May 15, 2013
On the eve of the release of the latest feature-film from the “Star Trek” mega-brand, scholar and curator Margaret Weitekamp argues that the fictional series of space exploration helped define and inspire real world parallels. From advancing diversity in NASA to anticipating new technologies, “Star Trek” left its mark on American culture. Weitekamp, the Air and Space Museum’s curator of space science fiction materials, including a 11-foot model of the Enterprise, says, it will continue to do so.
Since the original series aired in the 1960s, “Star Trek” has grown to include five different series, 12 movies and a vibrant fan culture that supports a multi-billion dollar industry.
Many of the people working in the spaceflight industry, says Weitekamp, are also huge fans of the franchise. That includes Mike Gold, chief counsel at Bigelow Aerospace, who is currently working on the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), an inflatable module for the International Space Station. Gold and Weitekamp will be joined by two more Trek fans for a panel Thursday May 16, “Star Trek’s Continuing Relevance,” at the Air and Space Museum.
We spoke with Weitekamp over the phone about her career, why “Star Trek” matters and her own spaceflight ambitions.
How did you turn “Star Trek” into a scholarly pursuit?
I have a Ph.D. in history from Cornell and while there, Cornell has a rather innovative program of writing in the discipline, where for their freshman composition classes, you can create a course about anything you want because the content is not what is graded, it’s the teaching of writing in sociology, or history, or philosophy.
So I created a space history and science fiction class that I taught a few times while at Cornell.
How does “Star Trek” inspire industry?
The original ‘Star Trek’ series, from 1966 to 1969, had a very diverse cast as the command crew of the Starship Enterprise. When NASA was recruiting astronauts in the 1970s, they weren’t getting the diversity of female and minority applicants that they had hoped that they would. So they actually hired Nichelle Nichols, who is the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura, an African American actress who was part of that command crew, to do a public relations campaign in the 1970s with the theme that “there’s space for everyone.” They saw the number of women and people of color applying go up after her campaign in 1977 and 1978. So there have been some instances of a very direct relationship. And then also just the broader sense of being interested in what’s possible in terms of space flight and thinking about the ways in which who we are gets translated when you go into space.
How close are we to the future “Star Trek” envisions?
Not as close as people would like. The lack of a transporter and the lack of a warp drive has kept humanity a lot closer to home than I think people had hoped we would be being this far into the 21st century.
On the other hand, there are a lot of ways in which, in terms of global communication, people are much farther in ways ‘Star Trek’ didn’t necessarily anticipate.
People had hoped that some day they would be able to walk around with a thin tablet or with a communicator on their belts and, in fact, we now have moved passed flip phones to having a kind of mini-computer in your hands when you’re on your smart phone.
There are some ways in which I think we’re living the dream but the physical transportation of people out between star systems is still hundreds if not thousands of years out.
Would you consider going into space?
If there’s some need to send a historian mother of three into space, I think that would be tremendously exciting.
What do you like about “Star Trek?”
I personally, as a scholar, am really intrigued by the ways that it can be both a driver for social change but also a commentary on the political and social situation at the time. The original ‘Star Trek’ series, for example, had a lot of discussion about racial integration and gender roles and was very self-consciously a social commentator. As someone who is interested in American culture and society as a historian, it’s a really rich source for looking at the ways in which people have engaged with those issues.
And as a fan, what do you like about it?
I am more of a Next Generation fan and was also a kind of closet Trek fan and a ‘Star Wars’ fan. I am always interested in gender roles and ‘Star Trek’ has had some very innovative plot lines where they talked about women’s roles in society. Despite the mini-skirts of the original series, they have done some very innovative gender stuff.
Which is better, “Star Trek” or “Star Wars?”
Actually, I’m very ecumenical on this. I really like both. I grew up more as a ‘Star Wars’ fan but I have really come to like how rich ‘Star Trek’ is in terms of the scholarly analysis and that’s something that’s a lot of fun for me personally and professionally. I’m going to have to come down solidly on the fence of saying I like both.
‘Star Trek’ has more self-consciously, commented on its social and political context…Although the ‘Star War’ universe has all of those six movies kind of working to tell one continual arc of a story, the ‘Star Trek’ universe has really worked to knit together many disparate pieces: TV shows, movies, fan culture, novels, merchandise, into one, what has been called by scholars, megatext.
“Star Trek Into Darkness” will be showing at the Udvar-Hazy Center’s IMAX theater.
April 2, 2013
Nearly 30 years ago, moviegoers got an unprecedented look into the lives of the space shuttle astronauts orbiting 280 miles above the Earth. And they witnessed it in extraordinary dimensions—on a five story-tall screen in booming surround sound.
The Dream Is Alive pulled back the curtain on NASA’s Space Shuttle program, giving the public an intimate glimpse into the previously unfamiliar lives of its members. Directed by IMAX co-inventor Graeme Ferguson and narrated by Walter Cronkite, the IMAX classic showed astronauts in full garb, practicing how to move in weightless conditions, using a water tank on land. Once in space, the film revealed the crew’s reactions to watching the world turn as the orbiter circled the Earth at 17,000 miles an hour. It followed the men and women as they worked, ate, exercised and even slept in zero gravity.
“Astronauts have said it’s the next best thing to being there,” says Valerie Neal, the space shuttle curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, of the film that was originally released in 1985. “The theater kind of dissolves and you feel like a part of the film. I had this sense that I was in space with them.”
Shot by 14 NASA astronauts during three shuttle missions, the film includes footage of Discovery‘s 1984 launch and landing, as well as the deployment of several satellites from the spacecraft. It features sweeping panoramas of the Earth, space walks and risky satellite repairs. It puts the audience in the driver’s seat with video filmed from the astronauts’ points of view while training on land—viewers feel as if they are parachuting to the ground, or lurching away from the shuttle in high-speed emergency baskets.
The film premiered during an optimistic time for space exploration—1984 saw nine shuttle missions, seven more than in the program’s first year in 1981. More than 100 missions would launch into space in the next three decades before the program folded in 2011. The Dream Is Alive represented the country’s drive to make space transportation routine. It also introduced the public to a new era of American astronauts, Neal says, one that included women and individuals from more diverse backgrounds.
“That was something of a revelation, and I think it probably played a role in widespread acceptance that this is the way spaceflight should be,” she says. “It shouldn’t be just the cream of the crop of the most elite military jet test pilots, but also people who are scientists and engineers who could be our next door neighbors.”
In the film viewers saw Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, hover in midair while working with her fellow Challenger crew members. Kathy Sullivan joins her, marking the first time two women flew together on a shuttle mission. We watch Sullivan become the first American woman to walk in space as she waves to the camera from outside the window, the white and blue of the Earth swirling behind her. We see Judith Resnik, the first Jewish woman in space, working in weightlessness. To date, more than 50 American women have become NASA astronauts.
The Dream Is Alive was still playing in theaters when Challenger exploded seconds after its 10th launch in January 1986, killing all seven astronauts onboard, including Resnik. The tragedy illuminated the very real dangers of space travel, an aspect of the shuttle program that The Dream hadn’t explored. But Neal says the United States soon saw a surge of public support for the program, suggesting the golden age of American space exploration was not yet over.
“The American public had a sense that the space program was valuable and shouldn’t be halted,” she says.
Now, another generation of space enthusiasts can experience the zenith of the shuttle program, this time on an 86-by-62 foot silver screen. The Dream Is Alive is now showing in the Airbus IMAX Theater in the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Showtimes and ticket information is available here.
The film temporarily joins two of its stars at the Smithsonian. One of the cameras used in the film, which went on to document missions until 1998, arrived at the Institution last April and will soon be installed at the Air and Space Museum’s “Moving Beyond Earth” exhibition. The black camera, which weighs about 80 pounds, shot film with over-sized, 70mm frames, providing more than eight times the area of traditional 35mm film. Such capacity lent to never-seen-before, wide-angle views of the planet’s topography. The space shuttle Discovery landed at the museum shortly after. The famed spacecraft spent 365 days in space during its 27-year career. It flew 39 missions, several of which are chronicled in the film, before it was retired in 2011.
March 15, 2013
The perfect wave. Even the most water-phobic know this is what motivates a surfer. But many may not know, there is a calculable science behind the phrase.
Experienced surfers know that the art of the sport has a lot to do with the science of the ocean. Eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater, for example, told the New York Times he checks no fewer than five different sites for reports on wind, swell and weather before he heads out. He knows that his home state of Florida has a shallow and long continental shelf, helping create small, slow waves that are perfect for beginners. He says that, “millions of years ago, lava poured out and just happened to form a perfect-shaped bottom,” producing Hawaii’s legendary Pipeline.
Now filmmaker Stephen Low joins Slater as the surfer takes on Tahiti’s most extreme surf break, Teahupo’o, in the new 3-D film, The Ultimate Wave Tahiti, debuting March 15 at the Natural History Museum’s IMAX theater. Accompanied by Tahitian waterman Raimana Van Bastolaer, Slater uses his intimate knowledge of the world’s waves to explain what makes Teahupo’o so special.
One of the most accomplished athletes in the world, Slater got his first surfboard when he was just eight. He still lives in Cocoa Beach, where he grew up going to the ocean with his parents. But Slater is more than just an athlete, he’s been actively involved in the design of his own surfboards. “Some waves are flatter in the curve of the face,” Slater told Smithsonian contributor Owen Edwards, “and provide less speed. Others are bigger, faster and hollower [on the face]. You have to adjust the shape of the board accordingly. For curvier waves, a curved board works best.”
In 2011, Slater donated the board he used at the April 2010 Rip Curl Tournament in Australia to the American History Museum. It was designed specifically for the competition site at Bells Beach by Santa Barbara company Channel Islands Surfboards. Needless to say, he won.
“No two waves are the same,” says Low. “Yet, all waves share common traits. . . to many the wave at Teahupo’o is indeed the ‘ultimate wave.’”
The film combines Slater’s years of experience and expertise with information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create a film that is at once educational and engaging.
October 19, 2012
The Monarch butterfly makes one of the longest migrations on Earth, and it does with pinpoint accuracy despite never having flown the route before. Beginning in August every year, the North American Monarch populations head south for the winter–the only butterfly species to do so. By the time of the first frosts in late October, the butterflies that began their journey east of the Rocky Mountains have safely gathered in the mountains of Mexico. Come spring, the next generation of butterflies will make the return trip.
It’s a spectacular journey of more than 2,000 miles made by insects weighing less than a penny each. And now it’s been captured on 3-D film with the October release of Flight of the Butterflies at the Smithsonian’s IMAX theaters.
“The monarch symbolizes the beauty and fragility of nature but also embodies the strength and resilience needed for survival,” wrote the British film director and co-writer Mike Slee. In order to capture the tremendous journey, Slee and his team filmed for a total of two years. They were able to use the work of scientist Fred Urquhart, who spent almost 40 years trying to understand the Monarch butterfly’s migration and locate its secret winter sanctuary. Beginning with his childhood interest in the migration, the film follows the start of his research in 1937 to his discovery in Mexico.
Catalina Aguado was part of the initial team that discovered the mountainous winter retreat location with Urquhart in 1975. Aguado, along with her husband Kenneth Brugger, got involved in the project after answering Urquhart’s newspaper ad seeking volunteers in Mexico. Now Aguado, who is the only living member of that team, was able to help the documentary crew tell the story of the butterflies’ journey and her own part in discovering its mysteries.
The cinematics are nothing short of breathtaking. Even Slee found himself in awe of what he was capturing. “What you see, you can’t imagine nature ever being like this,” Slee told NPR. “Trees that are draped — that are made, almost, of butterflies. It’s got a surreal, supernatural feeling to it. It sends a sort of tingle up your spine when you see it in 3-D.”
“The whole project was pioneering natural history filmmaking,” wrote Slee, who has worked on more than 50 film projects, including David Attenborough’s Life on Earth and Living Planet series. Slee said it was a challenge to take so much motion and activity and adapt it to 3-D film. The team also used medical imaging techniques to get a new look at the insect’s early development. “Seeing the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly using micro CT scans and MRI scans from inside the chrysalis had never been before and it was mind-blowing.”
Even after enduring long days of inclement weather and filming from a 70-foot crane, the team still viewed the final product with a sense of wonder. Aguado told NPR, “I can say wonderful, fantastic and glorious — and whatever other words, but I cannot describe the feeling. It was magical.”
Below, scenes from the feature film: