This is another in a series of articles covering the Stardance Project. On December 30, 2007, Jeanne Robinson, her filmmaker, James Sposto, and her dancer, Kathleen McDonagh flew in the specially-equipped 727 operated by the Zero-G Corporation. Jeanne and Kathleen flew as guests of Peter Diamandis, as I reported originally from the Heinlein Centennial.
It’s been a month since the flight, and there’s been a flurry of activity for the team. In spite of this, Jeanne has taken the time to give Urbanagora another interview. All of us here thank you very much for taking the time from your busy schedule to do this.
TET: Most Urbanagora readers have not experienced weightlessness unless they’ve jumped from a tall diving board or gone scuba diving. Is there anything to which you can compare the feeling of zero-g that might enable us to understand what it was really like?
JR: The classic high-speed elevator plunge is one way to experience zero-G….albeit for a lot less than 30 seconds…but is not recommended. A better one is a roller coaster. And more and more of us these days have had the unfortunate experience of being in an airplane that experiences a sudden, rapid loss of altitude.
That’s why it’s so fascinating that the human body can function in zero-G at all, much less for years at a time. How did that evolve, when for nearly all our evolutionary history the only way to be in zero-G was to fall off a cliff—which tends to limit your reproductive future?
TET: You said in your blog that once you were in flight, you had to alter your orginal plans for filming. Were you as successful as you hoped to be even though the conditions were less than ideal?
JR: Yes and no. We got better and more stable video images than we’d expected, much more uncluttered cubic area to work in than we’d expected…and much more lateral drift than we’d expected. Trying to precisely balance the power of two pairs of large jet engines, as they’re all changing thrust radically to produce the parabolic arc, is so difficult that Kathleen almost never entered free fall motionless. Always there was a sideways vector in one or more directions, and it could not be predicted. That often cut back her total zero-G time to even less than 20 seconds before she’d contact one of the walls, and made it trickier for me to stay out of frame. Fortunately Kathleen’s terrific at improv.
TET: In my opinion, Kathleen McDonagh, your dancer, looks a lot like I pictured the zero-g dancer from your Stardance novels. If you had written the book after experiencing free-fall personally what changes, if any, would you have made?
Probably not many, actually—because the most striking unexpected aspects of our experience were unique to parabolic flight. Lateral drift, for example, which plagued us on every arc to greater or lesser degree, won’t occur in space, in sustained microgravity. Spider and I both agree with you, by the way, about how much Kathleen resembles our own mental pictures of Shara Drummond.
TET: You mentioned that a fellow passenger on the flight proposed to his girlfriend during one of the arcs. What were the rest of the folks like that were up there with you?
JR: Exceedingly kind and generous, for one thing. They got into the spirit of our adventure at once, and cheerfully granted us far more room to move than our tickets entitled us to. In the footage you’ve seen, Kathleen and I are the only people visibie—in a compartment that nominally held 11. I can’t thank them enough for that: it made the trip twice as valuable for us. And of course, a simulation of spaceflight is the last place you’re going to find dumb or dull people: they were all good companions. The Zero-G Corp staff personnel, both aboard and on the ground, were, without exception, exceptional.
TET: Now you’ve got footage for your movie of actual controlled movement in zero-g. What’s the next step towards getting the Stardance Project on the big screen?
JR: As Robert Heinlein wisely said, if the question begins, “Why don’t they…?” the answer is money. The main tasks left are rewriting the script to expand it from a short film to a large format IMAX (from 10 minutes to 45 minutes), and finding sponsors to finance the film. Production itself will be a long hard exciting process…but as soon as we find what theatre people call an angel or angels, my producer/co-director, Jim Sposto, and I are basically ready to get started storyboarding and auditioning CGI techniques and artists.
TET: To accomplish your Project, what is it that you need most at this time–financing, facilities or technical expertise? Has the publicity surrounding the flight helped with any of these needs?
JR: Financing is number one. The facilities and expertise are all there, just waiting for us to afford them. The publicity from this flight has indeed helped enormously; whether it will help enough remains to be seen, because money always moves slowly—particularly the smart money. But the more visibility we have, the sooner the smart money will find us.
Visibility is the key…and patience helps. Zero-G Corp’s president, Dr. Peter Diamandis did not actually have the $10 million dollars for his famous X Prize when he proudly announced its creation(fortunately, nobody ever asked!); it took him nearly 8 years to notice a magazine profile of Anousheh Ansari that mentioned her intense interest in space.
I’ve been choreographing zero gravity dance since Spider first put the idea in my ear in 1975; if nothing else, now people outside the science fiction community know that too.
TET: Do you have a target date yet for the production, or is it still too early to tell?
JR: Way too early, I’m afraid. But I’m a professional optimist. All artists are; we have to be. One thing I’m sure of: I’m much closer to realizing my dream than I have been since the morning the Challenger exploded, ending the Civilian In Space Program before I could go to orbit myself. Whoever is the first dancer in space will remember my name and Spider’s.
Wow, I would have loved to have gone up there with you guys and watched this live. It touches your heart to see someone’s dream unfolding like this in spite of previous setbacks. We’ll keep spreading the word, and if I run into anyone with some spare green, I’ll know where to sent them.
Many thanks and best wishes always from all of us here at Urbanagora.
Addenda: By request, here’s a link to the first interview.