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Hollywood and Southeastern Ohio connect at space studies program’s popular-culture panel

Colleen Carow and Pete Shooner | Jun 25, 2015
ACC panel
Photos by Ashley Stottlemyer

Hollywood and Southeastern Ohio connect at space studies program’s popular-culture panel

Colleen Carow and Pete Shooner | Jun 25, 2015

Photos by Ashley Stottlemyer

A panel of writers, directors and filmmakers who bring our hopes, dreams and fears about space to life converged at Ohio University Wednesday night for a conversation about science fiction’s ability to portray the human condition. Part of International Space University’s (ISU) 28th Summer Space Studies Program (SSP15), the inaugural Arthur C. Clarke panel promoted how an “A” for the arts must be added to STEM in order to humanize technology and help us understand how it affects our world.

The panelists comprised composer and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker John Beck-Hofmann; top science fiction author Mike Resnick; and animated film director/art director Daniel St. Pierre. Pulitzer-Prize nominated author Joe Pelton, who is founder and vice chairman of the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, gave a special address. ISU alumni Harry Kloor, a writer, director and producer; and Michael Potter, a documentary film director; moderated the event.

In an opening homage to Clarke, event participants Pelton and Resnick, who both knew Clarke personally, described the author’s contributions to science and science fiction, noting his knack for predicting future technologies: GPS, supercomputers, cell phones and more.

“He predicted the communications satellite in October 1945, and in July 1963, we had Syncom 2 realizing that prediction,” said Pelton, who recently authored a book on Clarke titled “The Oracle of Colombo.”

The panel discussed Beck-Hofmann’s most popular work, “7 Minutes of Terror,” a short film they agreed captured the humanity of NASA engineers by explaining the science – through an emotional lens -- behind a Mars rover landing.

“I think that is the key to engaging people,” Beck-Hofmann said. “Do not be afraid to say ‘Look, I’m scared about this; it could fail, and I could fall flat on my face.’ Failure can be a good thing as long as you don’t do it every time,” added Beck-Hofmann, who worked his way up at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab from clerk to film producer.

Kloor, who in addition to having been a writer for Star Trek Voyager is the only person in the world to earn two PhDs simultaneously in two distinct academic disciplines -- physics and chemistry – said Beck-Hofmann’s piece “embodies the important ‘thing’ about film.”

“It’s not about the technology, even when we’re doing a film that embodies science – it’s about that human element,” Kloor said.

With years of experience animating Disney films, and contributing to numerous other projects, St. Pierre said his view of science might diverge from the rest of the panel.

“For example, a guy walks down the sidewalk, and an anvil falls on his head. He gets smashed into a pancake, and the pancake walks around and then blinks at you. Well, that’s physics, right?” St. Pierre said. “My world is about stretching the truth like that.”

For Resnick’s taste, the truth – and logic – can be stretched too far too often.

“Think about ‘Star Wars’ – does it bother anybody besides me that they’re trying to replace an emperor with a princess and this doesn’t do much for the voter on the street?” Resnick asked to laughs from the audience. “How about the recent billion-dollar movie ‘Avatar’? You learn in the first minute that we can go faster than the speed of light across the galaxy, but we no longer know how to make a self-propelled wheelchair,” said Resnick, a five-time Hugo Award winner.

Even with the extreme diversity among science fiction and popular culture works, Potter – who directed the award-winning documentary “Orphans of Apollo” – maintains that Hollywood plays a key role in the future of scientific discovery and space exploration.

“As artists and engineers, what we create becomes part of humanity. We created fire, wheels and habitats, and what we created became part of us,” Potter said. “There’s a crisis globally in terms of how do we move forward in space, and I think entertainment is an important aspect of how we get humanity back on track.”

Hopeful for the future of the industry, all agreed that the addition of the arts into “STEM” has been a long time coming.

“We talked about STEM and how we want to now call it ‘STEAM.’ For years, I was like that little ‘a,’ begging to be part of something important,” said Beck-Hofmann. “And now, I feel like an actual capital ‘A’ in this process.”

SSP15, a nine-week professional development program for future leaders of the global space community being hosted at OHIO this summer, will showcase various public events. Next week features a panel on the future of human spaceflight, a discussion about the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and a lecture by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. For more info visit www.ohio.edu/engineering/isu/.