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.

Karasik

Related to the previous post on Lazar Khidekel, the artist Mikhail Karasik has created a limited edition artist's book titled Homage to Khidekel.

Karasik is one of the most important artists working in Russia today whose work is informed by the radical experiment in art and architecture at the start of the Soviet Union.

Khidekel1

The book consists of 12 lithographic prints, inspired by Khidekel's work and designs. The use of lithographs is inspired by the extensive use of lithography at the UNOVIS school where Khidekel studied and taught.

Khidekel2

Karasik has also included prints of woodworking tools such as a plane and a mortice gauge. To Karasik, these carpentry tools and the projects of Khidekel are related, the pragmatic and the visionary aspects of making architecture.

Khidekel3

Other works by Karasik include an animated version of El Lissitsky's famous childrens' book 'About 2 Squares', as well as art books exploring Constructivism in Leningrad.

Khidekel1


Previously:

Khidekel

Khidekel composition

Earlier this year, Floating Worlds and Future Cities, an exhibition and symposium in New York, brought into focus the largely forgotten figure of Lazar Khidekel, and sought to place him properly as one of the pioneers of Suprematism. Khidekel could even be considered the first Suprematist architect, and was instrumental in helping Suprematism move beyond painting towards built form, urbanism and cosmic civilisation.

Khidekel was just 14 years old when admitted to the Vitebsk school of art, under Marc Chagall. In 1919, Kasmir Malevich founded a group called UNOVIS - Champions of the New Art - which also included El Lissitsky, Nina Kogan, Nikolai Suetin and Ilya Chashnik as well as Khidekel.

In 1921, (at the age of 17!) together with Ilya Chashnik, Khidekel headed the architecture and technical department at Vitebsk School of Art, and set about implementing a radical curriculum.

"The training of architects who at the same time will be the organisers and designers of the architectural units of the blocks that will constitute the streets and cities; the training of architects who will also be able to design and plan the economic centers."
The official website at www.lazarkhidekel.com offers a tantalising glimpse of Khidekel's talents. The Suprematist works are drawings or paintings on paper, and lack the polish of finished works by Malevich or Ilya Chashnik, but are formally just as stunning.

Khidekel architecton

Suprematist composition

But it is in the architectonic works that we see Khidekel's unique talent, in translating the essence of Suprematist composition to architectural forms. His Architectons matched Malevich's own sculptural explorations, but Khidekel also went further in designing projects meant to be built, such as the Aeroclub project of 1922. As well as practical architectural projects, Khidekel continued to dream of floating cities and futurist visions of space and form. Malevich had called for his students "to show the entire development of volumetric Suprematism in accordance with the sensation of the aerial (aero) type and dynamic", and Khidekel responded with his designs for Aerograd, a city on stilts, hovering above water.

Arguably, only Gustav Klutsis with his designs for a Dynamic City was operating in the same raridied atmossphere, of a cosmic reach for architecture breaking free from the Earth.

Khidekel City on Poles

Cosmic habitat 1924

Floating structure 1923

Later, at the architectural college in Petrograd, Khidekel continued to develop his architectural ideas to more practical applications, as well as working with Malevich, Suetin and Chashnik to create Architectons and Planits.

In 1926 Khidekel created the first realised Suprematist built form, a Workers Club. It was originally credited to Malevich and published in Berlin. A restrained piece of modernism, it is reminiscent of similar avant grade designs of the Bauhaus or De Stijl architects such as Rietveld or JJP Oud.

Workers club

Workers club

In later years Khidekel continued to work on architectural projects, while continuing to create visionary drawings of structures and cities hovering just above the landscape, or orbiting the earth in space.

Khidekel floating city

Khidekel floating city

As Charlotte Douglas noted (quoted in Regina Khidekel's essay "The Trajectory of Suprematism":

"Khidekel’s distinction was that this initial vision of Suprematist structures floating in space remained a central part of his art and architecture for the next forty years, and richly informed his later development as a professional architect."
It is not surprising that architects and designers are beginning to rediscover Khidekel's and recognise his visionary works as prefiguring many later projects. In the article "Discovering Khidekel" by WAI Architectural Think Tank, Khidekel is dubbed "The Last Suprematist", still prone to dizzying spatial visions long after his peers and Suprematist mentor Malevich had retreated to a less utopian position.

Khidekel floating city, 1961

"With each brushstroke of watercolor the Bolshevik utopia of utilitarian icons was painted obsolete. With the elongated appearance of each monochromatic volume a new form of revolution was achieved. Khidekel architectural visions transcended the rhetorical games of the revolution by developing complete cities out of sublime architecture. Long before Friedman’s Architecture Mobile, Constant’s New Babylon, and Isozaki’s Clusters in the Air, Khidekel imagined a world of horizontal skyscrapers that through their Suprematist weightless dynamism seemed to float ad infinitum across the surface of earth."

Khidekel Architecton compared against Gazprom proposal,OMA

While the city hovering above the ground still remains a powerful trope in both science fiction and architectural fantasy, Khidekel's visions still manage to look futuristic, arguably more so than most of the Metabolists or Situationist projects that today feel retro-futurist, inextricably tied to the past.

Khidekel's work remains endlessly floating towards the future.

Generative De Stijl

Mondrian scrutinizing Victory Boogie Woogie

A recent competition, Elegant Algorithms, organised by Setup in the Netherlands, challenged entrants to create a digital version of Piet Mondrian's painting Victory Boogie Woogie.The results range from faithful reproduction to radical reworkings, but all are fascinating in their own way. Each one includes a link to the code, so you can also look 'under the hood' and tinker.

The original Victory Boogie Woogie was unfinished, as Mondrian died of pneumonia in New York in 1944. But even so, the progression from Broadway Boogie Woogie of 1943 is profound, the simple grid of small coloured squares becoming more fractured, and with larger colour planes floating above and behind the grid; the lozenge format adds further visual tension. It arguably shows a transition to a more three-dimensional mode of representation than the resolutely flat pictures of Mondrian's earlier abstract works.

I'd never realised that Mondrian was such catnip for generative design wonks. But it turns out there is a long history of generative design projects that take the work of Mondrian as a starting point, especially the later, pure abstract works Mondrian called neo-plasticism.

Mondify

There's a great explanation video of one of the Elegant Algorithms entries, Mondify, by Kiri Nichol:

One of Mondrian early works, painted when he was on the cusp of pure abstraction, was also the subject of one of the most famous scientific experiments into aesthetics by Michael Noll, who wanted to see if people could tell a Mondrian painting, Composition in Line (1916) from a computer generated one. His study revealed that only 28% of subjects could identify the original Mondrian.

Real or fake Mondrian?

Mondrian generators are fairly commonplace online. Darwindrian (composition of 'Darwin' and 'Mondrian') is an AI program creating painting with neo-plasticism style using a variation of genetic algorithm. It generates 20 images, and then you can select which ones you like to be used in the next generation.

Darwindrian

myData=myMondrian by CJ Yeh (2004) will create a Mondrian-esque composition based on your own personal data.

Cyber-genetic Neo-plasticism is an AI program creating Mondrian-like paintings by using interactive bacterial evolution algorithm.

While it's relatively easy to create a Mondrian-generator which can spit out Mondrian-esque compositions capable of fooling the average layperson, a recent study by a group of Korean students at Chungbuk National University has tackled the much more difficult reverse problem - trying to spot a genuine Mondrian from a raft of imitations. Their research used machine learning to understand the deeper subconscious rules that Mondrian used in this paintings that he would probably been unaware of. This has great implications in the future for the authentication and verification of works of art.

The paper, [Supervised Learning-Based Feature Selection for Mondrian Paintings Style Authentication])http://www.fujipress.jp/finder/xslt.php?mode=present&inputfile=JACII001600070016.xml), is long on maths and short on art theory, but is fascinating in its method:

"First, the Mondrian oeuvre of neoplasticism is compiled in a digital form and encoded as script. Second, based on this statistical information, a statistical generative model is built to produce pseudo-Mondrian style works. Third, the two supervised learning methods are applied to classify the collection of both Mondrian’s works and computer-generated works."

Once the machine method has learnt to distinguish the real from the computer generated, it can then be applied to other images to attempt a distinction. Their conclusion was that 'region portioning' and 'dual graph' were the most meaningful ways of distinguishing a real Mondrian from the fake.

But this knowledge also makes it possible to refine better Mondrian fakes, an arms race in the detection between the real and the simulation. A purely compositional approach to detecting Mondrian fakes is thus perhaps doomed to failed. Instead the time honoured forensic techniques of detecting forgeries based on the physical properties of the paintings seems more reliable, such as canvas analysis and paint analysis using spectroscopy.

Darwindrian

Could a generative approach to 2D images of a highly formal movement such as De Stijl also be applied to 3D design? The furniture of Gerrit Rietveld seems eminently suitable for a generative, dare I say parametric approach, as does the most complete manifestation of De Stijl in architecture, the Rietveld-Schroder House. This seems to be an area ripe for future exploration.

Glass Houses

"I’m a plagiarist man — you see, you must take everything from everybody"

Philip Johnson, interview with Susan Sontag.

With all the press jouissance over the possibility of a clone of a Zaha Hadid project in China being completed before the original, there is a historical precedent of the copy preceding the original, in perhaps the greatest act of architectural plagiarism to date. The story concerns two of the most famous buildings of the Modern Movement, The Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe, and Philip Johnson's Glass House.

The original in this scenario in Mies' Farnsworth House, planned in 1945 For Mrs Farnsworth in Plano, Illinois, but completed in 1951. A model was exhibited at the MOMA in 1947, at a show about modern architecture part curated by, you guessed it, Philip Johnson. Johnson was able to design and build The Glass House for himself quicker than Mies, with his project completed in 1949 and subsequently widely published in the architectural press.

Farnsworth House

Mies was understandably said to be furious, partly because he thought people would conclude that his was the derivative work. And it's not difficult to see the direct influence of one upon the other, both being essentially glass boxes, with full height glazing, and a flat roof supported by edge mounted columns giving an entirely free plan, with a central service core. There are differences of course, primarily the raised platform upon which the Farnsworth House sits, and the white paintwork. In contrast, the Glass House sits into the ground more, and with its darker colouring, sits more within the landscape than against it. In Johnson's Glass House, the corner columns together with the floor and roof slabs creates a box-like frame, whereas Mies, in moving the columns inwards, dissolves the edges and make the horizontal elements float more.

Glass House

David Holowka, in a wonderful article on his Architakes blog, calls Johnson's iterations "history's worst case of the anxiety of influence", and later recalls Franz Schulze, "biographer of both men, states in Philip Johnson, Life and Work, that Mies belabored Johnson 'not for having copied him but for trying to and failing.'"

Johnson went through many variations in his design for the Glass House, somewhere between 27 (the official view) and 79 (according to his assistant Landis Gores). As the Architakes article describes: "After 25 tries, Johnson’s tortured resignation that the Farnsworth House was not to be improved upon is on full view in penultimate scheme 26′s nearly actionable plagiarism of its plan.",

Mies and Johnson continued to have an uneasy professional relationship, working together on the Seagram building in New York. Mies visited Johnson at the Glass House in 1955, but famously refused to stay there. "After a night of drinking, Mies picked at the Glass House's details until Johnson indirectly retaliated by challenging the greatness of one of Mies's favorite buildings, Berlage's Amsterdam Stock Exchange. In a 1985 interview by Robert A.M. Stern published in The Philip Johnson Tapes, Johnson describes Mies’s quietly angry response: "I’m not staying here tonight. Find me another place to stay."

Here is a short Sarah Morris' 2010 film 'Points on a Line':

Sarah Morris "Points on a Line" from Sarah Morris on Vimeo.

Who owns an architectural idiom? After all, Mies didn't invent modernist architecture or the idea of building a house from steel and glass, even if we can admit that the Farnsworth House represents a high-water mark for Modernism. We can sense that Johnson's Glass house has crossed a boundary between inspiration and plagiarism, without being able to explain fully why. It is a fuzzy boundary, and any artistic endeavour will alway find it hard to separate inspiration from duplication. As far as I know, the rules of copyright do not apply to architecture in the same way that they do not apply to fashion. Buildings and clothes are both regarded as utility, and therefore unable to be registered.

It is only Western architecture of the 20th century that began to prize uniqueness in architectural designs so highly, and denigrate similarity and duplication in favour of a radical individuality. Johnson's building, while certainly derivative, ultimately arrives at a different destination from the Mies house. While the Farnsworth House sits against the landscape, the Glass House rests within it, and both solutions are equally valid. Unlike the Chinese clone of a Hadid design, it is not simply a context-free rip-off.

Kaufmann

Fallingwater

I'm currently reading Fallingwater Rising by Franklin Toker, the 'biography' of the infamous house, and it set me to wonder whether there was there ever a more important private client in the history of modern architecture than Edgar Kaufmann and his wife Liliane?

A successful businessman, owner of a famous Pittsburgh Department Store, EJ Kaufman commissioned some of the best known works of modern architecture, including most famously, Fallingwater, in Bear Run, Pennslyvania, by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Toker book is excellent and detailed in describing how the Kaufmann's and FLW created Fallingwater, but for those short of time, this superb article in the NY Times by Kevin Gray summarises it brilliantly. The history of the Kaufmanns and the drama played out around Fallingwater would make a brilliant film or TV series, as Gray calls it, a Modern Gothic.

The story of how FLW designed Fallingwater is one that never fails to grow in the telling. In one version we see Wright as a blur of activity as assistants rush around feeding him pencils and paper so as not to break the creative fever that gripped him. Our collective love of creation myths (which explains why Hollywood keeps 'rebooting' superhero films), gives the creation of Fallingwater its elevated status. Perhaps it is the idea of creativity ex nihilo, of the form plucked from the ether, or the strive to understand that moment of inspiration, the divine madness of creativity, that draws us to these stories.

The legend grew that Fallingwater was drawn in 2 hours, and that Wright had not committed any ideas to paper before the most famous act of architectural prestidigitation, on September 22, 1935.

Fallingwater

Fallingwater

The design of Fallingwater had to cope with unusual living arrangements, as Liliane and Edgar had separate bedrooms and led largely separate lives. As first cousins, their marriage was essentially one of convenience rather than love, with EJ's numerous indiscretions paid a heavy toll on Liliane. While at first Fallingwater was a party house where the Kaufmanns made a great show of entertaining the good and the great, Liliane came to find it oppressive, and frequently retreated to the guest house " where she could lounge in solitude and swim in the hillside pool."

After selling the department store in 1946, EJ had little need to stay in PA with its cold dark winters, and instead became spending more time on the west coast. FLW bristled with anger and frustration when EJ Kaufmann commissioned former Wright pupil Richard Neutra to build them a house in Palm Springs, but later, when Liliane, estranged from Edgar, contacted FLW about building a retreat for herself, he never replied. ''He knew who buttered his bread." says Toker.

Things didn't end well at Fallingwater when Liliane Kaufmann died there in 1952 on a rare weekend when both her and EJ stayed there. Was it an accident, and overdose on the sleeping pills she took, or something more sinister? Her ghost is said to still haunt the master bedroom.

Fallingwater

The relationship between EJ Kaufmann and Frank Lloyd Wright is a compelling one - they argued furiously over the details of Fallingwater, but each had too much invested in the other to back away. FLW designed over 20 other buildings for Kaufmann, none of which were realised in Kaufmann's lifetime. Frank Lloyd Wright's unbuilt legacy looms large - there are over 500 unrealised designs, almost as much as the built oeuvre. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation seeks to preserver the legacy and oversees any attempts to build any unrealised designs, with 16 projects so far completed with an official "designed by Frank Lloyd Wright" seal of approval.

The Massaro House

One of the many buildings that FLW designed was for a little island on a lake in upstate New York, for a man called Ahmed Chahroudi, in 1950. Chahroudi had boasted to Kaufmann that "When I finish the house on the island, it will surpass your Fallingwater." But he could never afford it, nor a second design FLW produced, an eventually sold the island. A local man, Joe Massaro bought the island in the late 1997 and set about building the house FLW had designed.

Massaro house

Massaro house

This move was not without opposition. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, official custodians of Wright's legacy, refused to give any assistance to help Massaro realise the plans, and argued that they owned the copyright on the plans. But a court ruled that there was no copyright, Massaro owned the island, and with it came the drawings. Eventually the argument was settled that Massaro could only describe the house as "inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright".

Eventually Wright found an architect, Thomas Heinz, willing to help him realise the project, and make it as faithful as possible to the original design. Construction began in 2000, and was near completion in 2006, when the architectural press became aware of it.

Massaro house

Massaro house

It has come in for much criticism as an ersatz Wrightian confection, with Heinz having to interpret Wright's design which consisted of just 5 drawings, a plan, a perspective and 3 elevations. Several modern features were added, such as domed skylights, superseding Wright's details that were considered outdated. Perhaps the most obvious deviation from Wright's style are the rubblestone walls, often referred to as 'desert masonry' which in Wright's designs the stones are closely pack and relatively flush. At the Massaro house the stones are widely spaced and jut out of the concrete, giving the walls a nougat-like appearance. Massaro defends this because of the need to add insulation into the walls, and thinks that Wright would have done the same to meet current building codes. But this is what happens when you build a building out of its time.

Massaro house

Massaro house

While inevitably it lacks the purity of vision that genuine Wright houses possess, it does have the essence of a late period Wright house, with huge cantilevered balconies, the strong horizontal elements countered by the massive vertical walls, the synthesis of the house with its location.

Massaro has put the island up for sale. Even in 2010, only 4 years after completion, Massaro seemed to have turned away from the house. In an echo of Kaufmann's move away to the west coast, Massaro stated "I put my heart and soul into this, but I’m spending more time in Florida now. I’m thinking of building a Frank Lloyd Wright house that he designed for the ocean."

In 2012, the house was advertised widely on the types of website that those looking for private islands would be likely to visit, with one even offering an online shopping cart where you can buy it with a single click for a cool £17 million.

Blueprints

In another interesting development, some blueprints from the original Fallingwater were made available by auction. Bidding ended in September 2012, with a top bid of £22,824. From the auction website, the description is that "the blueprints, which were discovered in Long Island, are accompanied by a letter from architect Arthur Hennighausen which reads: "The shop drawings of the 'Falling Water' steel sash were given to me as a professional courtesy at my architectural office in Waukegan Illinois by J. D. Graff who at that time was sales representative for Hope Windows, Inc. This was in the spring of 1938. No record was kept to further identify the time or place."

While an interesting piece of memorabilia, blueprints of a window detail are not in themselves useful for anyone looking to build their own version of Fallingwater. But this, and the Massaro house, raises a question about ownership and authenticity in architecture. Can a building be copyrighted? And if you own the blueprints to a house, do you own the rights to build that house?

Inevitably in this era of context-free image porn on sites like Dezeen, unscrupulous developers can plunder the archives for more than just inspiration. Zaha Hadid has recently discovered in China that imitation is the highest form of flattery, with her project for Wanging SOHO in Beijing pirated for a development in Chongqing, a 'megacity near the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau'. Thus Hadid finds herself in the position of racing to complete the original project before the copy is finished. It's the sort of thing that would have had Baudrillard in stitches.

The simulation has overtaken the real.

Triade

Triade

I finally got round to finishing my first iPad app. Called Triade, it's a fun tool for creating images made entirely out of triangles, using a technique called Delaunay Triangulation.

It's now available in the iTunes store. Click to find out more on the Triade app page here.

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

The spectacular city

"In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation."

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle.

Fabian Cancellara
Photo by Flickr user Will Rose

As I stood in Hyde Park on Saturday, among an estimated 1 million people that turned out to witness the Tour de France coming to London for the first time ever, I had the rather surreal sensation that I was participating in some kind of mass consensual hallucination.

Elsewhere this weekend, London hosted a Live Earth concert at Wembley and tennis finals at Wimbledon. Just one week after a failed car bomb explosion and 2 years after the 07/07 tube bombings, London was reaffirming its identity through a series of grand spectacles.

With the beautiful weather, the garish skinsuits and sleek machines of the riders, set against the backdrop of landmarks such as the House of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, while helicopter shots of the Thames and the London Eye beamed around the world, London never looked more spectacular, in the true sense of the word.