Phil's Los Angeles Adventure
One of the best perqs of my job is that I get to travel to fun places. Well, not everyplace I go is fun, and it isn't always such a perq, but sometimes things work out better than I hope. This happened when I went to Los Angeles in March of 2003.
I was invited to give a public talk at the California State University at Northridge (CSUN), which is a sister school to my own Sonoma State University. The talk would be part of their "Distinguished Lecture" series (clearly, they didn't know me very well). Since CSUN is in LA, I figured I would try to see if I could get some other gig in the area.
I called my friend Tami. She works at Dryden Flight Research Center, a NASA center north of LA in the desert. She does a lot of educational work there, putting on teacher workshops, developing activities for students, and anything else that can help people understand what NASA does in aerospace research.
Tami and I bump into each other at educational conferences, and the last time we met she gave me a standing invitation to come down to Dryden to give a talk. When I called her, I collected on that offer, and she agreed.
Then I had an interesting thought. Years ago, I met a man named Andre Bormanis, who is a writer for Star Trek, and now works on the show "Enterprise". We have exchanged emails over the years, talking about astronomy and Trek. He also gave me a standing invitation to visit the set next time I was in LA. I called him, and he said sure, come on down. I couldn't believe it! After some manipulating of schedules, I was able to get all three visits organized; Dryden on Wednesday, March 12, Trek the next day, and CSUN on Friday. I couldn't believe my luck!
Dryden Flight Research Center
The visit to Dryden was extremely cool. I stayed with Tami and her husband Ed the night before, and they also had over an old friend named Kerr. We had to get up at 4:45 a.m., since it's an hour and a half drive to Dryden from her house. The drive is mostly through desert, which was eerie and beautiful.
When we got there, Tami immediately went to work. She planned a teacher workshop around my visit, and she had her hands full. 55 teachers had signed up, an unusually high number. The day would consist of an intro to Dryden and the educational facilities there that the teachers could use, a tour of the grounds, my Moon Hoax talk, and a workshop where they would learn about more activities (including one my group at SSU developed).
Since we got up so early, my first mission was to acquire some coffee. Tami showed us where the kitchenette was, but there was hardly any coffee left. An older gentleman came up, and I told him the coffee was out, and I didn't feel comfortable rooting around looking for supplies. He laughed and set about making more coffee. I thanked him and went on my way. I didn't think anything of the encounter, but later Tami clued me in that the man was none other than legendary test pilot Bill Dana! He flew on the X-15 as well as countless other military planes and rocket planes. That was the first of many extremely cool things I was about to experience.
We then went to the building where pilots train to use the ejection seats in their planes. A great guy named Bob McElwain showed us the facility. He took us into a back room which had some explosives in it (to power the ejection seats) and we had to touch a copper strip to get rid of any static electricity in our bodies. That was a bit sobering. We also took a look at some mock-ups of ejection seats, while Bob regaled us with stories of his encounters training pilots over the years, including Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier.
The next stop was the coolest of the day: the F-18 jet hangar. Inside the hangar were several of the planes that NASA uses for atmospheric research. My first impression was how beautiful they were, and sleek. Then I realized they were a lot bigger than I was expecting. Kerr remarked that the hangar looked like a car showroom. He turned to me and asked "Do you have any in blue?"
Ed asked Bob McElwain how old the planes were, and surprisingly, some of them are twenty years old or more. McElwain told us that one used to be flown by the Blue Angels! When he told us that, I turned to Kerr and said, "Hey! I guess they really do have one in blue."
After the F-18s, we went to a flight simulator to see what it was like to fly a jet. The setup was incredible; while the graphics may be somewhat primitive, the controls were amazingly responsive and realistic, thanks to a Silicon Graphics Onyx 10000 computer grinding away to run the simulation. The jets are fantastically powerful; I was "cruising" at six or seven thousand feet, then hit the throttle and pulled back on the stick; in a few seconds I was at 20,000 feet. Had I been in a real jet, I probably would have blacked out from the acceleration. I pulled a few stunts, including a high-speed barrel roll, flipping the plane over along its long axis, watching the ground spin around me. I thought about pulling an upside-down 4g negative dive, but then realized that if I got caught in the jet wash I might go into a flat spin. I'd have to eject, and Goose would be killed. I refrained.
We all tried landing the plane; Kerr ditched short of the runway but was able to walk away. I got on the runway, but landed too hard, probably damaging the plane.Ed, that jerk, landed on the runway like he had done it a hundred times before. I now have a lot more respect for jet pilots, like I didn't have enough before.
Incidentally, as we stood looking at the LLRV, a B2 with a tag plane flew by about four or five miles away. They were little more than dots, but it was amazing to see it. Actually, we saw a lot of jets flying in formation all day long, and when we were inside buildings we could still hear the roar of their engines. If I worked at Dryden I'm not sure I'd ever get any work done; I'd always be running outside to watch the show.
All in all, it was a great day, and I thank Tami Simmons and the rest of the education team at Dryden for inviting me, and showing me such an amazing facility. One lasting effect of being there will be a strengthening of my resolve to fight garbage like the Moon landing deniers. The abilities, dedication, and sheer drive of the people who work there make it clear where the truth sits, and it ain't with the hoax believers.
The next day was the one I was looking forward to for literally two years. My trip to Paramount Studios![Note: the images here (except for the one of the Paramount gate) were found on the web. Many are probably copies of copies originally from the official Star Trek website; I was not allowed to take pictures while on the sets.]
I arrived at Paramount to yet more security. They had a mirror on a pole to check under my car, and made me open the car trunk. Finding no phasers, photon torpedoes, or smuggled latinum, they let me in. I met Andre at his office. His shelves were crammed with books about Trek and astronomy (including mine!); he holds a Masters degree in astronomy and is quite knowledgable in science.
We had lunch together, which was very pleasant. Several Trek writers were at the restaurant, and "Enterprise" co-Executive Producer Brannon Braga even showed up for a moment to make sure he knew where his writers were.
Then we began the tour of the sets. I switched into Major Trek Geek Mode, poking and prowling around all the sets. Let me make this clear: the Enterprise sets are amazing. I have heard from several people that the sets for the original (Kirk and Spock) series were pretty low-budget, and up close looked cheesy. Things have certainly changed: the Enterprise sets were extremely well done, looking like nothing so much as the deck of a ship. It wasn't hard to imagine I was actually on starship. And for those of you who want to follow along, the official Star Trek website has a very slick Flash tour of the Enterprise you can take.
I also got a close-up look at the shuttle pods, which are pretty much as cramped on the inside as they look on TV. The detailing on the inside of the pods-- and indeed all over the ship-- is amazing. There are warning stickers, labels with Treknobabble on them (the gobbledygook tech-speak they use on the show), and flat-panel plasma displays covered with engineering diagrams. I remarked to Andre that clearly, the sets were made with a lot of care, even love. He agreed.
After the bridge, we went across to another set which was being prepared for shooting. It was a bar on Earth, and no, I won't tell you what the episode is about (but here's a hint). Again, the attention to detail was amazing. Pictures on the wall, the bottles, everything was done to the smallest bit. One bottle was labeled with the brand name "Pulsar"; I was tempted to steal it since my boss studies pulsars. Intelligently, I decided not to. Anyway, the bar was utterly convincing; there was even the name of the bar etched glass in the door.
We wandered off the set for a moment, checking out sets that had been used in other episodes, including a cave with "dilithium crystals" in it (actually, gypsum) and saw some interesting set pieces with Vulcan and Klingon writing on them. As we drifted back to the bar set, the crew started coming in: the bar scene was about to be shot!
Then one of the episode's principal actors came in:
who has a guest role as another Starfleet captain. We had just started
to chat when
Scott Bakula -- Captain Archer himself-- came in as well.
The scene started shooting, but immediately there was a problem. LeVar shouted "Playback!" which gets pre-recorded sounds going, but the sound guy said that they couldn't get it working. Scott Bakula immediately made a joke about it and made like he was going to storm off the set. Everyone was in good spirits despite the problem, and I was pleased to see cameraderie and the sense of ease.
And there were more troubles to come. A waitress with a small role dropped a glass during one shot, and during a toast a moment later, I had to stifle laughing out loud when an actor's beer bottle overflowed, sending suds all over his arm and on the floor. It occurred to me that shooting a scene around food is dangerous unless lots of spare uniforms are handy.
Between takes I met Marvin Rush, who is the Director of Photography. Turns out he's an amateur astronomer, and we got to have a little shop talk. It was surreal, chatting about telescopes in a bar that wouldn't be built for 150 years!
After that, though, it was time to leave the set. Outside, Andre introduced me to Mike Okuda, who does a lot of the graphics for the show that are displayed on the panels. I was wearing my NASA hat (as I always do; remember, Major Geek) and he commented that they had a NASA emblem on a bowl in the Captain's quarters. I'll have to keep an eye out for it when I watch the show.
After that it was time to go. Unfortunately, I didn't get to meet any other actors, but I can't complain. What a tour! I would like to publicly thank my friend Andre Bormanis for generously giving me so much of his time when he had scripts to revise as well. It was an amazing way to spend an afternoon. Like it has been for a lot of other astronomers, Star Trek has been a big influence on my life. Now when I watch "Enterprise", as silly as it may sound, I feel a little more connected to it. I really enjoy the show, and hope "Enterprise" has a long and exciting mission.