After Hours

Geek Trivia: Star(ship) of the silver screen

What impending motion picture will feature a cameo from Richard Branson and a Virgin Galactic spacecraft?

It's time to send out belated birthday wishes to a milestone moment in aerospace history: June 21 marked the one-year anniversary of SpaceShipOne's first manned spaceflight. In the intervening 380 days, the Scaled Composites team that built SpaceShipOne went on to claim the $10 million Ansari X Prize for building the first practical, reusable, privately funded spacecraft. Time sure flies when you're inaugurating an era of civilian spaceflight.

Excitement and symbolism have been the name of the game for Scaled Composites' so-called Tier One spaceflight project from the beginning. For example, after several months of glide testing, SpaceShipOne made its first powered flight test on Dec. 17, 2003, the centennial of the Wright Brothers' first powered flight.

In addition, the X-Prize-winning spaceflight took place on Oct. 4, 2004, exactly 47 years after the launch of the first manmade object into space, Sputnik I. The local officials of Mojave, CA also got into the public relations act by provisionally renaming the airport that SpaceShipOne's flights originated from to the Mojave Spaceport.

Even the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) played along with the showmanship. Technically, SpaceShipOne is a conventionally licensed civilian glider, thanks to the fact that it doesn't take off under its own power, and it doesn't conduct a powered landing.

Therefore, the FAA granted SpaceShipOne a traditional aircraft registry number—N328KF—but one with a hidden technical reference inside. While all U.S.-based aircraft have registry numbers beginning with the letter N, the 328KF portion of the registry stands for 328,000 feet (100 kilometers), the officially designated altitude for the "edge of space," which SpaceShipOne had to reach to claim the X Prize.

Lost in all that hoopla was the fact that the Tier One project effectively wrapped up on Oct. 4, 2004, the moment it won the X Prize—and met its goal. Tier One was all about creating and proving the technology in order to lay the groundwork for future commercial uses of spaceflight, particularly private space tourism.

And now, a partnership with Virgin Galactic, a venture from billionaire Richard Branson's sprawling Virgin business empire, is helping realize that dream: Virgin Galactic expects to use SpaceShipOne technology to accommodate recreational spaceflights as early as 2008.

Of course, anyone who's familiar with Branson's exploits knows that the PR blitz for SpaceShipOne has only just begun—despite the fact that Tier One and its savvy self-promotion are over. Indeed, Branson has actually arranged for his Virgin Galactic spacecraft—and himself—to make a cameo in a major motion picture in 2006, two years before the real spaceflights will begin.


What major motion picture that's debuting in 2006 will feature a cameo from a SpaceShipOne-style Virgin Galactic civilian spacecraft, as well as one from billionaire Virgin founder Richard Branson himself?

The latest edition to the Superman franchise, Superman Returns, will reportedly include a rescue scene where the Man of Steel attempts to save Branson and his fellow occupants (including Branson's son Sam) from a faltering Virgin Galactic flight. Currently scheduled for release on June 30, 2006, the film will offer a sneak peak of Virgin Galactic's offering—even though optimistic estimates say Virgin Galactic won't begin undertaking passenger flights until sometime in 2008. That's the definition of using clever marketing to prime the pump of consumer demand, even if it is a rather blatant example of commercial product placement.

Of course, having your company's founder meet a fiery demise may not be the best way to drum up business, particularly for an unproven venture like space tourism. Thus, even though the studio has sworn Branson to secrecy about his role in the film, it's a fair bet that the Last Son of Krypton successfully pulls the Virgin Galactic craft back from the brink. Moreover, rumors have also surfaced that the flight's depicted danger is not due to equipment failure—again, that could be bad for business—but because a certain arch super-villain tries to shoot down the spacecraft as part of his nefarious schemes.

We're not naming names, and Warner Brothers has been somewhat tight-lipped about the film's plot details, but we do know for a fact that two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey—who earned his first Academy Award for his role as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, helmed by Superman Returns director Bryan Singer—has signed on to play none other than Superman nemesis Lex Luthor. We'll find out exactly how and why the Big Blue Boy Scout has to catch a falling spacecraft next summer, but smart money says ol' Lex is taking potshots at Branson.

All in all, it should make for some stellar popcorn entertainment—and a healthy dose of future Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from a Classic Geek, the June 22, 2005 reprint of the June 30, 2004 edition of Geek Trivia, "Grand old snag." TechRepublic member Bill Ward offered some additional minutia to our discussion of the origins of the U.S. flag.

"The single most famous flag of all in U.S. history (and I'm talking a single flag, not a design) is 'Old Glory,' which flew over Fort McHenry during the siege of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. It is immortalized in the poem, 'The Siege of Fort McHenry,' which became the basis for the song, 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' the U.S. national anthem.

"'Old Glory' still exists; it hangs in the main atrium of the Smithsonian Museum's American History Museum. It has 15 stripes, and 15 stars, and is very impressively sized, as one of the largest flags flown in day-to-day usage. (It's huge.)"

All great points, dear reader. Keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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