Breaking out of low-earth orbit: realising the promise of Falcon Heavy

Breaking out of low-earth orbit: realising the promise of Falcon Heavy

So it seems, maybe, that the “high frontier” of human space exploration may not be closed after all. The successful test flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Lift vehicle was also the first time a private company, rather than a government, sent anything beyond low earth orbit. In a master-stroke of publicity and whimsy, SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk decided to attach his red electric car, manufactured by SpaceX’s sister company Tesla, to the front of the second stage booster. Sitting inside, one hand on the draped nonchalantly over the windowsill and the other posed coolly on the steering wheel, a mannequin modelled SpaceX’s appropriately futuristic but actually fully functional space suit. By the time this unusual cargo reached orbit, there was enough propellant left over to inject both the booster and the attached car into an elliptical orbit around the sun reaching to the asteroid belt. Out there, it will probably be undisturbed for millennia.

You can’t go home again…

The livestream of the launch was carefully choreographed, with cheering SpaceX employees heard in the background behind the engineer-presenters, together with blasts of pop music at the appropriate moments. It was much more exciting than any rocket launch had been for a long time, partly because (it seemed) no-one was entirely sure what would happen. But what happened, in the end, matched almost exactly what had appeared in a simulation video only days before. Does this mean, perhaps, that prospects for manned space exploration might be improving soon too?

Recall, for an instant, what manned space “exploration” has been like for the last fifty years: a series of uninspiring endurance tests in an orbiting space station, the ISS. In fact, the space station itself seems to have been created to give a safe destination for manned rocket launches and to assure the future of heavily subsidised American aerospace industry. It’s not clear at all how we can dig ourselves out of this particular hole of sending people into orbit to (mostly) take pictures of the Earth through fancy windows.

Pessimistic SF writers had imagined that the frontier had closed, so the reasoning went, because all the engineering talent was now going to writing software for internet start-ups, most of whom were just interested in finding new ways to distract people in order to sell them more advertising. Worse, fingertip access to the world’s store of knowledge (or at least Wikipedia) meant that it has become discouragingly easy to find out just how impossible it was to do something that had never been done before. But the truth turned out to be more complicated and interesting than that.

On the one hand, those internet start-ups created a new class of geek-entrepreneur who love rockets and spaceships, and advanced software engineering turned out to be very useful for lowering launch costs by enabling boosters to return to the landing sites. The most impressive aspect of the Falcon Heavy launch is how perfectly the highly complex system followed the simulations made before launch, validating SpaceX’s impressive engineering capabilities. However, all this still takes place within the systems which have paralysed the human exploration of space over the last half-century.

“My god, it’s full of stars”! Elon’s car looks like this now.

Elon Musk has decided that no resources will be devoted to making Falcon Heavy meet NASA’s stringent requirements for manned launches. Instead SpaceX are focussing on near-term launches to the ISS with the smaller Falcon 9, because that’s where the money is. Meanwhile, NASA themselves are locked into a vast multi-year spending program for their new rocket, the Space Launch System (or more unkindly, the Senate Launch System), a billion dollar disposable rocket with no clearly defined destination. In an unfortunate commentary on the state of innovation in rocket technology for the SLS contractors, the spacecraft actually makes use of spare parts left lying around after the end of the shuttle programme.

Meanwhile, in low earth orbit, the ISS is supposed to be decommissioned at the end of the next decade. Needless to say, not everyone is in favour of this, especially those whose livelihood depends on it. In an attempt to find some use for the fantastically expensive SLS, it has been proposed to create a new space station — but this time, groan, in orbit around the moon. Reaction to the Falcon Heavy launch has been mostly positive, although one ill-informed killjoy commentator did insist that we should “think about the environmental impact”. Yes indeed. Today, Musk is about the only player in this game with a clearly defined vision extending beyond low Earth orbit. Let’s hope he makes enough money from his satellite launches to realise it.

52 Photographs (2018): #1, One of César’s compressed cars, Beaubourg (January 2018)

52 Photographs (2018): #1, One of César’s compressed cars, Beaubourg (January 2018)

I admit that I quite enjoyed my 52rolls experience in 2016 and I missed taking part in 2017. It’s a good exercise to critically look over one’s photographs each week. However, I thought that maybe writing about a whole roll of film or an experience from a roll of film each week was a bit too much. There is not always such a large number of things going on… But, nevertheless, I am still shooting as much film as ever. So here is my idea: I will select one photograph per week, and write a short text about it. I’m already starting four weeks’ late, which is a good idea: that gives me time to decide what to post and what is interesting or not.

So here is the first photograph. A close-up one of one of César’s series of compressed cars. What was interesting about the show was how he used industrial methods to create works of art, leading the way for many artists after him.

A compressed car

I remember as a child we lived near to a scrap yard and I was fascinated by these machines which could reduce a full-sized family car to a cube a few meters across. Staring at César’s heavy blocks of metal I thought of this and of wondered how much weight the floors at Beaubourg could really hold…

“Surviving doomsday”

“Surviving doomsday”

For as long as I can remember I was interested in science. For the first ten years of my life, we lived across the street from the Cookstown public library, and I devoured anything I could find in there about science or astronomy. (I remember later hearing a Carl Sagan story where, as a child, he goes into his public library, asks for a book about the stars…and comes out with a book about Hollywood). There was only one bookshop in our town, and I’m happy to report that it’s still there today, but one day I was in there and saw this interesting book called Surviving doomsday. Interesting for me because there was a drawing of a mushroom cloud on the cover, and that was science, right? In the foreground, a man with a geiger counter in hand and wearing full radiation protection strode confidently away from the cloud. I managed to persuade my parents to buy it for me. I must have been around 8 or 9.

Yes, to survive Doomsday, all you need is a geiger counter and the right clothes.

This must have been 1979 or 1980, and we were in the depths of the cold war. I was fascinated by the book. Inside, one could find details concerning how to build a nuclear fallout shelter (but was there enough space in our Cookstown garden, I wondered) together with helpful hints concerning what colour to paint the walls. Of course, at this time there were programs on TV all the time imagining how nuclear war might unfold. I remember standing in our garden talking about one of these shows with my cousin. “Did you hear when they said they hit Lisburn?” I asked him. Lisburn is a suburb of Belfast. Of course it was Lisbon. At the age of 11, my knowledge of world capitals was very sketchy.

I brought the book to school to show it to my friends, I found it so fascinating. Our horrified teacher confiscated it from me. But I think I was too young to be horrified. Perhaps I didn’t fully appreciate yet what was in the world to be unhappy if it was no longer there. Later on, as a teenager, when we moved further out into the countryside, I made an extensive study of post-apocalyptic literature, discovering amongst other classic works George R. Stewarts’ Earth Abides, which describes America after the population is decimated by deadly virus. At the end of Stewarts’ book, a hundred or so years after the catastrophe, the survivors simply lose interest in rebuilding civilisation. What does it mean to them anyway?

And so today we are almost at the end of the second decade of the 21st century. We survived the cold war. A few days ago I learned that those folks at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (remember them?) have advanced their doomsday clock to only two minutes to midnight. Not even enough time to paint the fallout shelter walls the right colour … Let’s just hope that that particular solution to Fermi’s paradox (where are all the aliens) based on the durability of technological civilisations turns out not to be true, after all…

Blade Runner 2049: the future is (thankfully) retro-futurist

Blade Runner 2049: the future is (thankfully) retro-futurist

We are now only two years from the dateline of the original Blade Runner. Ray Bradbury’s melancholic future of Martian settlement and abandonment, The Martian Chronicles, has since long passed, and along with it of course, 1984. Today we should be living in Jules Verne’s Paris in the 21st century. And now Dennis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 decides consciously and unashamedly to continue in the same lost future imagined thirty years previously. A glowing hoarding for the defunct pan-American airlines, visible also in Ridley Scott’s original film, makes this clear. It’s certainly reassuring to know that PanAm made it unscathed through the thirty years separating the two films, despite all the terrible things that happened in there, which we will get to presently.

It’s a truism that our visions of the future reflect the age that we are living in. Blade runner 2049 has at its heart Philip K. Dick’s lifelong obsession with memory, identity and the nature of reality, understandable giving the shape-changing psychoactive-substance-abusing times he wrote it in. Layered onto this, then, there is Ridley Scott’s neo-noir down these mean streets a man must go, to which he added, who is maybe an android? At one point, one of the characters from the previous film resurfaces, and we remember that yes, the 1980s, that was big hair too.

Villeneuve has stated that he wanted to stay true to the original, and in Blade Runner 2049 he has gloriously succeeded. The film is a wondrous widescreen evocation of a ruined post-catastrophe future, beautifully filmed by Roger Deakins, who knows how to do retro-futurism, having worked on the film version of 1984. Ryan Gosling is as cooly implacable as you’d expect him to be, and Harrison Ford’s Deckard is as we remember him. His character seems to have spent most of the the three decades between the two films going through the world’s largest drinks cabinet. Happily, the intervening catastrophes have destroyed most digital media, which means there is still some gumshoe work to be done — in flying cars mostly, of course, because this is Blade Runner. That’s what drives the film along, and it’s for the most part compelling and fun to watch.

Blade Runner 2049: this is what repealing the clean air act will get you…

But within this retro-futuristic straightjacket of “being true” there isn’t much space left over to imprint our current worries. Pervasive surveillance and the effortless execution of miscreants by remote-controlled pilotless drones (whilst the operator gets a manicure) makes a showing, and as a counterbalance we are allowed a marginally hopeful scene involving bees. The Pacific Ocean is kept at bay by an enormous seawall, and weather conditions seem to change faster than you could switch channels on TV. Like in William Gibson’s The Peripheral, the world-melting disaster presented here drives humanity to desperately invent advanced technologies to survive, but the end result is to merely to exaggerate existing power structures. Big corporations operate well beyond the bounds of law enforcement, and we see one of the chief baddies sauntering around LAPD headquarters without so much as ringing the doorbell.

So, the film succeeds entirely as a sequel to the original, which has cast such a long shadow on cinematic history. By continuing down the fork in the road of its predecessor, it is an even more fully realized version of the same future. Yes, this is a retro-futurist film, unlikely to come to be, which is partly reassuring, because the future that it depicts is not a place you’d like find yourself living in. Cinema should not necessarily inspire us with a shining future of gleaming spaceships, brushed metal and inter-species kissing. But where are the utopias today?