I can’t seem to stick to a regular schedule for this newsletter, mostly due to the ongoing nature of my jobs. For example, I’m currently sitting in a hut-hotel in Rwanda, on a feature documentary. It took two days to get here, so as my friend Tony said: “that was quite a commute,” and you’ll read about it all soon enough. Is that an excuse?
Anyway, I’ve been working with Film45 and Blue Origin for several years now, starting back before there was even a paved road from the highway to the launch site. Last year, I was invited to consult on the in-capsule recording of the human astronauts and helped design those final methods and protocols which are in use today. As you’ll see, sending stuff and people into space is a cumbersome endeavor, requiring testing, careful planning, and proper menu choices. But before I get into the sound report side of both successful and scrubbed launches, I thought we could dip a toe into these waters and begin with a more recent test of some critical components.
Project: Blue Origin // Fairing Test
Location: Milan, Ohio
Cast of Characters:
Carly - Producer
Patrick - Director of Photography
Roan - Assistant Camera
January 19, 2022
Evil Hideout Flappy Chicken
We are in the great state of Ohio, land of my birth, land of Superman. The Buckeye state. A place where a person can be whatever they want to be, go to sea on Lake Erie, and build for themselves a great enterprise of life. They can also find themselves in Milan, the frozen doorstep of Sandusky, the vestibule of Cedar Point, the green room of nowhere. More to the point, Patrick noted this morning that he's sure he's been here before, but couldn't place a time or a date to it; it all looks so familiar to everywhere else he's ever been. It's like the smell of funnel cake, or raw cut onions. That smell if you've ever been in a bakery. The smell of warm bread fresh from the oven. The smell of three-day-old bread. All of them smell of something. That's a superpower of some kind.
But we're here on serious business, a mission, a fairing test to be exact. So, we arrived yesterday and built up our gear in a super-sized room at the Hampton Inn and Suites, just off the highway and across the road from some kind of petroleum storage facility that at times makes the air pungent with the scent of decay, a heavy odor that reminds me of the smell of a car on the freeway with the windows rolled down after you've steered into the back of someone else's car that's been sitting out all night at a stoplight. Anyway, I had a delightful suitcase dinner of pre-packaged Indian food and Turmeric rice while Pat and Roan ventured to something called "Danny Boy's." I think they said it was "okay." I think it was pizza. There's a lot of pizza around here. Does that count as "ethnic" food?
This morning I rose early, my first day on the road in 2022, determined to get a fresh start on the day, and forced myself to exercise in the room. That was hard. Was my Peleton coach snickering at me as I grunted through thirty seconds of mountain climbers? Apparently, he makes "suggestions" while I made "decisions." Afterward, I celebrated with another suitcase meal of organic instant oatmeal, blackberries, and yogurt. Yes, today was going to be a great day in a great state that produces great people. And feeling so great, I strode outside and was immediately blasted by the frigid air. Bring it on!
We rolled out to the Armstrong Test Facility, which would be completely unremarkable save for the fact that it looks exactly like EVERY sinister government lab building from EVERY sci-fi show I've EVER seen, complete with a giant concrete dome, a smokestack, and a flat-roofed 1950's building. It was amazing, especially with the snowy desolate tundra-like surroundings and the miles of barbed wire fencing. You really can't make these things up. Meanwhile, inside, it was updated for the most part. But the basement was like a time capsule - the faded green paint on the walls, the orb-like ashtray attached to the wall next to the elevator, the chrome handrails on the stairs. It was like I remembered visiting the Hayden Planetarium as a kid. And what with wires and pipes going everywhere.
Anyway, what's a fairing? Well, I'm glad someone asked because I had no idea and I'm even happier that Shawna, Cassandra, and Park know so much about it! Turns out it's the section of the rocket that carries the payload, the satellite, the whatever you want to haul into orbit. So, it's pretty important that you make this thing reliable so it won't destroy like a billion dollars when it opens up in space. And when I say "open up" I mean all the ordinance attached to the seams explodes in the correct way. And no, there's no sound because it's a vacuum. So, today was when they were to test it and make sure it separates correctly in a space-like environment. And that giant dome - that's a vacuum chamber, and it's gigantic. NASA tested Skylab in there!
As we were packing out of the bay, I remembered that as a kid, I was fascinated by Skylab... I thought it was an enormous construction project in space, and that it would be visible to the naked eye. In fact, it was the first US space station, and yet, Skylab was a planet forever on the verge of collapsing. It fell to Earth before we got the space shuttle working. It had a name. It had an existential crisis. It had a tragic end.
I was then brought back to the present when lunch arrived from Panera. Somehow we all ordered the same thing - Greek salads with chicken! Another good sign. Carly declared that she could survive on Greek salads. I mostly agree with that plan, but I have also had some truly terrible ones along the way. But then again, I'm still alive, so perhaps the logic is correct. I could survive as well. As for this one, I thought it was of the higher-order, perhaps even in the lower Pantheon. The ingredients were fresh, the dressing tangy, and it wasn't overpowered by any one item.
In a dissenting opinion, Patrick outlined his thoughts on the chicken. "Mediocre," "slimy, flimsy, and flappy." Roan backed him up calling the chicken to be akin to "Tofurky." Okay, it was bland, but I did not expect anything more than a protein condiment. I mean, at this point in the evolution of fast-casual food, chicken is the egg of meat. I wouldn't say it was moist as in juicy, but it was moist as in chewy. Carly parried saying that she liked the dressing although she may have overdressed the second half of the dish. then we got into a discussion on the pitfalls of having the dressing pool at the bottom of the bowl, leaving the eater with an abundance of acid, a pond of sourness, a failed end to an otherwise adequate epicurean sojourn. The bread was good. Patrick cut up the brownie with his Leatherman, like a pioneer. Roan thought the lemon cookie was too sweet. Carly may soon join the Panera Sip Club.
Then it was go time, and Patrick and I went into the observation room for the test. As Shawna went through the steps one by one, conferring with NASA at every juncture, I imagined her hand hovering over the big red button that fired the ordinance. The pulse generators were online. And then the command came: "NASA, play Rocket Man," and Elton John filled our ears with hope and love and yearning. Then the button was pressed and as if pulled apart by the hands of the almighty, the fairing was separated cleanly, each half flexing and warping safely away from the payload envelope. A success.
We venture into the chamber tomorrow!
January 20, 2022
The sun was already up by the time I hit the thin excuse for a yoga mat atop my carpeted hotel room floor. Post-covid exercise seems harder than necessary, but my Peleton coach told me to "not be average," and so I squeezed out another push-up while contemplating the salary of the textile designer tasked with coming up with the soil-distracting patterns for said flooring. It's a career, and someone out there does it. Do you design for vomit, coffee stains, or just tracked-in dirt and mud? What I see are green circley-spirals atop a subtle grid of alternating browns.
Leah and Carly both remarked on the ten-degree drop in temperature, but as my jacket decided to give up the zipper ghost this trip, it all felt the same to me as we loaded into the vehicles. I had hoped for one more season out of it, and if I can fix the zipper, then perhaps frugality will claim the day. Last night there was an outing to "The Samurai" which I gathered was like an off-brand Benihana, which also may be a chain because I remember my wife telling me that in Pittsburgh she used to request to go to a Japanese steakhouse that went by the same name. So, okay, surely there were men from Japan who had moved to the US and brought their skill of cooking food on a grill with them. And just as surely, these men wandered the midwest (side note - my wife insists that Pittsburgh is not in the midwest - discuss) and put on shows for anyone who would pay for the pleasure, wowing their customers with onion volcanos and other hibachi pyrotechnics. But I digress. Patrick said it was "Nice." I dined en suite again, plating the finest tinned mackerel atop fresh field greens, and dressed with packets of lemon juice, salt, and pepper (aka Suitcase Dinner #2). As an appetizer, I had some dill Havarti cheese and a glass of pinot noir. In the words of Jeff Smith, the disgraced television chef formerly known as "The Frugal Gourmet," it was "Glorious."
Over at the Armstrong Test Facility and at the behest of an unseen, cinematic hand, a black helicopter banked overhead. Simply coincidence, or was this an indication that NASA was moving forward with its plan to control the world? Inside, and more to the mundane, I realized there may be a branding issue that NASA ought to correct. The place has too many names! It's the Space Environments Center, The Space Power Facility, The Glenn Research Center, etc... I'm probably wrong about this, and there's probably a hierarchy at play, but as a layman, it's all a bit confusing. But who am I to question the motives of these almighty space gods? What am I, but an insignificant speck of dust in the galaxy – a mere roadie with a bag of microphones. But then again, I'm not the customer here - I'm just a time traveler with a sound mixer.
Back in the high bay, the doors to the vacuum chamber were open and we marveled at the fairing, now the largest object to ever be tested in there. And that includes all the filming for the "Avengers" movies that took place in and under the chamber because those test my ability to care about... anything. The fairing was speckled with polka dots for image tracking purposes and the scale of it was finally put into real perspective. It's massive and it's beautiful. Like two perfect halves of an interstellar egg, a veil and a vessel, as luminous and holy as a dazzlingly black and white image of a pigeon on a sunny, blue, and white-rimmed day. Shawna took us around the chamber, and pointed out all the components, the frangible joint assembly, the pusher springs, the access hatches, and the absorption blankets. We debated the use of the word "explode" versus "detonate."
Then, with the fairing in the background, Shawna told us how yesterday was the highest point in her career, which started with an interests test in high school. My mind then drifted back and I remembered that when I was in middle school, I too once wanted to be an aerospace engineer. I loved to draw rockets and all the inner workings, modules, engines, and imagined payloads. But in high school, for some reason, I was never able to get into a mechanical drawing class, or a creative writing class, for that matter. Then, one day, I met an actual aerospace engineer who told me how you could spend your whole life designing the tip of a wing. Well, that didn't sound so awesome. Meanwhile, I was meh at math but good at logic. So perhaps that type of engineering wasn't my path anyway?
To close it all out, Larry, our NASA guide and minder, then turned on the high-intensity lights, and just like in the movies, the fairing shone bright white, and it blazed like a tiny star against the gray backdrop of the Vacuum Chamber. Once again, it was glorious. And then the workers fired up the boom lifts and deftly maneuvered around the fairing parts like insects around a great mother hive jewel. I was impressed by their exactitude with such bulky machinery and was stunned by the thickness of the doors used to seal off the chamber.
Back at the hotel we wrapped the gear and were treated to a later lunch from our old standby, Panera. Like an addict, I got the same thing - the Greek salad with chicken. It was on brand, same great taste, same flappy chicken. In other words, Glorious.
Also Of Interest
As some of you may know, I’ve been interested in making a movie about a particular art forgery since I was fifteen years old. So, stories like this interest me greatly.
I’ve written about OpenAI’s DALL-E, which is amazing. But what it does to Waffle House is next level.
Steampunk. Cyberpunk. How about Solarpunk.
Hate email while on vacay? Get a horse.
Now Listening To
Rainbow Power - Space Echo
I just did a great shoot on a very excellent doc series I’ve been mixing that involved the recreation of a rent party in a brownstone. There was a DJ, dancing, and musicians - it was a blast. I kept the vibe going all week with this:
All good thoughts,
Glorious. Re Pgh & the Midwest: a preponderance of Pittsburghers don't actually know where they are. Many simply do not Feel midwestern and so the disconnect. What matters is that you and I know it's the freakin' Midwest ; )