Howlers in Space

by Duncan Lunan

In space, no one can hear you scream.  But sometimes it’s tempting.

One of the most difficult things to get across in basic astronomy is that from the southern hemisphere, things appear the other way up.  It’s understandable with primary school children, who often ask why people in Australia and New Zealand don’t fall off into space.  But it can be surprisingly difficult for adults.  In 2011, when I was asked to contribute a regular monthly piece on astronomy for a new Falkland Islands television station, my first step was to buy a southern planisphere  (see Notes in ‘Dark Sky Part 2’, last week).  But I found that the constellation names were the wrong way up, as if they still had their northern hemisphere orientation!  Even now on the Heavens-Above website, if you enter the location of Port Stanley, the map you get still has that northerly orientation  (compare the placing and orientation of Orion in the February map for this column, and the Port Stanley map from Heavens-Above.) 

In one of my stories for Sydney Jordan’s Lance McLane strip in the Daily Record, he included a drawing of Orion over the South pole;  but it still had Betelgeuse and Bellatrix at the top of the constellation, as they are here.

Orion over the south pole, wrong way up, by Sydney Jordan, Daily Record, 1983

With north at the top of a southern star map, east is now on the right, something the first navigators to sail down the coast of Africa couldn’t get anyone to believe.  In the North Lanarkshire Astronomy Project, one of our props was a globe of the Moon which could be removed from its cradle, and turning it about, I would demonstrate that in the southern hemisphere, the Man in the Moon becomes a crab.  I would then ask, “In the first film of The Lord of the Rings, do you see the Man in the Moon, or do you see the crab?”  Remarkably, most children remember and realise that it was the crab.  Then I’d ask, “Why is that?”  And after a moment’s pause, a bright kid would say, “Because they filmed it in New Zealand”.  Middle Earth is definitely in the northern hemisphere in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, with glaciers in the north, deserts and olliphaunts in the south, and countless allusions to European mythology.  Someone must have pointed this out to Peter Jackson because in the second film, the Moon has been turned around by computer magic.  But in the first major dialogue scene of The Two Towers, when Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are chasing the Orcs who’ve run off with Merry and Pippin, they meet the Riders of Rohan, who give them horses.  Their leader then leaps into the saddle with the cry, “We ride north!” and they do – straight towards the midday Sun, because they’re in the southern hemisphere.

You might think that the appearance of the Man in the Moon would be known to everyone, but mistakes are amazingly common.  One which crops up surprisingly often even now is to show the Full Moon left-to-right inverted.  During one of the early space missions, I remember an episode of Panorama in which Richard Dimbleby had to interview Dr. Tom Margerison in front of a huge lunar disc which was the wrong way round, with Mare Crisium on the left and Oceanus Procellarum on the right.  A more common mistake now, particularly in television drama, is to show the Full Moon rising at right-angles to its path, which can only be seen from the southern United States or elsewhere near the Equator.  (Another is to show the Moon, Full, gibbous or crescent, in the same phase night after night, for much longer than they actually could be.)  In the original movie of Stargate, a trio of full moons were shown framing a pyramid on another world – not a dynamically stable situation in any case, but all three of them were our Moon at different angles, presumably on the assumption that nobody would notice.

Apollo 8 Moon inc Mare Crisium above centre

For decades after the Moon landing, a still more common mistake was to show the Moon from the side, even when seen from here.  The crew of Apollo 8, rehearsing the trajectory which would be followed by Apollo 11, photographed the lunar disc with Mare Crisium on the centre line of it.  (Mare Crisium is the dot above the Man in the Moon’s left eyebrow, on the top right of the face as we see it, always facing the Earth.) 

Apollo 11 Moon with Mare Crisium in centre

On their return journey the Apollo 11 crew took a similar view with Mare Crisium at the centre of the disc.  They had landed in Mare Tranquillitatis, at sunrise so that the shadows would highlight obstacles – so of course to photograph the full disc, most of the sunlit area had to be on the Farside.  But for some reason, film-makers jumped to the idea that this must be how the Moon looks from everywhere, even when seen from Earth.  The artist David A. Hardy has compiled a collection of cases like that – one which springs to mind is at the end of Moontrap  (1989, released for the 20th anniversary of the landing).  One of the most bizarre was in the display window of Charles Frank’s, at Central Station in Glasgow, which I mentioned last week.  For months if not longer it contained a placard reading, ‘Buy a Charles Frank Junior telescope and discover for yourself the wonders of the Universe’, although it was illustrated with Apollo 8 photographs of the Moon – leading to the comment that the Charles Frank Junior could not only see above the atmosphere, but also look round corners.

The film in which the greatest efforts were made for accuracy was 2001, a Space Odyssey, to the extent that the special effects people said, ‘In six days God made Heaven and Earth, and on the seventh, Stanley Kubrick sent it back for modifications’.  The effort wasn’t 100% successful, but as the late Chris Boyce said on first seeing it, “It’s just such a relief to have a science fiction film in which the mistakes are not only trivial, but don’t drive the plot”.  (He went to see it in Cinerama so often that the staff thought he wrote it, and would let him in for nothing.)  Some of the mistakes were deliberate:  the spaceship Discovery was powered by a gas-core nuclear reactor  (a promising technology, but not yet available), and early models of it authentically had large heat-radiating fins.  They were eliminated from the final version, not to confuse the audience with what would appear to be wings on a spaceship in vacuum.  But one actual mistake was pointed out by Les Cordingley of Charles Frank’s:  in the Moon landing sequence, the spherical moonship and the Earth beyond should be in the same phase, differing by at most one degree  (the maximum separation of Earth and Moon, as seen from the distance of the Sun), but in the film the Earth is gibbous and the ship is a crescent. 

Back in the mid-1950s, I remember a Daily Express interview  (which I haven’t been able to trace)  with an astronomer who pointed out that rocket exhausts would not be visible in sunlight, in space.  Stanley Kubrick got that right in 2001, and the makers of the original Battlestar Galactica comprehensively got it wrong.  (Chris Boyce called that one ‘a six-drinks movie’, indicating how many you’d have to have beforehand in order to enjoy it.)  One follow-on to 2001 which did get it right was Moon Zero 2, a 1969 Hammer ‘space western’ surprisingly starring Warren Mitchell as a crooked space industrialist. 

2001, crescent Moonship with gibbous Earth

Another deliberate mistake in 2001 was that the stars were not only shown behind the Discovery in the external shots, but were slowly moving past.  As far back as 1951, in The Exploration of Space, Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “This may be a good point at which to correct an almost universal fallacy – the idea that one would see the stars during the daytime on the Moon.  (I am indebted to Dr. W.H. Steavenson for pointing this out.)  They would be there all right, because there is no atmosphere to swamp them with scattered sunlight.  But the eye would not see them, because the intense glare from the brilliantly illuminated landscape would have made it too insensitive.  To observe them, one would have to stand in shadow, shield the eyes completely from all sources of light, and wait a few minutes.  Then they would become visible, first in tens and then in thousands – but they would vanish again as soon as one re-entered the sunlight.”  But Kubrick decided that an apparently motionless ship in a black sky would be too much for the audience to accept.

The light level above the Earth’s atmosphere, or on the Moon, is 10% higher than it is at ground level here.  Even at the distances of the outer planets, where the light level is 99% or more lower, stars don’t show in the Voyager photographs unless they’re deliberately over-exposed to show them for navigational purposes  (that was how the volcanic plumes on the edge of Io were discovered).  Even now, that you can’t see the stars in the Apollo photographs is used as evidence that the footage has been faked – as if the NASA would have left them out if you really could see them.  The makers of Moon Zero 2 were trying to make it as true to the Apollo 11 experience as possible, to the extent of starring a Neil Armstrong lookalike, and they did show the sky as jet black throughout.  Unfortunately, when two of the characters climb out of a lunar mine shaft in the middle of night on the Farside, there still are no stars visible above them.

In explaining the basic facts about the Solar System, I often showed a montage of the planets showing their comparative sizes.  Now and again I’d get the bright kid in the class who’d ask, “Can you really get all the planets in a straight line like that?”  Indeed, the answer is no.  The late Prof. Archie Roy, one of the world’s top astrodynamicists, confirmed that, showing that the Solar System has ‘statistical stability’, whereby at least one of the planets must always be on the far side of the Sun from the rest.  They can sometimes appear to be in a straight line across the sky, seen from here, but a moment’s thought will reveal that if Mercury and Venus are in the line-up, then Mars, Jupiter and Saturn must be on the far side of the Sun from them, and they’re not actually forming a straight line of space.  The line-up at the end of Fifth Element, where the planets are also in line with the Earth, Sun and Moon, could never happen in real life.

The same applies to the four major moons of Jupiter, whose resonant orbital periods would cause them to collide or be expelled from the planet, were it not that their mutual pulls on one another keep them from getting into exact lock.  They can appear to form a straight line east or west of Jupiter, seen from here, but that’s only because some are on this side of the planet and some on the other – which brings us to the famous or notorious final sequence of 2001, a Space Odyssey.

2001, semi-abstract viruses, at the boundary of living matter, crossing interstellar space

At the start of that sequence, astronaut Dave Bowman leaves the Discovery in a pod spacecraft and flies towards a giant version of the black monoliths previously seen on Earth and on the Moon.  As he approaches it against the backdrop of a crescent Jupiter, the four moons are seen beyond it, apparently in a straight line.  For the reasons above, they can’t actually be in a straight line.  Clarke and Kubrick might have chosen a configuration which looks as if they’re in line, to parallel the syzygy of Moon, Earth and Sun at the beginning of the film.  But as the camera pans up the line of moons, they’re all in crescent phase:  the first three with horns pointing downwards, the topmost one with horns pointing upwards – and yet there’s no Sun in between them.

It was Chris Boyce who pointed out that anomaly to me, and it’s not a mistake.  It’s crucial to the understanding of what follows, although he and I disagreed on the precise interpretation.  It’s unfortunate, though understandable, that Clarke chose to write a different version for the novel.  A lot of people say they couldn’t understand the film until they read the book, but in that, Bowman travels through a physical star gate, and an interstellar transport system like a spatial version of Alvin’s underground journey in Clarke’s earlier novel The City and the Stars.  At his destination he ends up in a reconstruction of a modern hotel room, subtly but significantly different from the palatial bedroom suite in the film, and in both, he then undergoes the mental transitions leading to his rebirth as the Star Child.

2001 – Dave Bowman and Monolith
2001 starchild baby

The importance of the missing Sun, in the film, is that what we’re seeing is in Bowman’s head, not in reality, even before the notorious red rectangle comes in from infinity and then, in the words of the late John Braithwaite, “the ice-creams start flying all the way from the screen to the back stalls”.  As Clarke later wrote in Report on Planet Three, what follows ‘is not a collection of random images, some simple-minded critics to the contrary’  (one of whom dismissed it as ‘Blackpool Illuminations’).  I’m not going to deconstruct it here, image by image, but it can be done, though I had to see the film three times to be sure I’d got it all.  It helps if you’ve seen Ed Emshwiller’s art film Relativity, which was Kubrick’s inspiration for the sequence, and helps still more if you see 2001 in Cinerama, which gives you time to recognise the images before they go off the edges of the screen.  In Cinemascope, they’re gone before you know it.  As I read it, however, Bowman doesn’t go anywhere – and he’s still in the Solar System when he emerges from the transition to the Star Child at the end.

Turning away from deliberate mistakes, or what might be taken for mistakes, a last howler to mention occurred not actually in the film in question, but at the release.  A number of big-name science-fiction writers were invited to the launch of the Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes  (which is very different from the novel by Pierre Boulle, author of The Bridge over the River Kwai).  In the question period at the end, the producers were asked why Heston and his crew don’t realise they’re on Earth when they recognise the Moon.  A quick-thinking spokesman replied that although you don’t see it in the film, there’s a mist which covers the sky every night.  One can just imagine the smiles of relief on the faces of the 20th Century Fox executives.

And from the front row came the voice of Isaac Asimov, saying, “Don’t you know that you can see the Moon in the daytime?” 

2 replies »

Leave a Reply