I thought I’d share a humorous little anecdote that is probably indicative of what the average American knows about our legacy in space. Before I do that, though, allow me to set the scene.
Today begins a week on the calendar which reminds us that going into the black is never something to be taken for granted. On this date in 1967, a flash fire in the command module during a test on the launch pad claimed the lives of Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Tomorrow, January 28, will mark the 33rd anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after launch with the loss of her entire crew: Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe. And Friday, February 1, will mark the anniversary of the 2003 loss of Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members: Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon.
Over the years, I have written fairly extensively about these events and the astronauts whose lives they claimed, since I believe very strongly that it is indeed a rough road that leads to the stars, and if we do not continue to dare to push farther into the black, then these brave, extraordinary men and women will have died in vain. If you’d like to read any of my previous posts, just search the January and February archives on this site.
This year, however, I’d like to discuss, however briefly, this week of somber anniversaries within the context of our larger mission here at Take Back the Sky, which is to convince Elon Musk’s commercial space company SpaceX to name its first Crew Dragon after Serenity, the ship in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi television series Firefly and subsequent motion picture Serenity.
While it is true that we want SpaceX to name the first Crew Dragon Serenity after a ship from science-fiction, in much the same fashion that the first space shuttle was named Enterprise after the starship from Star Trek and SpaceX’s workhorse booster rocket the Falcon 9 was named after the Millenium Falcon of Star Wars fame, there is more to the name Serenity than a reference to a space western with a cult following, and at times like this, that becomes apparent.
If you google the noun “serenity,” you will find that it means “a state of being calm, peaceful and untroubled.” The word itself suggests balance and harmony, with no hint of turmoil or conflict. This is, of course, precisely the state of being we hope the late astronauts of the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia have now found. Though the phrase “rest in peace” may have become almost cliché in this era of social media tweets and soundbites, when I hear the word “serenity,” I can’t help but be reminded of the words of Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for the Canadian rock group Rush, who wrote in the song Presto, “I am made from the dust of the stars, and the oceans flow in my veins” or the words of the English poet Sarah Williams, who wrote, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” I believe that if the next spaceship to carry US astronauts into space from American soil were to bear the name Serenity, its name would, among other things, serve as a living, working memorial to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to further our understanding of the stars. And as the first privately built, privately owned spaceship to carry US astronauts into space as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, it would send a message that we not only hope they are at peace, but that we, the people, fully intend to carry on their mission– that they can rest knowing we have the watch now.
SpaceX completed its static fire of the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon on January 24, and the ship’s unmanned demonstration flight is expected to take place next month. If you agree with me that Serenity would be a good name for the Crew Dragon, to honor those astronauts we’ve lost or for any reason, now is the time to write a letter or postcard to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk and SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell to let them know you want to see the ship bear that name. You can find the address for SpaceX as well as some tips for contacting them on the “Take Action” page of this site.
And whether you choose to contact SpaceX or not, don’t forget to say a prayer, light a candle, lift a glass or do whatever you personally find to be appropriate this week to honor the memory of the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia.
Ad astra, per aspera.
“Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand. I don’t care, I’m still free. You can’t take the sky from me. Take me out to the black, tell ’em I ain’t comin’ back. Burn the land and boil the sea, you can’t take the sky from me. There’s no place I can be, since I found serenity. You can’t take the sky from me.”– Joss Whedon, The Ballad of Serenity
It’s been almost fourteen years since we last saw the crew of Serenity on-screen in the Universal motion picture of the same name. Since that time, Browncoats who yearn for more stories of the exploits of the crew of their favorite Firefly-class transport ship have had to look to another medium to get their fix– comics.
Joss Whedon and Brett Matthews wrote the first comics set in the Firefly universe back in 2005– a three-issue limited series entitled Serenity: Those Left Behind. The series was designed to bridge the gap between the Firefly television series and the motion picture Serenity, and revealed the fate of the two Alliance agents with “hands of blue” while also featuring the return of Lawrence Dobson, the antagonist from the series’ pilot episode.
The three-issue series would be the first of no less than ten original stories set in the Firefly universe that were published by Dark Horse Comics over the next twelve years, some set before the events of the movie Serenity, others picking up the story where the film left off. The comics, which included four limited series, four “one-shot” stories and one original graphic novel, all appeared under the name Serenity (in part because of property rights issues between Fox and Universal), and many of them were written either by Firefly creator Joss Whedon himself or by his brother Zack. They are all available now in various trade paperback collections in both hard- and softcover editions from large book retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, as well as at your local comics shop.
This past year, however, the rights to the Firefly comics license changed hands from Dark Horse Comics to Los Angeles-based publisher Boom! Studios, which almost immediately began publication of a new ongoing series about Serenity and her crew that is simply called Firefly. The inaugural issue of this ongoing series, the first ongoing comics series set in the Firefly universe, made its debut in November of 2018. It is written by veteran comics writer Greg Pak (whose credits include Action Comics, Hulk, and Battlestar Galactica), with art by Dan McDaid, colors by Marcelo Costa and lettering by Jim Campbell. The story is set between the events of the final episode of the television series and those of the movie (and also, presumably, before the events of Serenity: Those Left Behind), so all nine members of Serenity’s crew are featured in the story (something that is no doubt welcome news to Browncoats who are big fans of Wash and Shepherd Book). So far three issues of the series have gone to print, with the fourth (the conclusion to the series’ first story arc) scheduled to hit shelves in late February.
At this point you might be wondering: after three issues, is the new Firefly comics series from Boom! Studios a tale that’s going for hard burn, or is it kind of on the drift? Well, if you’d like the honest, relatively spoiler-free opinion of a hardcore Browncoat, who also just happens to be an avid reader and collector of comics with a personal collection numbering in the thousands, then I’m your huckleberry. Read on, my fellow Browncoats, read on!
Take Back the Sky’s own Jeff Cunningham was recently invited to a NASA press event centered around the launch of the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) spacecraft aboard an air-launched Pegasus XL rocket. In this series of posts, he’ll share his behind-the-scenes tour of NASA’s latest and greatest projects going on at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Continue Reading
On March 31, the UK Firefly and Serenity podcast Sending a Wave announced that it was coming to an end after twelve years of keeping Browncoats around the world up-to-date on all the latest conjurings in the Firefly fandom throughout the ‘verse. Sending a Wave will always be very special to all of us here at Take Back the Sky, because the podcast was the first media outlet to interview Jeff and me (way back in the 2012) about our efforts to convince Elon Musk and SpaceX to name their first Crew Dragon Serenity. Not only did our interview on Sending a Wave spread the news of what we were doing to a worldwide audience, it also gave our campaign a level of legitimacy in the Browncoat community that it hadn’t had previously. This was especially crucial to the success of our first online petition to SpaceX, which ended up with thousands of signatures from every continent except Antarctica, accompanied by comments in multiple languages.
About a year later we had the pleasure of meeting Wendy Scott, co-creator and host of Sending a Wave, in person at Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con in June of 2013. At the con that weekend, Wendy interviewed me again about my work as the event coordinator of Pittsburgh’s Can’t Stop the Serenity charity screenings, and together we attended the Firefly panel that featured Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau, Jewel Staite and Gina Torres. Wendy is a lovely woman who is tremendously knowledgeable about science-fiction and the film industry and an absolutely fascinating person to talk to. One of my favorite things about Wendy, both as a podcast host and as a friend, is that her “BS-meter” is finely-tuned, and she’s not afraid to call anyone out if their story has the odor of a fabrication or a retcon. (If you don’t believe me, you can hear her give me a much-needed history lesson upon our first meeting in Sending a Wave Episode 93: The One with Dragons!)
When I heard about the end of Sending a Wave, I contacted Wendy to ask her if it would be okay if I achieved some closure of sorts by bringing things full circle and interviewing her about what had been great run of a groundbreaking Firefly and Serenity podcast. She graciously agreed, and on April 28 we spent nearly three hours on Skype talking about everything from the podcast itself to geek culture, science-fiction of all kinds, Joss Whedon, CSTS, the current state of the film industry and even American and European politics. As you can guess, that conversation meandered in many different directions. The following is a transcript of questions Wendy answered that were specific to Sending a Wave:
Back in 2014, one of my favorite characters from DC Comics, John Constantine, was given his own television series on NBC. The series, which was simply called Constantine, starred Welsh actor Matt Ryan in the title role and used many of the classic stories from the original Hellblazer comics that were published by DC’s subsidiary comics imprint Vertigo. Despite strong stories and a very good cast, NBC never quite figured out how to promote Constantine properly, and it was cancelled after just one 13-episode season due to poor ratings in its Friday night time slot, much to the disappointment of a small but loyal fan base.
Does any of this sound familiar?
SpaceX has worked with the US military before, but with Thursday’s scheduled launch of the Air Force’s infamous X-37B space plane aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, Elon Musk and company will become a part of conspiracy theory legend.
The X-37B, otherwise known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), has been referred to by some as “America’s drone space shuttle.” This orbital space plane, which does resemble a smaller version of the space shuttle, has officially flown four missions, which the Air Force said were to “conduct orbital experiments.”
Some have speculated, however, that the vehicle has been to space far more often, and there have even been claims that the Air Force has been flying two of these spacecraft for years, with one always in orbit and one on the ground. If you asked many Americans who know of the existence of the X-37B, they’d probably tell you that they believe its true mission is one of espionage, or perhaps even some “Star Wars-style” military mission similar to those outlined in President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative many decades ago. One need only search “X-37B” on YouTube to find numerous videos by “experts” who describe the OTV as a “mysterious” and “dirty” project that might even be testing an EM drive, some going so far as to claim that the Russians have threatened to expose the Air Force’s “quake plane” to the world.
Even the docents who give the tours at Kennedy Space Center apparently love stoking the fires of these wild theories, as I found out firsthand in August of 2015 when my tour group was shown (from a distance, of course) the hangar that housed the X-37B. Our guide, who was himself ex-Air Force, told us with a twinkle in his eye he could only confirm that the hangar was in fact for the X-37B, but that he couldn’t tell us any more because “then he’d have to kill us.”
Are we really to believe that that X-37B is some clandestine weapon, its flights ordered by some cigarette smoking man in the upper echelon of our nation’s military hierarchy in a facility accessible only to those with the highest levels of security clearance? Well, if it were, then consider this– it’d be pretty careless of the US government to allow the Air Force to contract a civilian space company to launch such a super secret space weapon– let alone the one civilian space company that has what is arguably the highest media profile of any on the planet! And that’s not to mention the fact that tourists are permitted within a few hundred yards of the vehicle’s “secret base” at Kennedy Space Center. Sorry, but when it comes to the OTV, I’m a bit more of a Scully than I am a Mulder.
What is possibly true of the X-37B is that the Air Force’s “orbital experiments” collect data that could be useful in the development of future weapons systems and delivery platforms that could be employed beyond Earth’s atmosphere. It is reasonable to assume, then, that the OTV could be a military test plane for space, minus the test pilot.
Whatever its purpose, this week’s launch of OTV-5 will mark the fifth official mission of the OTV and the first time that the X-37B will be carried into space by a privately-built, privately-owned rocket– a milestone that is no doubt the result of the fact that SpaceX’s ability to launch more cheaply than anyone around will save the Pentagon, and ultimately us taxpayers, a decent chunk of change over the long haul.
There is a certain irony to the fact that the OTV was built by Boeing, the company that shares the current Commercial Crew Program contract with SpaceX and with whom SpaceX is (unofficially) racing to be the first private company to return American astronauts to space from American soil. Either SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or Boeing’s Starliner will be the first spaceship to launch with a crew of NASA astronauts next year, and if it’s the former, then it is our hope that the ship will bear the name Serenity.
It’s also worth noting that for this launch, both the booster and the payload are reusable. SpaceX plans to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 at Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral after it sends the OTV into the black, and the X-37B will return to Earth and land like a conventional aircraft once its mission is complete.
The launch of OTV-5 is currently scheduled for Thursday, September 7. As would befit the launch of a secret space plane, no exact scheduled time for liftoff has been given as of yet. Hurricane Irma, which is bearing down on the Florida coastline, is not expected to affect the launch in any way, but even so the weather is currently less than optimal, putting the odds of a Thursday launch at around 50%. Nonetheless, SpaceX should have plenty of opportunity to get the OTV into Low Earth Orbit before Irma would force them to suspend operations.
Despite the secret nature of the payload, there’s no reason to believe that SpaceX won’t conduct its usual webcast for the launch, which should go live approximately 20 minutes before liftoff on SpaceX’s YouTube channel and at spacex.com.
We may never know the real mission of the X-37B, but when OTV-5 launches this week, we’ll be able to say with confidence that the truth is out there, and this time we have SpaceX to thank for it.
Peace, love and rockets…