Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Space Center Houston - Great For Kids, Short on the Nerd Factor

On July 20, 2009 I took a trip to Space Center Houston. I thought it appropriate to go this day, the 40th anniversary of Man's first walk on the Moon; a great day to go.

The highlight of the tour was visiting the historic mission control room where U.S. space flight was ran from the very beginning of NASA until 1996. It was in this room where the first words from the surface of the Moon were spoken, "Houston, Tranquility Base, the Eagle has landed."

Another highlight of the day was visiting "Rocket Park," which includes large building housing an Atlas V rocket and displays showing all the Apollo missions from 1 through 17. It was quite fascinating to me.

On the whole, though, the day was a bit of a disappointment. The Space Center Houston building itself is rather lacking in real science "stuff" and was mostly filled with displays which would appeal to grade-school-aged children. To be sure, the kids were having a great time, but I expected a lot more "Nerd Factor."

I was also disappointed that there was precious little shown regarding Apollo 11. There was a small display of tools and other artifacts from the mission, but only enough to occupy 10 minutes of my time. According to the web site the official celebration was to be held on July 24th, and perhaps there would be more on that day. Still, I expected a bit more.

To satisfy my geek urge, next time I go I plan to do the "Level 9" tour. This tour goes behind the scenes and takes you to places where the average visitor will not get to go. Reservations are required and I understand from what one of our tour guides mentioned that only 12 people are allowed for each of the 2 daily tours. The cost is almost $84.95, but looks to be well worth it. Lunch in the astronauts cafeteria is even included.
If you're going to go for the regular tours, visit the web site and purchase tickets on line for a $3.00 discount. The extra audio tour was worth the price and I recommend getting it, too. Parking is $5.00. If you have younger kids and you want to try to get them interested in science, this is a great place to go. If you have older kids or are going with just adults, though, you may want to pass.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Forty-One and Eight Years Gone - 2001: A Space Odyssey

My wife and #3 son had never seen Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," and thus we decided to watch it on Netflix streaming service.

It's interesting to me to watch or read science fiction which shows someone's vision of our future on Earth. In this case, the movie was set in 2001, now eight years past. I don't know what Kubrick's vision was in 1965 (when the movie was made), but looking at it from 2009 there are some interesting things I noted.

Clothes: All the clothes worn by those on the space station and moon station sequences are of the style popular in the 1960s. Ladies wore skirts to the knees and men wore business suits with thin ties. Even the "futuristic" look of the flight attendant uniforms in the space shuttle were very much based on late-60s styles. The turban-like hats, I think, were created to help show how one might deal with long hair in the microgravity of Earth orbit.

Technology: I could go on for a long time about how much technology, even that in 2001, differs from what is portrayed in the movie. However, here are the points which struck me the most:
  • Communications - The video phone in the space station sequence stuck me as the oddest. Even in 2001, it seems it would have been more natural for someone to pull a cell phone out of their pocket and make a quick call. The video phone is also quite interesting to me. The sheer size of the booth along with the analog video screen is quite different from what we have today with a notebook PC doing streaming video over an instant messaging link on the web. It's also interesting that Dave's parents would send him a delayed video message instead of a video embedded in an email - which, to me, would be the most efficient way to communicate with a seven minute delay in travel.
  • Space Food - I'm sure today's astronauts are quite pleased that all the food served on the space shuttle and International Space Station is not in liquid or gel form as was served on the shuttle to the space station. At least on the moon they had sandwiches, albeit with artificially processed ingredients. The food served on the trip to Jupiter is still, perhaps, a realistic vision. How does one store enough food for two people to last the 2-year trip (minimum estimated time, depending on where the two planets are in relation to each other on launch)? The colored "glop" eaten by the Jupiter-bound astronauts may still be a good guess, though I speculate the food would be more like the modern military MRE.
  • Computers - Of course, there is no way Kubrick or Clarke could have imagined the massive miniaturization of electronics which has taken place in the years since 1968. The HAL 9000 computer is shown to be a massive complex of equipment on the spacecraft. One would have to think it would be quite bit smaller if a similar computer is developed. The fact of HAL's failure made me laugh and comment, "It's a Microsoft product, it just needs to be rebooted."
  • Credit Cards - Although not a technology in itself, paying with plastic is something we take for granted today. In the 1960s, though, this was not the case. In those days only a few carried the cards, and then probably only used them while traveling. The use of the card to pay for a phone call probably would have been considered very futuristic at the time. A future cashless society has long been a hallmark of science fiction. We're getting very close to that.
Product Placement: There were a few interesting references to companies operating during that time, seemingly predicting they will have an impact on the world in 2001. I don't know if companies paid for product placement in movies when "2001" was made as they do now. Still, it's interesting to see how these brands are portrayed "in the future."
  • Pan American Airlines - Having gone bankrupt in 1991, Pan Am is now gone. When the movie was made, however, Pan Am was an airline force to be reckoned with. It was quite natural to assume given their dominance at the time, that they would be on the forefront of commercial space travel in future. The dream of commercial space travel is close today, but we've still a bit further to go.
  • The Bell System - The monopoly phone company in the 1960s, I doubt anyone would have predicted its breakup into the "Baby Bells" during the 1980s and its eventual, almost total, recombination in recent years as AT&T. It's interesting to me that Kubrick didn't invent a whole new telephone company to provide service for his video phones, or at least try to make a futuristic logo for the Bell System.
  • Hilton Hotels - Still here after all these years. Hilton still enjoys the good reputation of luxury accommodations which I'm sure it had in the 60s. It makes sense that Kubrick would have included them as the hotel of choice in Earth orbit.
  • Whirlpool - Another company which is still quite successful today. Whirlpool was the brand on the meal preparation stations on the space shuttle. I have a Whirlpool dryer in my laundry room which I'm quite happy with.
These are just a few things I noted in my viewing of "2001: A Space Odyssey." What are yours?