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    Episode 328 - Embrace The Splurge - 11/26/15
    Norm is joined by Tested's Senior Science Correspondent Kishore Hari and Senior Rapid Prototyping Correspondent Sean Charlesworth to talk about NASA's announcements, Designer Con, Gear VR, and the holiest of consumer holidays: Black Friday. Plus, we give our reactions and analysis to the new Captain America: Civil War teaser trailer. Prepare for a comics knowledge bomb! That and more on this week's episode of This is Only a Test. Have a happy American Thanksgiving, everyone!
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    Building The Worlds of SyFy's "The Expanse"

    This past Monday, SyFy network released the first episode of The Expanse online, with the rest of the season airing in mid-December. It's an ambitious show--an adaptation of a popular novel series that's already on its fifth book. One of the reasons for the books' success is its realistic depiction of space travel 200 years from now. Given the conceit that mankind has invented a spacefaring technology that allows for regular travel between Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid belt, the story is about the relationships between the cultures that have formed on Mars and asteroid colonies, and their relationship with Earth. What happens when you have generations of humans living on a mining Asteroid, and Martians who are more invested in the development of their planet than the interests of Earth? Thoughtful world building makes for compelling science fiction.

    The production values of the show are impressive as well, with the need to tell an intertwining story from three very different types of environments. I got on the phone with Seth Reed, the production designer of The Expanse, to learn a bit about how set and production design contributed to that world-building.

    Thanks for chatting with us, Seth! To start things off, can you talk about the role of a production designer and what your responsibilities were in the production of The Expanse?

    Seth Reed: As the production designer, my responsibilities included designing everything that was behind or around the actors. That included all of the set decoration, scenery that we built, all the colors and fabrics and textures--pretty much the world. The props were within my department--the propmakers were pretty independent, and always are, but it all happens through the production design department. We provided all the graphics and everything that appears on those props as well.

    (Photo by: Rafy/Syfy)

    The show is set around three basic areas as we switch between the three main characters. There's Earth, Ceres Station, and outer space on board different ships. Can you talk about how you and your team built out the look of each of those locations?

    Well for Earth, we haven't really seen much of it [in the first episode]. We saw Avasarala's place, her office, but not that much. You see a few visual effects shots, which I was involved in, for setting up the look of Earth [200 years from now]. Earth is a more crowded place, with tall buildings designed with soft and geometric edges--a lot of times with points or simple spires at the top.

    Why Music is Important to Astronauts in Space

    I recently saw a video of astronaut Kjell Lindgren playing bagpipes in space. Although Lindgren appears to be a fine player, it wasn't his piping that intrigued me. I couldn't stop wondering when and how they put bagpipes on the International Space Station (ISS). I knew there was a guitar and a keyboard in orbit…but bagpipes? Those pipes had to compete against food, spare parts, and other obvious necessities to get a ride into space. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when that idea was pitched to NASA logisticians!

    The fact that NASA and its partners were willing to make it happen underscores the importance that music plays in the lives of orbiting astronauts. Whether making music in their precious spare time, or listening to music throughout their workday, having these outlets available is vital for the happiness and well-being of the astronauts orbiting above us.

    Tooting Their Own Horns

    As it turns out, there are several other musical instruments aboard ISS that I wasn't aware of. Those in the know at the Johnson Space Center informed me that in addition to the bagpipes, Larrivee acoustic guitar, and Yamaha electronic keyboard, there is also a flute, a ukulele, and an electric guitar. And that is just the permanent stash of instruments. Others have stayed temporarily and returned to Earth.

    Credit for the first musical instrument in space goes to the soprano saxophone carried aboard the space shuttle by Dr. Ron McNair in 1984. McNair normally played the tenor sax, but there was no way he could ever justify bringing the large instrument aboard. Even the diminutive soprano sax's flight status was uncertain right up until launch.

    Dr. Ron McNair plays a soprano saxophone, the first musical instrument in space, aboard the space shuttle in 1984

    McNair prepared for months in advance of his mission to adapt to the nuances of playing the smaller sax. He secretly worked with saxophone guru, Kurt Heisig, to fine tune his technique and equipment. Due to McNair's hectic training schedule and Heisig's California locale, all of their sessions took place over the phone.

    The pair anticipated that low atmospheric pressure in the shuttle's cabin could affect how the sax behaved. To compensate, McNair worked on conditioning exercises and packed a varied selection of reeds. Some unpredicted factors, however, would prove more troublesome.

    A Pocket History of Space Electronics (from Tested: The Show!)

    Meet Megan Prelinger, a cultural historian, archivist of 20th century ephemera, and the co-founder of the wonderful Prelinger Library in San Francisco. Megan has written books about the history of the space race the electronic age through the unique lens of commercial art and advertising. At our live show, Megan shared with us a pocket history of space electronics! (Promo photo courtesy of Dallis Willard.)

    9 Things We Learned From Adam Savage, Andy Weir and Chris Hadfield's Discussion of The Martian

    As his fans know well, Adam Savage loves space. He has his own spacesuits and helmets, and he wears his NASA jacket at every opportunity. So it's no surprise that Adam is friends with people who also love space — like Andy Weir, author of The Martian, now a major motion picture, and Col. Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut.

    In October 2015 the three friends came together to watch The Martian and hold a Q&A afterward. Here's the top 9 things we learned in the course of that session.

    1. If a directive is coming to an astronaut from Earth, it is really only a suggestion.

    In complimenting The Martian's depiction of astronauts vis-a-vis NASA, Chris Hadfield revealed the difference in mentality between astronauts in space and their governing bodies on Earth. "On my second flight, when I was onboard the space station, I was talking to one of the crew members, Sue Helms. In passing, she said,'Hey, Earth says we need to do this.' It was the first time I'd really seen the fundamental schism of personality between the crew and the 7 billion people on Earth."

    While you have huge respect for the expertise on the ground and you try to do everything they ask, "you have to recognize that you are a separate entity from Earth, and nobody else is actually risking their life or has actual final authority for what's happening."

    Adam Savage, Chris Hadfield and Andy Weir discuss the film The Martian. Photo Credit: Norman Chan

    2. Adam Savage has collected 600 photos of The Martian spacesuit (so far).

    Adam thinks the spacesuit, designed by Ridley Scott regular Janty Yates for the film, is beautiful, and not surprisingly, he's gathering the assets to create a replica. "I've already gotten some of the suit parts gathered and in a box labeled 'Martian spacesuit.'" And happily for Adam, the studio put one of the spacesuits from the film on display at the Arclight Cinema in Los Angeles. Between the Replica Prop Forum and Adam's friends, "I have about 600 photos saved already."

    The Robot-Arm Prosthetic Controlled by Thought

    The latest update on Johns Hopkin's Modular Prosthetic Arm, by way of Bloomberg Business: "Johnny Matheny is the first person to attach a mind-controlled prosthetic limb directly to his skeleton. After losing his arm to cancer in 2008, Johnny signed up for a number of experimental surgeries to prepare himself to use a DARPA-funded prosthetic prototype." Unlike previous versions of the prosthetic, this version is controlled through nerve signals detected on the skin, as opposed to deep neural implants.

    Meet Pleurobot, an Amphibious Salamander Robot

    We meet Pleurobot, a Salamander-like robot that can both walk on land and swim in the water (with a wetsuit!) Kishore, our new science correspondent, chats with professor Auke Ijspeert of the EPFL about how Pluerobot's movements were programmed and how biorobotics engineers studied the physiology of salamanders in making this robot.

    Paul Giamatti Experiences 'Rubber Hand' Illusion

    Actor and director Paul Giamatti is the host of a new National Geographic show "Breakthrough", which takes him around the world exploring new research in science and technology (like exoskeletons!). In this clip, he partakes in the "rubber hand" experiment, which challenges the brain's perception of its own body. It's an example of proprioceptive drift, which may have applications in virtual reality research.

    General Relativity Explained in Three Minutes

    From Fusion, author and biographer Walter Isaacson explains Einstein's theory of general relativity in just under three minutes: "One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein completed his general theory of relativity, which explains how the gravitational force works. This made Einstein an international celebrity during his time, and the theory is widely recognized as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science." (h/t Adam)

    Adam and Jamie at White House Astronomy Night

    This evening, Jamie and Adam were in Washington DC for the White House's Astronomy Night. In this clip from the livestream, they chat with scientists, astronauts, and NASA administrators (including upcoming Tested: The Show guest Dava Newman!) about what we're learning from space travel. The evening concluded with a Q&A with Jamie and Adam.

    10 Secret Places Hidden in Plain Sight of People in Big Cities

    In the era of Google Maps and a camera in every pocket, it's hard to imagine that anything can stay hidden for very long. And, in fact, the ten amazing places we're going to tell you about in this article aren't technically hidden, because we know about them (and probably some other people). But what's cool about these spots is that they're nestled away inn the middle of bustling metropolises where 99% of the residents walk by them every day without realizing it. Sometimes hiding in plain sight is the best stealth technique of them all.

    10 Things Drone Pilots Didn't Expect To See

    The hills are alive with the sound of remote-controlled aircraft. It seems like just about everywhere you look this year, there's a drone in the air. Prices have dropped to make robust, durable copters a reasonable purchase for photographers and hobbyists, and drones are flying into lots of pretty unusual places while the FAA tries to figure out how to regulate them. In this feature, we'll run down ten unmanned aircraft expeditions that brought back some unusual discoveries - some are scientifically valuable, while others are just straight up ridiculous.

    ISS Astronauts Testing RED 4K Camera

    Beautiful footage from the ISS, using a new Red Dragon camera. "Once again, astronauts on the International Space Station dissolved an effervescent tablet in a floating ball of water, and captured images using a camera capable of recording four times the resolution of normal high-definition cameras. The higher resolution images and higher frame rate videos can reveal more information when used on science investigations, giving researchers a valuable new tool aboard the space station."

    Inside NASA's Yearlong Isolation Dome

    From The Guardian: "Water has been found on Mars – but if the red planet can support life, what will it be like for any humans who go there? Six future crew members of a possible Nasa mission spend up to 12 months in confinement in a Mars-like landscape in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to work out how humans would react to long-duration space travel."

    Unexpected Things We're Genetically Engineering

    With all of the hubbub about genetically modified produce, it's easy to overlook that we've been messing with the basic structure of other living things for centuries. We can just do it quicker now. Most genetic engineering is done for fairly pedestrian reasons - making farm animals more disease-resistant or food crops tastier and more durable. And then there are the experiments out on the fringes of genetic science, where researchers do some truly twisted stuff to DNA. Let's look at ten of those, shall we?

    10 Homes That Can Survive Any Disaster

    We've watched enough movies to know that Mother Nature isn't particularly happy to have us around anymore. Whether it be earthquake, tsunami, tornado or other natural disaster, everything we've built can be wiped clean by the fickle finger of Fate. Or can it? Some bold builders have been working on houses specifically designed to withstand just about anything. Today, we'll give you a tour of ten houses that can take just about anything the Earth can dish out.

    Dissecting the Technology of ‘The Martian’: NASA’s Roadmap to Mars

    The movie edition of Andy Weir's fantastically popular sci-fi novel, The Martian, is set to hit theaters in just a few days. Although the storyline is fictional, NASA has taken a keen interest in the movie, providing consultants to Hollywood and hosting a handful of promotional events. Clearly, the agency sees something to celebrate in Weir's vision of the future for manned spaceflight.

    As we have seen in the previous articles of this series, there are numerous similarities between The Martian and how NASA actually handles things in space, such as water, air, electrical power and problem solving. In this final article we'll examine NASA's current plan for visiting Mars.

    The Hermes spaceship in 'The Martian', via 20th Century Fox

    Red Planet Ambitions

    NASA is not being secretive about their plans for putting humans on Mars as early as 2030. They've even published a website with a slew of information. Yet, any plans that project 15+ years into the future are bound to be heavy with technical and financial assumptions. As the agency moves forward, the plan will certainly evolve to match the reality of the times.

    We're finding out that Mars has a very diverse landscape. Scientists are still trying to decide where the first manned Mars expeditions will land. It is a debate that will likely linger well into the next decade. Several satellites are currently orbiting Mars and mapping its surface. Lower-resolution, broad-brush mapping images will help the scientists narrow down the field of landing site candidates. Subsequent high-resolution imagery will be used to pinpoint precise landing locations.

    MSL Curiosity's Gale Crater Landing Site.

    While many fundamental aspects of a manned Martian mission remain in limbo, the basic timeline appears to be ironed out. If you've read Weir's book, you'll notice that it follows NASA's plan nearly verbatim. It goes something like this: