In 1995, Ron Howard made a film which provides a fictionalized account of NASA's ill-fated Apollo 13 mission to the moon in 1970, called appropriately enough, Apollo 13. The screenplay was based on the book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage Of Apollo 13 which was co-written by Jeffrey Kluger and Jim Lovell, the mission's commander. In the film, Lovell is played by Tom Hanks, and the excellent cast is rounded out by Gary Sinise, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxon, and Ed Harris. Paxton and Bacon play Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, the other two members of the Apollo 13 crew. Sinise is Ken Mattingly, who was originally supposed to go on the mission but was replaced by Swigert after he was exposed to the measles virus.
As most know, three days into the moon mission disaster occurs when one of Apollo 13's oxygen tanks explodes, emptying into space and damaging the other tank which begins leaking. This prompts the famous line, "Houston, we have a problem." It also makes it necessary to abort the moon mission, as it's doubtful that they'll even have enough air to make it back to earth from where they are. It is necessary to abandon the Apollo and move to the lunar module Aquarius for the trip back. Besides the dwindling supply of oxygen, they also have to worry about the cold- not just its physical effects, but what problems ice forming on instruments will cause. They also have to figure out how to restart the command module's cold engine to reenter the earth's atmosphere.
As the drama plays out in space, one also plays out on the ground as the scientists at NASA scramble to come up with solutions to the rising carbon dioxide levels and the engine problems, using only the items which they know the astronauts have on board with them. They are fiercely determined not to give up the men as lost, despite the seemingly insurmountable difficulties.
The third front which the movie depicts is that of the families of the Apollo astronauts who gather together to watch the coverage and offer each other what comfort they can. The life and death struggle which is occurring far above the earth has people all over the western world transfixed, but for these few the drama is intensely personal and potentially tragic.
As time and oxygen runs dangerously low, the tension is ratcheted up both on the ground and in space as the module hurtles towards the earth. When it becomes known that the three men have survived reentry and their landing in the Pacific, cheers of relief and triumph break out in the control room of NASA, which moments before had been tense and preternaturally silent. The families of the three astronauts are perhaps less exuberant but very obviously overcome with relief and joy.
Galaxy Quest is the 1999 comedy which is a parody of science fiction TV shows (Star Trek). It stars Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Tony Shaloub, Sigourney Weaver, Sam Rockwell, and Daryl Mitchell as the cast members of a long-cancelled space show entitled Galaxy Quest. It has become a cult classic and the actors find themselves typecast and, unable to get roles outside the genre, mostly getting by on what they make from public appearances and fan conventions. As it turns out the Thermians- an alien race- have been watching reruns of the show from afar and, having no concept of fiction, believe Galaxy Quest to be news reports. The Thermians are currently being hunted and eiminated by a group led by Sarris, a ruthless alien warlord; they decide to travel to earth and, using holographic projection to disguise themselves as human, convince the heroes of Galaxy Quest to save them from their enemy. The problem is, of course, that the Galaxy Quest crew are actually a bunch of washed-up, embittered actors who merely played heroes on TV. Galaxy Quest is a really fun- and funny- send up of science fiction and its fans and has been embraced as such by them. This is because, while it pokes fun at the genre and those who obsess over it, the film is never mean spirited about it. Galaxy Quest comes off not as malicious mockery, but as good natured ribbing, laughing with the fans, not at them.
This image is from Robert Heinlein's 1958 science fiction novel Have Spacesuit- Will Travel. It was the last of Heinlein's "juveniles" and was nominated for a Hugo award the following year. In the novel, the protagonist Kip, a high school student, enters a competition to win an all-expense paid trip to the moon. Unfortunately, he comes in second and his prize is an old, decommissioned space suit. Though disappointed, Kip works at restoring the suit- he calls it Oscar-to working order. Needing money for college, Kip decides to sell Oscar but takes a good-bye night walk in the space suit, idly transmitting on Oscar's radio for fun. To his shock, he receives an answer from someone named "Peewee" and a space ship appears overhead, having homed in on his radio signal. A young girl in a space suit and a vaguely cat-like alien flee from the ship but are pursued by a hideous worm-faced alien who quickly captures both of them and Kip as well. Kip, still wearing Oscar, finds himself imprisoned on the ship and headed for outer space, along with Peewee the precocious preteen girl, and the gentle cat-like alien she calls the "Mother-thing".
I recently read Rocket Boys, which is the first of four memoirs written by NASA engineer Homer Hickam, Jr. Published in 1998, it details his high school years in a coal town in West Virginia when he and a group of friends formed an amateur rocketry club. The book became a bestseller and in 1999 was made into a movie entitled October Sky. After its success, Hickam's memoir was republished under this title as well. Inspired by the Russian's Sputnik in 1958 and the resulting space race, Homer takes up designing and building rockets with a few like-minded friends. This is far from easy, since there are few resources for them to draw on. With little money, equipment, or information, they rely on trial and error and for a long time, it's mostly error. Their (sometimes disastrous) attempts are frequently met with mockery and/or hostility from their peers and community. Yet they stubbornly keep on with their efforts, and each rocket goes a little higher, lasts a little longer. Eventually their perseverance pays off, and they end up taking their rocketry project to a national science fair.
Rocket Boys is also the story of a dying coal town. Built up around the mine- its name is Coalwood- the town at the beginning of the book is a bustling, busy place with two interests: coal and football. But the mine is no longer producing as it had in the past, and it's becoming obvious that eventually, in the not-too-distant future, it's going to go under. And when the mine fails, the town will die. As Homer's teen years pass by, the mine undertakes a number of cost-saving initiatives including lay-offs and cut hours, but this is merely delaying the inevitable. Some of the townspeople realize this, while others are living in denial. Most of the high school students are forced to face the reality of the situation as it becomes clear that the business which has employed generations of their families is not going to provide them with jobs. For most of the miners' kids, the only way out is getting a scholarship, either for sports or academics. Of course, for many this isn't possible; Homer relates an incident where two of his classmates ask him if, after he's made it into NASA, he'll try to find them employment. Despite the increasingly bleak outlook- or perhaps because of it- the town gradually gets behind their once despised "Rocket Boys". People begin gathering to watch their launches, teachers find them books on rocketry, miners who put in long shifts at the mine spend hours of their own time building pieces the boys need for their rockets, and their triumphs are now celebrated as much as their failures used to be mocked. Perhaps the people of the town, stuck in their rather grim reality, see in those rockets rising to heights beyond their view hope for a better and brighter future. Or maybe, as the town fails, it becomes more and more important for everyone that they have this one success.
In Rocket Boys, Homer also provides a look at life with his disfunctional family. Homer- called Sonny by his family because he's named after his father- seems to have nothing in common with the man except his name. His father is the mine foreman and coaches the local football team; he has a hard time relating to his younger son who is studious, unathletic, and plays in the school band. He is closer with Sonny's older brother Jim, who is a star football player and popular jock. Homer's mother on the other hand encourages his rocketry endeavors or, at least, doesn't actively discourage them, merely telling him "Don't blow yourself up." Perhaps partially because of these parental attitudes, the two brothers don't get along and actively resent each other. The relationship between their parents is also strained. Homer Sr. is completely devoted to the mine: always there and, when he's not, always on call should he be needed. He is in the early stages of lung disease from working in the mine though he denies it and refuses to step down or even cut back his working hours. His wife, Elsie, hates the mine and refuses to accept that her husband couldn't find another job. She constantly threatens to leave and go live elsewhere away from coal country. Part of the reason she encourages Sonny is that she is determined that he will never go down into the mine.
It's odd, but in the first part of Rocket Boys, Elsie seemed like the more sympathetic of the two parents, but as time and the book went on, I started to actively dislike her and gain more respect for Homer, Sr. I can certainly understand Elsie not being happy about the mine and its effect on her husband's health and not wanting her sons to follow in his footsteps. But she married a miner and, being from a mining family herself, knew what that entailed, for better or worse. Yet she never seems to make an effort to make the best of it. Instead, her actions always seem selfish and self-serving... even her encouragement of Sonny sometimes feels like just one more way to get back at her husband. At one point, angered by Homer Sr.'s continued refusal to give up mining, Elsie withdraws from the family for months, staying in her room- which she doesn't share with her husband- and leaving her sons to fend for themselves, get themselves off to school, get their own meals, etc. It also turns out that for years, Elsie has been secretly taking some of the money Homer gives her to run the house and investing it, until she has quite the nest egg. Is she saving this money to help her sons get an education? No- without telling anyone, she's used it to buy a cottage in another State. When she eventually tells Homer about it, she informs him that she intends to move there. He's welcome to come with her, she says, but she's moving there regardless of what he does. Eventually, after the boys have gone off to university she does so, leaving her husband behind; he joins her there when he gets too sick to work any longer.
Homer Sr.'s inability to connect with his younger son is sad and frequently frustrating. Yet as time goes on it becomes clear that he is supporting Sonny's efforts in his own, undemonstrative way. He frequently- if grudgingly- gets Sonny the things he needs for rocket building, or turns a blind eye when some of his men pilfer company supplies for parts for the rockets. Sonny has a teenage boy's need to make his father proud but for most of the book it's obvious that he believes himself to be a disappointment to him. It's therefore a very important event when Homer Sr. turns up to watch their final rocket launch. The boys talk him into launching the rocket himself and, as it lifts off, we see for almost the first time an understanding between father and son. As Homer Sr. watches with amazement and delight, the rocket gains speed and altitude, disappearing from view and he and Sonny are, temporarily at least, united in their wonder and appreciation for what the Rocket Boys have achieved. I really enjoyed Homer Hickam Jr.'s memoir; he's a talented writer and the book is much more than just an account of rocket building in the early days of space exploration. It also provides a picture of growing up in a small coal town which is slowly declining, and shows that relationships, familial or otherwise, can be just as complicated and fraught with difficulty as rocket science.
Last night we watched Sense And Sensibility, the 1995 movie adapted from Jane Austen's 1811 novel of the same name. It stars Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood, Kate Winslet as her younger sister Marianne, Hugh Grant as Elinor's awkward suitor Edward Ferrars, and Alan Rickman as Col. Brandon. This is a really good Austen film, and kudos to Emma Thompson who wrote the screenplay (for which she won an Oscar). It sticks pretty close to the book, with some exceptions, and is very well cast. Thompson is much older than Elinor is in the novel, but this is not the end of the world and she does a very creditable job portraying her levelheaded character. The film is on one level about the lives and loves of the Dashwood sisters. It is also, however, a study of the differences in the way Elinor and Marianne deal with these things. Elinor's cautious and prudent behaviour is contrasted with Marianne's impulsive, feelings-based responses. We are invited to decide for ourselves which is the better approach.
On Friday I had a really stressful day at work and left at five o'clock tired, out of sorts, and with a tension headache which I couldn't get rid of despite taking several Advil over the course of the afternoon. While on my way home, one of my sisters called and said that some of the family was getting together at another sister's house for an impromptu dinner. Despite feeling worn to a frazzle I went and was able to unwind under the influence of good food, good conversation, and the antics of my nephews. After supper we drove down to the waterfront in Eastern Passage, walked along the boardwalk, and got some ice cream. Walking in the crisp sea breeze with a two scoop cone of Oxford Blueberry, the last twinges of my headache faded away completely. Thank goodness for family and ice cream! Below is the ice cream song from Anne of Green Gables: The Musical. I saw it in Charlottetown, PEI years ago and of all the songs in it, this is the one that sticks in my head:
Speaking of family and odds & ends...or odds, anyway... my brother-in-law (the one with nine kids) finished the laundry the other day and, feeling ambitious, told the kids to bring all their odd socks so he could try to match them up...
Lastly, I'm going to try something a little different: having a themed week (or two). Recently, purely by coincidence, I found myself watching a couple of movies set in space while at the same time being immersed in a book about the space race. I was also watching some Star Wars: TOS. Since I was accidentally following a theme, I thought I might have a go at doing it on purpose. So, for the next little while, I'm going to be reviewing/discussing some space-based works of fiction and nonfiction.