Last Launch. Discovery, Endeavour, Atlantis, by photographer Dan Winters.
Publisher University of Texas Press writes: Americans have been driven to explore beyond the horizon ever since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. In the twentieth century, that drive took us to the moon and inspired dreams of setting foot on other planets and voyaging among the stars. The vehicle we built to launch those far journeys was the space shuttle--Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. This fleet of reusable spacecraft was designed to be our taxi to earth orbit, where we would board spaceships heading for strange new worlds. While the shuttle program never accomplished that goal, its 135 missions sent more than 350 people on a courageous journey into the unknown.
Last Launch is a stunning photographic tribute to America's space shuttle program. Dan Winters was one of only a handful of photographers to whom NASA gave close-range access to photograph the last launches of Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. Positioning automatically controlled cameras at strategic points around the launch pad--some as close as seven hundred feet--he recorded images of take-offs that capture the incredible power and transcendent beauty of the blast that sends the shuttle hurtling into space. Winters also takes us on a visual tour of the shuttle as a marvel of technology--from the crew spaces with their complex instrumentation, to the massive engines that propelled the shuttle, to the enormous vehicle assembly building where the shuttles were prepared for flight.
Dan Winters has a passion that's completely alien to me: he is fascinated by the NASA space program. U.S. space exploration never made me dream nor even bat an eyelid. Yet, when i read a 3 line-long review of his book in a free men's magazine in London, i knew i needed to get a review copy. Because i might not be into astronauts and giant leaps for mankind but photography is something i respond to. And Last Launch is all about that: jaw dropping images of engineering marvels and explosive lift off. Even the black and sepia archive photos (not by Winters) that illustrate the introduction texts are magnificent.
Speaking of introduction! The photo book starts with a series of essays. One by the photographer who tells of a long love for space adventures that started as a kid watching the Apollo 11 launch broacast live on the family's new tv set on July 16, 1969. The second essay was written by Al Reinert, director and producer of For All Mankind, a 1989 Award-winning documentary about NASA's Apollo program. The film maker charts the successful and unsuccessful episodes that make the history of the transport system that propels Earth-bound humans into low orbit. Some of the anecdotes he shares are dramatic, others are slightly laughable such as the Coke-Pepsi taste test that took place on board of the Challenger in 1985 to determine which beverage taste more like itself in zero gravity. Coke won, Reinert explains, because they manufactured a zero-gravity soda can. Pepsi didn't bother.
A third text is the rather short and moving account by former astronaut Mark Kelly of the few moments before the take off of STS-134 (one of the very last missions of NASA's Space Shuttle program) on May 16, 2011.
A final text at the back of the book brings an answer to the question i've been asking myself while flipping through the pages. How does he make it? How can he get so close to the spectacular liftoffs?
Dan Winters was one of only a handful of photographers to whom NASA gave close-range access to photograph the last launches of Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. "Close-range" shouldn't be taken too literally though. When they launch, space shuttles are surrounded by an evacuation zone that stretched up to three miles (almost 5 km) in all directions.
The cameras had to be remotely activated. The day before lift-off, Winters places them, up to 9 at a time, around the launchpad, the closest located 700 feet (213 m) from the shuttle itself. Winters calculates the type of photo to shoot according to shuttle's path, he sets the frame, checks the focus point, attaches to the cameras custom-made electronic triggers that are sensitive to sound and fire at five frames per second in response to the rockets igniting. He also has to use sandbags to minimize camera shake, and cover the equipment with plastic to protect it from the rain.
If there's one person who might finally get me interested in the NASA adventures, it's Dan Winters. Pity the Space Shuttle was retired from service two years ago.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm (London time.)
My guest tomorrow will be Sascha Pohflepp, an artist and designer interested in the myths and realities shaped by science and technology. Over the past few years, Sascha has been illustrating these investigations by collaborating with a number of artists and scientists on projects that range from the microcosm of synthetic biology to the macrocosm of space exploration. We will indeed be talking space exploration during the show, and more specifically space gardening but we will also talk science fiction, complex science and impossible projects.
The focus of the interview, however, is going to be The Supertask, a collaboration between Sascha and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg that was commissioned by the Southampton University. The work focuses on modeling and its role as a technological lens on the world. The first chapter is the installation Yesterday's Today (The Supertask). As visitors entered a small room inside a Liverpool gallery, they could experience the temperature which had been predicted one day earlier in Liverpool. "It thus allows a visitor to be in a sense inside the manifest computational model and to experience it in contrast to the reality that is surrounding it."
We will also take a few minutes to discuss another of Sascha's project Seasons of the Void (a collaboration with Daisy and Andrew Stellitano) which looks at the new organisms that scientists and engineers are creating so that future astronauts could farm them on the long voyage to Mars. Now it gets even more exciting when you read the full description of the project: Seasons of the Void imagines fruits that are grown from re-designed yeast, feeding on electricity instead of sunlight. Farming seasons over the voyage lead to distortions in the fruit that is growing in a dark tank. As the ship flies away from the Sun, electrosynthesis replaces photosynthesis.
Sascha's essay Invisible Animals on the notion of living machines will be published in a forthcoming book by MIT Press. And if you're in Dublin in the coming weeks, you can also see one of Sascha's work as part of GLITCH at RUA RED, an annual festival that this year is exploring the economic, political and cultural factors that are shaping the Internet. Finally, Seasons of the Void is part of Alive. New Design Frontiers, an exhibition on view through August at Espace Fondation EDF, in Paris.
Last week, i visited This Is War, the degree show of BA Design at Goldsmiths. There were a few good surprises. The best one being The Welsh Space Campaign, a project that launches ordinary Welsh people into outer space, by finding a cosmic context for Welsh traditional culture and skills. Except that it wasn't really a surprise as i had been told repeatedly beforehand that i was brilliant must-see work. And so i went to the Old Truman Brewery to see it for myself.
Hefin Jones, The Welsh Space Campaign, 2013
A few months ago, young designer Hefin Jones started touring the last remaining wool mills in Wales and asked factory workers and craftsmen to help him make an astronaut suit. The work is not solely about making a series of space garments, it's also about catapulting these people into entirely new ambitions and dreams and discussing with them the possibility of sending local crafts and skills into space. "The project facilitates participatory speculation, in which the people are invited into the construction of cosmic objects, and their experience during this process allows them to speculate about the different possibilities of their skill.," Jones later told me in an email interview.
The suit is made of the fabric woven in the last remaining wool mills in Wales. The astronaut boots are traditional Welsh clogs crafted by a traditional clog maker. The whole pressure system that will enable the astronaut to sustain life in outer space was built by a Welsh plumber.
The aim of the designer is to reveal that Wales has the capacity to explore space, and to show that off-world culturalisation can be achieved through a collective communitarian effort; as a way to allow the people involved to reconsider their role and skill in relation to these cosmic contexts.
Even the emblem of the space mission is a pure Welsh reference: the tail of the red dragon that appears on the national flag:
The WSC is Jones's degree project but he plans to push it further by involving other industries, communities and cultures that would normally never even think of engaging with space travel. The designer has also started to look beyond the space suit and expand into the different material culture of a space program, working with physics professors in Aberystwyth University to calculate how to send Welsh cultural artefacts into space. He is also collaborating with Poet Laureate Ceri Wyn Jones to write a ten to one launch countdown poem, with each number referencing an aspect of Welsh culture.
I'm going to leave the last words to Hefin Jones: "It's about the small engagements with the possibility of space travel, the tensions, the small steps towards an unattainable goal, and the feeling this series of actions creates within them."
See also: Cristina De Middel, The Afronauts series, Larissa Sansour's Palestinauts and The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility.
Last Friday, i spent the evening at the Arts Catalyst for the Kosmica sound night, a social event for artists, scientists and the cosmically curious exploring sound and sonification of space. That means drinks, crisps, pop corn, space music and presentations by curator and artist Honor Harger, sound artist and composer Kaffe Matthews and designer slash sound artist Yuri Suzuki. With Nahum Mantra as master of ceremony.
I frantically took notes during the presentation, thinking i'd blog the talks until i realized that the Arts Catalyst was going to upload the video of the whole evening. So i'm going to merely point you to the videos: This way please!
Now all i'm going to write down is a summary of the presentations, along with a few links to the projects, historical facts and scientific discoveries mentioned during the presentations.
The first presentation was by Honor Harger. She is the director of Lighthouse, an arts agency in Brighton, UK. But she is also part of the artistic duo r a d i o q u a l i a together with collaborator Adam Hyde. One of their main projects is Radio Astronomy, a radio station broadcasting sounds from space. And i don't know how she does it but she also finds time to write a brilliant blog called Particle Decelerator.
Honor's presentation was an investigation into how we have used sound to gather information about space. We all have an idea of what space looks like. We've all seen images of it but what does space sound like?
Karl Jansky reads an instrument that detects radio waves from the Milky Way. © Bettmann/Corbis (via)
The story of the discovery of the sounds of space is intimately linked to the history of the telephone. From 1876 when Thomas Watson, the assistant of Alex Graham Bell, was listening through the wires to some strange sounds which corresponded in fact to activity taking place on the surface of the sun. To 1932 when Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer Karl Jansky was called to identify the cause of a "steady hissing" interfering with transoceanic telephone service. He correctly guessed that the noise wasn't coming from Earth but that they were cosmic radio noise from the Milky Way. The final stop Honor Harger made in the history of Bell Laboratories is 1964 when two researchers detected a source of low, persistent noise in Bell's antenna, the Holmdel Horn. It turns out that the noise was cosmic radiation that had survived since the birth of the universe. That was the first evidence of the Big Bang.
Honor's story was accompanied by a series of references to art and amateur science. I'm going to list them rapidly:
Joyce Hinterding's electromagnetic installation Aeriology (1995) "aeriology", a huge antenna that resonates to the VLF (very low frequency) section of the radio spectrum, and makes audible the crackle of spherics from the solar winds as they interact with the ionosphere and the background noise of the Milky Way, the energy emitted from stars.
Honor also showed one of my favourite videos of 2011: 20 Hz. The work observes a geo-magnetic storm occurring in the Earth's upper atmosphere. Working with data collected by CARISMA (Canadian Array for Realtime Investigations of Magnetic Activity), an array of magnetometers which study the Earth's magnetosphere and interprets the data as audio, allowing us to hear the "tweets" and "rumbles" caused by the interaction of solar wind with the Earth's magnetosphere.
Caroline Devine's 5 Minute Oscillations of the Sun, explores naturally occurring radio signal and solar activity and alternates every five minutes between acoustic and electromagnetic "listening modes" that provide new ways to "listen" to the sun.
Kaffe Matthews presented the work she created with Mandy McIntosh when they worked with NASA scientists and got to meet ex-astronauts to whom they asked "What is the sound like in space?" More about the project over here. The last part of her talk focused on the Star Gazer chairs, music and suits made to watch the star in the Galloway Forest, Scotland. The project was again developed with Mandy McIntosh and is called 'Yird, Muin, Starn,' which means earth, moon, star in old Scott.
Yuri Suzuki brought us firmly back to Earth with The Sound of the Earth, a spherical record with the sound engraved on the surface of the globe. Each country on the disc is engraved with a different sound, collected by Yuri Suzuki during his travels or with national anthems for the countries he had never visited.
During the last edition of Design Week, Yuri Suzuki drove a Sound Taxi around London. The vehicle was equipped with a microphone that recorded the noise of the city: traffic, screeching brakes, sirens, construction work, etc. A specially designed software analysed the frequencies of these noises and used them to generate music in real time.
His White Noise Machine calculates the quantity of street noise and then generates the same amount of white noise. The boxy design of the White Noise Machine was inspired that by the noise-generating devices that Italian Futurist Liugi Russolo built at the beginning of the 20th century. The videos showing children shouting at Suzuki's White Noise Machine is hilarious.
And with this i close my notes about Kosmica sound night.
A new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM, will be broadcast today Tuesday 20th November at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 22nd November 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.
This week i' talking with Nelly Ben Hayoun about space science technologies, aliens and music. The designer spent a whole Summer in California to direct the International Space Orchestra. The cast of the opera is pretty spectacular. It is performed by space scientists from NASA Ames, Singularity University, International Space University and the SETI Institute. The music was composed by Damon Albarn, Bobby Womack, Maywa Denki and Arthur Jeffes. The lyrics are by Bruce Sterling & Jasmina Tesanovic. Finally, Grammy-Award winner Evan Price was in charge of the musical direction.
One of the next stops for the International Space Orchestra is going to be Space Odyssey 2.0, an exhibition that opens on 17 February 2013 at Z33 Contemporary Art Center in Hasselt.
Last week, while walking down Marylebone Road, i saw a sign pointing to an exhibition of works by graduating students from the University of Westminster MA Photojournalism. I'm not one to miss a photo show when i pass by it.
One of the most stunning photo series was In the Shadow of Faded Dreams by Zlata Rodionova. The young photo reporter traveled to Star City, a small town near Moscow that hosts the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, the heart of the Russia Space Programme. She encountered nostalgia for a time when the USSR was a Space Superpower, poor living conditions, impressive machinery and an inextinguishable passion for the cosmos.
The idealism of the Soviet Space programme speaks of serving humanity and a belief in peaceful future. However, politics has left a negative trace on these ideas and we often associate Gagarin with the tense atmosphere of the Cold War. Still, for people working at the Yuri Gagarin Training Centre, a military complex where all cosmonauts have been trained since the 1960s, Gagarin remains a hero while space is the only reality they know, almost blending with the surreal machines they work with, they seem to be trapped in a window of time. In the shadow of faded dreams, thus sheds the light on a close-knit community of space-lovers, still clinging to the decaying legacy of the 1960s Space dream.
I contacted Zlata to know more about the conditions in which she made the photo series. I suspected that the stories she'd tell me would be as fascinating as her images. And i haven't been disappointed...
In the past, Star City was a highly secret military installation and access to it was restricted. This is not the case anymore. How easy was it for you to visit the training rooms, talk with people working there, and document what you saw? Did you need to obtain special permissions? Could you roam free and photograph as you wanted?
Indeed during Soviet Times, Star City's location was kept secret. Most ordinary Russians had only vague ideas about its location. The lucky few that had the chance to visit it (through jobs or rare state organised 'excursions') revealed that Communist's ideals promised by the State could only be seen and enjoyed there.
Today it is very different as you can visit it as a tourist, pretty much everyone in Russia knows where it is, however it is quite expensive.
For instance, the 'Russian Space Museum Tour' cost $165. You basically have to choose what exactly you want to see within the city or the centre but there is not really a tour that encompasses everything. So for me it quickly became evident that for my story to be told the way I wanted I would need to obtain a special press access.
It was very difficult to get. While explaining my project I often said that going there felt like travelling back in time to the Soviet era. For me this journey started at the very early stages, as when obtaining papers I had to deal with proper Soviet style administration. One call to one office led to another. I had to obtain different permissions to live in the city's hotel, be able to walk around the city freely and a separate one for the training centre. As in soviet times the person on the desk could not give me any information as long as the head or deputy-head of the administration was not there. If the person in question was on holiday I would have to wait for days. I don't know what it would have been like for a foreign photographer, as the first question I would be asked was "Do you have Russian passport?", which fortunately I do.
The process became a bit easier when I commissioned my story to the Russian political weekly magazine Profile which regularly runs photo-reportages alongside more political and business orientated articles. With their support (they were more keen on working with an accredited photographer than an MA student), I was given access and allowed to live within Star City in the hotel Orbita for two weeks. In the whole it took me a month to get all the papers I needed.
Once on site, I could walk around freely in the residential area and document it in depth as well as discover its spirit and people but the training facility remained a closed zone. I was only allowed to be there on particular times, specific areas and always accompanied by someone from the media team or one of the instructors. Also when international crews would be training I was not allowed to photograph as it meant I would have to get another authorisation from NASA.
How big is Star City? How many people are living and working there? I'm interested in the size of the place because many of the photos show huge rooms with machines, cockpits, training simulators but there is no animation, no people busy working on it, getting in or out of the capsules for example. You mostly show people posing for a portrait. Is Star City so vast and desolate? Or was it just your choice to depict it like that?
Star City itself is a small town about 25km of Moscow, it is within this town that you can find the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre but they are two distinct areas and have two distinct administrations. They divided in 2009 when the town itself became subordinate to Moscow Oblast (Moscow region) while the centre is administrated by Roscosmos.
The city has about 6,500 inhabitants. Approximately one-third of whom are pensioners aged 60 to 90 years. This year the city will even celebrate the 100th birthday of one of its citizens. Most of them are former employers of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC).
The city was an intriguing place. To me it felt as if I was in an Soviet sanatorium or pensioner's retreat but one dedicated to Gagarin, his statues and portraits gaze at you from every corner while you can buy your groceries at the supermarket Little Star or go for lunch at the cafeteria Little Sun. On the days where I couldn't photograph there were old people sitting by the lake sun bathing. But the glory of the olden days is definitely gone. The town has not received any funding since the nineties, and the flats have not been renovated since the sixties. For many residents hot water or heating is a treat that only occurs on occasional days.
The training facility itself is a place of visual contradictions - colourless decaying buildings are aligned in an orderly way, however inside you discover machines that you could only expect to encounter in Stanislav Lem's science-fiction novels.
For my project, I decided to focus predominantly on the training centre, as Star City's residents' lives revolve around it and it is there that you can see all the commitment, relationship between men and machines as well as the last glimpses of the Soviet Space dream. While walking around it, you can see people are working and it is more active than shown in my pictures, however as the physical space and machines are huge it always seems pretty empty. The atmosphere that comes out of this gives you the impression of walking through a dream that is slowly fading away, I wanted to capture the strange magic locked beneath the surface in order to reveal the nostalgia associated to the USSR's status of Space superpower and shed the light on a close-knit community of space-lovers, still clinging to the legacy of the 1960s Space dream.
Thanks to the use of my medium format camera, the Leica S2, 30 x 45 mm in size, which often had to be used on a tripod due to poor lighting conditions within the training centre, I managed to create a distance both physical and psychological between myself and my subjects. The aim was to create a surreal, respectfully distanced and neutral mood leaving the viewer to make his own opinion about my pictures and this particular place.
Being motivated by the desire to uncover the unknown, understand its purpose, and display its majesty this format also permitted me to show all the surrealism and grandeur of these gigantic training devices. Finally, this camera, does not allow you to take photographs in an instant, it requires more installation and planning, which gave me two advantages. First, it offered time for my subjects to open themselves up to me, and gave me the opportunity to shed the light on individuals that traditionally do not receive such attention. Second, the photograph produced is still, detailed and frozen, which helped me to suggest a community and place fixed in time in a volatile moment in the country's history.
The Russian space program seems to be pretty active though. I was reading this morning about the Soyuz capsule returning to Earth. Did your visit to Star City and the discussions you had with the people working there make you perceive space missions as adventurous and glamorous as ever? How much has your experience there changed or reinforced your perception of space travel?
One of the Russian space industry's main problems is financing. A third of the industry's enterprises are practically bankrupt. Compared to developed countries, Russia invests ten times less in research and development in the industry, and five times less in basic assets and personnel training.
Every single person that I spoke with: trainer, engineer, cosmonaut said that no one comes into this industry for money.
Also there is simply a loss of interest, if in the Soviet era cosmonauts were considered heroes and every single child dreamed of flying in the outer-space nowadays Russian schools don't run programs like astronomy anymore. I was amazed to find out that a cosmonaut who finished his military service, finished an MA in aerospace engineering, spent about 15 years training and 164 days in the outer space only received around $350 a month as well an allocated room within a shared flat for him, his wife and child. Another one told me he worked as a part-time taxi driver to make ends meet.
So the image I got out of there was definitely not the glossy one you get from US blockbusters with big rooms full of flat screens, and sleek looking man running around with perfectly ironed white shirts and coal black suits. The GCTC's people you see are probably from the most ordinary archetype you could imagine. Chubby smiling middle-aged men, or on the contrary older very dignified veterans, resembling the ones you see on postcards from the Soviet times. I also gained new respect for them, they really all are people of dreams. When asking the question what brought them here, most of them replied that they still remembered the day Gagarin was sent into space or the fact that they've been dreaming of flying to the stars since childhood. One of the trainers who works in the Hydrolab and couldn't qualify to be a cosmonaut said that after training cosmonauts for long hours under-water, at night he sometimes dreamed that he was himself walking in the outer-space.
They are all very aware of the crisis within the industry but no one wants to change jobs because it's simply their passion and they couldn't imagine their life without it. It does seem like they live in a bubble where time is standing still.
What are you going to do now that you've graduated?
My main problem is that I have too many interests. Besides photography I have a real passion for writing. For me they complete themselves.
So right now I am really hoping to find a job as a writer on photography, and finish to build my online portfolio and website, which I couldn't concentrate on while doing my MA. I am also hoping to promote and sell my project to a magazines as I really want my story to get out there.
Once I build up a portfolio strong enough and wider range of contact I would ultimately like to become a foreign correspondent.
Thank you Zlata!