Lunar surface

This page on the BBC web site, reminds us that today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 10 mission, the penultimate mission before a lunar landing would be attempted.

"In May 1969, with only seven months to go before the end of the decade, the first Lunar Module to fly in orbit around the Moon was powered up and readied for undocking from the Command Module.

Astronauts Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan were about to test out a technique for lunar landing which had first been proposed in 1916 by a Russian mechanic called Yuri Kondratyuk.

Kondratyuk's thesis described how a small landing craft could leave a mothership in lunar orbit to ferry its crew to the surface and back - a technique later referred to as Lunar Orbit Rendezvous or LOR."

Kondratyuk had a fascinating life, as the biography on Wikipedia reveals. Born Oleksandr Gnatovich Shargei, and having already escaped death once, he took the name and identity of the deceased Yuri Vasilievich Kondratyuk, following the Russian Revolution, to avoid being arrested as an enemy of the people.

His pioneering ideas on spaceflight had to be self-published after no publisher would accept them. Foregoing the chance to work with rocketry pioneer Sergei Korolev for fear of his real identity being discovered, Kondratyuk pioneered work on wind turbines, and died in 1941 while serving in the Soviet army. Fortuitously, his notes on space travel eventually found their way to the United States when a neighbour took them with him when escaping the Soviet Union after World War II.

The history of the Soviet space program is littered with fecund stories of human invention; paranoia, power and corruption; missed opportunities; epic failures; lost dreams and bitter tragedy. But it is also my hypothesis that it harbored the secret continuation of the Constructivist 'project' after Stalin's Socialist Realism became the only acceptable form of artistic expression. More to follow.


Joe Kittinger

Joe Kittinger was the man who fell to earth.

In 1960, Kittinger, USAF test pilot, ascended to an altitude of 30Km, in a high-altitude helium balloon, before stepping into the void. Kittinger fell at speeds off 990Km/h, freefalling for 4 and a half minutes before deploying a chute at a height of 5.5Km, and floating to the ground. While it took 1 and a half hours to ascend, the descent totalled just 13 minutes and 45 seconds.

This was the last of 3 jumps Kittinger undertook, having previously jumped from altitudes of approximately 23 Km.

The video footage, taken from a fixed camera attached to the balloon, and one mounted on Kittinger's helmet, is stunning. As Kittinger spins violently round (in one of the earlier jumps he lost consciousness after spinning at 120rpm), the earth flashes round against the blackness of space, sudden blinding bursts of sunlight scatter hexagon lens flares. Viewed from the balloon, the figure of Kittinger against the white expanse of clouds seems helpless, one man against nature.

In 2008, two attempts were scheduled by two teams, one British, one French, to try and exceed the altitude record that Kittinger achieved. Neither attempt took place, due to technical reasons. The British parachutist Steve Truglia, is a 43-year old ex-SAS soldier and stuntman, while Michel Fournier is a 65-year old French retired French army officer.

Fournier was featured in an article in Wired back in 2002, while his website shows he has been planning this mission for over 17 years. In 2003 the attempt was aborted when the balloon tore on launching. No explanation is given why the 2008 attempt did not take place, though it looks like he might have run out of funds.

Truglia's site has a great history of Kittinger and Project Excelsior. There's little indication why his 2008 jump was cancelled, though funding could well be an issue.

We should also note the awesome video by Boards of Canada for Dayvan Cowboy, where footage of Kittinger's insane escapade is segued into beautiful sequences of surfer Laird Hamilton.

Space suit

The urban future of low-earth orbits

Satellite collisions

We're running out of space, in space.

It's not just on Earth that undeveloped space is shrinking. Things are beginning to get crowded in outer space too. This week, a collision between a defunct Russian communications satellite, Kosmos-2251 and one of the US commercial Iridium spacecraft has highlighted the enormous number of objects orbiting the earth, both in low Earth orbits and also at geo-stationary altitudes.

The impact between the two satellites has created a huge field of debris spread over a 800km vertical zone. While scientists have estimated that it has a very low chance of impacting with the International Space Station, or interferring with this months space shuttle mission, the presence of so much space junk could pose a risk to any future space exploration.

As this BBC news story records:

"The latest incident has produced the worst field of space debris since China destroyed a defunct Fengyun 1-C satellite with a missile in January 2007.

That incident, designed to test an anti-satellite weapon system, produced more than 2,000 separate fragments of debris."

image showing all low Earth objects

Low earth objects and those at greater distances

Nasa and other space agencies are already tracking over 17,000 objects in space bigger than 10 cm. As we continue to launch more satellites, and accumulate more space junk, the risks of future collisions becomes greater.

Outer space is slowly being urbanised.


In response to Charles Holland's post over at Fantastic Journal and his fascination with Donald Campbell's crash in the speedboat Bluebird, here is my fascination, some more fatal crash porn:

22 years on it still has the power to shock and awe. I'll always remember how the voiceover from the control room calmly carries on reporting the trajectory of the booster rockets even after the shuttle had exploded. As I commented on Charles's blog, watching crashes seems to me to be the definitive YouTube experience, the apotheosis of the medium. Here you can watch the crash along with Christa McAuliffe's parents and her class of schoolchildren.

Colin Davis, in the book High Tech architecture, saw the Challenger disaster as the sign of the death of the High Tech style, in the same way that the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe estate in St. Louis signified the death of Modernism:

Architectural scholiasts of the future, wishing to pin down the precise date of the death of the High Tech style, might well choose January 28th 1986, the day the Challenger space craft blew up in front of the watching millions. The cause of the tragedy, we now know, was the failure of a Neoprene gasket.