• Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Prophecy

    The Apollo programme may have been a civilian project with no obvious military applications, but it was not the only American response to the ‘space race’ begun by the Soviet Union’s orbiting of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Seeing what is on the other side of the hill has been a military goal for centuries, with balloons used to gain the high ground well before powered flight was invented and even for some years after. With the Cold War firmly underway, the need to establish what was occurring in the vast reaches of the USSR was pressing, and flying aircraft over enemy territory was no longer possible after Gary Powers’ U2 was shot down in 1962. Spy satellites, invulnerable to attack, were already in use – they took their photographs and returned the exposed film to Earth in a small capsule that re-entered the atmosphere just as astronaut does – but they were slow, could have their view obscured by cloud and were unable to manoeuvre beyond gross changes of position. A crewed platform in space, however, seemed to combine the advantages of a satellite with the benefits of having a man in the loop, and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was duly announced by the US Air Force in 1963, the carefully bland name concealing its true purpose. Launched by a Titan rocket and with its crew returned by Gemini capsule, the MOL was to have been a 70-foot-long, 10-foot-wide

    tubular space station whose two occupants would live aboard it for weeks at a time and operate, when ordered, a state-of-the-art high-resolution camera system that filled the rear two thirds of the vehicle. Able to be pointed at any target anywhere on Earth, its five-foot-wide mirror would reflect light toward a complex set of optics that could see objects as small as 8 inches. Its film would be developed by the crew, the photographs examined and their content described or scanned back to Earth. Since the camera would only be activated when there was a clear view, every picture would be perfect. Radio contact would allow real-time taskings and it was envisaged that any faults could be fixed in space. Significant effort went into realising the MOL, including building full-size mock-ups of the vehicle and crew compartment, launching an empty ‘boilerplate’ version into space and conducting re-entry testing of a modified Gemini. Astronauts were also recruited and began their training, which would have included working the wide-angle spotter scope, television monitors and exposure controls that supported the camera. The Apollo and MOL operations ran in parallel, one as public as could be imagined, the other classified, until 1969, when the rapid development and obvious advantages of digital photography rendered MOL obsolete - it was cancelled four weeks before Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon. Its astronauts were quietly offered the chance to transfer to a new space vehicle programme that, even then, was planned to be a follow-on to Apollo, but that is another story... Two days to go.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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