Thursday, January 28, 2010

January 28, 1986


Twenty-four years ago today, a senseless and preventable accident claimed the lives of of seven brilliant and brave human beings. The loss of Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe are the most tragic result of the Challenger disaster, and we must never lose sight of that.

But something else died that day with the Challenger and her crew and even as an impressionable seven-year-old I sensed it. Ever since it became clear that manned spaceflight would one day be possible, futurists and science fiction writers delighted us with tales of a time when a trip into space was every bit as routine as a ride in a Chevy. And on that clear day in January 1986, it seemed as though those dreams were finally starting to come true. Regular, uneventful shuttle flights had certainly given us the idea that spaceflight had become a routine endeavor, and the inclusion of a high school teacher on a space mission seemed like a logical development. One day soon, I thought, anyone might be able to take a ride on the Space Shuttle!

This idea was not limited to my seven-year-old brain, however. Take a look at this scene from EPCOT Center’s Horizons:

horizons 14

What’s that vehicle delivering that 21st century family to their new home on the Brava Centuari space station? It’s the Space Shuttle! Very little of Horizons was grounded in the “now”. The places the characters lived, the technology they used, even the clothes they wore bore more resemblance to the Star Trek films of the 1980s than they did to anything in the real world. The Space Shuttle (seen in the scene above and also in the background of another space scene) was the only piece of the Horizons future that we had right now, and its very existence (and successful, routine operation) was an assurance that space colonies and floating cities lay not too far off.

Those dreams evaporated at 11:38 AM on January 28, 1986. We found out the hard way that launching a manned vehicle into orbit is not (and may never be) as relatively safe and easy as flying a jetliner from New York to Los Angeles. The accident exposed longstanding flaws in the way NASA went about its business, and shattered any ideas we may have had about the possibility of living in large space colonies by the turn of the twenty-first century. Worst of all, seven families lost sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, moms, dads, husbands, and wives.

Today we have a more sober, pragmatic view of human spaceflight. The loss of the Columbia in 2003 reminded us that anything can go wrong at any time on a space mission, and the astronauts aren’t really safe until they’re standing on terra firma. The shuttle program is scheduled to end this year, and the International Space Station may be abandoned and deorbited by 2016. There were not, as the Horizons narration suggested, all kinds of valuable resources floating around in near-Earth orbit waiting for us to exploit them. The moon seems to be devoid of any resources that would be worth our while to figure out how to mine, and the asteroids in the belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter would have to be full of cancer-curing magic beans for us to even begin investigating how we might go about mining them.

The fact is that in every life there are hardships and tragedies that force us to let go of childish ideas we once had and grow up. It’s no fun, but that’s the way it is. For my generation, the Challenger disaster was one of those tragedies.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Defining Moment

In the years to come, when I reflect on my most recent trip to Walt Disney World (January 3-7, 2010) I’ll probably think of the bathroom at the rear of EPCOT’s Imagination pavilion.

Perhaps I should explain: it’s no secret that the first two weeks of January saw record cold throughout most of the United States, including Florida. Of course, when I planned my weeklong Disney vacation for the first week of January, I figured that we’d have mild weather; morning lows in the 40s with highs in the mid-60s to low 70s. I definitely did not plan on record cold temperatures, and as a native Floridian I’m not very well adapted to them. Nor is Walt Disney World.


I found this out the hard way early in the afternoon of January 4. I popped into the Imagination pavilion’s gift shop to pick up some Figment merchandise before our lunchtime reservation at Le Cellier, and while I was there I decided to visit the restroom. Normally, I like the restroom at the rear of the Imagination pavilion. It's never crowded because not many people know it's there, and since I prefer little or no human interaction during my restroom experience that's a big plus for me. However, the windy, frigid-as-Kate Gosselin weather highlighted an important design flaw in the Imagination restrooms: their lack of front doors. In the warmer months, this isn't much of a problem since the air-conditioning system is robust enough to keep the worst of the heat out. However, the heating system is obviously not as powerful because there was virtually no difference in temperature from the outside to the inside. Not only that, but the faucets were only dispensing cold water. So it was that, at the dawn of the second decade of the 21st century, I found myself freezing my butt off in a restroom at a place called Future World.

While we’re on the subject of the Imagination pavilion, I think it’s very interesting that its gift shop sells all manner of Figment merchandise (including a t-shirt that features both Figment and Dreamfinder) but no Dr. Nigel Channing merchandise.

Just thought I’d point that out.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pieces of EPCOT Center

Well, I’m back from Walt Disney World, and after spending parts of three days at EPCOT I’ve got pictures (although not as many as I would’ve liked) and a few observations.

There were moments when EPCOT Center would positively enthrall you. You’d be on a ride, and the Imagineers had done their job so well that you were effectively transported to another place and time. Fortunately, there are still a few moments like that to be had in today’s EPCOT, and here they are:

  • Spaceship Earth: As I’ve said before, I don’t really understand all the vitriol that’s been directed at this attraction since it’s 2007 redesign. Much of the original attraction has been retained. The Judi Dench narration is obviously aimed at a different generation of people than the Perrin, Cronkite, or Irons narrations were. All in all, it still does a good job of immersing you in different times and places.
  • Universe of Energy’s dinosaur diorama: Except for the addition of the easily-ignorable Ellen animatronic and some recoloring of the dinosaurs (most notably the T-rex), the only part of the Energy pavilion that really excites people hasn’t been changed at all since 1982. It’s well-maintained, and absolutely saturated with that old-school attention to detail that Disney World did so well until Team Disney Orlando decided it didn’t want to pay for that stuff anymore. I’m not going to complain about the filmed portions of the attraction, since they were never that great. Sure, the Radok show was technically impressive, but it lacked truly entertaining content.
  • The first part of Mexico’s Gran Fiesta Tour: You board your boat, and float down the waterway between the San Angel Inn restaurant and the miniature pyramid. The background painting that decorates the wall behind the pyramid is ridiculously detailed; and even as you’re scrutinizing it, finding new details you never realized were there, your boat enters a magnificently-detailed recreation of an ancient Mexican temple. And then the Three Caballeros appear and ruin everything. The minute or so before they appear is pure gold, though. Not to be missed.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Off to the World

Well, in less than 48 hours I’ll be on my way to Disney World for a five-day stay. I hope to bring back enough pictures and observations to fuel several more months of posts. I’m especially looking forward to spending an extended amount of time in the World Showcase, and I’ve resolved not to rush through Innoventions like I did the last few visits. Hopefully I’ll find some good stuff there. (In Innoventions, I mean. I know there’s good stuff in the World Showcase).

I also want to take a moment to thank the people who do me the honor of reading these insane scribblings of mine. You’re the best!

So here we are, ten years into the 21st century. We don’t have hoverboards, flying cars, robot butlers, floating cities, holographic videophones, giant space colonies, cities on the Moon, or neon-colored jumpsuits with plastic booties, but at least we have Twitter. That’s a good thing, right?

futuremen Maybe we really are doomed.

On the other hand, Spaceship Earth is still the most futuristic-looking twenty-seven-year-old building in existence. As a kid I imagined that most buildings would look similarly futuristic by 2010, but unlike flat panel TVs and ever-more-powerful computers, construction costs for edifices shaped like 180-foot spheres or multistory glass pyramids have not plunged into the realm of easy affordability. Ah, well. I guess there were Spaceship Earths all over the world, then the symbol of EPCOT wouldn’t be as unique.CIMG0037 (2)