Mariner 9

Mariner 9

Mariner 9

In its final few days at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, Mariner 9 is an installation by video artist Kelly Richardson that offers an eerie glimpse into the future of space exploration.

The installation consists of a panoramic video screen depicting the surface of Mars 200 years in the future, as viewed from the landing site of the hypothetical Mariner 9 mission to the Red Planet. The view is an unsettling one, the landscape littered with a myriad of crashed satellites, dead rovers and marooned landers, the detritus of over 2 centuries of space exploration of Mars.

Despite the sci-fi premise of scene presented, rendered using the same CGI software used by the film and game industries, it is largely devoid of action, with the odd blinking light, brief flickers of movement from a dying rover, and wisps of space dust floating across the Martian surface. Instead the piece becomes a contemplative mediation on the vicissitudes of space exploration, coupled with a sense of loss for past missions, with each new rover rendering its predecessor obsolete. There is also the powerful realisation that, although it is 140 million miles away, humans are already having an environmental impact on Mars

As with all great speculative fictions, it uses the future as a means of talking about the present. As a comment on the stalled space program, Mariner 9 could also be seen as a critique that, rather than manned missions and habitable bases, unmanned robotic landers may remain the limit of our exploration of Mars for centuries to come.

Branding the Moon

"Moscow shot for the Moon, and scored a bullseye".

Although the Americans were the first to set foot on the Moon in 1969, they were not the first to leave their mark on the lunar surface.

Lunar pennants

In a fascinating act of planetary branding, or a sophisticated piece of land-art to trump any Andy Goldsworthy, the Soviet Luna-2 mission was the first man-made object to reach the surface of the Moon, crash-landing east of Mare Imbrium, on September 14, 1959. The Universal Newsreels report called it a propaganda bonus for Krushchev, stating "Moscow shot for the Moon, and scored a bullseye".

On board the Luna-2 craft were 2 small spheres, composed on a number of pentagonal panels, like a small football. The panels were made from titanium with "thermoresistant polysiloxane enamels." Each pentagon is a pennant, printed with the USSR state seal - a wreath of grain around the hammer and sickle - or the message СССР (USSR), СЕНТЯБРЬ(September) , 1959.

Luna Sphere

The ball on display at Kansas Cosmodrome, as discussed here, is inscribed with ЯНВАРЬ (January), rather than September, so it is likely that these were also placed on the earlier Luna 1 mission which launched in January 1959. Due to a programming error, Luna 1 missed the Moon by approximately 6000km, and instead became the first man-made object to reach heliocentric object. Its orbit now lies somewhere between Earth and Mars. With typical Soviet opportunism, it was dubbed Mechta (Dream) and also referred to as the First Cosmic Rocket.

It is unclear whether the balls were fitted with an explosive charge, to be fired from the craft before impact, and scattering individual pentagonal pennants, or whether the sphere was designed to stay intact, bouncing and rolling across the lunar dust. Either way it is unclear whether they would have survived the heat generated by the impact of Luna 2, estimated at 11000°K.

This picture implies there were two different sizes of sphere. The Wikipedia article states that there was a third ball, which was located in the main part of the rocket, which crashed into the Moon 30 minutes after the Luna-2 probe.

Luna 2

As this excellent page on Soviet spacecraft pennants shows, it seems that all Soviet space craft carried metallic pennants, left to commemorate the missions. This included the various Mars probes and the Venera (Venus) missions. Later Luna missions included rectangular pennants that illustrated from whence the craft came.

The death of Kosmograd

Baikonour

Baikonour is dying.

"Kosmograd was a dream, Colonel. A dream that failed. Like space. We have no need to be here. We have an entire world to put in order."

William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Red Star, Winter Orbit

Starting with the launch of Sputnik, the Soviet Union used the Baikonour Cosmodrome, originally known as Kosmograd, as the launch site of virtually all of their space missions. (A few were launched from the former missile base at Plesetsk, and also Dombarovsky). Originally Baikonour was so secret that it appeared on no maps, and it was the objective of US U2 spy mission when Gary Powers was shot down in 1960.

Baikonour Spy Map

But with the break-up of the Soviet Union, Baikonour, now part of Kazakhstan, had to be leased by Russia from the Kazakh government, and suddenly looks less and less like a long term solution to the future of space exploration.

There has always been an air of decay around Baikonour, the terrain littered with abandoned launch facilities. The Soviet Union was not known for sensitive land use, with a territory so large, the overriding mentality always seemed to be to build new rather than reuse or adapt. (I'll be considering the topography of Cape Kennedy in a later post). Baikonour could be considered an experiment in distributed urbanism, a space city sprawled out over 1000s of square kilometres, connected by few roads but an extensive network of railways.

Baikonour

One of the most poignant symbols of the decay of Baikonour, and the Soviet dreams of space, is the collapsed hangar 112 that housed the only Buran orbiter to fly (OK-1.01). The roof of the poorly maintained building collapsed on May 12, 2002, killing 7 people, and crushing the orbiter and the Energia booster mock-up it was sitting on. With it were shattered any dreams of reviving the Buran program to fill the gap left by the cessation of the Space Shuttle program after the loss of Columbia.

The collapsed Hangar 112

The collapsed Hangar 112

The railways were key to Baikonour's survival. The rockets that launch at Baikonour come from other parts of the former Soviet Union, from the Energia plant in Russia, or the Yuzhmash facility in Ukraine, and with cargos from around the world docked in Russian and then transported across the vast steppes.

Baikonour map

Baikonour

Current Soyuz-FG launches are made from LC-1, also known as Gargarin's Start, which has been used for over 400 launches since Gagarin blasted off in Vostok-1 in 1961. A powerful diesel locomotive carries the rocket to the launch platform , where it is then elevated to a vertical position, for the attachment of the launch clamps and support towers. Just prior to launch, the towers drop away, and the rocket is held above the blast pit by the four launch clamps. Finally, the engines fire, and momentarily the rocket holds there, before the clamps release and the rocket slowly lifts off. It is one of the the most transformative acts, an architecture of performance, of modernity itself.

Soyuz launch

In Tim Furniss' words:

"The Soyuz looked beautiful in the floodlights, emitting wisps of frosty air from the cold metallic casing of the liquid oxygen tank. The view was deceptive. A Soviet journalist told me "if it blows up, turn around and run like hell!" The small press stand had a very thick wall behind it for protection. We heard occaisional announcements (in Russian) with major countdown milestones. Strange electronic music was played to herald new announcements. If you did not know the time of the launch, you could be having a cup of Russian tea behind the press stand and miss the whole thing! Eventually, came the call "zhaganinhee!" Engine start. The booster rumbled with a pinkish light beneath, which suddenly turned into bright gold and the engines built up to full thrust. The Soyuz seemingly hung there for ages, straining against the clamps suspending it over the flame trench. A gentle rumble turned into a continuous explosion of noise. We saw it all the way in the clear skies, with the jettison of the strap-on boosters, the shutdown and separation of the first core stage and the ignition of the second. It was a tremendous experience - the best of blast offs" Having a decentralised space industry across the Soviet Union was fine while the union held, but upon the break-up, Roskomos' efforts to maintain an active space program, severely hampered. In December 1991 Cosmonaut Krikalev circled the Earth aboard Mir while the nation that had placed him there fell apart beneath him. While not technically stranded on Mir, (Soyuz TM-13 was docked), there was little direction coming from Moscow. Krikalev, who had arrived in May 1991, finally left Mir in March 1992, having logged 311 days in space, 6 months more than originally planned.

With the collapse of the union came the end of collaboration. Ukraine held Russia to ransom over key components such as the Kurs radio telemetry docking system, and withdrew their fleet of tracking ships. Meanwhile in Kazakhstan cargoes at Baikonour were often looted, and there were frequent power cuts across the region. In July 1993, there was a power failure half and hour before the launch of Soyuz TM-17. Ultimately this all led to the decision to abandon Mir, which was put into de-orbit on 21 March 2001.

Twin launch pads 110

Baikonur is leased until 2050, but already plans are being made to move rocket launches to new sites. Roskosmos has already constructed a new launch facility at Kourou in French Guyana until such time that a new dedicated facility on Russian soil can be built, almost certainly at Vostochny, the former Svobodny missile base. It's likely that Kascosmos, the Kazakh space agency, may use some of the facilities, but the relatively northern latitude of Baikonour makes it less efficient for rocket launches than equatorial locations such as Kourou.

For the time being, the sight of Soyuz rockets rising over the steppe remains one of the potent reminders of the glories of the Soviet space program.

Launch at Baikonour

Red Mars 3

Mars One

As the Curiousity mission to Mars nears the Red Planet, another venture, Mars One, aims to build a permanent settled colony on Mars by 2023. They make it sound so easy. But landing on Mars has always been anything but easy.

The key concept of the Mars One project is that, by not trying to return from Mars, it instantly solves all the problems about escaping Mars' gravity well. It's a one way ticket for settlers, never to return. Whilst Elton tells us that "Mars ain't no place to raise your kids", the brains behind Mars One expect there to be no shortage of volunteers to start a new life in the off world colonies. The project creators seem to think that media interest will generate income in the ultimate reality TV show - "Big Brother will pale in comparison". But the Apollo mission should serve as a warning here. Whilst an estimated half a billion people watched Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the Moon, by the time of the last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, just 3 years later, TV audiences had grown bored of watching astronauts prancing around on the lunar surface.

Mars One

Watching the CGI footage of craft gently touching down, in a neatly arranged row, it seems they have grossly underestimated just how difficult it will be to land on Mars. In this super-slick video, the scientists at NASA behind the Curiousity mission, describe the 7 minutes of terror during which it will be impossible to determine whether Curiousity has made it or not. The rather hubristic video shows the solution to slow Curiousity down to a speed upon which it can deposit the rover gently, a process utilising atmospheric braking, parachutes and retro-rockets.

Mars Curiousity

Mars has just enough atmosphere to create a problem, but not really enough to provide enough atmospheric braking enable a glider-like approach that the Space Shuttle used to return to Earth. The thin atmosphere also means that parachutes will not be as effective as on Earth, and there is no large body of water in which to splashdown. Unlike the Moon, the gravitational pull of Mars is enough to generate considerable acceleration of vehicles towards it. For any return trip, the lander will need to carry enough fuel to lift off again, which will increase its weight and make it even harder to land. At least Mars One doesn't have this consideration.

As this chart by Bryan Christie Designs shows, previous missions have a low success rate., often referred to as the Martian Curse.

Mars Missions infographic

Mars One is not the only privately backed project looking to get people to move to Mars. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, which managed to send an unmanned vessel to the ISS earlier in 2012, also thinks that a manned Mars mission will be not big deal. Musk figures he needs to get the cost down to $500,000 per person:

'"roughly the cost of a middle-class house in California.” Why that price point? Musk imagines that then, "enough people would choose to sell all their stuff and move to Mars."'

But apart from the price-point, not much seems to have been determined other than some vague assertions that that everything will need to be reusable to make it economic, and that the fuel for the return journey must be available on Mars itself:

""My vision is for a fully reusable rocket transport system between Earth and Mars that is able to re-fuel on Mars - this is very important - so you don't have to carry the return fuel when you go there"

Musk's thinking doesn't seem to have got any further than Wernher von Braun, who conceived his Marsprojekt as early as 1946, and refined it almost continuously over the next 23 years, including a program made for Disney in 1957. On screen von Braun, a showman as much as a scientist, makes an elegant, considered proposal for a manned voyage to Mars. These proposals are even more remarkable given that no-one had even placed any craft in orbit.

Mars Projekt Mars Projekt

Inevitably, von Braun's counterpart in the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, also harboured plans to go to Mars, and in 1960, gained permission from the Kremlin to forge ahead with proposals for both manned and unmanned interplanetary missions. In 1960, 2 attempts were made to launch probes to Mars, in the Marsnik program. In 1962, the Mars 1 probe was launched, but only to within approximately 190,000 km from Mars before resuming a heliocentric orbit. The Mars 2 and Mars 3 probes did at least reach Mars. in 1971 but their descent modules malfunctioned either on descent or shortly after landing on the Martian surface.

Most people think of the American Viking landers as the first craft to land on Mars, but they were not. Mars 3 landed successfully on the surface of the Red Planet in 1971, but only managed to broadcast less than 20 seconds of data back to Earth, including the first photograph of the planet's surface, before a malfunction occurred, or a dust-storm destroyed some of the equipment. It would be another 5 years before Vikings 1 and 2 would send back extensive data and colour images of the Martian landscape.

In 1973, the Mars 4 and Mars 5 probes both achieved orbit of Mars, but did not included descent modules. From then on, the 'Martian Curse' seems to have taken hold of the Soviet space program. In 1973, Mars 6 did crash-land a descent module on the surface but was able to transmit data during the descent. The Mars 7 probe reached Mars in 1974 but the lander separated prematurely and missed the surface of the planet.

It was another 15 years before the Soviet Union attempted to reach Mars or its moons again. The Phobos 1 and 2 probes were planned in the 1970s but finally launched in 1989, designed to collect soil from Phobos and gather extensive data on Mars. However, neither spacecraft made it to Mars.

In 1996 another probe, the Mars 96 spacecraft failed to achieve orbit. And of course earlier this year the Phobos-Grunt vessel failed to exit Earth's orbit.

Korolev's plans for manned missions were as ambitious as they were impractical. Unlike the cautious US approach of small incremental steps, re-iterating and refining, the Soviet approach to spaceflight was to think on the grand scale, and try to turn dreams into reality by sheer force of will. The history of Soviet rocketry is full of grand visions and a long list of heroic failures, punctuated by the odd genuine success. In this aspect the Soviet space program mirrored many other facets of Soviet society.

Soviet manned mission proposal 1960

Korolev's 1960 plan was suitably grandiose:

"According to Korolev, the manned expedition on the surface of the planet would include 3 or 4 spacecraft flying in formation. The crew, returning from the surface of the planet, was expected to dock with one of the backup ships, which would be then used for the flight back to Earth"

The plan evolved further to become a Martian 'train", five moveable platforms that could traverse the Martian surface, from pole to pole, gathering samples and data:

"One platform would carry the crew cabin with a manipulator and a device for drilling soil. The second platform would be a launch pad for an aircraft capable of flying in the Martian atmosphere. Two more platforms would carry main and backup return rockets, which would allow the crew to take off from Mars.

Finally, the fifth platform would be equipped with a nuclear-powered generator, which would supply the expedition with energy. The "train" would travel across the Martian terrain for a year, collecting samples and relaying data to the base craft orbiting the Red Planet.

At the end of the mission, the crew would take off from the surface to rendezvous with the orbiting base ship for the return journey home."

Planning for manned missions to Mars gained new impetus in the Soviet Union following the success of the Apollo program in landing Americans on the moon. Once the Stars and Stripes had been planted on the surface of the Sea of Tranquility, Soviet ambitions turned away from the Moon and looked with renewed vigour towards Venus and Mars.

Manned Mars mission proposals cropped up again in 1969, 1987, 1989 and 1999. The 1969 project looked to develop a general purpose interplanetary rocket, based around the N1M nuclear powered launch vehicle,a modified version of the massive N1, the Soviet rival to the Saturn V rocket.

The 1988 project was based around using a space station such as Mir as an orbiting ship-yard. The rocketry would place into Earth orbit all the constituent parts to create the fleet of craft to travel to Mars. The space station was to be used as an assembly point to build the vessels that would make the 9 month trip to Mars.

Mars Opportunity panorama

But what will men do on Mars? Recently released by NASA is an amazing panorama of the surface of Mars, stitched together from over 800 photos taken from the Opportunity rover, which has been wandering around the planet since 2004. If you needed any more convincing of the crushing loneliness of being stuck on Mars, it is traced out in the wheel tracks of the Opportunity rover, patiently toiling on its mission, much like the last remaining robot in Silent Running.


Previously

ma.r.s.

ma.r.s. C-print

Finishing this week is Thomas Ruff's exhibition ma.r.s. at the Gagosian gallery on Brittania Street.

The exhibition features a series of large C-prints of manipulated photographs, based on digital images originally taken by the HiRISE camera aboard the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2006.

Ruff firstly blows these image up to room size proportions, often 2.5 metres high, to the point where the C-print takes on the surface appearance of a painting.

Further manipulations push the images further - sometimes slanting them to make it look that they were taken from a lower angle, rather than an orbiting craft; sometimes saturating the colours with a red hue, and sometimes adding a 3D stereographic process that splits out red-green spectrum.

ma.r.s. C-print

In the description that accompanies the exhibition at the Mai 36 gallery in Zurich in 2011, Valeria Lieberman describes Ruff's Ma.r.s series thus:

"Not only does he use the pictures themselves; he processes them to bring out the aesthetic quality of his scientific sources. He invites us to take a fictional voyage of exploration into the beauty of outer space. Given the current debate on the near future of manned space travel for the public-at-large, these pictures seem to prefigure what travellers will one day bring home from their journeys into outer space."

ma.r.s. C-print

Viewed close up, the surface of Mars occupying almost all of your vision, it is almost possible to fall into the image, to be hovering over the red planet, to imagine yourself there. Then you pull back, and contemplate the immense human achievement in capturing these images, and the meticulous work of Ruff in turning these scientific images into works of art.

ma.r.s. C-print

You can view the original HiRISE images on the NASA HiRISE viewer site. There's also a good review of the MRO mission on the Planetary Society site.

Red Mars 2

Soviet cities on Mars

"In the bottomless night, glowing brightly out there, Is Mars, my native red star.
But the pull of the Earth is heavy to bear
And its atmosphere weighs on my heart."

Alexander Bogdanov, A Martian Stranded on Earth

"Fifty years ago I got to see Lenin in that same hall, with his broad shoulders and high chest - talking from a small raised tribune. He moved spontaneously and effortlessly on the tribune, addressing different parts of the audience… I recall him now as the flame that burns on the Field of Mars. The revolution came and ascended the stairs."

Viktor Shklovsky, On the Dissimilarity of the Similar

"I have always said, heard, that it would not be strange that there had been civilization on Mars, but maybe capitalism arrived there, imperialism arrived and finished off the planet,"

Hugo Chavez

In the same week (04/11/11) that the "astronauts" in the pretend space mission to Mars emerged from their 500 day solitary confinement, the Phobos-Grunt probe, which was supposed to go to the actual Mars, developed a fault which kept it in orbit around Earth. As metaphors go this is pretty compelling: the Soviet Union/ Russia may be drawn towards Mars, but seem ever to be bound by the gravity of Earth. Twas ever thus. Soviet visions of Mars have always been far more powerful than the sporadic attempts at exploration of the Red Planet.

But why was the Soviet Union so obsessed with Mars? Was the Red Planet the perfect symbol of the dream-myth of Communism? Or was it just the coincidence of the colour red? In this post I will explore the influence of Mars on Soviet art and culture as the canvas for a projected fantasy, a planet wide 'field of dreams'.

Mars as Utopia

Mars has always been a metaphor for an alternate Earth. Since HG Wells' War of the Worlds, the premise of alien society on Mars has been a common literary theme. In Soviet art and culture, the planet of Mars often became a world to be conquered or colonised, or most interestingly used as an example of a Communist utopia . Whereas HG Wells used the Martians as part of an anti-imperialist revenge fantasy to represent his disgust at British Empire atrocities in Tasmania, others used Mars to imagine a post-imperialist society. It was a theme that Russian writers and artists would turn to repeatedly.

poster by Prusakov and Borisov for 1919 film A Journey to Mars

The first Bolshevik Utopia in literature is widely regarded is Bogdanov's Red Star. A rather turgid novel, it was written in 1908, shortly after the 1907 coup which saw Csar Nicholas resume Imperial power, after the Russian Revolution of 1905, which is when the novel is set. In it, a Earthling revolutionary Leonid is taken to Mars to be taught their ways, where he meets one of the most important members of Martian society, Menni, and falls in love with a Martian called Netti.

Whilst perhaps not a Utopia, life on Bogdanov's Mars is fairly idyllic. It is a socialism based on abundance, not scarcity, yet the Martians do not aspire to materialism. A planned economy and advanced cybernetic control and communication systems for a population of billions allows Martian's to only work when they want, own as much material possessions as they desire, and eliminate the needs for money. Spatially, most of the surface is either inhabited or left as parkland, there is no genuine wilderness, and a complex system of irrigation is required for agricultural land. There is little detail on the degree of urbanisation of Mars, and little depiction of the rural culture. The capital city, Centropolis, houses the majority of people, and Leonid also travels to another city on the other side, but there is no mention of suburbs. Martians fly between major cities at tremendous speed.

As Daniel Gerould writes:

"Drawing upon Wells and Western SF for the myth of superior beings on Mars with advanced technology, as well as upon the then popular theory of Martian-made canals, Bogdanov in Red Star uses the already classic formula of the visitor from outside voyaging to the alien country and then returning home. During the revolution of 1905, Martian agents on Earth choose the social revolutionary Leonid as the human most fit to come with them to their planet and see the future in operation, both because Russia is the country most attuned to the times to come and because Leonid personally is endowed with "as little individualism as possible" and therefore stands a chance of adjusting to a collectivist and egalitarian society. Just as in the 1920s and '30s the Soviet leaders would bring leftist visitors from the West to show them how well communism worked, so the Martians offer their guest a model for subsequent human social organisation."

Dramatic tension in the book is introduced by way of failing resources, due to overpopulation. The Martians have to chose between waging war on the barbaric people of Earth, or braving the storms of Venus to secure the supplies of 'minus-matter' they need. While concepts of recycling and conservation are barely considered by Bogdanov, nor what happens to all the waste they must have produced to have completely exhausted Mars' natural resources, he does at least consider the issues that may face a post-revolutionary society.

poster celebrating Soviet space exploration

Bogdanov wrote a further book set on Mars, Engineer Menni, written in 1913 as a prequel to Red Mars. Engineer Menni details the creation of the communist state on Mars and the over through of the feudal house of Aldo. It is possible to read Engineer Menni (who also is a central character of Red Star) as an allegorical tale, with the evolution of the socialist society on Mars predicting the coming revolution on Earth. Through the lens of the society on Mars, Bogdanov was able to show what post-revolutionary Russia might look like, and indeed a planet wide Soviet Union.

Before he dies, Engineer Menni has a series of apocalyptic visions--of the exhaustion of energy, of the dying Sun, of the end of life, of the engulfing void--and he must somehow overcome his nihilistic despair.

"We have exploded and cast into the sun all of our planets in turn, except the one upon which we stand at this moment. The energy released gave us an additional hundred thousand years. We have spent most of that time trying to find the means to resettle in other solar systems. Here we have failed utterly. We could not completely conquer time and space."

The third book was meant to be based on the poem he wrote called "A Martian Stranded on Earth', but Bogdanov died before it was completed. As a pioneer of blood transfusions (a theme which is also present in Red Star) he exchanged blood with a student who has both malaria and TB - he died but the student lived.

Stalin was a big fan of Engineer Menni and Red Star, and drew inspiration from these novels in his zeal to build the disastrous White Sea Canal. Stalin's interpretation of Engineer Menni is remarkable. In Loren Graham's "The ghost of the executed engineer: technology and the fall of the Soviet Union", he writes:

"Stalin was a great admirer of canal projects, and he was fascinated by the role of engineers in their construction, especially engineers whose expertise was necessary but who could not be trusted because of their political views. Two of his favourite novels before the Revolution were Aleksandr Bogdanov's Red Star and Engineer Menni. In these works of science fiction, the builders of socialism on the planet Mars have to rely on an engineer named Menni, educated before the Socialist Revolution, who is both brilliant and traitorous, Menni recommends a path for a canal that purposefully delays construction and causes the deaths of many labourers. Menni is arrested, the mistakes are rectified, and the canal is completed. Stalin believed that, if kept under surveillance, even hostile technical specialists could be forced to yield their expertise for the benefit of the state."

New forms for a new planet

In setting works on Mars, writers and filmmakers could explore new forms, and new spatial arrangements, and discover a synergy with much of the work of avant-garde artists and architects, both Suprematists and Constructivists.

Owen Hatherley, in the article Delirious Moscow, writes:

"One of the war cries of the Russian Futurists was The War of the Worlds' Martian roar 'ULL-AA', which would in 1919 provide the title for one of Viktor Shklovsky's manifestos for the alienation effect, 'Ullya, Ullya, Martians'. In order to truly estrange , to provide the distance from everyday life’s stock responses and learned indifference that, for Shklovsky, is the key element in great art (be it Tolstoy or the circus), the alienation effect is taken literally to mean the visitation by the alien nation. Shklovsky writes of an avant-garde work being 'worthy of my brothers, the Martians'. This is what much of the Russian Avant-Garde saw themselves as. Like Tatlin's Third International Tower , whose iron legs and perpetual motion are akin to the Martians' walking tripods, this was something as fearsome, uncanny and technologically terrifying as the alien invasion, and intended to be every bit as threatening to existing society."

Svetlana Boym, writing in Ruins of Modernity, also notes Shklovsky's admiration of Tatlin's tower:

"from the very beginning, the Tatlin Tower engendered its double - a discursive monument almost as prominent as the architectural original. Victor Shlovksy is one of the few contemporaries who appreciates the unconventional architecture of the Tower, which for his is an architecture of estrangement. Its temporal vectors point towards the past and the future, toward 'the iron age of Ovid' and the 'age of construction cranes, beautiful like wise Martians'."

Gustav Klucis Dynamic City (1919)

Krutikov Flying City

Malevich - Future Planits, Houses for Earth Dwellers

Krutikov's Space City of the Future, designed in 1928, imagined a floating city supported by a anti-gravity coil. Meanwhile in 1919 Gustav Klucis made compositions for an ideal Dynamic City, Malevich devised his Planits, and El Lissitsky's Proun constructions became ever more otherworldly.

El Lissitsky: Proun

Constructivist visions of Mars

The other pre-eminent Russian work of fiction set on Mars is Aelita, by Alexei Tolstoy, written in 1923, six years after the second Russian Revolution of 1917 and the instigation of a Socialist state. In it the character Los travels to Mars to lead a popular uprising against the Elders. When the rebellion is crushed Los and Aelita, the princess of Mars, seizes control to establish her own totalitarian regime. Again the book can be consider as an allegorical tale, though of course Tolstoy could write from a historical perspective rather than predictive as Bogdanov had to.

It was made into a film Aelita, Queen of Mars by Iakov Protozanov in 1924. The Constructivist style of its film sets, designed by Isaac Rabinovich, and with outlandish costumes by Alexandra Exter, depicted the advanced state of Martian society, as something for the new USSR to aspire to. While it was a major influence on Flash Gordon, Metropolis, the film fell out of favour in later years, perhaps for being a little too accurate in prefiguring Soviet society under Stalin.

Set design for Aelita by Issac Rabinovich

Set design for Aelita by Issac Rabinovich

Stills from Aelita

Also in 1924, an animated film Interplanetary Revolution, was made by N. Khodataev, Z. Komisarenko, and Y. Merkulov. In it capitalists escaping to Mars discover the revolution has spread throughout the galaxy.

Mars in American Science Fiction

In contrast to the early Russian works, early American science fiction saw Mars as little more than an exotic stageset, the backdrop for picaresque adventures such as those of John Carter, in the Edgar Rice Burroughs series of pulp novels. Beginning with A Princess of Mars in 1911, the Barsoom series of ER Burroughs was eventually made up of 11 books written up to 1943. Mars is considered little more than a desert environment, based upon the astronomical observations of Percival Lovell, and beset with warring tribes and ferocious monsters.

Red Planet = Red Menace

But it wasn't just the Soviets who would align themselves with the Red Planet. In the 1950's, American cinema was more than ready to equate Martians with Soviets and the burgeoning Red Scare. The 1953 film version of The War of the Worlds made the Martian invasion an allegory for a Communism invasion, and there were similar themes in 1952's Red Planet Mars and 1953's Invaders from Mars.

Red Planet Mars

Expanding the scope further, alien invaders as a metaphor for the red menace was a common theme of many sci-fi movies of the time, Them (19954), This Island Earth (1955), and 1956's Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Earth vs The Flying Saucers).

Operating in stark contrast to the Hollywood melodrama of Martian invasion, Pavel Klushantsev's Road to the Stars (1954) is a serious attempt by a Soviet filmmaker to show how the Soviet conquest of space would play out. A young man learns about spaceflight, before a sequence shows a lunar landing. The final sequence shows a lunar base, manned explorations of Mars, the moons of Saturn, and 'beyond the infinite'. The film was rushed to completion and released shortly after the launch of Sputnik 1 shocked the world.

A Red City for a Red Planet

The lure of the Red Planet to the Communists was surely the chance to begin afresh with a tabula rasa, where Communism did not have first to overthrow an incumbent capitalist society, and sweep away its aristocratic past. If there had to be a Socialist Revolution (as in Red Star), it was a total, world revolution.

In 1929, the sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich, part of the radical Constructivist architectural group OSA created a plan for a Red City of Planet of Communism. This disurbanist plan reimagined a city not as a series of concentric rings radiating out from a central hub, which owed its typology to the urbanism of a feudal era, but as a series of rhythms, a distribution of resources, functions and occupancies.

Mikhail Okhitovich Disurbanist proposal

Mikhail Okhitovich Disurbanist proposal

"The whole world is at our service, and first and foremost, transport and communications… We ask ourselves, how shall we resettle all the urban populations and economic activities? Answer: not according to the principles of crowding, but according to the principle of maximum freedom, ease and speed of communication."

Okhitovich saw further than any other contemporary urban theorist, that distributed electrical power, advanced telecommunications and high-speed transport networks created new possibilities for human habitation, and could eradicate the tension between the urban/rural that bedevilled the Soviet Socialist project. The disurbanist proposal was not anti-urban, it was a continuous urban field, city as network, city as process. Thus Okhitiovich prefigured contemporary dialogues on infrastructure ecologies, network displacements effects. As Catherine Cooke writes:

"'The City', wrote Okhitovich, 'is not some kind of sum of people living in "one" place. The city is a socially, not territorially, determined human entity … It is an economic and cultural complex'. Moreover: 'The question to be elucidated now is, must the different functions of the city exist in one physical body; will they become estranged by separation, as the parts of a biological organism would be? In other words, is the ever increasing crowding of people, buildings etc on one spot inevitable or not? Let us examine by what means people are fastened to one place; from what does this attraction to one another derive, this mighty centripetal force?'"

Okhitovich's utopianism matches that of Bogdanov completely, the potential to build a new class consciousness by rejecting the forms of the past, and build a worldwide Socialist settlement. Ultimately, Okhitovich was too much the post-Marxist visionary, unable to scale back from the grand plan, too open to be attacked for failing to directly address the immediate issues of peasant dwellings. Under Stalin, visionary design that did nothing for the common man was considered itself bourgeois, and Okhitovich's fate was sealed under the Stalinist Terror, betrayed by rival architects Mordvinov and Alabian.

Okhitovich didn't specify which planet this Red City might be built on. It was a city reaching around the world, one that could not be confined to national boundaries. Could it be that Okhitovich planned his utopian city not to be on Earth at all? Could it have been meant for Mars?

In Soviet Russia, Mars travels to you

As with so much in Soviet society, the theoretical vision was far in advance of the practical application. As Phobos-Grunt's orbit slowly decays, dooming it to crash back to Earth later this month (January 2012), its destiny is also to be a Martian stranded on Earth.


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