year:

The Best:

Moon
Moon is easily one of the best Science Fiction films that I’ve ever seen. Ever. It’s been added to a very small list of films (The Fountain, Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, etc) of exceptionally conceptualized, produced and thoughtful SF/F films out there. Moon is one of two really good films this year that I really enjoyed and for a number of reasons. The story is fantastic, playing off of common themes with new eyes, it’s visually stunning and it’s a largely original story, one that’s not based directly off of prior works. And, it has a fantastic soundtrack by Clint Mansell.

Star Trek
This appears three times on this list, because I’m still largely split over how I feel about it. The best parts of this is that it’s a fantastic, visually stunning film, and really does what Enterprise and Nemesis failed to do: reboot the franchise in grand style, with over the top action, adventure, everything that really comes to mind when you think Big Budget Space Movie. The cast, pacing and visuals made this one of the most successful films of the year, and the best of the big budget films that came out this year.

District 9
When it comes to fantastic Science Fiction films, Moon and Star Trek didn’t have a monopoly on this at all – District 9, coming out of San Diego Comic Con with an incredible amount of buzz and a good viral marketing campaign showed that there was still a place for an innovative filmmaker armed with a good story. The end result is a compelling take on first contact. Instead of an us against them, or invaders from outer space flick, we see refugees from outer space, with an acute political message that makes this movie even more interesting.

The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button
This was an interesting film, one that got a bit of press, but wasn’t a blockbuster by any means. The story of a man who ages backwards from birth, one that proved to be a powerful and somewhat heartbreaking love story leaves much room for discussion, but at points, was slow and ponderous. Brad Pitt did a fantastic job, as did the special effects artists who provided the CGI throughout.

The Magicians, Lev Grossman
The Magicians was a book that came out of nowhere for me, until a Borders email let me know about it. Picking it up, with few expectations, I was enthralled with Lev Grossman‘s take on the fantasy world. Drawing much from C.S. Lewis‘s Chronicles of Narnia and elements of Harry Potter, this book looks at a boy in a magical academy in a far more realistic sense, injecting a good dose of post-college reality into a field that is often ripe with monsters and epic quests. A quest of sorts is in here, but the buildup is fantastic.

Wired For War, P.W. Singer
Wired For War is a book from earlier this year that looked at the developments of robotics in warfare. P.W. Singer takes a long and comprehensive look at not only the state of robots and their use in combat operations, but also looks to how the use of robotics is integrated into wartime planning, and how this impacts command and control structures already in place. From this point, he looks to the future of warfare, where robotics will go through the next decades and what the face of futuristic warfare might look like. It’s also peppered with numerous Science Fiction references. I had a chance to speak with and interview Mr. Singer, who was extremely pleasant and eager to talk about his book, and write up several major articles for io9, which was a thrill as always.

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
Recently selected as one of Time Magazine’s top books of the year, Paolo Bacigalupi‘s first novel, The Windup Girl is a stunning one. Taking place in the near future, in a world without oil, alternative energy has become paramount, while agricultural firms have put profit before common sense and as a result, plagues ravage the world, except for Thailand, whose isolationist policies hold back the outside world and its problems. The book covers a lot of ground, from governmental policy to corporate greed to bioethics, with a wide range of characters who all fall within a gray area. This book is fantastic, and if it doesn’t win a Hugo, there’s seriously something wrong with the world.

The Moon Reigns Supreme – 40th Anniversary of Apollo 11 & Water on the Moon
This year marked 40 years since 1969, when man first landed on the moon with Apollo 11, and with a successful follow-up mission with Apollo 12. Easily one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments and it has been followed up with a number of projects. NASA found and restored footage of the landing and EVA activities, cleaning it up a little. NASA also took pictures from orbit of the Apollo landing sites, down to footprint trails with some stunning work from LCROSS.
In addition to NASA’s efforts to celebrate the anniversary, there were a number of other things out there. The Kennedy Library launched the website ‘We Chose the Moon‘, which documented, in real time, the Apollo 11 mission. I listened at the edge of my seat, following along with the mission transcript and listened as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the lunar surface. Finally, Craig T. Nelson‘s book, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men On The Moon, was released earlier this year to also commemorate the mission, which proved to be a detailed and fantastic read, one that helped to influence my thinking on the lunar mission.
The Lunar landing wasn’t the only press that the moon got this year – the LCROSS mission launched a component that slammed into the surface and let up a plume of debris – analysis revealed that there is water on the moon – a lot of it. And for all of those people who complained about this, keep in mind the number of craters that are already there.

Last servicing mission to Hubble.
NASA wasn’t just in the news for Apollo 11; this year marked the last servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in orbit since 1990. Despite its troubled history, the satellite has returned some of the most fantastic, beautiful and stunning images of the universe around us, and will continue to do so for a couple more years. Space Shuttle mission STS-125 was launched in May, where a new camera was placed onboard and several other minor repairs. The satellite is slated to continue operation through 2014, so don’t fret yet.

James May’s Toy Stories
James May, one of the three presenters on Top Gear, has been doing a limited TV show on classic toys, including Mecano, Plasticine, and eventually, Lego, looking a little at their history and then building something supersized out of them. It’s quite a treat to watch.

Fringe
I called Fringe one of the worst things last year, but it’s turned around for me. Picking up the boxed set, I was hooked. It’s a bit cheesy, gory, but a whole lot of fun. Walter, weird science, teleportation and alternate universes make this show a huge joy to watch. Season 2 is proving to be just as good, now that they’ve locked down a story, and I’m eager to see where it goes.

Dollhouse
Dollhouse debuted earlier this year with a short, 13 episode season that started off slowly, but picked up an incredible amount of steam. While it’s more uneven than Joss Whedon‘s earlier show, Firefly, Dollhouse‘s better episodes help make up for the slack by introducing some of the most challenging moments in Science Fiction, and deal with issues such as the soul, personality and consent, while also offering cautionary tales on the uses of technology. Unfortunately, with the show’s cancellation right as it gets good, there’s a limit to what can be told, but with plenty of time for this show to wrap up all the remaining storylines, I think that this will become a cult classic.

Battlestar Galactica
Where to begin with Battlestar Galactica? It’s been a rush over the past six or so years, with a miniseries and four seasons of television and two movies, and like all good things, it had to end sometime. Fortunately, it ended when it was good, and while the finale garnered quite a lot of talk and dismay from some people (io9 listed it as one of the bigger disappointments), I think that it was carried off well, with a rich blend of religious allegory, action and a satisfying ending that few science fiction shows seem to get.

Kings
Sadly, Kings was another short lived show that was cancelled before its time. Taking the story of David and Goliath from the Bible and updating it in a modern, alternate world with inter-kingdom politics, faith and destiny. The stories were superb, well told, with a fantastic cast. This is precisely the type of show that should have been on SyFy, especially with their upcoming show Caprica.

Stargate: Universe
SyFy’s latest show from the Stargate Franchise, Stargate: Universe is possibly the most interesting and compelling installment in the series. Taking the very basics of Stargate SG-1/Stargate Atlantis, this show takes more cues from Battlestar Galactica than it does Stargate. The result is a far more realistic show, with more personal stories and situations that are much darker, and more grown up from the first show.

Landing At Point Rain
The Clone Wars thunders on, with mixed results, but easily the best episode that’s aired thus far is Landing At Point Rain. Taking influences from Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan and other war movies, the show finally lives up to its title: The Clone Wars. There’s plenty of action, less of the stupid lines and fantastic animation that really made this episode one of the most exciting moments in the entire franchise.

The Hazards of Love, by the Decemberists
The Decemberists have long dabbled in interesting and wordy music, as well as fantasy, with their last album, The Crane Wife, and The Tain, but The Hazards of Love is their most ambitious attempt at a concept album to date, one with an overarching story of Margaret and William, a town girl and a cursed man, their love for one another and the Forest Queen who conspires to keep them apart. The album is filled with supernatural elements, and seems to draw from Lord of the Rings and traditional mythic stories to put together one of their best works to date. The band in concert was also a treat to see.

Do You Want To Date My Avatar?
I’m not all that familiar with The Guild, but Felica Day‘s clever music video is hands down fantastic.

Dr. Horrible Wins an Emmy
Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog was one of the coolest things to come out last year, and this year, it received an Emmy, which helps to solidify the web as a growing platform for serious and professionally produced entertainment. Hopefully, its success will mean that we’ll see smaller, independent productions going online and succeeding.

Symphony of Science
Symphony of Science is a project that puts noted scientists (notably Carl Sagan) to music by using an auto tuner. The result is a series of music videos and songs that help to convey some of the beauty and wonder of physics though some fairly clever songs. I’ve been listening to them constantly, and as a sort of electronica style music, they’re quite fun, and very geeky to listen to. Best of all, there is plans to make further songs.

Star Wars In Concert
One of the most iconic elements of Star Wars isn’t just the action and epic story; it’s the music that it’s set to. For much of this fall, a travelling show, entitled Star Wars In Concert has been travelling around the nation. Unfortunately, it’s winding down, but it will likely continue into next year. The 501st was called out at most of the events, and through that, I was able to watch the show. Combining a live orchestra, clips from the movies and narration from Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), the entire evening was a fantastic experience that gave me chills throughout.

Tauntaun Sleeping Bag
The Tauntaun Sleeping bag started out as an April Fool’s Joke, but the demand and interest was so prevalent that ThinkGeek actually went out and made it. What a fantastic idea – I kind of want one.

Slingers
The final thing on this list is Slingers, a short conceptual teaser for a show that’s heading towards production. The 3 minute teaser is easily one of the best moments in SF that I’ve seen in a while and I’ve been bouncing around, positively giddy at the prospect that this might be made. It’s got humor, some interesting characters and a very cool look to the future. Plus, it’s a space show, and there aren’t many of those around now. It left me seeing more, and I’m sure that we’ll see more in the next year or so.

Meh:

Fanboys
For all the hype, Fanboys was a bit of a letdown. The cancer story was kept in, but so were some of the immature and cheap laughs that brought the entire film down. It’s good for a laugh, and there’s a lot that went right with it, but still, I was left wishing that there was more to it, without the frat boy humor in it.

Watchmen
Don’t get me wrong, Watchmen was stunning. It looked, felt and acted like the comic book that it was inspired by, and the transition to the screen worked fairly well. At the same time, for all the hype that there was here, I’m not that enthused to see it more than once or twice. It’s still on my to get list, but it’s not necessarily a priority. I think my biggest issue with this is that it’s too much like the comic book, and that the drive to make everything exact harmed the overall production. It’s less of a movie than it is an homage from the director. Sin City was the perfect comic book movie, this wasn’t, and it really should have been. Still, it’s worth watching.

Star Trek
Star Trek, one of the best, one of the eh, moments of the year. It looks and feels spectacular, but when you get down to it, there’s the shoddy science, and an incredibly weak story that pulls the movie along. The story’s really not what the film was about, this was a character start for more Star Trek, but for me, story is central to Science Fiction, and this just didn’t have it.

9
The trailers for 9 looked great, and there was quite a bit of interest in this. I went into the theater with high expectations, and those were largely met – the film looked spectacular, and it was a fun ride, but the story and characters were pretty lacking. It needed quite a bit of story and character development that was needed, and that harmed the film. Plus, it didn’t seem to know if it was a kid’s movie or one for an older audience. This is probably something to rent, not to buy.

V
The new V should have been great – the cast, producers and network put together a good premise, but with the first couple of episodes sped through just about everything that made the show interesting. The themes of first contact, of a ship arriving over earth with a message for peace contain so much when it comes to religion, science and society, all rich territory that could be exploited, but instead, it’s gone past too quickly, with crappy teenage romance storylines. I’ll probably not pick up watching again, but I’ll see what’s going on in the show, in case, by some miracle, it’s picked up for a second season.

The Prisoner
AMC’s The Prisoner was another show that should have been great. The trailers presented a fantastic looking story of psychological stress with a weird desert backdrop, but honestly? I can’t tell you what it was about. It was convoluted, unconnected and dull, and while it looked very pretty, and had some decent episodes, it was a pretty big letdown.

Spirit gets stuck in the mud
The Spirit Rover on Mars got mired down in a patch of sand earlier this year. Put into operation in 2004, and only intended for a 90 day mission, the rover was still going strong until it got stuck. Hopefully, the boffins over at the JPL will be able to get it out and about once again, although if I remember correctly, the last thing that they were intending to try was to back it out the way it came in. I would have thought that would have been the first thing to have tried.

Google Wave – lights are on, but there’s nobody there.
Late this year, Google Wave got turned on, and like any major Google product with exclusive access, it was, well, popular. But nobody really seems to know what it’s for, and unlike Gmail, which could be used as an e-mail client from day one, its limited access restricts a lot of what you can do with this. People aren’t using it like e-mail if it was designed today; it’s essentially a glorified Gmail chat window, or a really good business collaborative tool. Still, it’s pretty nifty, and I really hope that they can integrate it into Gmail someday.

Worst:

G.I. Joe, Star Trek, Transformers, Terminator & Big Budget Crap
I know I’ve singled out Star Trek a couple times here, but more than ever, especially with far superior, low budget films competing with them this year, we see once again that tons of special effects doesn’t necessarily equate to a good film. G.I. Joe landed with horrendous reviews, Star Trek had a smaller plot than a television episode and Terminator: Salvation was a huge disappointment, critically. (I thought it was decent, but nowhere near as good as the trailers led me to believe). My biggest gripe is extravagant use of CGI and an over-reliance on special effects for a dumbed down audience. Among other things, Moon and District 9 demonstrated that a good looking, intelligent film could be done for a fairly low cost, and I know that I’ll be going back to those far more than the others. Still, big budget summer movies aren’t going anywhere – a lot of these films made quite a bit, and the jury is still out on Avatar, which drops in a couple weeks.

Karen Traviss Quits Star Wars – Twice
Karen Traviss was really a shining star within the Star Wars Universe. Her first entry, Republic Commando : Hard Contact, was followed up by several very good novels, with some different and intelligent views on the Clone Wars. Then, there was a bit of a row over Mandalorians, causing her books to come into conflict with the Clone Wars TV series. Since then, there’s been a bit of a row about this, and Traviss has left the universe for others, such as Gears of War and Halo, and hopefully, her other works. Karen explains everything here, and makes some good points. She will be missed, however.

Black Matrix Publishing Row
With harder times coming around, some publishers found a new revenue stream: aspiring writers who have little common sense. One notable SF ones was Black Matrix Publishing, called out by author John Scalzi recently on his blog, Whatever. While Scalzi had quite a lot of very good advice in his usual up front fashion, there were a number of people who went on the offensive and critizised him as an elitist writer, issuing some of the most ridiculous arguments for why Black Matrix had been wronged. I’m not necessarily involved in either side, but Scalzi presented a reasonable argument. Why is that so hard?

The ending to Life On Mars
I really got into Life on Mars. It wasn’t as good as the UK version, but it was unique, interesting and divergent from it. While the show basically adapted the original show to a large extent at first, they had an interesting pace and storyline starting up, and far better than the first pilot that was shot, which was just terrible. The creators had a delicate balancing act to follow, and did a very good job with giving their characters their own personalities and stories that diverged from the UK version. Then, the show was cancelled and they ended it, and the last ten minutes of the show just dropped like a rock. Clunky, very, very poor production values that made me wonder if this was all slapped together at the last minute, and quite honestly, it dimmed the entire series for me, especially compared to the brilliance of the UK version. I’ll watch the show again, but I’ll be doing my best to forget about the conclusion.

SciFi becomes SyFy, nobody cares
One of the biggest furies of the year was when SciFi became SyFy, and the internet erupted into such indignation that I thought the world was going to end. Quite simply, the channel changed names to create a stronger brand, not change content, and so far, they seem to be doing pretty well, with Warehouse 13, Stargate Universe, Alice and presumably, Caprica doing really well in the ratings. All of which is good, for the network to expand further and really show that geek is really in right now. While the name looks silly, it’s really a superficial change. Now, if they would just get rid of wrestling. Or pick up Slingers for five seasons.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashes – Mission Failure
This was a satellite that I tracked earlier this year while really watching the space stuff. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory was an expensive one, designed to monitor global carbon levels to get a better idea just how climate change is progressing and providing us with a very good look at just how the environment is changing around us. Ultimately though, part of the nose failed to separate from the capsule, and with the extra weight, the rocket crashed into the south Atlantic.

Heroes continues. Meh.
I’ve given up on Heroes, after the dismal decline in quality, storytelling and characters. They should have stuck with the original plan, and killed off the first season’s cast when they had the chance, instead of bringing people back time and time again. The fact that ratings are declining is just stunning to me, especially now that the show is into it’s fourth season, and I have doubts that it will return. Hopefully not.

FlashForward
Look, if I want to watch LOST, I’ll watch LOST. I’m not going to watch a show that’s a poor copy of it.

Deaths:
Every year, there are a number of deaths in the geek genre/fan community. A couple notable ones were Ricardo Montalbán, who played Kahn in Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, Michael Jackson, who’s song Thriller places him on the Geek spotlight, Kim Manners (X-Files/Supernatural Producer), Philip José Farmer, author of Riverworld and numerous other SF books, Dave Arneson, one of the D&D co-founders, and Norman Borlaug, who saved the world through science. There are others I’m sure, but it’s still hard to see people in the genre leave us forever.

Unknowns

A couple of unknowns for me include The Lovely Bones, Sherlock Holmes, Avatar and Zombieland, which I haven’t seen, Deathtroopers, which I haven’t read, and Halo ODST, which I haven’t played. (Okay, haven’t played much. I’ve liked what I’ve played. And the soundtrack. And the fact that the entire Firefly cast is somewhere in there)

What’s coming up for next year? The new Tron movie is coming out, which I’m horribly excited for, especially after watching the trailer and then the old movie. Slingers is likely going to get some more buzz. Iron Man 2 will be big, as well as Clash of the Titans, Inception (Really want to see that one), Chronicles of Narnia 3, The Book of Eli, and Toy Story 3. Hopefully, Scott Lynch will have his third book out, and Caprica will be beginning (High hopes for that one), as well as the second half  and second Season of Stargate: Universe. Who knows what else?

Apollo 12

On this day in history, Apollo 12 touched down on the lunar surface, allowing Astronauts Alan Bean and Pete Conrad to become the third and fourth men to step onto our nearest neighbor in space. Command Module pilot Richard Gordon remained in orbit during the EVA operations.

Where Apollo 11 saw the first steps in lunar exploration, quite literally, Apollo 12′s mandate was far more important in the greater scheme of things. While there were some shaky beginnings to the mission, caused by an electrical strike upon liftoff, but the mission was salvaged by the quick actions of the astronauts on. On November 19th, the lunar lander touched down in the Ocean of Storms, and saw the first success of the mission, a more accurate landing that what had been required of Apollo 11, where Neil Armstrong had manually flown the craft to its eventual location. In this instance, the craft was within 200 meters of their intended target.

Apollo 12′s landing zone was chosen because of its proximatey to Surveyor 3, a probe that had landed two years earlier, in 1967. Samples were taken from the probe to be brought back to Earth, and the Astronauts collected rock samples, in addition to sensors that were put into place to better determine some of the characteristics of the moon’s surface and environment – sensors that determines seismic events, magnetic fields and solar wind were put into place, which were designed to operate long-term.

NASA also sought to improve the quality of the footage that they shot on the moon by bringing along a color video camera – however, this was something that they weren’t able to carry out as the camera was pointed directly at the sun, disabling the camera and putting it out of commission.

After taking off from the lunar surface, the newly reunited crew remained in lunar orbit, taking pictures, and returned to Earth on November 24th, 1969, thus completing the 6th manned Apollo mission. The next mission, Apollo 13, took off in April of 1970, and was aborted due to an onboard explosion that terminated the mission, although the crew was returned safely.

One of the things that has been bothering me a little is the relative lack of interest in the missions that took place after Apollo 11 – aside from Apollo 13, the other missions were successes in that they reached, explored and returned to Earth safely, but not nearly as dramatically as the first steps on the moon, or a major accident. This is a trend that has largely continued through to the present-day – when naming space shuttles, Columbia and Challenger come readily to mind, and attract the most attention for their destruction, but how many people could name the remaining shuttles in the fleet, or tell me right now which one is in space at this very moment? (It’s Atlantis).

This is even more of a shame, because this mission contained some of the more interesting astronauts, Pete Conrad and Alan Bean. Bean is by far one of my favorite astronauts – he left the service after becoming an instrumental member (and Astronaut) for the Skylab program – another incredible mission on NASA’s part – and has since become a painter. His artwork is stunning, and well worth checking out.

To me, a moon landing is an incredible spectacle, where humanity has demonstrated a proficiency in technology that allows us to reach another body, and to tell us so much about our world and the next. Apollo 12 showed us that humanity’s first steps on the moon were not its last, and in true scientific method, repeated an experiment with the same results. It showed that we can return to the moon.

“Shoot for the moon and if you miss you will still be among the stars.”

Air Canada says it has accepted 2300 reservations for flights to the Moon in the past 5 days.
– Cape Canaveral, July 24th, 1969, in the morning news report to the crew of Apollo 11.

After the successful launch, journey and lunar landing, Apollo 11 safely touched down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24th, 1969, the final successful note to one of the greatest adventures in human history. Apollo 11 was the touchstone of the entire space program, and on that day, the three astronauts on board, and the entire NASA workforce fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s mandate that had been issued eight years ago. Man had landed on the moon, and returned safely to earth, with five months to spare. Between 1969 and 1972, NASA sent six additional missions to the moon, one of which ultimately failed. On December 14th, 1972, Astronaut Gene Cernan became the last human being to set foot on the moon.

In the thirty-seven years since we last stepped on another worldly body, we have yet to break out of lunar orbit, despite the fantastic momentum that had been built up in the years preceding the Apollo program, and bringing the constant question: When will we return?

There are two major reasons for the lack of further lunar missions, one folding into the other. The first is the very nature of Kennedy’s mandate. We would go to the moon, land there and return safely by the end of the decade. As far as a mission goes, it translates well into the American public – there is a where and a when, and that was it. Following the Apollo 11 mission, public interest in the lunar missions waned to the point where major news networks refused to air the crew’s broadcast during Apollo 13. Far fewer people took interest in the later missions, and the planned missions for Apollo 18, 19 and 20 were scrapped, despite having the hardware, crews and support staff in place.

This lack of interest, and extra hardware moved NASA to a different direction. In 1972, preliminary funding for the Space Shuttle orbiter was announced, and in 1973, Skylab, the US’s first space station, was launched, the result of the Apollo Applications Program, which was designed to modify Apollo hardware to fit other uses. With the launch of Skylab, and the move towards orbital shuttles, NASA transitioned from an agency designed to break barriers and explore new ground (figuratively) to one that was designed towards scientific endeavor and research. This mode of thinking provides an impossible environment for the planning of the types of missions that lunar or even eventually, Martian missions require.

Mercury, Gemini and Apollo were carried out in a highly logical, stepping-stones manner that allowed us to reach the moon. Unfortunately, it did not allow for us to continue returning to the moon after the initial missions were carried out. An Apollo-type program is needed for our eventual return – new rockets are under construction, as well as a new lander and spacecraft, with the intention to return to the lunar surface by 2019 with the Orion 15 mission.

What is lacking is the proper environment in which space travel and lunar missions can thrive. We reached the moon because we were attempting to beat the Russians to the surface, ending the Space Race readily. It was competition, with a sense of national pride and honor at stake that allowed for the massive budget and organization that allowed NASA to go to the moon. Now, with things such as healthcare, terrorism and other major national issues crowding the legislative agenda, there is little desire to go to the moon, it would seem, as there are pressing matters here on earth to do.

I’m often skeptical of such assertions. While yes, a lunar mission is a costly affair, (the Apollo project cost $135 billion, adjusted), the current war in Iraq has cost $669 Billion dollars. That sort of money could easily be used to spend on health care, paying down the national debt and other notable things, but it is the projects such as this that make the United States what it is, and provides a reason for people to continue to imagine, and to provide something absolutely splendid for the country to point at and look upon with pride. Apollo was an absolutely stunning national achievement, one that makes everything that we do worth living for, and to defend.

We will return to the moon, and we will eventually travel to Mars, to Io, and Titan, whether brought there by NASA or by private enterprise, but it is within human nature to travel and to explore.

The Year of the Moon

2009 is a lunar year. The film Moon was released earlier this month, to much critical success, the 40th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing approaches in July, and fittingly, there is a new book that examines the history of Apollo 11, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, by Craig Nelson. In a wonderful PR move, the publisher, Viking, will release the book on July 13th, just days before the anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11- Just enough time to read it and know exactly what’s going on for that party that you’ll be out, when someone will mention Apollo 11.

The thing is- this book really isn’t about Apollo 11. The front of the book states this, it’s a fairly comprehensive look at the mission, but this book accomplishes much more than simply looking at this extraordinary story in vivid detail: it looks at the entire sequence of events that lead up to that moment when Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. This is an incredibly important thing, I believe, because not a whole lot of people know about anything beyond those words, and that some old guy walked around on our nearest satellite. Armstrong and that other guy (Buzz Aldrin, who deserves just as much, if not more credit to the space program than Armstrong) are mere footnotes in this story, just two people out of the 400,000 people who helped to bring them to that point.

In order to fully understand the first lunar landing, one must go back to the start. While there are other books out there that cover the space program in far more detail – University of Nebraska’s Outward Odyssey series, for example – this book does the remarkable job of doing it in a single volume, getting all of the important details that went into NASA, but also pulling in the smaller peripheral details that gives the book a bit more interest. Nelson has done an incredible job of balancing the technical and human sides of the story, allowing neither to really overwhelm the reader, and is able to deliver a fantastic history. The story of Apollo is scattered throughout the book, at all levels of the production, design, training and preparations that went into the mission, starting all the way back to the Second World War, with the first military rockets developed by the Nazis and by Werner Von Braun, who would later turn himself over to the United States forces. From there, he leads a team that worked with the United States military until 1958, when NASA was commissioned by President Eisenhower. We meet the Mercury 7 astronauts, and look quickly to the missions that brought us into space, and the missions that would lead us to the moon, which were just as important as the actual landing itself.

This is where the book shows its true colors. Rather than being just examining the history of American space flight, there is a genuine look to how this all fits together in American history, as the Cold War raged onwards. The entire space race was a byproduct of the arms race that very nearly brought about our self-destruction at various points in the 1960s. Interwoven throughout this story is the delicate balance that the United States and Soviet Union rested upon, and it is quite clear that while the plaque that rests on the Tranquility Base landing strut proclaims that we came in peace for all of mankind, this is a particularly ironic statement, considering that much of the space program had roots in military technology.

For all of my bluster about this book being most than a reiteration of the Apollo mission reports, this book is quite possibly one of the most engaging and one of the better reads about the Apollo 11 mission. Details are numerous, and I get the impression that this was a rather hard task to accomplish, something that was largely glossed over in my own education. This was an enormously difficult and complicated program to pull off, and after this read, I am rather astonished that we were able to pull it off. This was a task that engaged hundreds of thousands of people, with enormous yields that go unappreciated by the general public, with amazing advances in communications, medical and engineering technologies that we use every day.

Recently, I’ve heard people say that all we got back from the moon was a sack of rocks (and offered up a free bag to taxpayers). While I’m astonished at the lack of vision that seems to be permeating the public when it comes to the space program – the book cites that 27% of people in my generation find it unlikely that we actually landed on the moon – I will remind you that the benefits are there, and tangible. Something that Nelson mentions early on in the book has stuck with me, where he notes that not a single dollar was spent on the moon – it was all spent on Earth. Hundreds of thousands of people were employed by NASA and the aerospace industries that helped to make it a reality. That number undoubtedly increases when all is said and done. The scientific findings alone are also astonishing, and have provided new insights to the birth of our planet and solar system. Even beyond that, there are numerous implications for utilizing the moon as a source of energy, from either the mining of Helium-3 from the surface or from Solar energy (where, as Mr. Nelson notes, a lack of cloud cover and a fairly constant view of the sun will come in handy), which could potentially help with the coming energy problems that we’re going to face in the coming decades.

Apollo was more than just bringing back rocks. It pushed the boundaries of what was possible, helped to unite the world for one extraordinary, singular moment in our history when we most needed it, and showed us what was possible. This book does a fantastic job of explaining it all in an engaging manner, but like Apollo 11, it is all about the stepping stones and wonderful couple of hours that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spend on our nearest neighbor, and essentially ends with that mission. Sadly, after Apollo 17, the lunar missions ended, and NASA changed gears to the Shuttle program and low orbit missions to save costs. Nelson reserves the end of the book for a quick look at the past couple of years, and brings out his soap box to explain exactly why we need to return to space, for the fuel crisis, to beat the inevitable landings of China and India, but because it is in our nature to explore. We will return to the lunar surface someday. I can only hope that it is sooner, rather than later, because this is what the country and the world needs right now, something far more important than all of the technical and scientific accomplishments that came with Apollo: Hope.

Ground Control to Major Tom

On Monday, STS-125, the last space shuttle mission to the Hubble Space Telescope launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to replace gyroscopes, batteries and to install two new cameras to outfit the aging satellite for the last time, making it the most powerful in its history. I’ve talked about space before, and I find it utterly facinating. Hubble itself has had a long and varied history when it comes to space, from a blotched lense to the historic repair mission, not to mention the thousands of beautiful pictures that it’s captured over its long life.

The current mission is one that I’ve been looking forward to for a while now. A couple months ago, I wrote an article for io9, titled Stalking NASA, which was a laundry list of ways in which someone can follow up on NASA’s activities via social networking sites. What they have been doing with this launch is really highlighting the mission. In the leadup to the launch, there was numerous updates from a number of twitter feeds for Space Shuttle Atlantis, a couple of the astronauts, NASA and a couple other lines. Facebook had a number of status updates for the specific pages for the mission, and almost the entire mission has been broadcast live online.

I’m really digging the ability to watch this stuff live. Whether it’s watching Atlantis docking with Hubble to watching the astronauts work (in some cases, watching from THEIR view) has been absolutely fantastic. You almost get a feeling that you’re right there with them in space. The images are absolutely stunning, and I really hope that this’ll attract more interest to the space program.

Man, I want to go to space.

Happy Birthday Hubble

Today is the 19th birthday of the Hubble Telescope, which was launched into a high orbit on this day in 1990 by Space Shuttle Discovery. The Satellite has remained one of the most important installations to have been launched. The images that have been taken have helped to vastly increase our knowledge of the surrounding universe, and take some of the most beautiful sights from all over.

The Hubble Space Telescope was an important project for NASA, which was still reeling from the destruction of the Challenger orbiter just four years earlier after faulty parts and negligence contributed to the deaths of the crew members. NASA’s public image was tarnished from the accident, and hopes were riding high on the successes of Hubble. The launch, STS-031, brought the Hubble 380 miles up, the second highest orbit, and twice that of the Shuttle’s normal range.

After it’s deployment on April 25th, scientists found that the images that they recieved weren’t as sharp as they’d thought. The primary lense in the telescope was incorrectly built, 2.3 micrometers out of the correct shape. NASA’s image was once again tarnished, and scientists worked quickly to devise a solution. This was aided by the design of the Hubble, which was the only satellite that could be serviced in orbit. The first of four servicing missions brought up a sort of add-on that allowed for Hubble’s vision to be corrected. The mission was an overwhelming success (except that the astronauts couldn’t get one of the doors closed, and had to ratchet it shut). Five spacewalks were performed, and with the new images from the telescope, the public image of the agency rebounded. Three additional Servicing Missions were conducted, one in 1997, 1999 and 2002, each of which upgraded equipment or repaired faulty parts.

The last mission is scheduled later next month, STS-125, which will install a new camera and spectrograph and repair several other instruments that have failed. Following this mission, the Telescope will continue its life through to 2013, and it will be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope at that time.

Hubble’s website. Follow it on twitter.

The Future, Catching Up to Today

On July 20th, 1969, an estimated 500 million people around the world  turned on their televisions to witness Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon. In the years since then, interest in NASA has certainly waned, even after the second moon landing. Apollo 13′s live broadcast while they were en route to the moon was not picked up by any of the major networks, something that none of the astronauts were aware of while they were recording. Unfortunately, interest in NASA still seems to remain low, until high profile problems crop up and really serve only to cripple the agency’s image. That’s hard to counter when they have a hard time reaching the population with the good news – which, surprisingly enough – does happen.

One thing that I’ve found recently is that NASA has entered the social networking world of the Internet, bringing live updates to users. Social networking sites fascinate me, and we’re only beginning to explore their use. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter are only the latest big sites, and NASA has begun to use these, and by doing so, will hopefully reach more people around the world with what is going on.

Facebook has numerous groups and pages for NASA. The Official NASA Facebook Group has some active discussions, but the real place to keep an eye on is the pages and events, which can allow users to keep up to date on announcements and updates, as well as letting people know when things, such as launches, happen. I’ve subscribed to a couple of pages, notably the Kepler Mission, and the Last Mission to Hubble which is scheduled for sometime early 2009. The space shuttle has its own page and links in to two event that have been created, the launch of STS-119 (Discovery), which will be February 12, 2009 and STS-125 (Atlantis), which launches May 12, 2009. Both pages link in to other pages, where I’ve since learned that 119 will be carrying a truss for the International Space Station and that 125 will be servicing the Hubble Space Telescope.

Wikipedia comes into play here with all aspects of upcoming space information, especially with the upcoming shuttle missions, with a page for both STS-119 and STS-125. Each page not only outlines the mission that both shuttles are scheduled to complete, but also information about the crew, the mission patch, pictures and other relevant information. People with free time on their hands can also go to information on both shuttles, Discovery and Atlantis, which gives you more information about the shuttles individual history.

With the upcoming missions to the Space Station, it’s interesting to find that astronauts on the International Space Station have begun to use twitter. Twitter is a newer service called micro-blogging, and allows for short status updates in the real time, which has proven to be extremely popular. Looking around the internet, there are a number of other NASA services that utilize the tools: NASA has an official feed, as does the Space Shuttle Endeavor, as well as upcoming missions: STS-119 and STS-125, which help to pass along developments as the crews prepare for their missions. Each one of these has several thousand followers receiving the updates.

Even sites such as Youtube is extremely handy for getting up to date information. A couple months ago, Astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper dropped her tool bag while making repairs to part of the International Space Station. Video, taken from her helmet camera, was up on youtube fairly quickly. (Interestingly, the tool bag is visible if you know where to look). There are other videos online, such as STS-126 crew wake-up call, Flight Day 14 and Riding on board Atlantis during re-entry. There’s even an entire section of podcasts available through iTunes, which I haven’t begun to explore yet.

I have my doubts about wikipedia, especially for concrete historical research, but for things like this, especially as events happen, and social networking sites are even better, because they allow the PR people to release whatever information they want, to a specialized audience who wants to receive this. Not only that, but there is an incredible ease to which users can pass along information to other users who they think might be interested, by inviting them to events or just passing along the URL to someone. NASA has kindly posted up a page (Riding onboard Atlantis during re-entry) that links into a lot of the sites that they have begun to post up update to, which touch on some that I don’t do much with, including Myspace and flickr.

There is a vast amount of potential for the general public to have an unprecedented view of NASA’s operations in ways that weren’t around just a couple years ago, let alone fifty years ago for the first moon landing. Yet, with that number, 500 million people watching those first steps, it’s a wonder why we have yet to see the same level of interest with space exploration that is currently ongoing, even with the ease and degree to which we can watch. Hopefully, person by person, NASA will once again command a certain amount of attention, even for the more “mundane” missions to outer space. For me, I now know when the shuttle missions will be happening, so I won’t miss another one.

Top Geek Things of 2008

It’s coming up to the end of the year, and looking back, 2008 has been a very fun year for geeks everywhere – in books, television programs and films, among other things. Over the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking back over the year to see what was the best and worst of 2008.

The Best:

Starbuck returned from the Grave; The Fleet reaches Earth. (Battlestar Galactica Season 4)

The third season of Battlestar Galactica was a little rocky in the middle, but the last episodes set up a real bang. Starbuck was presumably killed, only to turn up during a major confrontation of the Human and Cylon fleets. Season 4 opens even bigger, with one of the best space battles that I’ve ever seen. Our four new cylons are freaking out, Starbuck’s back and everything culminates in the discovery of Earth in episode 10.Galactica has long been one of my favorite shows, and with a certain end point in mind, Season four was where Galactica got somewhat back onto the tracks, with a fairly tight story arc, only to get to another long wait for the final ten episodes. It’s been well worth it though.

Pushing Daisies… back from the Grave, and back to it

After a long hiatus due to the writer’s strike (more about that in a bit) my favorite show of 2007-2008 came back with a new set of episodes. There are not enough good things that I can say about this show. We left off last year with Chuck learning that it was Ned that killed her father, only to end up at the end of this season with him being awoken. It was another season of fantastic storytelling, character development and extremely fantastic dialog. Unfortunately, the show has been axed due to low ratings. Fortunately, Bryan Fuller will be going to Heroes for the latter half of Season 3.

Lost Gets Better – Again.

Here’s the situation. LOST season 1 blew everyone away. Season 2 drove them away. Season 3 brought some people back, and Season 4, everything got interesting again. This season was the best since Season 1, in my opinion. We had several new characters (my favorite was Daniel Faraday, the physicist), and a couple people killed off. We started seeing flash-forwards, where Jack has a beard and addicted to pain pills, Hurley’s in a mental institution and Sayid is channeling Abram’s Alias. Oh, and they get off the island. Then the island vanishes.

I have Leonard Nemoy’s DNA? (The Big Bang Theory)

This show started in 2007, where I was annoyed by its laugh track and annoying characters. But this year, I started watching it and enjoying it. While it’s certainly a very stereotypical portrayal of nerds and geeks, it’s fun, because the creators have put in place a series of fun characters, and the writers make some jokes that are actually funny. This week’s episode was absolutely priceless, when Sheldon gets a napkin signed by Leonard Nimoy. Now, if they’ll just ditch the laugh track. This show’s likely to be around for a while longer – it’s been getting better and better ratings as the year goes on.

Back in a Nick of Time (Life on Mars)

One of my absolute favorite shows of all time was Life on Mars. Up until this year, it was only a BBC drama, until ABC picked it up and made a pilot. That pilot sucked, horribly, so the cast was ditched, except for Jason O’Mara, and the show was redone, set in New York City, given a good cast and started up. The result? A solid TV series that’s mirrored the original (but it’s starting to diverge a bit now), a wonderful soundtrack of classic rock and a story that’s actually interesting. I can’t wait for its return in 2009.

The Joker raises worldwide GDP. (The Dark Knight)

First, there was excitement when it was announced that the Joker was going to be the villain. Then Heath Ledger signed up for the role. Then he died earlier this year after filming was completed, leaving some people to wonder if the film would be released on schedule. Then Warner Brothers covered every surface they could find with Dark Knight ads. When the film was released, it went on to gross $996,680,514 in theaters. The film was a huge success, and a fantastic film at that. It was a comic book movie with true darkness, some real symbolism and good storytelling throughout. It’s a pity that we won’t see Heath Ledger reprise his role of The Joker, because he’s done the best portrayal of a villain in recent film memory.

I am Iron Man (Iron Man)

Before The Dark Knight blew the doors off the box office, there was Iron Man. Iron Man has long been a favorite marvel superhero of mine, and everything fell into place for this film. Good story, well directed, fantastic casting (Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark was brilliant) and of course, the Mark II set of armor. Marvel proved that they could make a good superhero movie, one that was relevant and not stuck in the low-humor that characterized other comic book adaptations. Already, I can’t wait for Iron Man 2. And Iron Man 3. And The Avengers.

Eeeeevvvvvaaaaaa (Wall-E)

Pixar has released what is possibly their best film to date. (Except maybe Toy Story and The Incredibles). Following a robot far from home, Andrew Stanton has presented a film with a cute, romantic science fiction story with some social commentary (said to be unintentional) woven into the CGI. Wall-E is easily the most appealing robot since R2-D2 hit the big screen in 1977, and his antics as he’s pulled along for the ride (literally) are cute, heartbreaking and funny.And with very little real dialog.

Roar. Crunch. Repeat. (Cloverfield)

Monster movies meets social networking video and America gets its own monster. This film was brilliantly shot with an extremely fun concept. A monster comes and plays t-ball with the statue of liberty, and it’s caught on camera by a bunch of twenty-somethings as they escape. The project was conceived of by LOST creator J.J. Abrams, and his fingerprints are all over it. From the lack of explanation of everything to the weird stuff, this is a very fun film to watch. Rumors are that there’s a Cloverfield 2 being talked about.

With My Freeze Ray I Will Stop… The World (Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog)

This project was a huge success for Joss Whedon & Co. Conceived of during the Writer’s strike, Whedon presents an aspiring supervillian, Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), his buddies and his quest to finish his freeze ray, avoid Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) and win over Penny (Felicia Day). We’re treated to musical numbers, crazy plots and a fantastic venture to prove that the internet is a viable place to release content.Take a look here.

Up, up and away! (When We Left Earth/NASA)

This year was NASA’s 50th year in operation, and the Discovery channel released a fantastic documentary entitled When We Left Earth that touted its major achievements and failures throughout the years, bringing viewers some of the most incredible footage of space that I’ve ever seen, and telling a fantastic story of how NASA has come to be, with interviews with astronauts and support personnel. I get chills when I watch it, and wonder when we’ll return to the moon and beyond.

Hobbit’s Labyrinth (The Hobbit)

After long rumors, production problems and drama with Peter Jackson (who directed Lord of the Rings), Guillermo del Toro signed on to direct the upcoming Hobbit film and prequel. (Or two Hobbit films?) This is extremely good news, because the people who can adequately fill Jackson’s shoes after LOTR are few and far between. del Toro is the perfect director for this project, and has already proven that he can do fantasy brilliantly, with his masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. Plus, he can play in other people’s universes, as per his work with the Hellboy films. (Which weren’t as good, but fun)

Watchman Trailer (Watchman)

What’s called the greatest graphic novel ever is coming to the big screen, much to the annoyance of its creator, and to FOX, apparently. A trailer for Watchman aired with The Dark Knight, and it made fanboys everywhere sit up and take notice. There’s still complaints about how it’s unfilmable and that it’ll be too short or too long, but from my eyes? This looks like it’ll be THE comic book film to see next year. It looks like it captured the feel of the comic book pretty well, and it’s embellished a bit to look badass. Plus, Rorschach looks dead on. Just like I thought he’d be like.

Large Hadron Collider (Science)

The Large Hadron Collider was turned on on September 10th, to many worries about the world ending. Contrary to popular opinion, the earth didn’t vanish in a tiny black hole. It was set to uncover the mysteries of the universe, but then it broke down again nine days later and won’t be up online until 2009. But, it’s still cool!

Geeks in Politics (Obama [spiderman, conan, superman] Patrick Leahy [Batman Cameo])

There’s been a lot of geekiness in politics this year. No lightsaber waving from McCain this time around, but President Elect Obama has claimed to be a big Spiderman and Conan fan, and did a superman pose in Metropolis, IL. In addition to him, VT senator Patrick Leahy, a huge batman fan, had a cameo in The Dark Knight. He’s also the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ironic.

Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy (Costumes)

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted an exhibit earlier this year (it’s since closed) called Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy. It featured a number of costumes from a number of classic films, such as the original Superman and Wonder Woman films, but also things as recently released as The Dark Knight and Iron Man. The fashion section was a bit of a miss for me, but the exhibit as a whole was just outstanding. Plus, they had several original copies of Superman and Batman, Spiderman and Iron Man on display. Covered in a plastic shield of course…

Star Wars Encyclopedia (Star Wars)

Del Rey released a new and expanded Star Wars Encyclopedia this year, one that is not only complete, but still remarkably up to date. That’s not likely to last as long, given how fast LFL churns out canon material, but it’s a beautiful repository of information in the universe. I can spend hours just paging through reading things.

Anathem” By Neal Stephenson

I actually have yet to read this book, but it’s caught my eye, and it’s made a splash when it comes to the sci-fi literary world. All I really know about it is that it takes place on an earth-like world, and doubles as a philosophical text for knowledge and religion. I’ll have to pick it up, and only expand my to-read list further.

A Game of Thrones picked up by HBO (Song of Fire & Ice)

Another book that I have yet to read, but I actually own this one. HBO has picked up the book for a series. If there’s one thing that HBO does well, it’s TV shows, because they can pour money into them and get a good result. And, they have a good track record with adaptations, with things such as Band of Brothers and John Adams. I’ll watch this when it’s released.

We’ss Har Wars End (Karen Traviss)

Several years in the making, Karen Traviss has finally finished her Wess’Har Wars series with book 6, Judge. Starting back in 2003, she introduced readers to a fantastic story of first contacts filled with alien races, political commentary and expert storytelling. Judge didn’t deliver quite as well as I’d have liked (It certainly wasn’t the strongest of the series), it carried the momentum well, and proved to be a good read, one that finished up one of my favorite series satisfactorily. Hopefully, Karen will be back to writing hard scifi again, because she’s incredible at it.

Trooping (501st)

This year I got back into trooping with the 501st Legion. All in all, I did a total of 30 or so events, ranging from small affairs here in VT to much larger ones. The most memorable ones were the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Burlington Kid’s Day, the Weird Al ConcertSt-Jean-sur-Richelieu Balloon Festival, Walk for Autisms, and the 2008 Woburn Halloween Parade. All my events are listed here.

With all the good things that have happened this year, there’s the other side of the coin, and some letdowns, disappointments and pure flops.

Worst:

Writer’s Strike

Okay, this started in 2007, but it messed up television for the foreseeable future, by ending some shows and putting others on a long hiatus that has really hurt ratings. Pushing Daisies was one casualty, Terminator was almost one, LOST was put off for a year, as was 24, and already, we’re on the eve of another major strike over pretty much the same issues – internet distribution. Hopefully, some lessons will be learned.

Surviving a Nuclear Detonation (Indiana Jones)

Indiana Jones came back, and he came back bland. Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull was an impossible undertaking to fill the hopes of fans for the past twenty years. While it’s not a horrible film, it’s nowhere near as high quality as Raiders or Crusade (although I did like it better than Doom). There was no passion, a crazy storyline and some annoying characters. It does have its moments, but they are few and far between.

Skyguy/Snips/Roger Roger (The Clone Wars)

Star Wars was another big LFL franchise that came back this year, and while The Clone Wars certainly had its moments, even high points, this film just extends the image of money grubbing that LFL is involved with, which is a shame. There’s too much bad dialog, characters and situations to make this a good part of the Star Wars universe, but the TV show has been making some improvements. The animation is stunningly good, some of the stories are actually good, but every time the battle droids start talking, I want to throw something at my TV.

Michael Crichton Eaten by Cyborg T-Rex and Flesh eating Space Bacteria from the Past.

While my interest in Michael Crichton has waned over the years as he began to write crappy books (Such as Prey and State of Fear), there’s no doubt that he’s shaped my reading. I’m still a huge fan of Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Terminal Man and a number of his older novels. He’s one of the most popular scifi authors (although he’s resisted the genre title) out there with his works, most of which were made into films. It’s a shame that he’s passed – I was always hoping for another good story from him.

Gary Gygax failed his saving throw

Geek-God Gary Gygax likewise passed away this year, leaving behind a legacy that has shaped nerd-culture in the US forever. His creation, Dungeons and Dragons, along with co-creator Dave Arneson, was one of the defining features of geeks everywhere, something that I got into back in 2001. Along with giving geeks something to do in groups, it helped define a generation’s activities, reading materials and conceptions of fantasy through to this day.

Arthur C Clarke becomes the Space Child

Arguably one of the greatest science fiction authors ever, Clarke’s death hit the world hard. He helped to define the literary genre, and the actual science behind it, and was responsible for such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rama, Childhood’s End, and numerous others, as well as the telecommunications satellite. He will be sorely missed, and is one of the last of the golden age of science fiction to be with us.(Today would have been his 91st birthday)

CNN Hologram technology

On election nigh, CNN touted their new thing in news casting, a hologram of Will.I.Am. Looked cool, and it looked like a hologram, but it was nothing more than a lot of cameras and empty space plus some CGI. Blah. Let’s see some real technology in action please.

Close the Iris! (Stargate Atlantis)

I was a huge fan of Stargate SG-1, and same with Atlantis for the first couple of seasons. This season has just plain sucked. It’s a shame, because there’s a good concept there, amidst the horrible characters, stories and situations. Not long now, because Atlantis has been canceled, and will be replaced with Stargate Universe next year.

Even more Confusing and Confounding! (Heroes Season 3)

Heroes Season 1 was brilliant. It introduced a new spin on superheroes, only to fall to its own success and have a fairly slow and boring second season. (To be sure, the writer’s strike had something to do with it, because it got better). Season 3 was promised to be bigger and better. And it was certainly bigger, with heroes coming back from the grave, more time travel and action, but none of it really made the same impression that season 1 did. I’m still behind episodes, but apparently it’s been getting better. Now that Bryan Fuller’s returning to the show, can we PLEASE start off really good and get better? Please?

Weird Science (Fringe)

I was really excited for Fringe, the latest show by JJ Abrams. It was a fun concept, and had a good couple episodes at first, but just became so dull that I stopped following it. I might pick it up again at some point, but only when I can marathon the entire thing at once.

Forrest J. Ackerman Dies

Forrest J. Ackerman, one of the first science fiction fans out there recently passed away. He was a key element of the spread of science fiction fandom, and he helped to found the LA Science Fantasy Society, among other numerous achivements, as well as influencing numerous authors over his long life.

Borders Downsizes SciFi Sections

I ranted about this earlier, as did a number of authors. Borders has been downsizing their sci-fi sections. While it’s understandable that they have to sell items, and that they can’t put everything on the shelf, you can’t predict what the next big hit will be, and you can’t know that until you actually start selling things.

That’s it for this year. Next year, there’s already quite a bit coming up. Should be a fun year.