Star Trek Into Darkness

StarTrekIntoDarknessIMAXposterPTParamountHello folks! This weekend, I finally managed to get my butt to the movie theater to catch a summer blockbuster. It was the first time in months, perhaps a year, that the wife and I caught a movie on the big screen. And as my geekiness demanded, the movie we caught was the second installment in the J.J. Abrams relaunch of the classic franchise: Star Trek Into Darkness. And while I am obliged to provide a review, I am also bound by the spoiler code, so what I am about to say shall be as vague as I can possibly make it.

As I’m sure you all know, the second act in any series is meant to be the dark one. And while it is hard to top an event like the loss of an entire planet – Vulcan getting obliterated in the first film – this movie really did revolve around a certain downturn in the series. In addition to their being the concept of the enemy within, there is also the prospect of impending war, of vengeance overpowering good reason, and people sacrificing who and what they are in the process.

StarTrekIntoDarknessNot only did all this call to mind some of the larger ethical concerns arising out of the “War on Terror” – such as vengeance vs. justice, preemptive violence, and being rulec by fear – there was an even a dedication at the end of the film to all veterans who have served since September 11th, 2001. Apparently, this was because the makers knew the movie would be released in 2013, when many soldiers overseas would be returning home.

And of course, the movie was also an homage to the second installment in the original series. As I was forewarned going in, though not in any detail, this movie pays tribute to The Wrath of Khan in many places. While this was to be expected – I too suspected as much from several early hints – it did get a little tedious at times. After awhile, it didn’t so much feel like a wink and a nod as much as a repetitious pattern.

Still, the pace of the film, the big reveals, and the way it all played into the original story arc, but again with changes due to the temporal shift that took place in the first movie, all made for a very exciting and awesome experience. A couple of times I looked over to my wife and whispered “I knew it!”, and I quietly screamed my applause at the end. She laughed, I explained things to her, it was all good!

So if you haven’t seen it yet, and consider yourself a Trekkie, geek, fan of action sci-fi, or all of the above, get on out and catch this movie before the summer is out!

The Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

Aerial photo of Pearl Harbor, Oct. 1941
Aerial photo of Pearl Harbor, Oct. 1941

Hello fellow bloggers and blogger-followers! As you know, there are times I like to break with my usual subject matter to mark an important anniversary. Not always are these dates which accord with major scientific breakthrough or accomplishments. Sometimes, they are just about the anniversary’s of major historic events that are important to us for any number of reason. And today people all over the world, including several friends and family members of mine, stop to remember the events of Dec. 7th, 1941 – the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Given the importance of this anniversary for so many people, not to mention the sheer historical importance of it, I couldn’t possibly let the day go by without saying something. And though I managed to acknowledge the 70th anniversary of Dieppe and the 100th anniversary of the War of 1812 this year, I neglected to say anything on the subject of the 68th anniversary of D-Day and never got over it! So in an attempt to not let another chance to pay my respects and acknowledge a major turning point in history pass me by, here are my thoughts on this somber anniversary. Please feel free to share your own…

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“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which live in infamy, the United States was suddenly and deliberately by naval and air forces by the Empire of Japan.”

These historic words by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which were part of his famous “Day of Infamy” speech, came just one day after Japanese forces struck at Pearl Harbor, signalling the entrance of the US into the Second World War and a major turning point in history. In addition to 2,402 souls that died and the 1,282 that were wounded, the attack forever altered American’s perceptions of themselves.

USS Arizona, burning after the attack
USS Arizona, burning after the attack

Until the end of 1941, most US citizens lived with the notion that their nation could remain uninvolved in the global conflict which was happening overseas. As Hitler overran Europe and the Japanese occupied much of China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Ocean, the majority of citizens remained committed to non-involvement, citing the state of their economy or the fact that America wasn’t “prepared for another war” as reasons to stay out of the fighting.

B-29 assembly line
B-29 assembly line

All of that changed on Dec. 7th. For the first time, all people in the US, not just FDR and a hand full of analysts, came to understand that neutrality was not, and perhaps never was, an option. Some seven million men volunteered for military service within days, and American industry was fired up to produce all the tanks, aircraft, ships and munitions that would be needed to take on the Japanese Empire and the Axis Powers. Within three and a half years, total victory was won, though not without incredible sacrifice.

Little wonder then why this day is considered so important to historians and common people alike. Not only was it a tragic day, characterized by shock, loss and fear, it also was a day which led to one of the greatest national efforts ever seen, which in turn led to a victory that remains unparalleled in the annals of history. As just about every historian would say, Pearl Harbor “galvanized” the US and turned it from a semi-isolationist country that was still recovering from the Great Depression to a superpower which helped destroy Hitler, Fascism, and win the greatest and worst war in the history of civilization.

FDR delivering "Infamy" speech before Congress, Dec. 8th, 1941
FDR delivering “Infamy” speech before Congress, Dec. 8th, 1941

However, while the history books claim that it was Pearl Harbor which galvanized the US and erased its isolationist tendencies, FDR’s historic speech had a great deal of influence as well. When news of the attack first reached the public, the mood was one of shock, fear, and uncertainty. For years now, Americans had been fearing the specter of war and now that it was upon them, no one knew how to react or what would happen next.

But when people tuned in to listen to their President speak on the following day, they heard a stalwart man praising the efforts of US personnel and calling the citizenry to stand together against an evil power that was threatening not only them, but the entire world. Knowing that a man like FDR was at the helm, the same man who had seen them  through the worst of the Depression and was famous for uttering the words “You have nothing to fear but fear itself” was as much responsible for this turnaround as the attack itself.

USS Arizona Memorial, Peal Harbor
USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor

Years later, the significance and the true nature of this event are still the subject for debate. Since the initial days after the attack itself, there were some who speculated that the attack had been allowed to take place in order to achieve US involvement in the war. In fact, nine inquiries were conducted between the years of 1941 and 1946. However, due to secrecy and clearance concerns, especially where the issue of cryptography was concerned, the full details of the attack were not made clear to the public until 1992.

Reaction to the report was mixed. The findings seemed to emphasize that a combination of secrecy, a lack of inter-departmental communication, and an underestimating the Japanese forces capabilities and intentions prevented US forces from stopping the attack. However, some have claimed that these findings did not go far enough to probe the possibility that an attack was known of in advance and was allowed to take place, mainly for political reasons.

USS Arizona Memorial, interior
USS Arizona Memorial, interior

Much like with 9/11, it seemed that there were many questions and grey areas that were likely to give rise to speculation. When all is said and done though, hindsight is always capable of making it seem that their is intent and continuity to events, when in fact all things happen on an ad hoc basis and no one can see the outcome. In the end – and in this historians opinion – those who died on Dec 7th were victims of human error and the capacity for senseless violence.

To all those who perished at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day, to all those who died as a result of World War II and all wars previous and since; I think I speak for everyone when I say rest to peace on this day.

Astronaut Frank Culbertson On 9/11

The following is a letter composed by Captain Frank Culbertson (retired), the Expedition Three Commander who was aboard the ISS on 9/11 and saw the carnage from a unique vantage point – from space! Having bared witness to one of the most auspicious and terrible events in the history of his country, he composed a latter describing what it was like on the day of and during the days that followed. He was unable to get back home in the wake of the attack, and therefore had to continue to watch from orbit as he and his crew – much like the people of Earth – carried on as best they could.

The full transcript appears below, and thanks to Dr. Sci-Fi for turning me on to it. I especially enjoyed your 9/11 post. It was good to hear from someone else as they described what they were doing on that fateful day.

September 12, 2001; 19:34 hours

I haven’t written very much about specifics of this mission during the month I’ve been here, mainly for two reasons: the first being that there has been very little time to do that kind of writing, and secondly because I’m not sure how comfortable I am sharing thoughts I share with family and friends with the rest of the world.

Well, obviously the world changed today. What I say or do is very minor compared to the significance of what happened to our country today when it was attacked by …. by whom? Terrorists is all we know, I guess. Hard to know at whom to direct our anger and fear…

I had just finished a number of tasks this morning, the most time-consuming being the physical exams of all crew members. In a private conversation following that, the flight surgeon told me they were having a very bad day on the ground. I had no idea…

He described the situation to me as best he knew it at ~0900 CDT. I was flabbergasted, then horrified. My first thought was that this wasn’t a real conversation, that I was still listening to one of my Tom Clancy tapes. It just didn’t seem possible on this scale in our country. I couldn’t even imagine the particulars, even before the news of further destruction began coming in.

Vladimir came over pretty quickly, sensing that something very serious was being discussed. I waved Michael into the module as well. They were also amazed and stunned. After we signed off, I tried to explain to Vladimir and Michael as best I could the potential magnitude of this act of terror in downtown Manhattan and at the Pentagon. They clearly understood and were very sympathetic.

I glanced at the World Map on the computer to see where over the world we were and noticed that we were coming southeast out of Canada and would be passing over New England in a few minutes. I zipped around the station until I found a window that would give me a view of NYC and grabbed the nearest camera. It happened to be a video camera, and I was looking south from the window of Michael’s cabin.

The smoke seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column that was streaming south of the city. After reading one of the news articles we just received, I believe we were looking at NY around the time of, or shortly after, the collapse of the second tower. How horrible…

I panned the camera all along the East Coast to the south to see if I could see any other smoke around Washington, or anywhere else, but nothing was visible.

It was pretty difficult to think about work after that, though we had some to do, but on the next orbit we crossed the US further south. All three of us were working one or two cameras to try to get views of New York or Washington. There was haze over Washington, but no specific source could be seen. It all looked incredible from two to three hundred miles away. I can’t imagine the tragic scenes on the ground.

Other than the emotional impact of our country being attacked and thousands of our citizens and maybe some friends being killed, the most overwhelming feeling being where I am is one of isolation.

Next day….

I guess the fatigue and emotional strain got the best of me. I couldn’t stay awake and continue to write. Today was still difficult, but we started getting more information, plus we had the honor of talking directly with the Center Director, Roy Estess, who assured us that the ground teams would continue to work and ensure our safety, as well as the safe operation of the Station. We also heard from our Administrator, Mr. Goldin, who added that the partners in the Program are all totally committed to continuing safe operations and support. These were never questions for me. I know all these people! The ground teams have been incredibly supportive, very understanding of the impact of the news, and have tried to be as helpful as possible. They have all been very professional and focused though I can’t imagine the distraction of this type of news coming in and the thought that government buildings might be at risk. They never skipped a beat, even when relocating control centers. And a group of senior personnel and friends gave us a pretty thorough briefing on what was known and what was being done in the government and at NASA on Tuesday afternoon, which was very helpful and kind of them to do in the midst of all the turmoil. The Russian TsUP has also been supportive and helpful, trying to uplink news articles when our own assets were inoperable, and saying kind words…

My crewmates have been great, too. They know it’s been a tough day for me and the folks on the ground, and they’ve tried to be as even keeled and helpful as possible. Michael even fixed me my favorite Borscht soup for dinner. And they give me plenty of room to think when I needed it. They are very sympathetic and of course outraged at whoever would do this.

I know so many people in Washington, so many people who travel to DC and NYC, so many who are pilots, that I felt sure I would receive at least a few pieces of bad news over the next few days. I got the first one today when I learned that the Captain of the American Airlines jet that hit the Pentagon was Chic Burlingame, a classmate of mine. I met Chic during plebe summer when we were in the D&B together, and we had lots of classes together. I can’t imagine what he must of gone through, and now I hear that he may have risen further than we can even think of by possibly preventing his plane from being the one to attack the White House. What a terrible loss, but I’m sure Chic was fighting bravely to the end. And tears don’t flow the same in space…

It’s difficult to describe how it feels to be the only American completely off the planet at a time such as this. The feeling that I should be there with all of you, dealing with this, helping in some way, is overwhelming. I know that we are on the threshold (or beyond) of a terrible shift in the history of the world. Many things will never be the same again after September 11, 2001. Not just for the thousands and thousands of people directly affected by these horrendous acts of terrorism, but probably for all of us. We will find ourselves feeling differently about dozens of things, including probably space exploration, unfortunately.

It’s horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point. The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on the earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche, no matter who you are. And the knowledge that everything will be different than when we launched by the time we land is a little disconcerting. I have confidence in our country and in our leadership that we will do everything possible to better defend her and our families, and to bring justice for what has been done. I have confidence that the good people at NASA will do everything necessary to continue our mission safely and return us safely at the right time. And I miss all of you very much. I can’t be there with you in person, and we have a long way to go to complete our mission, but be certain that my heart is with you, and know you are in my prayers.

Humbly,
Frank

September 14, 2001; 22:49

An update to the last letter… Fortunately, it’s been a busy week up here. And to prove that, like our country, we are continuing on our intended path with business as usual (as much as possible). Tonight the latest addition to the station, the Russian Docking Compartment will be launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. On Saturday night (US time), it will dock with us, at a port never used before on the nadir side of the Service Module. This new module will give us another place to dock a Progress or Soyuz and will provide a large airlock with two useable hatches for conducting EVA’s in Russian Orlan suits, which we will do a few of before we come home.

The problem before in dealing with this week was too little news. The problem now is too much. It came all at once when email was restored, and there’s not enough time to read it all! Plus it’s too hard to deal with all of it at once. But I appreciate getting it, and I really appreciate the great letters of support and friendship I am receiving.

We are doing well on board, getting our work done, and talking about things. Last night we had a long discussion over dinner about the significance of these events, the possible actions to follow, and what should be done. After dinner, Michael made a point of telling me that every email he received from friends in Russia said specifically to tell me how sorry they were that this happened, extending their condolences, and asking how I was doing. Vladimir taught me the Russian word for “condolences” after talking to the previous CDR, Yuri Usachev, on the phone in Star City. (Both the Russian and the English words are much too long to pronounce easily.) Very kind people.

For the last two days, the Russian MCC has been good enough to transmit live broadcasts of radio news about the event and associated stories, to make sure I was well informed. Every specialist who has come on the line to discuss a procedure or a problem has at some point extended greetings to me with kind words. Tonight the Russian capcom told us that because of the special day of remembrance in the US, all day people had been bringing flowers and lining all the walls of the US embassy in Moscow, and this evening they were lighting candles in the street outside the embassy. How the world has changed.

People everywhere seem to recognize the senselessness and horror in this attack. And the tremendous loss. Moscow has dealt with these kind of problems in the last few years with apartment and subway bombings, so they are as anxious to get rid of this threat as we are. But the bottom line is that there are good people everywhere who want to live in peace. I read that a child asked, “America is so good to other countries, we always help everyone, how can they hate us so much?”

I hope the example of cooperation and trust that this spacecraft and all the people in the program demonstrate daily will someday inspire the rest of the world to work the same way. They must!

Unfortunately, we won’t be flying over the US during the time people are lighting candles. Don’t know if we could see that anyway. We did, however, see a very unusual and beautiful sight a few minutes ago: the launch of our Docking Compartment on a Soyuz booster. We were overtaking it and it came into view about three minutes after its launch from Baikonur as the sun hit our station, so it was still in the dark. It looked like a large comet with a straight, wide tail silhouetted against the dark planet beneath. Despite some bad lighting for a while as the sun hit our window at a low angle, I managed some video of it as first we passed the rocket, and then watched it begin to catch up as it gained altitude and speed. I filmed until main engine cutoff and booster separation occurred just as we approached sunrise on the Himalayas. An unforgettable sight in an unforgettable week…

Life goes on, even in space. We’re here to stay…
Frank