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NSRC 2020

 
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Oh, what a tangled web in space CSI: Miami weaves in a recent episode. (credit: CBS)

Space cops


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“TV said that?!!”
—Homer Simpson

Several years ago a representative of Virgin Galactic mentioned that he was less concerned about his own company’s approach towards safety than he was about his competitors’ approach toward safety. What he feared was that one of his competitors would have an accident and then the regulatory hammer would drop on everybody in the business. No matter how diligent you are, not everything is within your control and what others do can have an impact on you.

That fact was driven home a few weeks ago when the popular television show CSI: Miami aired an episode that dealt with the NewSpace industry, and it wasn’t exactly the kind of portrayal that anybody would covet. NewSpace entrepreneurs, it turns out, can be just as venal, deceitful, and murderous as… well, just about anybody else that the show turns its sights on.

NewSpace entrepreneurs, it turns out, can be just as venal, deceitful, and murderous as… well, just about anybody else that the show turns its sights on.

Even if you don’t watch any of the CSI shows, you’d have to be living under a rock to not know the basics. But just in case you live under that rock, CSI stands for “Crime Scene Investigation” and the heroes are essentially forensic detectives who are part of the police force. Each episode starts with a body. Then Lt. Horatio Caine shows up, puts his hands on his hips, looks off camera, and uses the only facial expression he has (pensively annoyed). For extra dramatic effect, he might remove his sunglasses. Cue The Who soundtrack.

The episode, which aired February 8, had the rather unimaginative title “Miami, We Have A Problem” and started with a carjacking which was foiled when a body falls out of the sky and slams onto the hood of a car. Caine appears, goes arms akimbo, and we’re off.

The CSI team takes the body back to their coroner. CSI: Miami uses a saturated color palette, and the cops all work in the most fashionably decorated police station ever. The walls are painted maroon and aquamarine and sea foam and lit with recessed halogen bulbs. No stained ceiling tiles, scuffed white walls, or fluorescent tubes like a real police station. The CSI shows have probably boosted Sherwin Williams’ paint sales tremendously. The moody lighting even extends to the coroner’s examining room, where it’s more important to look cool than to actually see the body. But nevermind. The coroner examines the body and discovers that the man suffered severe calcium loss, equivalent to a 100-year-old person. The coroner has a hunch. But it’s so crazy that he keeps it to himself, at least for five minutes. What he concludes is that the man is an astronaut. But he didn’t fall out of the sky from space. He fell somewhat lower down.

Meanwhile, Horatio learns that there was a helicopter in the area where the body fell and he heads to a local airport to check it out. The pilot denies being in the air at the time, and claims that somebody must have taken his million-dollar helo for a joy ride—something that doesn’t seem to bother him all that much.

NASA says that the dead astronaut is not one of theirs, so the CSI crew figure that he must be someone who flew on a private spacecraft. They head to a local airport where a company named Prime Mover Aerospace operates a private spacecraft that looks like a Learjet with a rocket stuck in its tail. It is, admittedly, pretty cool, although it doesn’t appear to have a heatshield. Keith Palmer, the owner of the company, admits that his spacecraft recently returned from a one-week orbital flight. He IDs the dead man as one of his passengers, but says that he left after they landed.

Now that the cops know who the dead man is, they talk to his wife, who seems more annoyed that her husband blew their savings on his space fantasy than upset that he’s, well, dead. She gives them a video her husband made in orbit which coincidentally shows a famous movie star and the helicopter pilot floating in the background. It turns out that the helicopter pilot also flies the spaceship (something that you’d think the CSI team would have figured out much earlier when they first went to the space tourism company).

Meanwhile, the coroner discovers that their dead man not only was in space, he died in space. When confronted, the helicopter pilot admits that he was trying to dispose of the body by taking him out to sea in his helicopter. But the chopper got hit by a flock of birds and the corpse fell out and through the roof of the parked car. Now all the CSI team has to figure out is exactly how the man died. Was it an accident, or murder?

It’s also clear that the writers for this episode did their homework. The head of the space tourism company isn’t just a businessman, he’s a zealot. He doesn’t just want to make money, he wants to colonize space.

Now you don’t have to be a lawyer to realize by this time that the police already have the goods on their suspects. The helicopter pilot has already obstructed justice and attempted to destroy evidence (and surely dumping bodies at sea, or at least trying to, must violate some environmental laws, right?). Palmer and the movie star have also obstructed justice, and conspired to destroy evidence. Yet because the goal is to get all these guys on murder charges, the cops don’t bother immediately throwing them in jail and solving the crime while the suspects are unable to flee—in their helicopters and their jet airplanes. Instead, the suspects are allowed to leave after each bout of questioning.

The pieces all keep falling into place. The ship had a hole punched in it by a “micrometeorite” in Earth orbit (rather sloppy science; a bit of space debris would have been more accurate). They started to run out of air.

One rather sloppy aspect of the writing is that some of the characters behaved like dummies simply so that another character could explain something, or so that the plot could progress a little farther before they figured everything out. Did the helicopter pilot honestly think that the cops would not find out he’s also a spaceplane pilot? Would a trained CSI investigator really need to be told by a colleague what blood looked like? Why didn’t Caine immediately ask the owner of the space tourism company who was piloting the spaceplane?

But it’s also clear that the writers for this episode did their homework. The head of the space tourism company isn’t just a businessman, he’s a zealot. He doesn’t just want to make money, he wants to colonize space. When asked why he covered up the death, he gives a nice little speech that could have been written by the Space Frontier Foundation: “To save the industry. Right now we’re free to do as we please. This gets out, the feds will regulate most of us out of business. This is the most important business venture in the history of the world. We could colonize planets, we could settle the Moon! If everybody had this experience, we would live lives differently!”

Every episode of CSI: Miami apparently has several characteristics. One is that the suspects never lawyer up, no matter how rich they are. They’re all so dumb that they fail to realize that shutting their yaps would actually make it harder for the police to collect the information needed to convict them. Another characteristic is that all of the fancy forensic work never seems to get entered into evidence at trial, it only serves to get the suspects to stop lying and confess. Forget playing Good Cop/Bad Cop or pistol whipping a suspect in an interrogation room, just have Horatio confront them with a DNA sample or an electrospectrographic analysis of their car’s brake pedal and they suddenly crumble and admit the entire crime, like some bad 1940s detective movie. That’s pretty much how this episode ends. The suspects’ stories keep changing until the forensic evidence lines up and then they confess and get hauled away to jail, just like that. No pesky trial required. (Oh, in case you’re wondering: the pilot shot him, because he was sucking up valuable air.)

This is certainly not the way that budding space entrepreneurs want to make a big splash in the popular culture. After all, who wants a top television show to portray you as a murderer? “Miami, We Have A Problem,” scored a 3.9 rating when it aired, which translates to around ten million viewers. It will undoubtedly play heavily in reruns over the next several years where it will be seen by millions more. And that’s not counting the foreign audience, which is pretty substantial for the show. Overall, the episode was a pretty negative portrayal of NewSpace. But will it matter? Probably not.

The episode might hurt the space tourism industry in a minor way, by implying that anybody going into space, even only briefly, will suffer immediate and deleterious physical effects.

Anybody who regularly watches the show knows that it’s nothing personal, it’s business. CSI: Miami is not trying to make a statement about corruption in this or that industry. It’s not commenting on NewSpace, it’s telling a story. The fact that the murderer just happens to be a space entrepreneur is merely a plot device. The audience is not going to watch an episode where the murderer is a rock star or a polo player and think that all rock stars and polo players are evil (even though they are).

But the episode might hurt the space tourism industry in a minor way, by implying that anybody going into space, even only briefly, will suffer immediate and deleterious physical effects. Typical bone loss for astronauts is up to one percent per month in microgravity (which is why a mission to Mars can have serious health side effects). In order to suffer the kind of calcium loss experienced by the dead man in the episode, a person would have to spend years in space, not ten days. Even if the audience doesn’t go away thinking that spaceflight is physically unhealthy, this still isn’t a positive portrayal of a flight.

It’s not true that any publicity is good publicity. People have a remarkable ability to believe things that they are exposed to in fictional programs. Many people have gotten their understanding of historical events from movies like Saving Private Ryan rather than documentaries or books. Of course, not everybody is Homer Simpson (who had his own trip into space a decade ago), but the NewSpace community didn’t benefit from this kind of exposure. They need to get on The Amazing Race or American Idol and get some more positive publicity. My choice would be Survivor: Low Earth Orbit: every week someone gets tossed out the airlock.


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