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This silent film clip, posted at the Smithsonian's Air & Space Magazine blog, is one of the most amazing things I've seen in a while.
First off, it shows a 1968 test run of a lunar landing research vehicle—a practice version of the lunar module that would later carry Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the Moon. It's weird and surreal and very, very awesome to watch an LLRV rising, lowering, and swooping through the sky from the vantage point of someone standing on the ground. In general, a great reminder that we make UFOs right here on Earth.
But the real crazy bit happens at the end of the video, when Neil Armstrong—who was piloting this LLRV—bails out just before the craft plummets to the ground and explodes.
No, seriously. And it leads to this amazing story, which is, in itself, a brilliant tribute to Armstrong.
In his Armstrong biography First Man, author James Hansen recounts how astronaut Alan Bean saw Armstrong that afternoon at his desk in the astronaut office. Bean then heard colleagues in the hall talking about the accident, and asked them, “When did this happen?” About an hour ago, they replied. Bean returned to Armstrong and said, “I just heard the funniest story!” Armstrong said, “What?” “I heard that you bailed out of the LLTV an hour ago.” “Yeah, I did,” replied Armstrong. “I lost control and had to bail out of the darn thing.” “I can’t think of another person,” Bean recalls, “let alone another astronaut, who would have just gone back to his office after ejecting a fraction of a second before getting killed.”
NOTE: We couldn't get the embed code from Air & Space to work for some reason, so we've embedded the same video, but from YouTube, rather than their site.
In the tradition of The Shining re-cut to look like an uplifting comedy, comes this music video, which repurposes scenes from several movies—most prominently 2001: A Space Odyssey—to tell the story of a misunderstood computer that accidentally hurts the ones it loves.
The song is "Limited" by Jascha. The video was created by my friend John Pavlus (who has also made some cool films about entropy and the Antikythera Mechanism). He says:
It seemed like a fun challenge to take images that have acquired so much "baggage" over the years — like the glowering cyclops eye of HAL from 2001, which has become visual shorthand for "evil machine" — and try to attach completely opposite emotional associations to them. What if something like HAL wasn't evil at all, but just misunderstood in its intentions, like a puppy who plays too rough with its owner? That's exactly the image that Jascha's plaintive refrain in "Limited" put into my head. Remixing material from five very different films creates a necessarily impressionistic approach to telling a story, so maybe the story this video tells in your head isn't the same one that it tells in mine. Either way I hope it's a good one.
IEEE Spectrum has a big special feature online now about the Fukushima nuclear disaster and its after-effects. It includes an interactive map showing the impact that Fukushima has had on evacuation of residents, contamination of soil, and contamination of food and water supplies.
It also includes a blow-by-blow account of what happened during the first 24-hours of the disaster. This solid investigative reporting by Eliza Strickland highlights several key points where simple changes could have lead to a very different outcome than the one we got.
True, the antinuclear forces will find plenty in the Fukushima saga to bolster their arguments. The interlocked and cascading chain of mishaps seems to be a textbook validation of the "normal accidents" hypothesis developed by Charles Perrow after Three Mile Island. Perrow, a Yale University sociologist, identified the nuclear power plant as the canonical tightly coupled system, in which the occasional catastrophic failure is inevitable.
On the other hand, close study of the disaster's first 24 hours, before the cascade of failures carried reactor 1 beyond any hope of salvation, reveals clear inflection points where minor differences would have prevented events from spiraling out of control. Some of these are astonishingly simple: If the emergency generators had been installed on upper floors rather than in basements, for example, the disaster would have stopped before it began. And if workers had been able to vent gases in reactor 1 sooner, the rest of the plant's destruction might well have been averted.
The world's three major nuclear accidents had very different causes, but they have one important thing in common: In each case, the company or government agency in charge withheld critical information from the public. And in the absence of information, the panicked public began to associate all nuclear power with horror and radiation nightmares. The owner of the Fukushima plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), has only made the situation worse by presenting the Japanese and global public with obfuscations instead of a clear-eyed accounting.
Citing a government investigation, TEPCO has steadfastly refused to make workers available for interviews and is barely answering questions about the accident. By piecing together as best we can the story of what happened during the first 24 hours, when reactor 1 was spiraling toward catastrophe, we hope to facilitate the process of learning-by-disaster.
I'm reading Perrow's Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies right now. I'm not very far into it yet, but it will be interesting to contrast the thesis I see him putting together— i.e., you're never going to account for all those simple-in-retrospect things that could have stopped a disaster and, in fact, trying to solve some of those lapses actually causes others—with Strickland's riveting account of the first day of Fukushima.