Science and Exploration

Visiting Interstellar’s Spacecraft

By Keith Cowing
November 7, 2014
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Visiting Interstellar’s Spacecraft
"Ranger" from Interstellar

I had an opportunity to stand next to a spaceship from the film “Interstellar” last Friday and fly through a simulation of yet another spacecraft from the film.
I am not going to post a review yet for “Interstellar” since I can’t really discuss the film in any detail without revealing important aspects. That said, there have been trailers and other PR efforts online for months now. One thing you can’t miss in these previews is the spacecraft used in the film. Director Christopher Nolan has a penchant for using real things as props (i.e. “practical effects”) and only using computer generated effects when it is the only way to accomplish something. Given that Nolan is a big fan of Stanley Kubrick and the Iconic film “2001: A Space Odyssey” which was done mostly with practical effects, Nolan is right at home in his approach to “Interstellar”.

Ranger is an impressive vehicle. Image copyright

I spent an hour this morning at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar Hazy facility a few miles from my home adjacent to Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, DC. There is a large tent in the parking lot. Inside is a full scale (or darn close) prop spacecraft – a “Ranger” spacecraft to be precise – from Interstellar. I was lucky enough to be one of the first admitted – with no one else around. As such I had Ranger to myself and was able to make a really close inspection of it. This exhibit will be open until 20 Novermber 2014.

Ranger looks like it has been through a lot – just like a real spce shuttle Image copyright

Other than its slightly fanciful shape, Ranger looks utterly authentic – as if it just landed. I can’t really glean too much from the spacecraft’s operation except to note that it seems to have something like aerospike engines. The detail is unexpected. The wear and tear is natural. And it just sits there as if it is capable of doing much more than just sitting there. This prop was transported to Iceland for shooting, so some of the wear and tear is quite real – and it speaks to the robustness with which this prop was constructed.

The authenticity of Ranger is so meticulous that when I walked across the parking lot to see Space Shuttle Discovery inside the museum. Discovery had a familiarity to it – as if I had just seen it moments ago. That’s how good Ranger is.

Aft end of Ranger. Image copyright

In addition to Ranger, there is also an immersive Interstellar-themed Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 (DK2) experience. Again, being early, there was no waiting line. The premise behind the ‘experience’ is that you are inside the mother ship, the “Endurance” as it is spinning and then as it spins down to leave you weightless.

I have flown parabolic weightless flights, been certified in the NASTAR centrifuge, lived in remote arctic and high altitude base camps, and have been inside of real space shuttles. I have also tried out numerous NASA VR headsets over the years. Some of these experiences can make people queasy. Luckily (so far) I am immune from motion sickness. As such, while I am a novice compared to astronauts, I have some familiarity with similar locations and operational environments depicted in the film and this simulation – so there was nothing I expected to prevent me from having a little fun. Indeed, having had these experiences, I had some obvious metrics to judge this simulation against.

Wearing the Oculus Rift head set. They give you nice headphones too. Image copyright

You are immediately immersed in the immersive environment the moment you put the headset on. And I mean “immersed”. You just slip this world on. The first thing I noticed is that there seems to be no detectable latency i.e. delay between head movement and what the scenery does. That was cool. To be fair, the resolution is a little less than I’d like, but the lighting, depth perception, and overall ambience is stunning. Some of the internal details are unexpectedly real – just like Ranger’s exterior.

The tour inside the virtual Endurance is short and I am not sure if I had any way to control things – except to move my head around – which I did non-stop. When I transitioned to simulated weightlessness it was pretty realistic – except I could not orient my body as I recall doing on parabolic flights – i.e. head somewhat forward – so I felt a little constrained. That said, I tried to grab things floating past me instinctively. The objects moved at precisely the speed and trajectory you’d expect. Totally natural – for weightlessness, that is.

Alas, every now and then my head went trough solid objects which, I suspect, is something that can be adjusted to the height of an individual participant were it not for the fact that this is a museum exhibit with large numbers of people wanting to try it – and that some compromise setting is utilized.

These issues aside, I have to say that I really did think I was inside Endurance since I was free to look at anything I wanted to – whenever I wanted to – and do so in a way that seemed totally natural. I won’t give the ending away but make sure you are looking up outside of the overhead window once you reach the main flight deck.

I am lucky to live in a major media market where such special promotional exhibits are common. Its not cheap to do these things and I don’t think it will be practical to move all of this stuff too many times. Its too bad that there isn’t a way that more people will be able to see this. Perhaps when all is said and done, Christopher Nolan can donate Ranger to the Smithsonian. And perhaps a commercial version of the Oculus Rift experience could make its way to an app store…

They almost used the NASA logo – in this case a version of the old NASA “worm” logo. Image copyright

Well, they almost spelled my last name right. Image copyright

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.