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VENUS, NEPTUNE & PLUTO EPISODES

Chris Thorburn

To shoot Space Traveler it’s necessary to have two directors and crews. We have essentially five months to shoot and complete the whole series. To do this in time, we split the shoot and the episodes. Team A, headed by my colleague, Richard Smith, heads around the world west-bound. He’s making the Mars, Jupiter and Saturn episodes. Team B, consisting of myself, cameraman, Chris Herd and sound recordist, Gregory Bye, will trek towards the east. Our planets are the two hot ones (Mercury and Venus), the two ice worlds (Uranus and Neptune) and the former planet, Pluto. Ahead of us lies 70 or so interviews, the cream of the mission scientists and engineers who have explored the worlds of our Solar System ever since the beginning of the Space Race.

June 30, 2009: Alice Springs NT, Australia

A few days before our main shoot begins, we head out to Central Australia, to film a brief sequence for Richard’s Saturn episode. Ralph Lorenz & Jani Radebaugh are studying the formation of sand dunes on Titan and plan to travel more than 1500 kms (930 miles) through the Australian outback in the hope of finding similar formations here. Their journey has just begun in Alice Springs and we hope to spend a day with them on the fringes of the Simpson Desert.

We are meant to meet Ralph and Jani at 7pm in the hotel lobby, but they’re nowhere to be seen and out of cell range. I only have a small, fuzzy of photo of Jani to go by, but I recognize both Jani and Ralph immediately as they walk into the bustling restaurant, two hours late. There’s something about the look of tired, bedraggled scientists who have obviously spent all day in the sand. A pleasant dinner follows and we discuss plans for the day tomorrow. I was concerned that we would slow things up for them, but they both seem enthusiastic for us to join them.

July 1, 2009: Simpson Desert NT

A bigger day than we all anticipated, I think. What I thought was going to be an easy 100 km (62 mile) drive to location was more than 200 kms (124 miles), over some very rough terrain indeed. It was more than three hours by the time we arrived at the amber-colored sand dune of interest that Jani and Ralph had identified from satellite imagery. Then it was a good two kilometer (1.2 mile) hike up this dune to survey it from the top. Pretty easy for them, but a little harder for Chris and I with all the camera equipment! The scientists were keen to get going, so we basically just tagged along as they took what measurements they could. We had really hoped to launch a kite, onto which they attach a small camera to capture aerial images of the dune. But unfortunately, there was barely a puff of wind, which was a big disappointment. They both seemed content traipsing about, digging here, taking samples there. Ideally we needed a couple more hours in the day to get all the shots, but I think we did pretty well given the seven hours of outback driving we had to contend with! The following day we return to Sydney, before heading to Los Angeles a week later.

July 7, 2009 UCLA, Los Angeles CA

Our first day of principal photography for the Venus/Mercury episode. At UCLA we interview David Paige about the prospect of ice inside the polar craters of Mercury. Filming starts late because David is on a conference call with colleagues, analyzing the very first LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) image that came in overnight. LRO/LCROSS is a mission to determine if water ice exists in the permanently dark polar craters of the moon. We couldn’t film the conversation, nor the image as it was yet to be released officially to the public. But it was fascinating to hear the scientists discuss their thoughts. (Incidentally, it was the delay of the launch of the LRO mission, due to a hydrogen leak, that delayed our whole shoot; NASA could not accommodate our filming schedule during a launch). So our entire shoot schedule was, in effect, dependent on this mission!

July 8, 2009: Universal Studios & JPL, Pasadena CA

We take Andy Ingersoll “skydiving”, not from a plane but a wind tunnel at Universal Studios. Andy is a planetary climatologist and an expert on the climate systems of Neptune and Uranus. We thought it would be fun to see him leap into the air, to illustrate the incredible winds and updrafts that exist on Neptune. I was a little worried that our professor might find it a little confronting. But he loved it, and was a real pro too! Spent the remainder of he day at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) interviewing Torrence Johnson about the Voyager Mission.

July 9, 2009: JPL, Pasadena CA


A big day today – shooting six long interviews in the JPL studio. The biggest difficulty occurred not while filming, but in the JPL café at lunchtime, where I used the wrong kind of bowl for my salad. Because it had to be weighed, the cashier didn’t know what to do, and there upon a lengthy conversation followed about my bad choice in dining hardware. Meanwhile there is a growing queue of frustrated rocket scientists and astronomers, wondering how someone could be so stupid.

July 10, 2009: JPL & Caltech, Pasadena CA

The morning we returned to JPL to do some pick-up interviews with the Juno Project scientists for Richard’s Jupiter episode. The afternoon we spent with Mike Eris at Caltech, who has been labeled as “the man who killed Pluto.” His discovery of Eris effectively caused Pluto to have its planetary stripes removed. Late afternoon we traveled (and got lost, due to some poor directions) to an ice factory in Van Nuys, where we filmed and interview with Dave Jewitt, who discovered the icy objects of the Kuiper Belt.

July 11, 2009: Caltech, Pasadena CA


Another morning of interviews, this time with Ed Stone (former Director of JPL) and Andy Ingersoll. Two great interviews, talking about the Voyager mission and where the two spacecraft are now (transitioning through the Heliopause that marks the town limits for our Solar System and the beginnings of interstellar space.) I loved Ed’s little experiment to illustrate this boundary, which he demonstrates in the kitchen sink. Turn the tap on gently and watch  ow the water hits the bottom of the sink. It thinly spreads out at high pressure to form a rough circle, and also a thick bubbly rim around the edge that tails toward the drain. In this way the Solar Wind streams out in all directions from the Sun where it then runs out of puff and hits the force of interstellar space. It’s in this bubbly rim where Voyager is now.

July 12, 2009: Flagstaff AZ

A day off for the crew, but I’m busy checking locations for the shoot tomorrow and catching up on expenses. A stunning drive to Sedona, to meet with our pilot and arrange our charter flight to film aerials of Meteor Crater.

July 13, 2009: Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff AZ

Spent the whole day above Flagstaff at the historic Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was discovered. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, Percival Lowell was a wealthy Bostonian, fascinated with the prospect of life on Mars. He sent scouts to find a location to build his observatory in order to study what he believed to be huge Martian canals. Later, he turned his attention to the hunt for Planet ‘X’, the mysterious ninth world of our Solar System. He never did find it, but his assistant, Clyde Tombaugh, did in 1930. As well as filming with Clyde’s original telescope, we shot some sequences in the stunning reading room that houses Tombaugh’s “Blink Comparator”, the machine that he used to compare the photographs of the night sky to find Pluto. As much as Arizona is beautiful in the summer, I would love to return one day and see it in the snow. Dinner is with our Mercury Messenger imager, Brett Denevi, who has flown in especially from Iowa to join us on the shoot.

July 14, 2009: Flagstaff AZ

An early start to film dawn aerials of Meteor Crater, an analogue for the many impact sites that exist on Mercury. The mile-wide crater is about a 30 min drive from Flagstaff, a huge depression that’s gouged into the flat, but spectacular Arizona desert. It’s estimated that the meteorite hit around 50,000 years ago. It wasn’t the “big one” that could have ended the reign of the dinosaurs, but it is one of the best preserved. We learn that some of the astronauts for Apollo even came here to hone up their geology skills. After filming from the air we drive to the crater and film from the ground, but thunderstorms force us to retreat several times before we manage to get at least a few sequences. In the afternoon we drive to Phoenix.

July 15, 2009: Phoenix AZ


Spent the day sheltering from the 45ºC (112ºF) temperatures, inside the LRO control room at Arizona State University. We interview Brett at her station, plus her boss, Mark. Fascinating to see the images as they come down from the LRO orbiter that flies around the Moon. That evening, while eating dinner at a restaurant, there’s a change in the weather. Big winds blow cause the power to fail and the restaurant is momentarily plunged into complete darkness, before the emergency lighting kicks in. We sit there for 20 minutes, everyone wondering what’s happening, before we decide to call it a night. Fortunately, the power is on at the hotel.

July 16, 2009: Scottsdale AZ

Ever since I first read about cryogenics, I’ve been fascinated in how people are frozen in the hope of being resuscitated in the future. We film at Alcor, located in a modest-sized warehouse, in a non-descript industrial estate. The scene is for our Neptune episode, where we consider the prospect of suspended animation for long-term space travel. I’m unsure exactly what to expect inside, but everyone’s very friendly and helpful. They refer to their 86 customers as “patients”, 30 of which are complete, 56 of which are “neuro cases” (just their heads). There are about 26 pets frozen with them. We film the large polished stainless steel canisters (each holding five patients) that cascade with frozen nitrogen as they receive their regular top up. The whole scene is surreal. The oldest patient here was frozen in 1972, the most recent, just days ago. We then film in the operating room, which features a large plastic casket which is pumped full of frigid Nitrogen. I wonder what kind of world these people hope to awaken to. D’Bora, Alcor’s publicity spokesperson, estimates that in about 50 years time they can begin to awaken their patients. But first, nano robots will be injected to repair whatever ailment they died from. By the way, the cost to cheat death is USD 150,000 for the whole body, or USD 80,000 for just your head. I’m also intrigued to learn that Alcor has a second storage site, located deep in a salt
mine, where all their patients’ most precious belongings are stored – books, trophies, photo albums – where they are guaranteed preservation for their owners’ return.

July 17, 2009: South West Research Institute, Boulder CO


The last entry was written on the flight to Denver. By the time we get to the hotel in Boulder it is 2am. We spend the day filming at South West Research Institute with Mark Bullock, our principal Venus expert and Hal Levison, who helped to conceive the Nice Theory, a model that describes how the resonating orbits of Saturn and Jupiter shook up the primordial Kuiper Belt, threw the gas giants further into the Solar System and instigated the Late Heavy Bombardment.

July 18, 2009: Denver CO

We drive down early to Denver to interview David Grinspoon, an Curator of Astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. We have the planetarium to ourselves and play Creator as we rearrange the projection of the planets for the interview. Then, at a nearby artist’s foundry, we melt lead shot to illustrate the kinds of temperatures that one would have to endure on the surface of Venus. We’re also keen to melt a camera, which I bought especially from an op-shop for 25 dollars. The idea is to illustrate the difficulties of sending hardware to Venus. We’re all a little apprehensive, unsure what exactly will happen. The batteries have been removed but the foundry owner is slightly concerned about the gas in the flash. We put the camera in and it almost instantly it bursts into flames and melts spectacularly. Sure enough a burst of green flame shoots out from the flash, but no damage is done. We’re all very impressed. David keeps the camera as a trophy.

July 19, 2009: Boulder CO

A crew day off but I’m busy catching up on expenses, tape logs, publicity photos and couriering camera discs back to the production office in Sydney. In the evening we catch up with the other camera unit, our paths both crossing in Boulder. The evening is spent exchanging war stories and catching up on news.

July 20, 2009: Rocky Mountains CO

A spectacular morning, filming in the Rocky Mountains with John Spencer. John’s on the imaging team for New Horizons mission to Pluto. One of the big challenges he faces when the spacecraft arrives at Pluto in 2015, is calculating the exposure of Pluto’s contrasting surface. From what we know,, Pluto has large bands of bright and dark material. The lighter areas are believed to be Nitrogen snow that freezes out of the atmosphere; the dark areas are a kind of hydrocarbon gunk that forms from methane reacting with the Sun’s ultraviolet light; or, it could be rock. That’s the tricky thing, no one really knows. An analogue for this is the Rocky Mountains, where patches of bright snow contrast with the grey rock. At and altitude of 12,000 feet we all luckily avoid getting altitude sickness, but hiking around with camera equipment is hard work. John reminds us that the oxygen is only 65 percent of that at sea-level, so the shoot happens a little slower than normal. We return to Boulder in time for a New Horizons imaging meeting, followed by a sequence with Leslie Young, who was one of the team members who discovered that Pluto had an atmosphere.

July 21, 2009: Goddard Space Centre, Greenbelt, MD

An early morning flight to Maryland to film Gary Flandro at the Goddard Space Center. A two-hour check-in with all our equipment means being at the airport at 4am. We run late for the interview but meeting and talking with Gary is fascinating. As a young summer intern at JPL, it was his mathematical sleuth work that determined that the planets would be aligned, which instigated Voyager’s grand tour of the outer Solar System. Later we hear that after our shoot with John Spencer, he’s lost his voice and come down with a nasty cold. Sorry about that, John!

July 22, 2009: Applied Physics Lab, Laurel MD

At last we get to film inside a working control room of a real mission. At Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab, we film the operations center for the New Horizons spacecraft, on its long, lonely voyage to Pluto. Now somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn, it is tracked by NASA’s Deep Space Network, which consists of three huge dishes in Australia, Spain and the US. Today the Australian dish in Canberra is in contact, and we film as commands are uploaded to the craft that is at least 630 million kilometers (390 million miles) away. One of the giant screens depicts New Horizons’ position, spinning slowly at five revolutions per minute. Just looking at it instills feelings of homesickness! Everyone’s very friendly, but we have to be careful of the “live” keyboards that the flight controllers use to upload the commands.

July 23, 2009: Bald Head Island, NC

Another day, another flight. But not before the long, snaking security line. There must be at least 700 passengers in the queue, but only three security personnel. I wonder how many people miss their flights. Fortunately we don’t. The journey to Ellen Stofan’s beach house is a bit of an adventure, involving a ferry and an electric cart that she picks us up in. After the hustle and bustle of the city, the island seems prehistoric with its lush green forests. It’s not unlike how people used to imagine Venus to be, before the hot, searing truth was revealed. Because of some poor directions we’re running two hours late, so we don’t waste getting down to business, interviewing Ellen on the beach, imagining how the waves also probably lapped on the edge of Venusian continents 700 million years ago. Ellen is a delight to talk with and it’s great to be out in the open elements, the wind in our hair. Luckily we avoid the thunderstorm and return to the jetty in time to catch the 7.30 ferry back to the mainland.

July 24, 2009: Goddard Space Center, MD

A morning’s travel and then filming at Goddard Space Center again. We shoot inside a massive magnetic test lab that could be the set of a 1950s science fiction film.

July 25, 2009: Baltimore, MD

Before our flight to London we visit Hal Weaver at home. Hal’s the deputy PI on the New Horizons’ mission to Pluto. His wife, Debbie, is a psychologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. They joke that he deals with “outer space, she “inner space”. A lovely family and a beautiful morning as we film Hal shooting hoops with his two sons, Alex and Eric, comparing the mission to Pluto like shooting a basketball 75 miles away. By the time we check-in for our flight to London, yet another thunderstorm hits, grinding Washington-Dulles airport to a halt. We sit on the
tarmac, engines down, for an hour waiting for the heavens to clear. I hardly notice, beginning to read through the first batch of interview transcripts in readiness for the edit.


July 26, 2009: London, UK

We arrive in London, tired but happy to be back. All of us have worked in England for a number of years and know it well. The crew spend the day recovering from the flight, hopefully adjusting to the new time zone. I’m locked in my room, reading more transcripts.

July 27, 2009: London, UK

The morning we spend filming with Peter Grindon, at University College London. I had hoped that he would conduct an experiment to illustrate how the surface of Venus forms, but he’s not convinced that it will work well for our camera. We shoot an interview and are back at the hotel by lunchtime. I return to the transcripts.

July 28, 2009: London, UK

A day off for the crew, more reading and writing for me. By now, the office has emailed more than 300 pages of interviews!

July 29, 2009: London, UK


Yet more writing for me. In the evening we catch a flight to Frankfurt, in readiness for our first day’s filming with the European Space Agency (ESA). It’s about one in the morning by the time we switch out the lights.

July 30, 2009: Darmstadt, Germany

A good day’s filming with Paolo Ferri, Head of Solar and Planetary missions. We talk about Venus Express, Mars Express and the forthcoming Bepi-Colombo mission to Venus. We film in the control room for both the Mars and Venus missions, I guess a little disappointed that it’s not the vast, cavernous space of the Apollo days. Andreas, our media relations’ minder, understands our plight and does indeed show us a large, impressive mission control room that is exactly as we imagine it to appear like. But it is dark, empty, silent. It is only used to monitor launches. The most fascinating part of the day is filming a 1:1 scale model of the Rosetta spacecraft in the cleanroom. The model is used to test software, before uploading it for real to the probe’s sister. The Rosetta mission is an ambitious project that involves landing a probe on a speeding comet, believed to have come from the Kuiper Belt. To reach the comet’s velocity, Rosetta uses several gravity assists around the Earth, before finally shooting out towards the comet’s elliptical orbit, that it shares with Jupiter.

July 31, 2009: Cologne, Germany

Started the day with a 6am walk around Cologne. What a fantastic city. The, intricate but hulking edifice of The Dom cathedral dominates the skyline. And from its medieval shadows we drive into the future of space exploration, where ESA is training the next generation of astronauts who will probably journey to the Moon and beyond. We film in the Biomedical Control Room, where to engineers are talking with the crew of the International Space Station. It’s their job to constantly monitor their physical and psychological health. Every second of their day is mapped out for them (I note they have eight hours’ sleep scheduled; if only we had that!). We arrive just as the crew is waking up. Health-wise, they generally have few issues, but today there’s a small problem with the onboard C02 levels. We joke that all they need are some spare parts, a sock and some gaffer tape, (in reference to the famous, makeshift solution the crew of Apollo 13 resorted to when their capsule was threatened with disaster). It’s not clear if a solution is found, as we then meet and film Andreas Morgensen, one of six new ESA astronaut recruits. Once he completes his training in 2014, he will be the first Danish astronaut to go into space, most likely to the International Space Station. He’s a little taken aback by the huge public interest of his homeland.

August 1, 2009: Noordwijk, Holland

Another crew day off, but I work on the third draft of the Venus/Mercury script. Manage to write 25 pages.

August 2, 2009: Noordwijk, Holland

Another morning writing, then we drive three hours to Noordwijk in the Netherlands.

August 3, 2009: Noordwijk, Holland


We spend the day filming at ESTEC, ESA’s spaceflight test centre. We film in some fascinating rooms, including one that looks like the set of a James Bond film, used to test long distance antenna communications. Another, the Large European Acoustic Facility, or “LEAF” is unofficially described as a giant disco, where spacecraft are bombarded with sound waves to simulate a rocket launch. Another room approximates the vacuum and cold of space, by sucking out the atmosphere and reducing the temperature. In the afternoon we film Håkam
Svedhem, Project Scientist on Venus Express. Then it’s a quick dash to the airport for our flight back to London.


August 4, 2009: Docklands, London, UK

The crew film Kevin Fong, our “space travel doctor” onboard the Docklands Light Railway in the East End of London. Kevin traveling on a train and visiting various stations we thought would be a good metaphor for soaring through the Solar System and stopping off at various planets. But I’m relieved of my filming duties today as I have to keep writing; so Richard Cooke, an English colleague, takes the helm. I only ever see the inside of the hotel, so it’s a nice change when it comes to drive down to Bath in the evening in readiness for the final day’s shooting.

August 5, 2009: Bath, UK

We spend the morning at The William Herschel Museum in Bath. Herschel discovered the seventh planet and (wisely) named it after his sponsor, King George III (who history remembers as “The Mad King”). The discovery was later renamed Uranus, in the tradition of naming the planets after the gods of ancient times. The museum is closed to the public, so we spend a quiet time filming the replica of the telescope that Herschel first spied his discovery through.

August 6, 2009: Fly to Sydney

At last, the end. We return home to Sydney. I stop and think of the 70 interviews we filmed… and the hundreds of pages of transcript they’ve generated. But in that time we have been privileged to meet some amazing people and their brilliant minds, who history will record as the Christopher Colombus’ of their time.

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