Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, July 11, 2005

NASA Geeks Save Tea Leoni. Sort of.-July 11, 2005

Have you ever noticed the suspicious resemblance between that cell phone in your pocket and the ‘communicators’ carried by Kirk, Bones, Scotty and the rest of the freaks aboard the Enterprise? Though Spock’s probably didn’t have a Milk Dud permanently melted to the back of his the way you do, it’s a similar design, even if it doesn’t make that little ‘click click’ sound every time you open it. (Unless you download the ‘click click’ ringtone for $2.95, in which case, you’re scaring me.) The similarities shouldn’t be a surprise, really. It was the geeks of the 60s who saw those ‘communicators’ and decided to build them for real. Their first choice, of course, would have been to build robot versions of those foxy alien ladies Kirk had so much luck with, but as a fallback plan, cell phones worked out ok, too.

So in 40 short years, we went from imaginary freaks to real-life geeks to “Can You Hear Me Now?” Yes, we can hear you everywhere. I think you’ve made your point. Can you come up with a new campaign now? Still, that’s not bad progress, considering that the flying car has gone nowhere since originally prototyped by the Jetsons animators.

This week at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a small army of ultra-geeks remote control crashed part of a spaceship into a comet in a mission called Deep Impact. Its goal? To save humankind from a gigantic comet accidentally knocked onto a collision course with Earth by the radio waves emitted from Planet RA83 during a battle between the Bee People and the Gumbotronic Army from New New New Orleans on Mars 13. NASA’s ship bombarded the comet, named Baldwin, with a payload the size of a chiclet. Wintergreen, if I’m not mistaken. In space, chiclet-sized objects can easily change the course of large, pompous objects like Baldwin, named for actor Alec Baldwin, who’s mathematically projected to be the epicenter of the comet’s impact with Earth should this mission fail.

Actually, the mission was to crash the chiclet into the comet to kick up a cloud of comet dust, therefore enabling the dateless wonders at JPL to geek out on the data for months and years to come. There’s no war between the Bee People and the Gumbotronic Army; at least, not for the moment. In fact, the only thing true about the paragraph above is that first sentence about what happened and the name of the mission. (And the part about Alec Baldwin being pompous. Obviously.)

But if this mission wasn’t about stopping an eventual Death Rock from hitting Earth and wiping out Tea Leoni, why name it after a painfully bad 1998 movie about a Death Rock that gets pelted with chiclets in order to save Tea Leoni? Come on, JPLers. We may not be rocket scientists like you pencil-necks, but we’re not stupid either. Don’t be modest. Just go ahead and admit that you sorta saved the world this week. After all, Death Rock is out there somewhere, a fiery ball of fury heading straight to Earth like Tom Cruise chasing Matt Lauer across the ballroom at a Hollywood fundraiser. It’s probably not coming this week (which is convenient for me. My schedule’s crazy at least til Thursday.) Probably not next week (also tough, because I have an all day meeting out of the office on Tuesday), but someday that Cruise-like object will find our peaceful little planet. When that happens, well, we’ll all be Tea Leoni, and what then?

I’ll tell you ‘what then’. JPL will dust off Attack Plan R, developed in 2005 for just such an occasion. Back then, they had to cover up the real purpose of the mission, because people would have mocked the use of tax money on saving the world that could have been used instead to fund ineffective government programs that make us feel better about ourselves. Instead, they told people they needed to study comet powder to see if it bore any resemblance to Comet powder. Who doesn’t like a clean bathroom? Absurd, maybe, but what reporter is going to challenge a JPL scientist with technical questions? Not Matt Lauer, obviously.

So mock them if you must. Laugh that they won’t shower, shave or change out of their NASA logo T-shirt even when they’re being interviewed on TV in 100 countries. Scorn them for celebrating with Romulan hand dancing rather than high-fives. Snicker as one of them strangles another within an inch of his life for suggesting that Episode I of Star Wars is better than Episode V. Just bear in mind that these guys are all that’s standing between you and a fate worse than the completely predictable ending to a B-movie most people have already forgotten made in 1998 starring Morgan Freeman as the President and Tea Leoni as the attractive woman who needs to be saved.

Remember: I said “most” people have forgotten this movie, but not these guys. They’ve devoted their lives to it, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for their commitment.

On the other hand, they don’t have much else to do with their time, what with not being able to get dates and all.


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