Real-world science at SDCC 2019 revels in the past and inspires the future
While Comic-Con International: San Diego primarily focuses on the realms of fantasy and science fiction, real-world science also plays a role in the annual fan fest. [See Knowledge@Wharton, “Science — No Longer Just Fiction — at Comic-Con.”] In addition to examining the role of science in popular culture with panels such as “Science of Game of Thrones” and “Entertaining Science: The Real, Fake, and Sometimes Ridiculous Ways Science Is Used in Film and TV,” this year’s SDCC programming included serious scientific discussions such as “The Year in Space and Beyond,” “Alien Worlds: NASA’s Quest for Life,” and “No Tow Trucks Beyond Mars.”
Also this year was “They Came for the Moon: 50 Years of Apollo 11,” held on Saturday, July 20, exactly 50 years after humans first set foot on the moon.
The 500-seat room was packed with people waiting through the earlier panel for the Apollo 11 session. Outside, the line looped up and down the long corridor three times, filled with fans hoping to gain access to the room.
The panel was moderated by science educator and Amoeba People band member Ray Hedgpeth with assistance from his bandmate Ryan Mosley. The panelists were Mat Kaplan, host of Planetary Radio, and — clearly the person most of the audience was there to hear — Lovell Stoddard, a test engineer for the U.S. manned space program including the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.
Stoddard discussed developing sensors for the Apollo capsule’s heat shield, which had to function under earth reentry temperatures of up to 5,000 to 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit. “We had to insulate these sensors properly,” Stoddard said, adding “When you get above 3,000 degrees, you sort of run out of materials to use as an insulator.”
Mat Kaplan gave an overview of current and future space plans, including showing images of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, NASA’s Lunar Gateway orbiting spaceship, and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander. Kaplan pointed out that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is on track for taking the first paying customers into suborbital space by the end of the year.
Kaplan also touched on international efforts in space. On the date of the panel, India’s Chandrayaan-2 was scheduled to launch for the moon two days later. China has plans for a moon base at the south pole. “Why?” Kaplan asked rhetorically, “because that’s where the water is. Follow the water.”
Kaplan expressed skepticism about plans by the current administration and NASA to put boots on the moon again by 2024. “Eh, we’ll see,” he stated. “That’s a tall order. It took eight years last time; I don’t know if they can do it four or five years this time. But we’ll see.”
Kaplan also showed a fancifully imaginative illustration of a potential future Mars base. “SpaceX is thinking big. They want to get people to Mars. That has been Elon Musk’s goal right from the start.”
NASA’s (currently unnamed) 2020 rover will actively search for signs of previous life on Mars. Looking further into the future, the Europa Clipper will fly over Jupiter’s moon Europa and sample water coming from geysers to test for organic molecules. Developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, NASA’s Dragonfly is planned to visit Saturn’s Moon Titan in 2034.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that the space program ended with Apollo and the Space Shuttle,” Kaplan concluded. “There is still much to be excited about.”
At one point, early in the panel, Stoddard’s voiced cracked as he was filled with emotion recalling how people in the 1960s supported the manned space project. “As soon as you said you were on the Apollo program, everyone wanted to help,” he said, holding back tears.
His emotion seemed more than youthful nostalgia. It evinced a yearning for a period when America was one nation, with a common goal based on a shared vision of the future. A time that now seems a distant past.
Walking on the Moon
Over at Future Tech Live!, the focus was squarely on the future. First appearing at Comic-Con in 2016 (then called VR Con), the exhibition in the Grand Ballroom of the Omni San Diego is a showcase for emerging technologies. This year, motion capture platform company Noitom (“motion” backwards — get it?) was featured in several demonstrations. Notch showed real-time visual effects in conjunction with Noitom’s motion capture system. FaceRig’s character animation used Noitom to feature a cheeky red panda who chatted in real time with passersby.
The most impressive demonstration at Future Tech Live! was the Alice Space “Earthlight: Lunar Mission,” a multi-user, free-roaming experience developed by Opaque Space in collaboration with NASA and built on the Project Alice VR platform. Inside a roughly 25-foot by 25-foot space, a team of five or six participants is equipped with a wireless backpack, motion capture sensors attached to their hands, and a VR headset with stereo headphones and motion capture sensors.
As the simulation starts, the team is at the center of a habitat that sets down on the moon. Once landed, participants are free to walk through the space station and interact with objects around the perimeter of the virtual structure. Without haptic feedback, touching or picking up objects is challenging, although added details — you hear the keys clacking when you type at a computer keyboard — enhance the reality of the experience. Other details further deepen the sense of immersion: as you move through the simulation, your shadow is accurately cast on objects and other team members.
After stepping on an elevator, the team descends to explore a second level of the habitat. The corridors of the virtual structure are arranged such that the area seems more expansive than the physical room in which you’re actually moving.
After entering an airlock, the team stands on a (virtually) moving platform to travel through a long passageway. You then exit the habitat and walk out on the surface of the moon. The effect is stunning as you look around and move through your new environment.
Adding a mixed reality component to the experience, participants can interact with physical objects placed in the lunar scene. One of these is a small box you can hold up to survey the lunar landscape. As you move the box around the scene, it displays the location you’re viewing with labels that identify landmarks — essentially providing a virtual AR element inside the VR experience.
The Alice Space “Earthlight: Lunar Mission” runs around 15 minutes, with a reset time of at least an additional five minutes. A few technical glitches during the press preview extended the wait time between the groups of six participants even longer. The modest throughput makes “Earthlight: Lunar Mission” a difficult fit for a general brand marketing experience. The product is being positioned as an edutainment experience for venues such as museums and science centers.
Despite the long wait time, the people I spoke with were enthusiastic about the experience.
Perhaps this type of virtual experience will engender excitement for space exploration in a new generation and our nation — our planet — will once again come together around a common goal to explore new frontiers and look forward to an optimistic future.