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Old March 13th 18, 21:25   #1
Raw Shark
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Real-world inspiration for Babylon 5 station?

I've long wondered, did JMS have any real world inspirations for operations and daily life aboard the Babylon 5 station? He wrote quite a bit about the messy, imperfect ways that things work on B5, be it logistics, living quarters assignments, or the availability of fruit and vegetables from the hydroponic gardens ('freshies' in the lexicon I learned). The station's onboard spaceport for passengers and cargo even got its own episode, 'By Any Means Necessary.' I am thinking that all of this did not come out of thin air, though he certainly possesses the imagination to do so. Has he ever mentioned any military bases or other facilities, which might have provided him a window on how a large, mission-oriented complex would function, and the sorts of things that frequently go wrong? The other possibility is that he had fictional inspirations, like the station from the SF series Venus Equilateral by George O. Smith. I've seen him mention other SF inspirations, but not that one, so I can't be sure.

Between 2002 and 2006, I spent a summer and three winters working at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the largest U.S. science station, and the largest settlement of any kind there. I was in logistics, and learned quite a bit along the way about how such a place functions. It is a logistical and transport hub which is used by numerous nations' Antarctic research programs across the continent, including New Zealand, Italy and France (joint program), and Russia. And similar to B5, the answer to how things work is often 'imperfectly.' I also hosted a weekly Babylon 5 viewing night in the Coffee House bar during the winter of 2004, which was well-attended. But we all adapted to living in dorms, sharing all facilities, having limited access to 'freshies' from the greenhouse or when they arrived on pallets on one of the U.S. Air Force transport jets supporting our mission, and having our schedules and operations bend around the arrivals and departures of those aircraft, who's coming and going as their contracts begin and end, etc. And likewise for the annual supply ship offload and fuel tanker operations. Life down there was a real experience in a fascinating microcosm, which is rather similar to what the characters experience over the course of Babylon 5.

Anyway, just wondering if JMS has ever discussed whether anything fictional or non-fictional inspired his depiction of life onboard a huge space station. I doubt it was all off the top of his head, but maybe that's exactly what happened.

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Old March 14th 18, 07:00   #2
b5historyman
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Re: Real-world inspiration for Babylon 5 station?

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Originally Posted by Raw Shark View Post
I've long wondered, did JMS have any real world inspirations for operations and daily life aboard the Babylon 5 station? He wrote quite a bit about the messy, imperfect ways that things work on B5, be it logistics, living quarters assignments, or the availability of fruit and vegetables from the hydroponic gardens ('freshies' in the lexicon I learned). The station's onboard spaceport for passengers and cargo even got its own episode, 'By Any Means Necessary.' I am thinking that all of this did not come out of thin air, though he certainly possesses the imagination to do so. Has he ever mentioned any military bases or other facilities, which might have provided him a window on how a large, mission-oriented complex would function, and the sorts of things that frequently go wrong? The other possibility is that he had fictional inspirations, like the station from the SF series Venus Equilateral by George O. Smith. I've seen him mention other SF inspirations, but not that one, so I can't be sure.

Between 2002 and 2006, I spent a summer and three winters working at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the largest U.S. science station, and the largest settlement of any kind there. I was in logistics, and learned quite a bit along the way about how such a place functions. It is a logistical and transport hub which is used by numerous nations' Antarctic research programs across the continent, including New Zealand, Italy and France (joint program), and Russia. And similar to B5, the answer to how things work is often 'imperfectly.' I also hosted a weekly Babylon 5 viewing night in the Coffee House bar during the winter of 2004, which was well-attended. But we all adapted to living in dorms, sharing all facilities, having limited access to 'freshies' from the greenhouse or when they arrived on pallets on one of the U.S. Air Force transport jets supporting our mission, and having our schedules and operations bend around the arrivals and departures of those aircraft, who's coming and going as their contracts begin and end, etc. And likewise for the annual supply ship offload and fuel tanker operations. Life down there was a real experience in a fascinating microcosm, which is rather similar to what the characters experience over the course of Babylon 5.

Anyway, just wondering if JMS has ever discussed whether anything fictional or non-fictional inspired his depiction of life onboard a huge space station. I doubt it was all off the top of his head, but maybe that's exactly what happened.

Raw Shark

"Make your choice, adventurous stranger,
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder til it drives you mad,
What would have happened, if you had?"
- C.S. Louis, The Silver Chair
By Any Means Necessary was written by Kathryn Drennan (Joe's wife at the time). Now I'm not certain there's been any really big discussions around the logistics but you could always check on www.jmsnews.com

You were at McMurdo? Are you sure you are who you say you are, didn't run into any crazy Norwegians taking pot shots at Huskies?
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Old March 14th 18, 10:26   #3
Springer
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Re: Real-world inspiration for Babylon 5 station?

I'd love to hear more about your time at McMurdo.

Well, B5 was described as an 'O'Neill class' station, after the real life scientist Gerard O'Neill of Princeton University, who in 1974 came up with the idea for an orbiting space station that would have been a cylinder, or possibly a ring, that rotated to produce the centrifugal force to simulate gravity. He envisioned an entirely space-based community and economy, and even testified before Congress about it. His ideas are collected in his book, The High Frontier, which described not only the science and technology of such a space station, but what it would be like to live inside one. The idea was popular and spawned several other books about the subject, including one called Colonies in Space by T. A. Heppenheimer, which proudly described in the blurb how it would describe what sex is like in zero gravity, which always reminded me of Carolyn Sykes' 'frictionless sheets'. So yeah, that kind of futurism was quite popular in the 1970s where lots of those ideas were discussed, and in science fiction as well, I guess for example Frederik Pohl's novel Gateway, for example, describes a port of call, of a sort.

But also places like McMurdo, studies for Mars and lunar bases, all kinds of things like that were available fro JMS to draw upon, but I've definitely heard him cite Gerard O'Neill before.
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Old March 14th 18, 17:25   #4
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Re: Real-world inspiration for Babylon 5 station?

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You were at McMurdo? Are you sure you are who you say you are, didn't run into any crazy Norwegians taking pot shots at Huskies?
Oh I had to stop for a sec just to say something about the above quote - CLASSIC!
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Old March 23rd 18, 20:07   #5
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Re: Real-world inspiration for Babylon 5 station?

Not one Norwegian in McMurdo! And no dogs. Or guns. And if you ask where to find the flamethrowers, people ask if you're crazy. So that was all very disappointing. The Thing is a terrific film, is well-regarded on the continent, and is also shown in the Coffee House from time to time. I first saw it on a 5 inch, black and white tv with rabbit ears and terrible picture when I was 12, and was so impressed I think I knew I'd be going to Antarctica someday.

Springer, McMurdo was a truly unique place in my experience. There are lots of pictures of it online, although I haven't seen any that label what is what. Maybe I'll get around to creating that one day. It's a big work camp, dedicated to supporting science. Only a handful of the people there are scientists and science techs, and the rest of us were 'science support,' meaning mechanics, heavy equipment operators, tradespeople, utility operators, weather observers, radar techs, IT workers, cooks, dishwashers, medical personnel, small departments for housing, human resources, administration, recreation and so forth. The Thing was right about the division and specialization of labor. I was in the Supply Department, which in my case meant that I worked in an old, dirty warehouse for maintenance and construction materials. The plumbers, utility techs or pipefitters would come tell me what they needed, and I would go to one of the OSAs (outside storage areas), locate it, dig it out of the snow, or shovel it out of one of the Milvans (cargo containers used as storage sheds), get it in the work truck or on one of the forklifts, and take it wherever they needed it. That was the daily activity, along with unpacking and inventorying items from the supply ship (which takes most of the winter), and driving cargo and passengers to and from the airfields when needed. Outside activity is a constant in summer and winter, we bundled up, did our jobs and got used to the bitter cold. I also tended bar part time at all three bars, being Southern Exposure, the smoking bar (the most trouble and the most fun), the Coffee House and Gallagher's, the non-smoking bar. Alcohol consumption there ranges between social and extremely heavy. There were about 1,100 people there in the summer, when the sun just circles in the sky for almost five months, and about 200 in the winter, when the sun disappears for almost five months, which is very peaceful. The station itself is a collection of spartan buildings, battered by the high winds. Dormitories, heated and unheated warehouses, OSAs, rows of Milvans, cargo facilities, solid waste and hazardous waste facilities, a water plant, a power plant, a wastewater plant, communications facilities, the huge Vehicle Maintenance Facility (VMF, also known as the Heavy Shop, where most of the vehicles are worked on), fuel tanks, gyms, bars, administrative buildings, the medical building, the Firehouse, the large Crary Lab complex, the helo hangar, there used to be a bowling alley, and the huge building 155, which contains a number of offices, the radio station, my favorite dorm areas, and the Galley, where we ate all our meals. 155 is the big blue building in the pictures, right in the middle. And there's more, buildings scattered for miles and miles around, things that can't be located near everything else, like the Cosmic Ray Observatory, the explosives locker, the Black Island communications relay station, and the nuclear detonation detector at Windless Bight. And three airfields, not counting the helicopter pads. In short (too late), it's a big, complicated mess with lots of activities going on in summer and winter. What else would you like to know?

My friend Anthony Powell made a great documentary a few years ago called Antarctica: A Year on Ice. He filmed it over the course of a decade, and it illustrates life and work at McMurdo Station and the surrounding areas beautifully. It looks like it's no longer streaming on Netflix. But I can be seen for a few seconds in the DVD version, during the scene with Anthony and Christine's wedding in the Chapel of the Snows in the winter of 2003, just kind of sitting there, wondering why someone is filming me. It's the best documentary I have seen about Antarctica, and I hope he does another someday. After seeing it in the theater, I got to call some old friends and say 'I saw you in a movie tonight.' which surprised the hell out of them. That was fun. I haven't been there in 11 years, but I still dream about the continent fairly often. Antarctica gets in your blood, it's a part of you forever, and it keeps calling us to come back. It never stops, and I miss it.

Raw Shark

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Old April 5th 18, 13:43   #6
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Re: Real-world inspiration for Babylon 5 station?

That's really fascinating! I've often wondered what it would be like to live there for a while (in my case probably a very short period!). I'm not sure I could deal with being stuck with the same few amount of people for that long of time. Were there people that were hard to get along with that you maybe dreaded seeing day after day? How did you even find out about such an opportunity and how did the selection process work?

I'm pretty sure I saw your friend's documentary. I feel like I saw it two or three years ago. The title sounds right as does the way you described it.
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Old April 6th 18, 03:26   #7
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Re: Real-world inspiration for Babylon 5 station?

Sinclair, it was different. It's a busy place, with most people working 9 hours a day, 6 days a week, plus some part-time gigs like bartending, working in the store, or pinsetting in the now-demolished bowling alley. I found the summer to be very difficult to adjust to, with the sun circling in the sky for five months. When you're living under the thin part of the ozone layer, and surrounded by ice and snow, and working outside every day, that's a lot of sunlight. Maintaining a stable sleep schedule was difficult (at all times of year, actually), and when winter finally arrived I felt like I was waking up, and could think clearly again. Winter was more for me, I loved it. We shipped the summer people out, and settled in for one long night. The sun went down and stayed down for five months, and we got used to the dark and the colder winter, with ambient temperatures down to -50 F (-45 C), and wind chills down to -90 F (-67 C). And the 'Herbies,' the hurricane force blizzards which rolled through fairly often. The population drops from 1,100 to around 200 at McMurdo, and maybe 12 Kiwis at Scott Base over the hill. The work changes from actively supporting science and transport to closing up empty dorms and other buildings for the winter, unpacking materials and cargo, and basically getting everything ready for the coming summer. In those days, there were no flights in winter except for medivac flights (I saw one in three winters). So we were stuck there, which was part of the fun, being physically cut off from the outside world for eight months and knowing it. Things are quieter, there are no helos buzzing around overhead at all hours (the helo pad was not far from my dorm room window, so this is something I noticed quite a lot, especially when I was trying to sleep) as there are in summer. The helos get their rotors removed, and they get locked up in their hangar for the winter, while the pilots and maintenance people go home for the season. The heavy equipment operators start expecting bribes of beer for tasks like plowing snow around work centers. The parties are a lot smaller, and we got to know the people around us better. We could look out a window and tell who a person was by the way they walked, despite being totally covered up in identical work clothes, plus being in the dark and often blowing snow. And a study, I believe in the 1960's, found that after a winter, paraphrasing, 'To a man, the winter-overs were unwilling to trust outsiders.' Freshies are harder to come by, so we got used to eating old apples, or making banana bread from old bananas that someone froze in a milvan and forgot about. And then there are the auroras, stunningly shown in Anthony's film. They're breathtaking, especially if you can grab a work truck and get away from the station's lights, which we were not supposed to do, but you know...

I got into it in 2002 because my sister had already spent two years there. She called me to say she was miserable in her job in Boston, and I was almost equally miserable in my job in Colorado. She said she was going back and it would be more fun if I went too. I said 'sure, so I just apply and sign up for a summer contract?' She said I could do a summer if I wanted to be a tourist, or I could take the plunge and sign up for 14 months and get the real experience. That sounded more like it, and that's what I did.

I didn't find anyone there to be difficult, but everyone else seemed to, ha ha. No, there were indeed people who were not the best to be around all the time, but it's not as bad as you might think. Most folks start with a summer contract, and it become obvious early on who's going to be able to get along ('get on' in metric) with others. There's a strict non-violence policy, a slap can (and does) get a person fired and sent home. The mission there is simple, supporting science. The way we all worked together is also simple, customer service. When you take your work truck to the heavy shop for maintenance, you're the mechanic's customer. When they needed parts from me, they were my customer, and so forth. In the pursuit our mission, I think we all found ourselves getting along with people we didn't necessarily want to get along with, that's just what life there calls for. Everyone's in the same boat, and the sense of community there is strong, with a few notable disruptions from time to time. Sometimes those people turn out to not be so bad and you make a new friend. And the ones who can't get along either move on to someplace else, or don't get hired again, in which case they still end up someplace else. But it's also easier to get along with people when you're having fun, and we had a lot of fun down there.

U.S. Antarctic Program jobs: polar.org

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Old April 6th 18, 13:26   #8
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Re: Real-world inspiration for Babylon 5 station?

Sounds intriguing! If I wasn't getting married next month I might very well apply. I'm kind of in a rut in my current job and definitely need some kind of a change. I'm not quite sure the fiancé would be willing to go along with that.

It's definitely an experience and a continent that very few people will ever get to do or see.
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