News from Space: The Slingatron

slingatronPlacing things into orbit is something humanity has been doing since the 1940’s, beginning with Germany’s V2 Rockets, then giving way to artificial satellites like Sputnik in the 1950’s. These efforts really came into their own during the 1960’s and since, when manned missions reached high orbit and even the Moon. But despite all these  milestones, little has been done to address the problems of cost.

Ever since space travel began in earnest, the only way to send satellites, supplies and shuttle craft into orbit has been with rockets. Even at its cheapest, a space launch can still cost an estimated $2000 per pound per mission, due to the fact that the rockets employed are either destroyed or rendered unusable once they’ve completed their mission.

slingatron-20Attempts to create reusable launch systems, like the SpaceX Grasshopper, is one solution. But another involves “slinging” payloads into orbit, rather than launching them. That’s what HyperV Technologies Corp. of Chantilly, Virginia is hoping to achieve with their design for a “mechanical hypervelocity mass accelerator”, otherwise known as a “slingatron”.

Invented by Derek Tidman in the 1990s, the slingatron replaces rockets with a more sophisticated version of the sling. However, the principle differs somewhat in that the device uses something far more sophisticated than circumferential force. In the end, the name cyclotron might be more apt, which is a very simple particle accelerator.

 

slingatron-11Utilizing a vacuum tube and a series of magnetic/electostatic plates of opposing charges, an atomic particle (such as a proton) is introduced and sent back and forth as the polarity of the plates are flipped. As the frequency of the flipping is increased, the proton moved faster and faster in a series of spirals until it reaches the rim and shoots out a window at extremely high velocity.

The slingatron achieves the same result, but instead uses a spiral tube which gyrate on a series of flywheels along its length. As the slingatron gyrates, a projectile is introduced and the centripetal force pulls the projectile along. As the projectile slides through larger and larger turns of the spiral, the centripetal forces increase until the projectile shoots out the muzzle, traveling at several kilometers per second.

slingatron-13Ultimately, the goal here is to build a slingatron big enough to fire a projectile at velocities exceeding 7 km/s (25,000 km/h, 15,600 mph) to put it into orbit. With rapid turnarounds and thousands of launches per year while all of the launch system remains on Earth, the developers claim that the slingatron will offer lower costs for getting payloads into orbit.

However, there are weaknesses to this idea as well. For starters, any projectile going into space will also need to be fitted a small set of rockets for final orbit insertion and corrections. In addition, the G-forces involved in such launches would be tremendous – up to 60,000 times the force of gravity – which means it would be useless for sending up manned missions.

slingatron-15In the end, only the most solid state and hardened of satellites would have a chance of survival. The developers say that a larger slingatron would reduce the forces, but even with a reduction by a factor of 10,000, it would still be restricted to very robust cargoes. This makes it an attractive options for sending supplies into space, but not much else.

Still, given the costs associated with keeping the ISS supplied, and ensuring that future settlements in space have all the goods and equipment they need, a series of slingatrons may be a very viable solution in the not-to-distant future. Combined with concepts like the space penetrator, which fired bullet-like spaceships into space, the cost associated with space travel may be dropping substantially in coming decades.

All of this could add up to a great deal more space traffic coming to and from Earth in the not-too-distant future as well. I hope we have the foresight to construct some “space lanes” and keep them open! And in the meantime, enjoy this video interview of Dr. F. Douglas Witherspoon explaining the concept of the slingatron:

Source: gizmag.com

Transformers (Cont’d)

(Continued…)

3. Stupid Comic Relief:
Not long ago, I thought George Lucas was the authority when it came to using stupid characters in a movie, ones which were intended for comic relief, but were really just annoying and oftentimes racist. Then Bay came along not once, not twice, but thrice with his own take on that idea! In all three Transformers movies, it seemed that the only point of having black characters was to add some sass and punchy dialogue. Take for example the fat, hacker dude in the first one (Anthony Anderson*), the fat, whiney special ops dude in the third one, the “Twins” in the second, or the street-talking “Jazz” (“whaddut bitches?”) from the first, who was also the only one to die! In most cases, these caricatures bordered on racism, or at least, bad taste. But when it came to the “Twins” – those flappy-eared, gold-toothed, ebonics talking, non-reading robots – it was not only blatantly racist, but incedibly stupid! Really, the only strong black character in this entire franchise was Epps (Tyrese Gibson), but even he was constantly playing second fiddle to Lennox, the white special ops dude played by Josh Duhamel.

(*Anthony Anderson, from Harold and Kumar fame: “Pooky, we gotta burn this muthaf*cka down!”)

Then there were Sam’s parents. In all three movies, they are annoying, too-much-information spouting, no fashion-sense having, clueless morons who are constantly getting in the way. In the first one, this was semi-tolerable, just some passing talk about masturbation and the usual “parents are insufferable” stuff. But the scene in movie two where they are bringing him to college and the mom gets high on some pot brownies? How stupid was that? And as if that wasn’t bad enough, they are then captured by the Decepticons, thus becoming a total liability as well. By movie three, they are such incessant nags with the worst fashion sense that you get the feeling they are retired, eighty, and partly-senile (they’re even driving a massive Winnebago!) And aside from just popping in and being a total bother, they serve no other purpose. Yep, in movie three, they don’t even have the good sense to get kidnapped, but that was probably for the best!

And then there was John Turturro, a usually sublime actor reduced to the role of the Sector 7 agent, who’s purpose it seemed was to be awkward, inject some comic relief, and advance the action a little. He kind of peaked in the second movie, what with that whole “I’m under the machine’s scrotum” thing. Seriously, Transformer balls?! John Malcovich who they brought in for the third movie was similarly awful, a solid actor from such classics as Of Mice and Men, In the Line of Fire and Being John Malcovich brought in to plays an oddball eccentric who insists on color-coding everything on his office floor, boxes with a Transformer and then falls to the ground declaring he’s ticklish, and stares luridly at Sam’s girlfriend! Not funny! Dumb!

The same is true of Rainn Wilson (the creepy professor in #2), Alan Tudyk (Turturro’s fey, German bodygaurd in #3), Ramon Rodriguez (Sam’s cowardly, hacker roommate in #2), Frances McDormund (the CIA director-lady in #3), and Ken Jeong (office weirdo in #3). In each case, we see otherwise well-respected and talented actorw/actresses reduced to the most low-brow of antics in order to provide cheap laughs. Again, in the first movie, it was tolerable. The second time around, these antics were so awash in crappy writing that it kind of went unnoticed. But by movie three, I just couldn’t believe it anymore. In fact, it got so over the top by movie three that I had to wonder what kind of man Bay really is. Does HE think creepy weirdos who get in people’s faces, annoy the hell out of them and act so dumb you want take a monkey wrench to their faces are funny? Is HE that kind of person? Megan Fox would seem to think so, but she’s aint exactly the authority on sane behavior herself!

Above all, it seems like every single secondary character has no purpose in these movies aside from providing cheap laughs. Well, that and advancing the plot by increments, but always with an unhealthy dose of stupid antics! Who finds this funny? Seriously, who?

4. Women as Objects:
Speaking of Megan Fox, she did one thing which I respect the hell out of, and that was tell Bay where to go! Shortly after she quit the franchise, Fox went on record as saying the main reason she left was because she was sick of being treated like an object by her former director. This was by no means her only complaint about the man, nor his about her, but she had a valid point. Just look at how Bay positioned Fox in every single shot of movies one and two! When she’s not spread out on the back of a motorbike or reclining over something, she’s running around in tiny jean shorts and a tank top.

Once she left, look who Bay decided to replace her with… a freaking lingerie model! Yep, rather than go with an actress, Bay decided to enlist Victoria Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Fox’s replacement. Fox calls him an awkward sexist schmuck and he goes and does this. Way to prove people wrong, Bay! In addition to having zero acting experience, her range consisted of smiling seductively and staring vacantly, even when things are exploding around her. In every shot, she looks like she’s modeling, pushing out her breasts or puckering her big, luscious lips. That might work wonders on the runway or in commercials, but in a movie, people are expected to talk, interact, and show some emotion.

Oh, and remember that awful scene where her evil boss is talking about cars and the female form? The whole time, the camera is checking her out while she’s stands idly by, breasts out, back arched, arms behind her like she’s a mannequin. At no point in the movie is she wearing street clothes or sensible shoes, just dresses and high heels. She provides no real impetus to the movie, other than being a damsel in distress and providing sex appeal. But of course, that’s why Bay went with her, isn’t it? Whereas Megan clearly thought of herself as an actress and demanded more respect, Rosie is a model and clearly has no problem being moved around like a doll or told to pose seductively. It’s what models do!

But what this really seems to demonstrate is the attitude behind Bay’s approach. Just like his repeated use of racial caricatures, he seems committed to portraying women in the most stereotypical light possible. When they are not pretty little dolls constantly bending over things or running around in skimpy outfits, they’re damsels in distress, being captured so the hero can save them. The only exception is when they are vile temptresses. Remember robot-girl Alice from Fallen? It was the dumbest thing in the world that she turned out to be a robot, but still, her purpose was clear. A pretty thing with pouty lips and partially exposed breasts, constantly trying to screw Sam so he’d divulge secrets! That bit about the robot tongue only added insult to injury!

5. Raping History:
As a historian, it always bothers me when crappy movie makers try to rip off history in order to lend a sense of credibility to their movies. Just look at Roland Emmerich or Jerry Bruckheimer. The former used Roswell to make Independence Day, the American Revolution to make the Patriot, and the mysteries of the Mayan Calendar to make 2012. Meanwhile, Bruckheimer (who was the executive producer for several of Bay’s movies) has been at least partially responsible for the rape of Arthurian legend, 19th century piracy, and just about every conspiracy theory known to man in order to make The Rock, Pirates of the Carribean, and National Treasure.

But with this franchise, Bay had em all beat! In the first movie, he claimed that the Hoover Dam was some sort of secret base. Why? Because it was built during FDR’s presidency, which was when Sector 7 was formed and Megatron found. In movie two, ancient history becomes the target as Bay claims that the Pyramid of Giza and the ancient city of Petra were both built in order to hide some ancient Transformer artifacts. Then, hang onto your hat, in movie 3, he claims that the ENTIRE SPACE RACE was part of some alien, robot-related conspiracy. And the fact that we’ve never been back since the 70’s was attributed to some cover up by the Decepticon-collaborators. Yep, not budgets, not the general thaw in tensions between East and West. No, no, it was a big cover up! And let’s not forget Chernobyl. It was already established that the Appollo program led the US to discover the wrecked Ark and that Sputnik did something similar for the Russians. But they take that a step further by saying that the nuclear accident at Chernobyl was in fact Russian scientists testing captured Decepticon technology. Only fifteen minutes into the movie and already I wanted to vomit!

6. Big Changes:
Just me just say off the bat that I am abundantly aware of how geeky this is going to sound! And truth be told, it always annoys me when people say how changes were made from the original like its automatically a bad thing. But in this case, I think they would be right. As someone who grew up with the original series, I did happen to notice that certain things had been changed or discarded from the original series that had actually lent it some depth and credibility. I mention this for those reasons, not because I feel like someone raped my childhood by deviated from the original script (George Lucas!) Okay, disclaimer signed, bring on the geekdom!

The All Spark: In the original series, it was never entirely clear where the Transformers had come from. They’re were references here and there to something called the Matrix, but it was never really made clear exactly what this was. But as the series got older, the concept seemed to mature (much like its fanbase). I never really did watch any of the spin offs after the original series, but by the time Beast Wars came out, nostalgia got the better of me and I watched a few episodes. Interestingly enough, by this time, the focus seemed to have shifted to dealing with more adult themes, like why the Transformers transform in the first place, the origins of Cybertron, and the purpose of their existence.

All of this seemed to point to some genuine signs of quality. There were also clear examples of Biblical allegories and parallels with other creation myths which was pretty cool. For example, in the course of Beast Wars, it was explained that the Matrix was a sentient machine that lay at the heart of Cybertron. It was also established that it was responsible for creating the earliest robot civilizations and had given rise to both the Autobots and the Decepticons. In addition, it was said that every robot had a spark, an indefinable essence that gave them life. Like a soul, it was indestructible and rejoined the Matrix once the robot died. Though the Autobots were around for several millions years, they really knew nothing about the Matrix or why it had chosen to create them in the first place. They also had no idea why it had chosen to create evil in the form of the Decepticons.

In short, the origins of the Transformers was something shrouded in mystery, subject to legend and myth. This was something that was missing from the movies. At no point in the original was there something known as an All Spark. And while the Matrix served the same basic purpose (i.e. giving the robots an origins story), we never really got a close look at it or learned much about it. Nor, for that matter, was there a race on to claim it because it really had no role in their war. In short, it was inaccessible, beyond the control of anyone, and who’s purpose, creators and motives were completely unknown. It’s obvious why Bay would choose to change all that; it simplified the plot, cut down on explanations and exposition, and provided an motive for why the bots came to Earth in the first place. Which brings me to change number 2:

The Ark: In movie three, we are told that the Ark was a ship carrying a weapon and was bound for Earth because Sentinel was trying to save Cybertron with it (in truth, he was defecting, but that’s neither here nor there). But in the original, the Ark served a much more inspired purpose. Essentially, it was a survivor ship that the Autobots built after they realized that the war on Cybertron was lost. It’s purpose was to carry the Autobots to some distant solar system where they would survive and rebuild. Yep, another Biblical allegory! However, the Decepticons intercepted and boarded it, and the resulting fight caused the ship to crash-land on Earth, circa several million years ago. In short, the Transformers came to Earth by accident, not in search of something.

Again, this was an example of real quality in the original. And again, Bay changed and simplified it. Not only was the Ark robbed of its significance in movie 3, it was also used for the purposes of giving the Transformers yet another thing to scramble for, just like in movies 1 and 2! So not only did he tamper with an original idea, he did so for the purposes of unoriginality! Which relates directly to the entire premise of the second movie – you know, the whole sun-destroyer inside the Pyramid thing. In short, none of it happened in the original franchise, but I’m sure everybody knew that already. The idea of Transformers hiding a massive sun destroyer inside the Pyramid of Giza was so dumb, audiences had to know that only Bay could be responsible.

Whoa! That was a long review! But this is a big franchise. Not in terms of depth or credibility, but definitely in terms of screen time and hype. And really, did it deserve either? As I’m sure I wrote earlier, I’m not one of these people who would say Bay is a criminal based on how he made changes from the original franchise. I WOULD say he’s a criminal based on what he’s done to our collective intellect; namely, insulted it! And if you look at Bay’s resume, this was just one entry in a long list of things he rehashed, rebooted, or reimagined: The Island, The Amityville Horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. In short, he’s done virtually nothing in his entire career that could be called original!

Ultimately, the Transformers Trilogy failed to be the big re-imagining and the pop-culture phenomena that many hoped it would be. The main reason for this, aside from the weak writing, poor acting and the directorial style of Michael Bay, was the motives that went into making it. Like all of Bay’s projects, the goal here was obvious: spend a shitload of money on some movies who’s sole purpose was to make an even bigger shitload of money. He’s good at that, no doubt about it! When all is said and done, Bay excels at giving the audience what they want. At least in the short-run. The problem is, once its over, we all feel guilty for wasting the time and money and subjecting ourselves to such insulting crap. In a way, its kind of getting waisted and having a one-night stand. Sure, it seems like fun at the time, but there’s always the hangover and walk of shame to worry about the next day!

Transformers:
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Plot: 6/10
Direction: 7/10
Total: 6.5/10

Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen
Entertainment Value: 6/10
Plot: 1/10
Direction: 5/10
Total:
3/10

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon
Entertainment Value: 6/10
Plot: 5/10
Direction: 5/10
Total: 5.5/10