Antares and Our Bright, Risky Future (Updated 10/31/14)

Today, I watched a rocket explode.

This afternoon, a privately built Antares rocket carrying some five-thousand pounds of food and other supplies headed for the International Space Station had a “Vehicle Anomaly” which is a very clinical euphemism for a rather spectacular fireball on the launch-pad. The rocket, along with its Cygnus module, are both products of  Orbital Sciences, a Virginia based private space company who, along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, were awarded contracts by NASA to supply and eventually act as an astronaut taxi service for the ISS, opening up Low Earth Orbit to private industry and freeing up NASA to do what those nerds do best, the impossible.

First things first. While it is far too early to know what caused the failure, what is certain is the loss of the rocket, its delivery vehicle, and its payload represents an enormous loss in capital and human effort. Many, many people have poured their hearts and souls into the effort to make this vehicle a success and I sympathize with them. Nothing I’m about to say is meant to diminish or trivialize the emotions they are grappling with so soon after this event.

That said, everybody calm the fuck down. The media is already spinning this as a “Disaster” or a “Tragedy,” when it’s anything but. There are no reports of casualties or even injury among the ground crew or spectators (including the boat captain that forced the launch to be scrubbed yesterday because he floated inside the exclusion zone to get a better look. Bet he doesn’t do THAT again). The launch facilities have sustained damage, obviously, but they can and will be repaired.

I’m going to be honest here. When I saw that the launch had failed, I was excited, verging on happy. Part of that was doubtlessly the fault of the same primitive and violent part of my brain that only tunes into NASCAR races hoping for a crash, but it was more than that.

For a generation of Americans, maybe two, space travel has fallen into a dull routine.  NASA has gotten so damned good at this whole space thing that the average American has completely forgotten, or never realized, that a space rocket is, basically, a giant bloody bomb with a hole in one end.

The sense of danger and risk, and therefore excitement, is almost entirely absent. The public has forgotten that “Rocket Science” is supposed to really mean something. Back in the 50’s and early 60’s, we were losing a rocket a month, just as a cost of doing business. The first launch of the Mercury Redstone rocket failed on the launch pad after a flight reaching a total altitude of four inches. That same design carried the first American astronaut into space no long after.

Since then, the Apollo 1 disaster, the Challenger disaster, and the Columbia disaster have taken the lives of seventeen brave Americans. Our Russian counterparts have experienced similar tragedies, although records from the Soviet era are… less than a complete accounting.

Those were disasters, folks. Today was a learning experience. And there’s going to be a whole lot more of them before we’re finished. My hope is that we can use this incident to snap the public out of its stupor and reintroduce them to the excitement of space travel.

As soon as rocket launches became routine, they became boring. Chalk it up to human nature, but the familiar soon becomes the mundane if there isn’t a spark to reignite the passions we felt back at the beginning. Trust me on this, I’m divorced. During the Space Race, there was a sense of involvement and personal investment in our efforts to get to the moon before the Reds. But above all, there was a sense of danger and the romance that comes with it. Launches were watched like spectator sports. They were a national event, for God’s sake.

The worst thing that could happen now is for everyone to become all solemn and withdrawn, droning on about the loss in time and effort that this explosion represents. While completely true, it sends exactly the wrong message. Instead, remind people that this was the Antares Rocket’s fourth launch, the first three of which went off without a hitch. Remind them that the astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS aren’t going to starve because NASA had the foresight to award the supply missions to multiple companies, so the Dragon capsule will be online shortly to fill in, which is a capability we didn’t have before.

But most importantly, remind them of who we are as human beings. Throughout the long, winding, occasionally shitty, but still proud history of our race, we keep pushing. When things fail, we sort through the bits, find the part that broke, and move on. Skyscraper collapses? We build a new one a couple stories taller for good measure. Bridge snaps? We build a longer one. Car crashes? We build a faster one. Plane falls from the sky? We build one that flies higher.

Rocket explodes? Build a bigger one. Carry more. Go faster. Go further.

Why? Because this is how we got here. And it’s the only way we’re going to reach our full potential. The sky is no limit.

Update 10/31/14: I’ve just read the news that Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two had its own anomaly during a powered flight this afternoon testing a new propellant mixture. Spaceship Two was lost. The status of the two man crew is not yet known, but parachutes were reported seen in the sky. The White Knight carrier plane landed safely.

All in all, it’s been a pretty rough week for private space flight, but a necessary one as well. The lessons learned from these two incidents may prove to be invaluable.

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#GamerGate and Ethics

#GamerGate is about ethics in videogame journalism.

Like many of you, I’ve heard or seen these words repeated many times over the last month or so throughout social media,  in conversation, on TV, even the old print media has gotten in on the fun.

And like many of you, I’ve at least made an effort to try and figure out what the hell they mean. But no matter how hard I try, I just can’t make any sense out of them. Each individual word, taken by itself and considered in isolation, I can understand. Force them together, otoh, and you have an unstable, explosive mess straining with all of its might to fly apart. It’s like watching seven feral cats with their tails taped together trying to escape a Costco bag.

But I’m nothing if not a good sport about these things, so I continue to try. The best approximation I can come up with is that there are a surprising number of people who are really upset that the journalistic standards of neutrality and disclosure they learned about back in college aren’t being lived up to among today’s corps of reporters covering the critically important videogame beat.

I have come to understand this based on no less an authority on the topic than “Pixel Knight,” who mere seconds after I shared this tweet, posted this helpful graphic:

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See? It’s not about violent misogyny, or death threats, or driving people from their homes, forcing public speaking engagements to be cancelled, or doxxing anyone who dares to speak out against these acts of cyber terrorism. It’s about cleaning up the feted swamps of biased videogame journalism and bringing integrity to the system.

Never mind that Pixel Knight there is a fake profile without any real name attached to it, or that the account’s tagline reads, Feminist and an Elite Social Justice Warrior.  Defender of Equality and Bearer of Truth.  Tri-Honor Bound Follower of Listen and Believe. No, this is all about transparency, and you’d have to be an idiot not to see that. (BTW, has anyone written up the stats and feats of a Social Justice Warrior prestige class yet? I know some people who would love to play one in 3.5 or Pathfinder.)

Well, here’s my problem with that claim. Just like the Tea Party magically appeared to complain about government spending and the debt just as soon as we elected a black man President, so too have these fine defenders of journalistic integrity only now come out of the woodwork to take up their noble fight at the same time women and other historically marginalized groups are beginning to shape the conversation and direction of the videogame industry.

And just like the President didn’t create the enormous deficit he inherited from his predecessor, neither did the ladies of the videogame industry create these “problems” with journalistic integrity.

I put problems in quotation marks because, not to put too fine a point on it and without trying to offend, THEY’RE FUCKING VIDEOGAMES! They are a form of entertainment and escapism. They are promoted and marketed like anything else destined for the massive consumer market. Does anyone really believe that reviews of music, movies, books, cars, etc are really intended to be completely unbiased, objective sources of information on these consumer goods? Really? Of course not. They are part of the promotion machine. The people writing the reviews are usually fans of some stripe or another, and are content creators themselves just as often as not. This was never, ever intended to be serious journalism.

Hell, even reviews themselves are marketed as a form of entertainment. Who didn’t used to tune into American Idol to watch Simon Cowell tell some arrogant, unprepared, talentless hack that their singing sounded like an off-key piano being slowly fed into a wood chipper? Or read some of Roger Ebert’s simply brutal takedowns of terrible movies over the years?

Get a grip, you guys. This isn’t journalism, and it never was. Further, videogames, much like publishing or comedy, is a relatively small industry. It’s not true to say that everyone knows everyone else, but it’s not far off either. So, yes, eventually a game dev and a reviewer are going to meet up at a party and start banging. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you leave the god damn house and start interacting with other human beings.

If you want to go on a crusade for ethics in journalism, why not start with, oh, I don’t know, actual fucking journalists? Why not spend that same energy you’re throwing into terrorizing video game reviewers into tackling the problem of sponsored content being passed off as legitimate articles on the websites of even our oldest and most prestigious newspapers? Or the shuttering of almost all of our networks foreign offices? Or the brazen partisanship and nearly fact-free content of our most viewed news channel? Why not use all that anger you’ve obviously got stored up to combat a problem that is actually having a negative effect on our way of life?

But okay. Maybe you are so self-absorbed and cut-off from the outside world that you really believe one of the most important problems affecting your life is the lack of completely objective reviews of the new Super Smash Bros game. Fine. To you, you shut-in unicorn, all I can say is this:

If you’re so invested in this fight for ethics and integrity, that you are comfortable aligning yourself with the sorts of people who are willing to use threats of rape and death, or who reveal personal and confidential information of their opponents, placing them and their families at risk, then it’s your ethics which are coming into question. It’s your integrity that is being tarnished. And frankly, it’s your priorities that are well and truly fucked up.

It’s not enough to quietly distance yourself from their vile, often criminal tactics. You must denounce them loudly, repeatedly, and make it known that no matter your opinion on the matter, their behavior has no place in a civilized society.

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Welcome Back to Jurassic Park

Jurassic-Park

So last night I went to the Milwaukee Public Museum and watched Jurassic Park in the big ass dome theater. I last saw it in the theater back when it premiered in 1993. I was thirteen years old surrounded by my mom and my nine-year-old brother. We didn’t breath for the last half of the movie.

Twenty-one years and a whole lot of life later and the movie still holds up amazingly well. Stan Winston’s creature effects are as good today as anything going. The scene when the T-Rex breaks out of the fence in the rain and attacks the Explorer with the kids in it is still TERRIFYING. The sound of that monster roaring is still enough to trigger the lizard part of my brain to start screaming to get the fuck out of there. Just run.

Jurassic Park was, in many ways, the very height of special effects work. The CGI was adequate, but used sparingly. The close-in shots were still all practical effects. Including a 40 ft long T-rex robot that weighed 9,000 lbs. This had two huge advantages. First, your brain knows it’s a real object. No matter how good CGI gets, it’s still on the wrong side of the uncanny valley and your brain knows it. There’s a difference between knowing something is CGI fake, and knowing something is a fake robot, but still a real object.

The second advantage is the performances you get out of your actors. Sam Neil wasn’t looking at a dot on a green screen when the Rex blew his hat off with Spielberg telling him to act intimidated. He was looking at a fucking T-Rex with an air cannon in its nose that actually blew his hat off. He didn’t have to act, because his hind brain was busy throwing out all sorts of interesting signals and hormones because it knew that gigantic toothy thing in from of him was real, and presented a real danger. Same with the kids. They weren’t so much acting as they were having the living shit scared out of them for money in a way that may have verged on child abuse.

And THAT’s what I want to see out of Hollywood again. Not these overblown CGI fests that have to constantly up the ante on action instead of relying on authenticity to get their thrills. Jurassic Park only had fifteen minutes of actual dinosaur footage in its two hour run time, but they were some of the best and most memorable fifteen minutes in action film history. It was a perfect blend. CGI when absolutely necessary because practical effects would be impossible, then models and animatronics for everything else.

That is how you’re going to break through people’s cynicism and get them back into theaters, for the sort of experience you simply can’t replicate at home, no matter how big your TV or how many watts your sound system.

Personally, I cannot wait for Jurassic World. I just hope they bring back the robots.

Why I Don’t Give a Shit About the Midterms

It’s true. This political junkie doesn’t give a shit about the midterm elections. But it’s not apathy or a disinterest in our democracy driving this attitude. Let me explain. No, that would take too long. Let me summarize.

As it stands right now, the midterm elections are completely meaningless. Actually, that’s too broad a statement. Elections at the local and state level, especially where it comes to the various high-stakes Governor’s races across the country, are very important. With the gridlock that has largely paralyzed D.C. since the 2010 midterms, much of the legislation impacting the lives of everyday Americans is happening in statehouses throughout the country.

From access to women’s health, voting rights, public sector unions, the minimum wage, and fights over education standards and funding, Governors and their legislatures have been making seismic shifts in how we live, work, and vote. New blood at the state level are our best bet for making real and lasting changes.

Which is far more than can be said for the national races.

Here’s the thing. Since the GOP takeover of the House in the 2010 midterms, our legislative branch has been, and this is not an exaggeration, a failure of historic proportions. Due almost entirely to inflexible, unthinking obstructionism designed to sabotage the President politically, the 112th Congress was the least productive in the entire two-plus century history of our country. And barring a miracle in the next ten weeks, the 113th is on pace to be worse still.

But instead of stopping progress from being made, the obstructionists have simply created the circumstances driving their own irrelevancy.  When Congress does nothing, almost literally nothing, pressure builds and the other two branches are forced to take up the slack. Which is why the Supreme Court and the Executive Branch have been leading the way on important issues like same sex marriage and healthcare reform, with or without input from the legislature.

By refusing to compromise and reach across the isle, the House has taken itself, and the Legislative Branch as a whole, out of the conversation. And while there is a good chance the GOP will also grab control of the Senate this time around, it won’t change the fundamental dynamics of the power struggle that has been playing out over the last four years. Even with a slim majority in the Senate, the GOP won’t have anything close to the necessary two-thirds majority to override a Presidential veto. So they’ll be left doing the same thing they’ve been doing, like making fifty symbolic and meaningless votes to repeal the ACA even while the program continues to exceed all expectations. Two more years of complete and utter inaction is the only thing we can expect starting on January 3rd, 2015, no matter who wins the national races.

Absent the ability, leadership, and willingness to compromise, the legislature has become a vestigial organ whose purpose and usefulness is fading into memory. So no, I don’t give a shit about the midterms. Wake me in 2016.

NASA Is Being Social

Orionforwebsite

My favorite group of nerds on the entire planet are trying something new. The folks at NASA are running a contest to hand out press credentials to as many as 150 people active in social media. The full details of the contest can be seen here, but the short version is they’re giving dozens of twitter and Facebook addicts a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming first launch of the Orion space module from on top of a big honkin’ Delta IV Heavy rocket.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Orion module is our replacement for the venerable Space Shuttle. But as beautiful as the Shuttle was, (and I know, I watched STS-116 take off from the bed of my buddy Erin Lantz’s pick-up truck while we were both drunk as skunks) it kept us tied to Low Earth Orbit for the last thirty years. With Orion, not only will we get our capability for manned space travel back and stop having to hitch rides from Putin, but for the first time since Apollo 17, we’ll once again be ready to start pushing back the horizon.

This module, coupled with the Space Launch System (which is batshit huge, btw), will be the system that moves us out past the Moon, to a rendezvous with an Earth crossing asteroid, and eventually onward to Mars. So while this first launch is an unmanned test run, it’s a BFD to space enthusiasts  and NASA cheerleaders like myself.

NASA has, without overselling the point, reinvented the world. Their list of accomplishments is so long and groundbreaking that I’m not even going to try and list the highlights here because the argument I’d have with myself over what deserves to be on the list has the potential to turn violent and I’ve only just gotten over a sports injury and started running again.

If there has been one critique I’ve had about NASA over the years, it’s that they have historically been simply terrible at touting their own success and contributions to the world, to the point that people are literally using satellite communications built and pioneered by NASA to write posts on social media to complain about the money our country “wastes” on the space budget. I have always believed that NASA should do more to employ smart, connected, and enthusiastic people to spread their message, trumpet their accomplishments, and popularize space exploration for a new generation.

So, it should come as no surprise to anybody that I’ve applied for one of these social media press badges. I am hopeful that between the knowledge I’ve gained as a sci-fi author, and my experience entertaining the public as a stand-up comedian, the fine folks at NASA will see the value in giving me a chance to cover this new chapter of our nation’s proud and unrivaled history in space. And if you think I’d be a good fit, please share this post through twitter and Facebook, and encourage your friends and followers to do the same.

If you’d like to see a couple of my more recent space-related posts, read these:

https://www.patrickstomlinson.com/2013/10/08/coca-cola-and-nuclear-bombs/

https://www.patrickstomlinson.com/2014/08/04/daily-dose-of-awesome/

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