Wednesday, September 20, 2006

What Took Place in Space?

These are busy times in outer space. While the first woman space tourist made her way on a Russian ship to the International Space Station, the American shuttle Atlantis was making its way towards space to drop off a 17 ton trussle and two solar arrays for use in construction at the ISS (International Space Station.) The shuttle and the six astronauts on board where scheduled to arrive back on Earth Wednesday, but certain circumstances delayed their return. This morning (9/21), before sunrise, Atlantis touched down to Earth in Florida after a successfully completing their mission.

But what caused the delayed return? What were the circumstances that went into Atlantis having to check and recheck their spacecraft 3 times before it was deemed safe for re-entry and a safe landing on Earth?

The first glitch in NASA's plan came in the early morning of September 19. Video footage filmed from Atlantis was being reviewed back on Earth when something unusual turned up on the film. There, well below the spaceship, a dark spot was seen moving at the same speed and in the same orbit as Atlantis. This object was deemed a 'mystery object' by the press and by NASA...they did not know what it was.

"The object was spotted by a flight controller who was operating the shuttle's payload bay cameras around 2:45 a.m.," a NASA spokeswoman said. Videotape replayed just before 10 a.m. showed what appeared to be a small object below the shuttle flying at roughly the same speed and in the same direction. "INCO had seen an object in the video during Earth observations and we just want to keep the KU(Atlantis video system) up and possibly downlink more video here in the near term," astronaut Terry Virts called from mission control in Houston. "We're looking at keeping it up overnight." "Ok, that makes sense. Just let us know what you want to do," an Atlantis astronaut replied. "And you don't need OCA router for all that, right? We can go ahead and tear that down?" "We'd actually like to keep the whole PGSC network up," Virts replied. So this object was of enough importance that NASA decided to keep its camera systems up and operational overnight, as opposed to the original plan of taking it down to ready for the return to Earth.

Wayne Hale is the NASA spokeman with the responsibility of talking to the public about what is happening in space. Here is what he had to say about the mystery object:"Today, as they were doing that(checking the film), they came across a very interesting object in the field of view," Hale said. "There is a very small black object, which because we moved the camera around a couple of times we know it's not one of those camera lens artifacts, it's not a piece of lint on the lens or a reflection into the camera, which we sometimes see. But there is a very small object in that picture. It is clearly co-orbital with the space shuttle (and thus travelling at speeds in excess of 17,500 km). We took a look at it and frankly there is not enough resolution ... to tell what that is. But it did get everybody's attention."

The thought was that the object was a piece of material from Atlantis. Some engineers think it could still be a small piece of plastic inadvertently left between tiles along Atlantis’ underbelly. According to Hale, “We don’t know that for sure, but it is a likely candidate,” Hale said, referring to the bit of orange plastic—known as shim stock—seen dangling from a gap between the protective heat tiles along Atlantis’ belly. The shims are spacers between heat-shield tiles, and one in particular was sticking out quite a bit early in the mission. Obviously a piece of the ship falling off could have potentially catastrophic consequences, so NASA had the astronauts meticulously check the exterior of the ship for damage. This was done using robotic arms and a 50-foot boom camera to visually inspect the ship inch by inch, especially the heat shield. Three such operations were undertaken in a 24 hour period, and none of the scans showed anything out of place on the ship. This would lead one to believe that the piece of debris was not, in fact, from the ship.

Before I go on I must say that NASA provides a live feed from Atlantis and mission control on the internet. The live video feed either comes from one of the cameras mounted on Atlantis, or from cameras at mission control, or sometimes just screenshots of charts and diagrams being used for the mission. The feed is supposedly on a one minute delay, for formatting and buffering the feed to stream in through the internet.

Now then, the story and video of the 'unknown object' became available around 10am on September 19th. All morning and into the afternoon, this was the top story on news websites such as,,,, etc. Then, around 2:30 that afternoon, news came through of more unidentified objects in space. This time, pictures were provided by a crewmember aboard Atlantis. These pictures are much more clear, with the Earth as the backdrop and little cloud cover in that area:

(All three images are of the same unknown object)

It was during the time between the first 'debris' sighting and the second that there were some unusual comments coming from the astronauts on board Atlantis. During a noon news briefing by shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale to discuss the decision to delay re-entry, shuttle commander Brent Jett radioed mission control to report the crew saw yet another object departing the area of the shuttle. "OK, we're not joking about this, but Dan (Burbank) was at window one, he looked out, he saw an object floating nearby," Jett said. "We took several pictures of it, it was fairly small. But we did get several pictures we can send down." "Did you have a time on that?" astronaut Terry Virts radioed from mission control. "It just happened." The pictures mentioned are those seen above.

Another quote of interest came from Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, the only woman astronaut on board. On the live feed from NASA she can be heard saying, "There are a lot of things up here you really can't explain...until you see them." She was speaking after the pictures were taken, but what did she mean by it? Another phrase that was audible before the pictures were taken came from an astonaut on board: "You are going to think I am crazy, but something flew past our window." The final quote of interest came from shuttle commander Brent Jett, who is a veteran of 4 missions to space, spending over 60 days in outer space. Jett tells mission control, "It doesn't look like anything I've seen outside the shuttle."

But wait...there's more. Later in the day, another strange sight was observed and recorded by NASA's 50 foot robotic boom camera. The film shows 3 or more distinct lights off in the distance. The lights were arranged in a perfect triangle(click 'smalband' to change it to 'breedband'(broadband in Dutch?), before one of the lights started to move off in a separate direction from the other two. Here is a link to a video of one such light, taken on September 19th, 2006 from on board the shuttle Atlantis: Video

NASA tried to spin off the first sighting of a 'mystery object' as simply debris from the space shuttle itself, or some piece of debris from a previous space mission. While space debris is common, the chance that NASA, NORAD, or any other agency monitoring space would mistake something like this is pretty small. U.S. Strategic Command monitors over 10,000 pieces of space debris on its own. Furthermore, after the Columbia disaster in 2003, what are the chances that NASA just leaves pieces of plastic hanging off their spaceships, or that some piece of material came off it but wasn't important?

September 19-20 was a very busy time in outer space. Yet for all the activity there, all the questions, the video and audio clues, the strange occurances...the answers provided by NASA do not measure up. Take for example the second sighting of mystery objects: Would you believe that according to NASA, those pictures show a plastic bag floating through space?

(A plastic bag in outer space? Really?!?)

Wayne Hale again gave NASA's explanation for the object, stating that "While we have not definitively put this interesting little picture to bed, there is considerable thought that it is just a plastic bag that came from somewhere and got loose." More speculation from NASA stated that the images were "perhaps a plastic filler strip, maybe a garbage bag."

To sum this up: NASA has no idea what the first object is that was spotted, they claim the second object (blue pics 1-3) is a piece of plastic or a trash bag, and they have no commented at all on the third series of sightings. When asked about the debris, Mr. Hale simply stated that there was no structural damage found on Atlantis, and that the ship would be cleared to return to Earth. He steered the conversation away from the debris because NASA has no idea what any of it is.

Other conjecture from NASA includes the possibility that the items seen are ice, particles enhanced by the camera, space debris, shuttle junk, or any combination of these things. One point to consider is this: NASA spends years hypothesizing, planning, checking, and double checking the construction of their space shuttles and their spaceflight plans. How can there be so many objects falling off and out of Atlantis?

The absolute worst thing that can happen during a mission is that the astronauts do not return to Earth. They have billions of dollars invested in these missions. How likely is it, then, to believe NASA when they say that 5 of more unknown objects, viewed through a live feed over the internet from cameras onboard, are simply pieces of the space shuttle that fell off, but are not of any importance? With all the time and money invested, would it make sense for NASA to include unnecessary pieces in the contruction of the ship? To that end, what are the chances that someone dropped a piece of plastic out of the ship or that they misplace a garbage bag. Furthermore, do those pictures even look anything remotely like a plastic bag?

The sad part of all this is the media let the story drop, taking a cue from Wayne Hale and NASA. Tuesday morning (9/19), the mystery objects were the top headline on every news website and channel in existence. And even without a believable explanation, the story isn't even included in the mission wrap-up or debriefing. Over the course of about 60 hours this story went from front page headlines to almost disappearing from sight. If you hadn't watched the news on Tuesday or Wednesday, you wouldn't have have even known this was going on. How can that be?

To most of us, space is a place of fantasy, and of little immediate concern to us on Earth. People do not cherish a shuttle launch like they may have 50 years ago. Science-fiction stories and films, especially with the technology employed by Hollywood, make outer space seem like a fantasy world. NASA is supposed to be the authority on outer space, especially the space surrounding our planet. Its understandable that they do not have a grasp on the universe, but its very unsettling when you find out they can't indentify objects right on our doorstep. The fact that NASA cannot understand what happened this week is a troubling thought. However, this is something NASA uses to its advantage, because the public does not question what the agency says. NASA employs rocket scientists, who are usually highly intelligent their word is taken as fact and truth. However, therein lies the problem...

While NASA does employ some of the brightest minds on Earth today, those minds are not responsible for disseminating the information to the rest of the world. NASA is a government agency, and therefore subject to governmental influence. Everyday around the world people report things in the sky that they cannot explain, but somehow our government can. Sometimes it is explained away by 'naturally occuring phenomena.' If something shiny is spotted in the sky, it is explained as a weather balloon. Ever heard of The Phoenix Lights? Click here to find out what this event was, click here to see video of the event: then try and match that up with the USAF's explaination that the lights were simply slow falling, long burning flares dropped by an A-10 Warthog aircraft on a training exercise over Luke AFB. (Incidentally, these flares were never reported before or since this incident.)

I do not know what those objects were in outer space, but neither does NASA; that fact alone should make you wonder about the validity of the claims they make. Most of mankind's information about space is conjecture based on theories that work on Earth. The truth is, we have no idea about anything past the moon, because thats as far as humans have travelled (that we know of). Sure, we have satellites taking pictures of Mars and the moons of Jupiter, but that only tells us about our solar system. That would be like me taking a drive around my town, then claiming that I know and understand every other place and thing on Earth. I'm not sure what NASA knows as compared to what they tell the public, but I have a feeling this week's events will prove significant. Whether or not there is life floating around Earth as I type, I cannot say. I just hope that the public takes what it has seen and heard in the past few days and push it as far as possible.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Outkast from Rap

Last week was supposed to be a big one for Outkast; all in one week their new album came out, as did their movie that went with it. Both ventures were named Idlewild, and both were disappointing from a sales standpoint. Even though it had the highest-per screen average ($6,800 per) of any movie in the top ten, Idlewild was 8th in the total box office. Their album came in at #2, but sold 300,000 less copies than their previous release, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

Now I know what you're thinking: what supergroup rose above Outkast to take the #1 spot? What megastar act built up enough steam in their first week to take the top spot from The Mighty O? Danity fuckin' Kane, Puffy's girl-group who you may be familiar with from MTV. You know the ones who fight all the time, can't sing or dance, and basically were more of a joke than a serious act? For Christ sakes, one of the bitches has a two-tone face, black and almost black. Yes America, you helped that collection of low-budget ho's, bitch wiggers and backup singers win Ghetto American Idol and top what has historically been the best selling rap group ever. Admittedly, I am a huge Outkast fan. I got hooked on ATLiens, went out and bought Southernplayalistcadillacmuzik, then was in line when the store opened for Aquemini, Stankonia, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Idlewild. Each album was different, and each had its own feel to it. That is part of who and what Outkast is. They have never put out something just for the sake of it, never bent their vision of what the album should be to garner a few mores Soundscan scans. Up until Idlewild, this approach has been tremendously successful. Each successive album outsold the previous one, starting at the platinum Southernplayalistic all the way up to the 11 x platinum (aka Diamond) Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Now, the rap world wants to throw them under the bus (insert Rosa Parks joke here.)
Let's look at this logically: most rap albums have about three to five good songs, and that's being generous. If rap artists had batting averages based on their ratio of good to bad , almost every one would be batting .200 or less. Most rap records have a few good songs hidden in a cesspool of unlistenable beats, nursery school rhymes, and dreadful skits. On any given album there are two or three songs planned to be singles, a couple okay songs that won't ever be singles, and the rest is pure, unapologetic garbage. That has never, ever been the case with Outkast.

Looking at Idlewild from a sales standpoint, this is the least popular Outkast album to date, but lets take a closer look at the product...just to see if the quality of music is to blame. Off the top we'll take away the five interludes that appear (mostly dialogue from the movie) and now we're down to 20 songs. Subtract the last five that go specifically with the movie, appealing more to those who have seen it, and you're down to fifteen. GENEROUSLY take away another five, not because the songs are bad, but because everyone has different tastes. That leaves no less than ten really good songs on Idlewild. I'm not talking radio friendly, play-me-at-the-club bullshit everyone is accustomed to; I'm talking really, really good music. There is a difference: Idlewild isn't just a collection of random songs produced by random producers with $$$ in mind. This is great music. How many rap albums can you say that about?

Idlewild's ten(+) good songs are roughly 10 more than Young Joc will ever make in his life. Any southern rap flavor of the month would be seriously overachieving if they ever made 3 memorable songs in their careers. I dare you to go through your ipod and find me a recent rap record that has 10 really good songs. You would have a better chance of finding Noah's Ark sitting upon the ruins of Atlantis as the Loch Ness Monster swims around the island with Bigfoot on its back. I guess I'm just disappointed with America in general for letting this sort of thing take place. Before the albums were released, I would have said there was more chance for a Beatles reunion than for Outkast to be outsold by a broke-ass interracial Spice Girls knockoff. Great music is often swept under the rug because its different, and people are afraid of change. Most times, in music, film, literature, etc. the creators of the art strive for perfection, and while they fall short it still can lead to great achievements. Rappers don't want to go out on a limb and change things up, because they can make much more money being uninspiring and unorginal.

The only positive to this situation is there are only so many ways you can describe drinking, smoking, and banging groupies. I am actually surprised it has gone on this long. Sometimes the only creative thing a rapper will do is invent a new way to describe getting high or getting head. I know money is the root of all evil, and now it is the root of almost all music. While I'm throwing around cliches, what goes up must come down. Ten years from now, Young Joc will be watching a VHS tape of his appearance on Cribs from the basement of his grandma's, wondering how he lost his stream of revenue and wasted all his money. Maybe then he'll sell a dime bag and go pick up Idlewild so he can understand what while jewelry, big talk and cars can make you money, it can't make you good music.