The Martian Delivers

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FOD and I just returned from seeing The Martian, Ridley Scott’s film that adapts Any Weir’s novel of the same name to the big screen.

As you’ve come to expect from Airspeed, I won’t recap the film for you here, nor will I avoid spoilers. My only subjects are whether the film is worth seeing, whether it offends any scientific sensibilities, and – in this case – whether it faithfully follows the book.

Last things first. Why do I care so much about whether the film is faithful to the book?  For starters, the book is one of those rare things in science fiction: A well-researched and skillfully rendered story that gets all the science right and requires only minimal suspension of disbelief. I’ve been through the book twice, both times in the form of the award-winning audiobook performance by R. C. Bray. I really, really enjoyed the book.  Because of this, I walked into the theater with a large chip on my shoulder.  It’s not impossible to think that Hollywood might treat The Martian with the disdain that it did with Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

I’m pleased to report that the film is very faithful to the book.  There are minor differences.  Venkat Kapoor becomes Vincent Kapoor, presumably so that Chiwetel Ejiofor (a Nigerian-born actor raised on London) could play the originally Indian character.  The explosive loss of the airlock omits the part in which Watney pressurizes the lock and rolls it to where it needs to be.  The final retrieval of Watney from the MAV capsule involves Watney breaching his suit and executing a very unlikely Iron-Man self-propulsion to rendezvous with Commander Lewis, who has inexplicably left the bridge to suit up and go get him (despite the fact that two other crew members are already suited up and likely closer to Watney).

I was actually happy about three differences. The film omitted the the event in which a short-circuit kills the Sojourner, as well as both the the roll-over accident involving the rovers and the dust storm on the drive to Schiaparelli Crater.  Of those three, the dust storm was the only situation that produced an interesting solution, as opposed to brute force or lots of boring work to overcome. While all three events worked int he book, omitting them from the film made all kids of sense.

I liked that the film even kept many of the inside nerds-only jokes, such as the Lord of the Rings mention and the “steely-eyed missile man” reference. Movies need to quit worrying about whether a particular remark will go over the audience’s heads. Those who get the references will love you for including those elements.  Those who don’t get the references probably won’t notice them anyway and – in any case – who the hell cares what non-nerds think, anyway?

If there were other material differences, I’ll admit that I didn’t notice them much.  I consistently found myself remembering lines from the book as they were faithfully written or spoken on screen. I can’t think of another film that is as similar to its underlying book.

The science was pretty good.  From depictions of orbital mechanics and rendezvous to the botanical representations, just about everything was convincing.  I did see a few problems, though.

  • The zero-G kickoff and multiple pulls to pick up speed as the crew moves around the spacecraft are unrealistic.  When you pick up momentum, you have to get rid of it in one way or another.  Experienced astronauts rarely build up that much momentum because they’re liable to break stuff or get hurt.  I also saw several delta-vees (usually diving from a, axel tube into the spoke of a rotating section) that would have required thrusters to accomplish.
  • Mars surface gravity is less than half that of Earth (3.7 m/s² on Mars vs. 9.8 m/s² for Earth). Yet all of the action on the surface of Mars appears to be in Earth-normal gravity.  The atmosphere is less than 1% as dense as Earth’s atmosphere, which would have shown up in differences in the way the wind works and the effects on blown objects.
  • The circular patch of the airlock frame looked suspiciously flimsy.  (Am I the only guy who thought that all of the spare hab canvas looks exactly like faded visqueen?) And, in one scene, the wind makes the patch go concave into the hab.  With the 13 or so psi that all of the readouts indicate, it would seem impossible that wind could push a patch to the point of concavity.
  • FOD and I attended the film with fellow lawyer Don Crawford, who is also an active diver.  Don sad that some things about the atmosphere and the readouts made little or no sense, but we didn’t have time adequate to discuss them.

The film never blew the transmission delay between Mars and Earth in an obvious way, but it wasn’t always clear that many minutes had passed between transmission and receipt. Maybe this is brilliant, inasmuch as it lets the conversation happen in near-realtime for moviegoers who aren’t aware of the physics, but is always plausibly there for moviegoers who know about the delay.

Bottom line:  The film is very much worth seeing.  In fact, I might try to get out to see it one more time while it’s in theatrical release,  It’s that compelling and that pretty.  I think it’s going to be regarded as one of the best of the year.


Audio Episode Show Notes: River Days Airshow – Part 4 – Debrief

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These are the show notes to an audio episode. You can listen to the show audio here:

Better yet, subscribe to Airspeed through iTunes or your other favorite podcatcher. It’s all free!

We did it!  We put on a full-up airshow over the Detroit River in some of the most challenging airspace in North America. In this episode, David Allen takes the bully mic again and Dean Greenblatt (“BIRD” during the show) joins Steve to talk about what went right, what went wrong, and what’s in store for the show next year.

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 4.01.28 PMHear how we put a jet, three gliders, and lots of other aircraft up in this box and managed to do it despite low weather on Saturday, communications SNAFUs, and the fact that nobody on the crew had ever put on an airshow before.  It’s an exciting story of what can happen when a dedicated crew of volunteers gathers together to turn dinosaurs into decibels.

Many thanks to Jo Hunter for the great photos!

Airspeed Hits a Million

Airspeed MillionAs Airspeed has swung into a higher operational tempo with the recent River Days airshow episodes, I’ve had more frequent occasion to be logged into Libsyn, uploading and managing the episodes. And a funny thing happened. The odometer on downloads passed 1,000,000.

Airspeed moved to Libsyn during the second year of the show’s production.  And many episodes are served through other providers, so the real number is likely larger.  And a million is really just an arbitrary number.  But a million is a million and deserves at least this modest note.

I realize that there are shows that get that kind of exposure in weeks or months. But that’s okay. Airspeed isn’t for everyone. The show goes really deep and follows the passions of those who love to fly fast, slow, and upside down and want to understand how it’s done.  And, based on the people who flag me down or comment on the show, it reaches the people I most want to reach. Influencers, thought leaders, and  dreamers.  I couldn’t ask for a better audience. I’m talking to the people about whom I most care.

Thanks for listening and watching. There’s more where that came from!


CFI Endorsement Day

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I spent a couple of hours on Thursday in the skies over Ionia in the mighty SGS 2-33A with Lee Larder. Seven flights. I think that I’m becoming comfortable in the back seat. It’s a constant struggle to keep the tow plane above the cowl on the climb (especially when the tow plane hits sink and tries to disappear), but I’m not going to add a cushion to the seat now because I’d have to get used to a new sight picture and new muscle and inertial memory. And, as much easier as the whole thing is in the front seat, I don’t think I’d fly the ride from the front even if I had the option.

Still, I’m constantly put in mind of the Mike Meyers bit from So I Married an Axe Murderer:

We started with a tow to 2,500 to demonstrate all of the high airwork. Naturally, the dive brakes became jammed with a mixture of ice and extraterrestrial fauna, so I flew it sideways to that landing, happy with my slip and the control on the roll-out.

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Next came what I had in mind for most of the flights of the day. I’ve long been a little worried about my ability to land the glider precisely. It’s always reasonably safe, but it doesn’t always come to rest on the runway where I want it to. So we did five pattern tows to try to dial in the precision of my landings. We set up a pair of cones along the runway edge about 400 feet apart, with the idea of touching down after the first one, but coming to a stop before the second one.

The first touchdown was a little short and the second one rolled out a little long, but I was generally happy with things. I had been avoiding slamming on wheel brake out of some aesthetic sense, but Lee suggested that I throw elegance to the wind if it looked like I had too much energy in the rollout. After all, it’s an emergency maneuver and you should expect a little brute force. And, as long as the wingtips are well off the ground and you don’t have a substantial side load, there’s little chance of a ground loop. So, if the second cone appears to be advancing too quickly, I’m going to be full-on the wheel brake and I can also let the stick come forward to dump a little more weight on the skid to get it stopped.

Otherwise, I’m doing things like a real CFI candidate. Get stabilized at 60 mph in the middle of the approach cone with half to three-quarters dive brakes. Get that aim point 200 feet short of the first cone (and on the other side of Lee’s head) to hold still in the windshield. Then flare and use the rest of the dive brakes once I have the first cone made. Then throw out the anchor and hope really hard.

The last flight was a 180 abort from 200 AGL. Lee pulled the clown nose at or above 200 AGL (and after my callout) and I know that the altimeter was correct, but we sure looked low at the 135-degree point in the turn back. As a TG-7A driver, I push pretty hard and pretty long for airspeed on a 180 abort because the TG-7A is a draggy beast that loses energy prodigiously when the thrust quits. The 2033A soesn’t slow down as quickly, so waited too long to bank for the turn. I need to get the turn going sooner next time. But we made it back with no problem and I even managed to retain the right amount of energy to get it back to the start point and even taxied off to the side using rudder so there wasn’t as far to push back.

CFI 2015-05-28 03At the conclusion of flying, Lee and I went through the items I missed on the FOI and FIG knowledge tests, then he signed me off. My IACRA application had already been in for a day, so I gave him the application number and FRN so that he could approve it. And I left with all of the required endorsements in my logboog.

So it’s on the the ride!  With CAP NLOC in Atlanta coming up June 10-14 and the River Days airshow June 19-21, I’m probably going to have to do the ride this coming week or push it until after the airshow. And, if I push it, I’ll probably fly one more time with Lee before the ride. I called Carol Dehnbostl (an FIE in the West Michigan FSDO and one of the main reasons that I went to Ionia to train) and I expect to hear back from her on Monday.


Audio Episode Show Notes: River Days Airshow – Part 3 – Fast Footwork

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These are the show notes to an audio episode. You can listen to the show audio here:

Better yet, subscribe to Airspeed through iTunes or your other favorite podcatcher. It’s all free!

This is the third installment of the series that covers – in near-realtime – the events leading up to the GM Detroit River Days Airshow on the Detroit River 20-21 June 2015.  As before, David Allen of Other People’s Airplanes has taken the mic and is running the show in order to keep things moving.

In this installment, our heroes announce performers and deal with riverboats, timing changes, weather planning, and other exciting stuff.

If you’re following along at home, the lead image shows the new box configuration and the image below shows the former box for comparison.  We had to push everything back by a distance equivalent to the beam of a riverboat (62 feet), which squeezed the west end of the box down to 520 feet.  The good news is that we just abandoned the rectangular shape of the box and pushed the back of the box all the way to the Canadian border.  The border does not run parallel to the US shore, but rather dives a couple of degrees south.  Thus, the east end of the box is now 780 feet wide.  And the other good news is that the crowd is concentrated toward that end of the box.

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It also requires some fancy footwork to coordinate with the riverboat and the other large charter traffic on the river to assure that we’ll have a sterile area.

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Here’s another shot that appears in the supplementary materials for the waiver.  You can see the riverboat over there on the right-hand side of the picture and the datum line that we’re using for the whole shore.  The datum is at least 70 feet from shore at all points and the CAT III line (the closest approach of performing aircraft) is 510 feet out from there.

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 9.42.06 AMIf you really want to go inside baseball, you can see a copy of the waiver by clicking the image above.

Stay tuned.  There’ll likely be at least one more episode before the show itself.  In the meantime, you can see the River Days event page for the airshow here.  Thanks to Brad “Launchpad” Marzari for his questions submitted through Facebook.