‘Planetes’: NASA could use these misfits to clean up space junk

Sept. 06, 2011 | 2:43 p.m.
planetes horizontal Planetes: NASA could use these misfits to clean up space junk

Ai in a scene from "Planetes." (Bandai Entertainment)

Last week, a National Research Council report urged NASA to start thinking seriously about cleaning up the more than 22,000 fragments of satellites, rockets and other junk orbiting the Earth.

They’re way behind Ai Tanabe, Hachirota Hoshino and the other grunts of the Debris Section of Space Station ISPV-7 in the anime series “Planetes”; they’ve been disposing of that stuff since the show debuted in 2004. So now’s a good time to revisit the DVD set “Planetes: Complete Collection.”

The story line goes like this: In 2075, eager but maladroit Ai arrives at the Space Station and is dismayed to discover she’s been assigned to the Debris Section. This group of mismatched misfits is at the bottom of the station, physically and socially.

planetes cover crop Planetes: NASA could use these misfits to clean up space junk

"Planetes: Complete Collection" (Bandai Entertainment)

Supervisor Meyers frets; his assistant Arvind does sleight-of-hand magic; pilot Fee hides in a decompression chamber to sneak cigarettes. Because they’re understaffed, they’re often referred to as the Half Section; one of Ai’s fellow recruits says it’s because they’re also “half-trained, half-assed, half-cocked, halfhearted and half-crazy.”

Ai immediately begins squabbling with her instructor, veteran astronaut Hachirota “Hachimaki” Hoshino, when he stumbles in, clad in the upper part of his spacesuit and the diaper he’s required to wear during extravehicular maneuvers. He sums up their situation: “The work’s hard, it’s dangerous, our budget is a joke, and then there’s the diapers.”

The setup of a feisty newcomer joining an eccentric but hard-working crew, and the feuding friendship between an idealistic rookie and a seasoned senior officer, have been used in numerous anime series.

But Hachimaki has more depth than ordinary diamond-in-the-rough characters, and the setting allows for some imaginative story lines. Ai berates Hachimaki for destroying an orbiting plaque that’s inscribed with the hope that the children of a Third World country might grow up in peace. He replies that he’s following orders — and that the plaque is on a collision course with a satellite that tracks potential military threats to that country. And he makes sure the plaque will burn up in the atmosphere at a time when it will give those children a spectacular meteor shower.

When Ai and Hachimaki visit the moon for some R and R, they’re attacked by an inept troupe of ninja wannabes. During the ensuing fracas, Hachimaki breaks his ankle and spends the rest of his vacation hobbling around the lunar hospital. When he and Ai return to work, they share a series of linked adventures that reveal their pasts. Director Goro Taniguchi and his artists use the back stories to transform a fairly standard cast of characters into a group of intriguing individuals.

In addition to the usual interviews with the ADR director and voice actors, the extras on the “Planetes: Complete Collection” set include photographs of real space debris that’s fallen to Earth, and discussions with NASA officials about the threat posed to space exploration by thousands of objects 10 centimeters or larger orbiting the planet at speeds approaching 8 kilometers per second.

— Charles Solomon


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3 Responses to ‘Planetes’: NASA could use these misfits to clean up space junk

  1. joe says:

    uh…. what? i got here from google "science" news feed.

  2. joojoobees says:

    I loved this show. It has an interesting concept, that, as you mention, is VERY topical, It has some great characters (unlike most anime, almost all of the show's characters are adults, and trying to work for a living). And it also has a moving ending. Well worth watching for anyone who hasn't seen it!

  3. thelyniezian says:

    It might be fair to say that "Planetes" has some context- it's in a future where space travel has become commercialized and the "Half Section" works for a private company which obviously sees the need to keep something like this around (I've not worked out whether this is simply as they see a business interest in not having their vessels and space stations free of the danger space junk flying into them poses, or whether they actually get some small income over selling what they collect, or whether it's just another service they provide to interested clients as seems to be suggested here; either way it's not high up their list of priorities, though). Presumably these commercial interests are what makes some sort of space-junk cleaning-up service an economically viable proposition, and until that gets into full swing (as I hope it may one day), I wonder if the title's suggestion has merit…

    In terms of the series itself it's probably one of the more interesting series out there- unlike much of what passes for SF, it's actually realistic and believable in its view of the future of space travel. No space battles, aliens, FTL or giant robots, and actually focusses on the more mundane aspects of life in space, as it were at the bottom, but still manages to make it interesting. I really need to get on with seeing the rest of the series (or at least what I have of it).

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