This morning's editorial cartoon in Florida Today. Click to view at a larger size.
Florida Today editorial cartoonist Steve Hall comments on last week's SpaceX landing, and the reaction from the OldSpace contingent.
WARNING! Spoilers abound! Do not read this article if you don't want to know what happens in the movie.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been in movie theatres since December 18, so that's enough time for you to have seen it.
I've seen it twice — once in 2D, once in IMAX 3D.
While I won't give away any specific major spoilers of the “I am your father” variety, you really shouldn't read further if you don't want the experience spoiled for you.
I'm a first generation Star Wars fan.
I was twenty years old when A New Hope premiered on May 25, 1977. That was near the end of my junior year in college. Those of you who are of subsequent generations have no idea how A New Hope affected American culture that summer. Of course, it wasn't called A New Hope originally, just Star Wars, but after George Lucas released his sequel The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, the first film was retitled, “Episode IV: A New Hope” and re-released in theatres on April 10, 1981. We knew there would be an Episode VI, and some day Episodes I-III.
Lucas was originally inspired to create a modern version of his beloved 1936 Flash Gordon serial. As with his Indiana Jones films also set in the 1930s, Lucas wanted to create a universe in the spirit of the serials that were part of his childhood.
For better or for worse, the six Star Wars films reflected that vision, influenced as well by the teachings of mythologist Joseph Campbell.
Lucas began writing his earliest drafts for Star Wars in 1973. As with all stories, his saga went through many versions. Much of what he envisioned was jettisoned when the script came in at nearly 200 pages. (Film makers assume one minute per page.) A married screenwriting team, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, polished the draft into something more manageable, although they didn't receive screen credit.
Screenwriter Leigh Brackett was hired to write The Empire Strikes Back, but died from cancer in March 1978. Lawrence Kasdan replaced Brackett to finish the script, and also wrote the 1983 finale Return of the Jedi. Lucas did not direct the two sequels, preferring to play executive producer, but for the most part they were directed in the style established in Episode IV.
The Star Wars universe lay dormant until the late 1990s. Lucas wanted special effects technology to advance to where he could project on a screen his vision of all he wanted the universe to be.
The prequel trilogy began in 1999 with Episode I, The Phantom Menace. Lucas wrote the script himself and directed. The film is rightly criticized as the worst of the six he made. Its flaws may be due to the lack of a professional writer polishing his draft, and the lack of a director more interested in working with his cast then playing with his special effects toys.
The track record suggests that Lucas movies are better when his stories are scripted by professional writers.
But I do think that one strength of the prequel trilogy is the political subplot. Maybe that's just because I'm a political wonk and notice such things. When I watch this trilogy, my attention is focused on Palpatine. His machinations to become Emperor weave throughout the the three films, as he plays multiple sides against one another to achieve his ultimate objective — ultimate power by perverting the Republic into an autocratic Empire ruled by himself as Sith Lord.
When Revenge of the Sith premiered in 2005, we were told that was the end of Lucas' Star Wars vision. At its core, the six-episode saga ultimately was about Anakin Skywalker's fall and redemption by his son's love.
In subsequent years, Lucas would say that was the end of the story, yet other times he hinted about where the story could continue if more films were to be made.
As this decade dawned, Lucas began working on ideas for a third trilogy. According to this May 2015 Vanity Fair article, “Lucas had decided to make more movies. He sketched out ideas for episodes VII, VIII, and IX, to be set initially several decades after Return of the Jedi, and approached Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill about re-upping.”
But Lucas shocked his fan base when in October 2012 Lucasfilm was sold to the Walt Disney Company for $4 billion.
Disney chose to reject Lucas' outlines and went its own direction. J.J. Abrams was hired to direct, and Lawrence Kasdan returned to write the script for Episode VII.
So here we are, nine days after the release of The Force Awakens, and Disney is well on its way to recovering its $4 billion investment. The movie has grossed $1 billion worldwide, and that doesn't count all the merchandise sales.
The major impression I had leaving the theatre is that this film walks away from the look and feel of a George Lucas Star Wars film. That may be good or bad, depending on your viewpoint. But no longer do you hear dialogue such as, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The 1930s serial lingo is gone. The dialogue is often North American vernacular; Lucas was careful that his dialogue was more culturally neutral.
Lucas favored static camera shots, as does his USC film school chum Francis Ford Coppola. Rarely does Abrams choose a static shot, choosing to keep the camera moving with the action. If you saw the dizzy effects of his Star Trek films, you're familiar with the Abrams style, although I will note that rarely are we inflicted with lens flare as he did in the two Trek films. Static cameras were used in the 1930s because cameras were so heavy that they couldn't be mobile, other than on a track or dolly. For me, losing that style left me with the feeling that I was seeing an imitation of the Star Wars universe I've known for almost forty years. Younger generations may not care.
As noted, Lucas is an acolyte of Joseph Campbell, so his characters were archetypes from the Hero's Journey, as outlined at this link. We find those same basic story bullets in The Force Awakens (and most films, to be honest). One main complaint of critics is how similar The Force Awakens seems to A New Hope. Some of the visuals are quite on the nose, such as the desert planet Jakku substituting for the desert planet Tatooine.
I'll leave you to go through the Hero's Journey outline at the link to connect those dots to the film. Particularly unique in Episode VII is that “Refusal of the Call” applies to most of the major characters. Rey the scavenger wants to remain on Jakku, hoping her unknown parents will return. Finn the deserter Stormtrooper wants only to get as far away from the First Order as possible. Ridden by guilt, Luke Skywalker has disappeared after his Jedi training inadvertently turned the son of Han and Leia to the Dark Side. This led to Han leaving Leia and the rebellion, returning to smuggling. Kylo Ren is torn between the Dark and the Light, for reasons explained in the film.
Stormtroopers have been comic fodder for much of the Star Wars saga, incapable of hitting the broad side of a bantha with a blaster. Not any more. The stormtroopers in this film are vicious, and only miss when the script demands it.
Finn's story is a unique one in the saga to date, a rare exception to the rest of the film which largely recycles themes from earlier films. But the character is written and performed in such a way that I felt I was watching a young man raised in an American metropolis instead of a galaxy far, far away. Finn could have been a 1960s U.S. Army draftee who refused to fire when his squad was ordered to burn a Vietnamese village.
The nascent romance between Finn and Rey feels a bit forced, no pun intended. I didn't feel the characters had the sparks we saw fly between Han and Leia a generation ago, the sparks that fly in the early days of most romances. Finn could be explained away because this was probably the first time he'd been in close proximity to a girl, but Rey is quite independent. She has no need for him in her life. Remember Han's line about Leia, “There are no scoundrels in your life.” What need in Rey's life does Finn fill that would lead to romance?
The scenes between Han and Leia were all too brief, and lacked the sass we loved. Maybe it's maturity, the decades of war, the sorrow of losing their son to the Dark Side, take your pick. I just can't imagine these two being within twelve parsecs of each other without having a verbal cage match.
Harrison Ford revels in his return to the role of Han Solo, and Peter Mayhew turns in his best performance as Chewbacca despite his health issues due to gigantism. My favorite scene in the film is when the Rathtars they're smuggling get loose on his freighter as debt collectors hunt them down.
I felt Carrie Fisher showed limited range in her performance, and many of her scenes appeared to have been cut to gloss over any deficiencies in her acting. Fisher admitted in interviews that it was difficult for her since she hadn't acted in a while. I doubt that J.J. Abrams ever said to her, “Faster and more intense” as Lucas did.
Since we all know Mark Hamill signed to be in the movie, it's no spoiler to reveal Luke Skywalker is in the film, but it's only to set the stage for Episode VIII. The story ends with a literal cliffhanger — the final scene is on a cliff — so we have to wait two years to learn what's going on with Luke.
C3PO and R2D2, Lucas' droid Greek chorus, also have little more than cameos. They have no Greek chorus equivalent in The Force Awakens. Their role always was to comment on happenings and offer perspective while moving along the plot. Rey's droid BB-8 only beeps and chirps, so his comments mean nothing to us, just to those in the story who speak the droid language. Lucas based Threepio and Artoo on Matashichi and Tahei, two characters in the Akira Kurosawa film The Hidden Fortress, another Lucas influence.
Many of us who've been on this ride since 1977 have our own expectations of what might have happened after the fall of the Emperor and the destruction of the second Death Star. It would be unreasonable to think the Empire instantly transformed into the Second Republic, but my expectation was that after thirty years of war both sides would be so entrenched and so depleted that maybe someone would reach out with a tentative feeler to find a settlement. I would have expected the “war” between good and evil to be those wanting peace against those who couldn't let go of generations of hate. But it's made clear in the dialogue that this next trilogy is all about an eternal struggle between the Darkness and the Light — even though “good” and “evil” in this galaxy now appear to be a matter of perspective. The First Order's General Hux gives this impassioned speech:
Today is the end of the Republic. The end of a regime that acquiesces to disorder. At this very moment in a system far from here, the New Republic lies to the galaxy while secretly supporting the treachery of the loathsome Resistance. This fierce machine which you have built, upon which we stand will bring an end to the Senate, to their cherished fleet. All remaining systems will bow to the First Order and will remember this as the last day of the Republic!
From his perspective, the First Order is good and the Resistance is evil — similar to Palpatine's argument when he took power.
And it's only a nit, but I always wondered if Leia would learn the ways of the Jedi once it was revealed she had the power of the Force. That wasn't addressed, although interviews suggest this image was of Leia being handed Luke's original lightsaber (Anakin's before he fell to the Dark Side) by Maz Kanata.
Apparently the scene was filmed but Abrams chose to drop it. In the final version, Maz demurs when asked by Han how she came to have it, simply saying it's a long story. Perhaps we'll learn in Episode VIII.
The Force Awakens isn't a bad film. But it wasn't the film I wanted to see. Many filmgoers wanted to see the Star Wars universe, but not one written and directed by George Lucas. If that's you, then you'll enjoy the movie.
“THE FALCON HAS LANDED” is the 72-point headline on the front page of this morning's Florida Today.
About two-and-a-half minutes later, the rocket's 14-story first stage dropped away and began the first of three engine burns to guide itself back toward a concrete pad at SpaceX’s “Landing Complex 1” at the Cape, the former Launch Complex 13.
Observers along the Space Coast and beyond could see rocket engines fire like a torch in darkness as the booster descended from as high as 124 miles up and slowed its fall from hypersonic speed.
A tremendous “boom” could be heard shortly after the stage touched down a few miles down the coast from where it had lifted off. Even [SpaceX founder Elon] Musk, from a vantage point several miles away, thought the rocket was a goner.
It turned out the touchdown coincided with the sonic boom created by the rocket's descent. Camera images showed the stage standing upright on four legs. The Falcon had landed.
A huge crowd of employees gathered at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, were jubilant, erupting in cheers and chants of “USA!”
Musk posted on Twitter:
11 satellites deployed to target orbit and Falcon has landed back at Cape Canaveral. Headed to LZ-1. Welcome back, baby!— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 22, 2015
Once at Landing Zone 1, Musk posted this brief video clip he'd filmed of the Falcon 9 on the pad.
Live video from LZ-1 pic.twitter.com/Ve6gEXfOdh— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 22, 2015
The future will determine the historic importance of what happened here last night. It may be on the scale of what Chuck Yeager accomplished on October 14, 1947, when his Bell X-1 broke the sound barrier.
“Everybody gettin' sump'n.”
— Kenan Thompson as Sump'n Claus, Saturday Night Live, December 13, 2014
Despite the rhetoric out of the Republican members of Congress about reducing the federal deficit, the GOP-led House and Senate agreed in October to raise federal spending by $80 billion over two years. A waiting game began to see where their largesse would find its way into pork projects on both sides of the partisan aisle.
For those of us who are advocates of the NewSpace movement, we hoped that funding might be restored for the slashed NASA commercial crew program.
Congress has underfunded the program every year since President Barack Obama proposed funding it in 2010. Commercial crew began under President George W. Bush — the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office opened in November 2005 — but the crew part of that went unfunded during the Bush administration, choosing to invest instead in the Constellation boondoggle.
Constellation fell years behind schedule, went billions of dollars over budget and received a series of bad audits from the General Accountability Office. In 2010, the Obama administration recommended cancelling Constellation, using the money in part to fund commercial crew.
The members of Congress representing NASA space centers and their contractors rebelled, and imposed a new program called Space Launch System. SLS was dubbed “Senate Launch System” by its critics, because its architects were Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who were out to protect jobs at Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers.
Lurking in the shadows all that time was Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), a fierce protector of Marshall Space Flight Center pork in Huntsville, Alabama. A three-time winner of the Porker of the Month award by Citizens Against Government Waste, Shelby is a long-time senior Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Because the GOP currently controls the Senate, he chairs its subcommittee in charge of NASA spending. Other authorization committees can write policy legislation, but Appropriations determines if a program gets money and how much. Appropriations bills can contain language that overrides authorization policy.
In the 2009-2014 period, according to OpenSecrets.org Shelby received $88,800 from Lockheed Martin individuals and Political Action Committees (PACs), $70,044 from the Boeing Company, and $41,000 from Alliant Techsystems — the three Space Shuttle and Constellation legacy contractors. During that time, Congress cut commercial crew funding by 62% during its first three years, extending NASA reliance on Roscosmos for International Space Station access at least two years. Shelby was one of commercial crew's biggest opponents, insisting the money be spent instead on the SLS program — which, conveniently, is based at Marshall Space Flight Center.
In December 2014, Congress cut the Obama administration's commercial crew funding again, but only by five percent. It was hopeful sign Congress finally understood that Shelby's porking ways made the United States reliant on an increasingly unstable Russian partner.
Shelby was undeterred. In June 2015, Shelby's committee cut FY16 commercial crew funding by 25%. As result, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in August informed Congress that NASA was left with no choice to extend its reliance on Roscosmos to 2019.
Restoration of the funding would have to wait until the House and Senate reconciled their budget differences, a matter complicated by renegade Tea Party elements in the House of Representatives who threatened to force a default on the federal government's debt obligations. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in September announced he would resign rather than risk another government shutdown. That left him free to negotiate a compromise that would extend the debt ceiling two years, while also increasing government spending by $80 billion during that time.
Paul Ryan (R-WI) succeeded Boehner as speaker. It was left to Ryan to lead negotiations within and without his party for how to disperse the newly authorized spending.
Elsewhere in the Shelby empire, the Senator was fighting another battle on behalf of his OldSpace benefactors.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin are partners in a venture called United Launch Alliance. In 2006, the Federal Trade Commission granted ULA a legal monopoly for non-crewed government rocket launches. Until the rise of SpaceX in this decade, ULA enjoyed no competition for government contracts. The company's high prices drove the commercial launch business overseas.
Having demonstrated early success with its Falcon 9 boosters, SpaceX began to pursue U.S. Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office payloads, challenging the ULA monopoly. In March, an independent investigation concluded the Air Force was imposing unreasonable standards on SpaceX, perhaps to protect ULA's monopoly. The dispute was resolved in May when the Air Force announced that SpaceX was certified for military payloads.
The ULA Atlas V booster uses RD-180 engines produced by the Russian government-owned company NPO Energomash. After Russia invaded the Crimea region of Ukraine in February 2014, Congress responded with a ban on the purchase of RD-180 for U.S. military payloads. Led by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Congress voted in December 2014 to limit future military use of the RD-180 as part of the Fiscal Year 2015 budget bill.
The Atlas V is assembled in Decatur, Alabama, so Shelby has spent the last year on behalf of ULA working to repeal McCain's legislation.
McCain chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, but he doesn't have a seat on Appropriations, which left him outside the door when Shelby slipped language into this week's compromise bill that removes the restriction on RD-180 purchases.
According to Jeff Foust at Space News, the bill also increases the SLS appropriation to “nearly 50 percent more than administration’s request,” or to about $2 billion.
For the first time since President Obama's 2010 proposal, the bill fully funds commercial crew at the President's request, or $1.24 billion, for Fiscal Year 2016.
I'm left wondering if, in some Capitol Hill back room, Shelby agreed to end his block on commercial crew funding in exchange for votes lifting the RD-180 ban and for an increase in SLS funding above what anyone else requested.
McCain took to the Senate floor yesterday, blasting what he called “the triumph of pork barrel parochialism”, claiming that U.S. taxpayers would subsidize “Russian aggression and comrade capitalism.”
Here we stand with a 2,000-page omnibus appropriations bill, crafted in secret with no debate, which most of us are seeing for the first time this morning. And buried within it is a policy provision that would effectively allow unlimited purchases and use of Russian rocket engines.
What is going on here?
ULA wants more Russian engines. Plain and simple.
McCain blamed “ULA’s Capitol Hill leading sponsors, namely the senior Senator from Alabama, Senator Shelby, and the senior Senator from Illinois, Senator Durbin” for the legislation.
The omnibus spending bill must pass both the House and the Senate, where no doubt many amendments may be offered. Among those might be from Senator McCain to delete the RD-180 provision. At that point, it will be interesting to see who rises on Shelby's behalf.
If RD-180 purchases resume, it might also spell the end of ULA's proposed Vulcan rocket program. Vulcan's announcement in April was an implicit response to the RD-180 ban, as well as SpaceX plans to evolve Falcon 9 booster reusability. Vulcan would use either Blue Origin BE-4 or Aerojet Rocketdyne AR1 engines. Both are U.S. companies.
It's also possible that amendments might be offered to revoke the increases in SLS and/or commercial crew funding. Should that happen, especially if it comes from Senator McCain, we'll know there was a linkage between RD-180 and the NASA budget increases.
UPDATE December 17, 2015 3:45 PM EST — Politico reports that Senator Richard Shelby now intends to vote against his own pork!
Sen. Richard Shelby loaded up the $1.1 trillion spending bill with pet provisions, including one measure worth hundreds of millions to a rocket manufacturer with operations in his home state.
But in an only-in-Congress twist, Shelby, a very senior member on the appropriations committee, still plans to vote against the sprawling omnibus package. He's citing the lack of language to restrict Syrian refugees as the reason.
UPDATE December 18, 2015 — USA Today reports that the omnibus spending bill includes $622 billion in tax breaks. No evidence that they intend to offset those tax breaks anywhere. So much for the Republicans being the party of fiscal restraint.
A NASA blog reports that United Launch Alliance has completed the primary construction of the new crew service tower at the Cape's Launch Complex 41.
Four astronauts training for test flights with NASA’s Commercial Crew program joined the festivities at Space Launch Complex 41 Thursday morning as one of the highest steel beams was placed on the Crew Access Tower during a “topping off” ceremony with United Launch Alliance, Boeing and Hensel Phelps at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch site in Florida.
The crew access arm and white room still need to be installed, along with an elevator.
The tower will service the Boeing CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle scheduled to launch in 2017, and may also support the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser if the company gets a commercial cargo contract. NASA is scheduled to announce its next commercial cargo contracts in January.
Zero Gravity’s wholly owned subsidiary BAM Agricultural Solutions, in collaboration with Intrinsyx, will work with a group of California biology students on a BAM-FX flight in space to test if the positive effects that ZGSI’s proprietary BAM-FX™ technology has had in field crops on Earth can also help plant growth in the micro-gravity environment of the ISS. If positive results are obtained BAM-FX, may have applications in advanced life support systems for long duration missions and may support a variety of future international collaborative missions intended to bring human life into space and to help establish extra-terrestrial colonies in our solar system ...
This experimental flight opportunity has been generously provided by a grant from NanoRacks and is primarily supported by a high school student project in Germany called V3PO. Through a crowdfunding initiative and scientific support from BASF, the world´s leading chemical company, these German students and their mentors are going to conduct their own experiment on a plant associated fungal inhibitor. This project also receives partial funding and technical support from both ZGSI and Intrinsyx.
The BAM-FX experiments will study the growth and nutritional effects of BAM-FX in broccoli at micro-gravity and will be conducted by an academically advanced team of California based high school students that will be supervised and mentored by John Wayne Kennedy (ZGSI’s Chief Science Officer and co-founder), by Dr. John L. Freeman (Intrinsyx), by Dr. Chetan Angadi (Intrinsyx) and by Dan Saldana (Valley Christian High School).
After three delays due to bad weather, United Launch Alliance finally launched yesterday the Orbital ATK Cygnus robotic ship to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.
Along with SpaceX, Orbital is one of two companies awarded contracts in 2008 to deliver cargo to the ISS. Orbital chose to launch its deliveries atop a new rocket called Antares, that would fly from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at the NASA facility in Wallops, Virginia.
Antares used refurbished Soviet-era engines built in the 1970s. The third mission was destroyed on October 28, 2014 when one of the engines failed shortly after launch.
Orbital has discontinued use of the refurbished engines, and will use new RD-181 engines from the Russian company Energomash. A test flight is planned for spring 2016.
To honor its NASA contract, Orbital signed an agreement with rival ULA to launch two Cygnus deliveries from Cape Canaveral. Cygnus will then return to Wallops, although many of the experiment payloads will continue to pass through Kennedy Space Center's Space Station Processing Facility before delivery to Virginia.
The next SpaceX Dragon delivery appears to be planned for mid-January. According to the blog of a principal investigator flying an experiment on SpaceX CRS-8, they ware told to plan for a launch on January 14 at 1:50 AM EST.
Florida Today published this morning the above editorial cartoon by staff cartoonist Stephen Hall.
The caption in the lower right spoken by the turtle reads, “Nothin' like the government for crisp, timely, efficiency!”
The latest forecast is 60% chance favorable weather for the United Launch Alliance launch of an Orbital ATK Cygnus robotic cargo ship tomorrow to the International Space Station.
The 30-minute launch window opens at 5:55 PM EST.
NASA held two media events today at Kennedy Space Center. One was about the launch itself, the other about the science payloads.
It's the first Cygnus launch since an October 2014 launch at Wallops, Virginia when an Orbital Antares exploded a few minutes after launch. Blame was placed on one of the refurbished Soviet-era booster engines. A redesigned Antares is scheduled to launch in the late spring of 2016 with new Russian RD-181 engines. Until then, two missions will launch on the ULA Atlas V at Cape Canaveral.
NASA used today's events to issue a press release touting the maturation of Kennedy Space Center as “a 21st Century spaceport.”
Making the best use of taxpayer funded resources has been a key objective from reorganization of the space center's management structure to providing optimum utilization of available assets.
Existing historic buildings and launch sites in use for more than 50 years are being converted to support a modern spaceport equipped with state-of-the art technology meeting the diverse needs of another half-century.