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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."

    Ryan Nagata's Space Suit Replicas

    Adam isn't the only replica prop builder obsessed with spacesuits. At the recent Replica Prop Forum showcase, we met Ryan Nagata, a propmaker and independent director who collaborated with Adam on his Mercury suit, and made his own Apollo-era spacesuit as well. Every part of Ryan's suits is an original fabrication, and the suits are wearable!

    Dissecting the Technology of 'The Martian': Water

    Andy Weir's novel The Martian has struck a chord with an audience of readers that extends far beyond the traditional sci-fi demographic. I think that part of the book's broad popularity stems from the fact that Weir never leaps too far ahead of the current human condition. This makes his storyline approachable for readers who would normally dismiss the sci-fi genre as too fantastical, myself included.

    Much of what grounds the story is the technology that is referenced throughout. There are no Zenon alien zappers or antimatter toothbrushes. In fact, many of the systems found on Weir's imaginary Martian outpost are actually in use on the International Space Station (ISS) today. Weir sometimes extrapolates the capabilities of these systems into the future, but he invariably remains faithful to the science at their core.

    Water is a tremendously valuable commodity in space. The ISS contains numerous systems aimed at getting the most out of every drop.

    This is the first in a short series that will examine a few of these real-life space systems that are referenced in The Martian. The intent is not to compare any differences between the actual components and Weir's versions. What would be the point? Although he aimed for (and largely achieved) technical accuracy, Weir had creative license to write about death rays powered by peanut butter if he chose. So there's no point in splitting hairs. Rather, the goal here is simply to provide greater insight into the life-sustaining systems that that are referenced in the book and relied upon by astronauts and cosmonauts every day.

    Today, we'll discuss the use and recycling of water in manned space missions.

    Astronauts on ISS to Eat Veggies Grown in Space

    My biggest takeaway from the two videos we did with Commander Hadfield in 2013 about eating in space is that fresh produce is one of the astronauts most precious commodities. From cosmonauts chomping into raw onions to astronauts snarfing apples sent up in resupply missions, getting a bite of crisp food is a high point for most long-duration astronauts. Right now, those bites are limited to the few days after the arrival of a resupply mission since the station lacks food refrigeration facilities.

    That's about to change. The Veggie plant growth system has been used to grow leafy greens and flowers on orbit since May 2014. The first crop was returned to earth for safety analysis last year, and astronauts have gotten the go-ahead to chow down on half of the most recent crop (the other half will be sent back to Earth for analysis). I believe this marks the first time humans have eaten food grown on-orbit while still on-orbit. This is an awesome step toward figuring out how to grow food in space and a problem we must solve before we can make it to Mars and points beyond with manned missions.

    Smithsonian Launches Kickstarter to Conserve Neil Armstrong's Spacesuit

    The Smithsonian Institution just launched a Kickstarter campaign in hopes in raising funds to conserve and digitize the spacesuit Neil Armstrong wore on Apollo 11. It's seeking $500,000 for this "Reboot the Suit" project, which isn't covered by its federal appropriations. The suit currently resides in museum storage, in fragile condition--the project would include building a climate-controlled display case to protect the suit for public display, as well as digitizing it using multiple scanning technologies (as part of the Smithsonian X 3D initiative). Half a million is a lot to raise for this project, but the campaign could be a way for the museum to get press to reach private donors. If the money isn't raised, the suit would stay in storage, which would be a bummer come 2019 and the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing.

    In Brief: Five Interesting Things Today

    After a week-long exhale from Comic-Con, we're back to a regular schedule and looking forward to upcoming events, product testing, and more projects! Here are some stories currently sitting my browser tabs that I thought were worth sharing. First, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced that he would be spending $100 million over the next ten years to amp out the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Steven Hawking's on board. I also enjoyed this NPR story about the research into the curious sound of screaming. Windows 10 comes out in a week, and Microsoft has released an invite-only beta of its Cortana app for Android--Arstechnica has tested it. Boingboing's exploration of vintage Star Wars clothing collecting strikes a chord. And the best custom LEGO build in recent memory may be David Szmandra's enormous RC construction crane. "Massive erection" indeed.

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    In Brief: After 10 Years, a New Portrait of Pluto

    As I'm sure you've heard, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft made its flyby past Pluto this morning, passing within 7,770 miles (12,500 kilometers) of the dwarf planet's surface. The trip took almost 10 years, and netted us invaluable data about our solar system, including a highest resolution color photo taken of Pluto. Yep, that's Pluto's real color. Data from New Horizons is coming back at about 1kb/s, so it's going to take a while for the next series of images to come through. NASA's New Horizons team just finished a Reddit AMA where they answered a ton of questions about the mission.

    Photo Gallery: Adam Incognito with Astronaut Chris Hadfield

    Here are some photos I took of Adam and Commander Chris Hadfield prepping for their Comic-Con incognito walk, roaming the convention show floor, and randomly bumping into "The Martian" author Andy Weir! You can actually see the exact moment when Andy realizes that the two 2001: A Space Odyssey astronauts must be Adam and Chris!

    10 Awesome NASA Space Projects Of The Near Future

    For a while there, it was looking like America was sort of giving up on space. Economic issues here on the ground made it tough to fund all of the cool things we wanted to do, but a new combination of private investment, technological advancement and a public desire to see more of our glorious universe seems to have lit a fire under the agency’s behind. If you haven’t been keeping track, NASA has a lot of cool stuff coming up. Here’s our guide to ten cool things they hope to get off the ground soon.

    NASA’s Super Guppy–Awkward, Old, and Irreplaceable

    When it comes to airplanes, I have a soft spot for the rare and unusual. If an airplane looks like it shouldn't even be capable of flight…all the better. NASA's Super Guppy cargo plane meets all of those qualifications. I've seen it fly many times, and I was even able to explore its interior once. Yet, it never fails to leave me scratching my head in slack jawed bewilderment. It is a tremendously unique aircraft with an equally unique history.

    Flight – Lacking power-boosted controls, the Super Guppy requires a lot of pilot muscle to fly. (NASA image)

    Genesis of the Super Guppy

    The Super Guppy did not emerge from a clean drawing board. It is actually a mishmash of parts from several airplanes, along with a few custom pieces holding it all together. Some of those parts are from WWII-vintage designs. Despite its "Frankenplane" structure and relative age, the Super Guppy continues to do things that no other airplane in NASA's fleet can do. Indeed, few aircraft anywhere in the world can match this bulbous machine's ability to haul oversized cargo.

    Before dissecting the makeup of NASA's current Super Guppy, it is worth reviewing the genealogy of aircraft that spawned it. As the story goes, aircraft salesman Lee Mansdorf and his friend, Jack Conroy conceived the "Guppy" idea in 1960 as an opportunity to provide logistical support to America's fledgling space program – even though NASA wasn't looking for help.

    The nose of NASA's Super Guppy swings open to allow loading into the cargo area. (NASA image)

    The manufacturers building spacecraft components were located all over the US. The only reasonable means to get these parts from one coast to the other was via ship travelling through the Panama Canal – an expensive and risky journey that could take weeks. Mansdorf and Conroy felt that air transport would be a much better method. Although there were airplanes capable of lifting the necessary weight, none were large enough to accommodate the girth of these loads. The industrious pair felt that they had a solution.

    UrtheCast Camera Footage from the ISS

    UrtheCast, a satellite imaging startup, operates two massive Iris cameras mounted on the International Space Station to capture pretty incredible footage. Objects a meter in size are visible, and software compensates for the movement of the ISS above Earth. The company, which plans to sell its video and data to companies and the government, has promised to stream live video from its cameras to the public next month.