• The Isolation Files #1 - Home/Work

    So, we’re all working from home where we can. Easy enough if you work in admin or a creative field and just need a laptop and broadband, and you might assume it was only ever possible when those things were invented. But that isn’t the case. Certain callings – artist, inventor, writer, architect – have always merged the office and the home, but starting as long ago as the late 19th century, repeated developments in technology, interior design and architecture have made WFH as easy as ABC…

    Of course, people have been working from home for two thousand years. Roman merchants, mediaeval stewards and Georgian bankers recorded taxes paid, goods traded and sums owed from business premises that were also their homes, hence the expression ‘living over the shop’. But as commerce expanded and paper instruments of finance replaced the physical exchange of commodities, this process moved further away from the places of activity that it served whilst the space needed got larger. From the existing models of lawyers’ chambers and monks’ cells clustered together emerged a new building type: the office.

    The Industrial Revolution brought factories and mechanisation. Trade started to centralise, served by canals and then railways. The very homes where business began were now pushed out by higher land values and an increase in noxious activity. At the same time, and as a direct result, the suburb was invented, an altogether more pleasant place for those clerks to live – the commuter was born.

    In the last half of the 19th century the nib pen, ledger and box file started to be joined by a slew of advanced devices to aid, speed-up or even replace the basic tasks of writing, copying, organising and passing on data. They were designed for employment in the office but even at this early stage many had obvious and actual application outside.

    The typewriter, by means of which clear, printed text could be produced, could be used anywhere, even on a train. The dictating machine, recording the intended content of a typed letter for later transcription, derived from Edison’s foil-coated rotary phonograph. The telegraph and then the telephone conveyed messages over hundreds of miles almost as fast as they could spoken or typed, whilst early facsimile machines could send signatures along wires to verify bank transactions. Mechanical calculators had been around for three hundred years but were radically improved in this period, and Hollerith patented the electromechanical collation of information recorded as patterns of holes on pieces of card, which was fast and error-free.

    Simultaneously engineering and architecture were making both the home and the office more comfortable, with electric light and lifts, hot water, centralised heating and ventilation. Soon all of this would come together…

    In 1898 Belgian architect Victor Horta bought adjacent plots on a street in Brussels and designed his home on one and his studio on the other. They interconnected at multiple levels though had separate entrances, and both were in his distinctive interpretation of Art Nouveau with stone, metal, wood and glass layered and twisted into organic forms. Iron was used structurally to permit wider openings in the façade where these were needed by the plan. His studio comprised various rooms – more than a dozen people worked there – and featured a waiting area, telephone box, electric light and radiators, both of these part of building-wide systems.

    In the following decades the concept of an office that resembled a home exploded. The great Frank Lloyd Wright, whose own career spanned the turn of the century comfortably, designed both by the hundred. For Pennsylvanian retailer Edgar J. Kaufmann, the man for whom he had already built the dramatic forest home Fallingwater, Wright created an office in his department store in the mid-1930s. Lined entirely in cypress veneers, including the window louvres, featuring indirect lighting, matching chairs and stools and with an adjacent conference room, secretary’s office and private toilet and cloakroom, it had the feel of a restrained yet sumptuous home rather than a place of business.

    In the same decade, a generation of European industrialists was commissioning lavish houses across the continent. All included extensive space for entertaining guests but also semi-private areas for the husband to work, receive friends and associates and conduct business.

    On the outskirts of Lille, Paul and Lucie Cavroix commissioned a villa from Robert Mallet-Stevens that bears their name and overlooked their textile mills. Finished in 1932 its yellow brick exterior concealed state-of-the-art fixtures and fittings, including mechanical shutters, a network of speakers for broadcasting music or voice, a telephone switchboard and a lift. Cavroix’s office was part of a suite of rooms that included a waiting room and circular smoking room. His desk supported a box of switches controlling aspects of the house.

    The Villa Necchi Campiglio in Milan was completed in 1935 to designs by Piero Portaluppi; after the war Tomaso Buzzi made alterations. The married client families owned and managed a successful foundry and iron works that also produced motors and their home, as crisply Modern as their products, relied on carefully considered planes of hardwood, plaster and metals for its decorative effects. As in Lille, Campiglio’s study and smoking room had integrated furniture and minimalist lines with a safe and personal archive concealed behind panels.

    In England, meanwhile, Stephen Courtauld was part of that noted textile and chemical family but preferred the arts and philanthropy. He and his wife Virginia leased the derelict Great Hall built by Edward IV to the south east of London and in 1933 built a new house next door. Behind a traditional frontage, John Seely and Paul Paget placed a spectacular Art Deco entrance hall lined with marquetry murals and lit by glass discs in the ceiling. Boasting similar facilities to the Villa Cavroix as well as a centralised vacuum cleaning system, Stephen’s office-cum-library benefitted from an electric fire and

    sliding screens on which to display watercolours. On the other side of London a few years later young architect Patrick Gwynne built the Homewood, an explicitly Internationalist house on piloti or stilts, for himself, his parents and his sister. Largely open plan with functions differentiated by furniture and finish and lit by floor to ceiling windows, it both housed and demonstrated his practice. Gwynne’s office thus featured elegantly concealed plan chests and a desk that incorporated a drawing board, whilst a living room writing table changed form as needed.

    Three relevant technological advances originated in the years before and after the war that followed – television, the photocopier, which used a light beam, special powder and heat to duplicate an image, and the computer, which could calculate far faster than any human or mechanism and would ultimately enable information of many kinds to be stored, transmitted and recalled.

    In peacetime America’s massive wealth and manufacturing power turned to the domestic economy and the new concept of consumerism. General Motors hired Finnish architect Eero Saarinen to plan a vast research and production campus in Warren, Michigan that opened in 1955. Within lay the office of legendary car design executive Harley Earl, firmly located ‘at work’ but owing much to residential interiors of the period. Serpentine walls are lined in vertical strips of cherrywood and flow into a continuous, projecting shelf of varying depth containing planters, a globe and several banquettes. The massive, sculptural desk is formed from laminated cherrywood planks, shaped and lacquered like the car mock-ups made on site. Built in were a telephone, retractable desk lamp, radio and controls for room lighting, blinds and temperature.

    Within years, mainframe computers could be accessed remotely by users who bought time on them to have programmes run and problems solved – the terminal on which the data was input was joined to the processor by telephone lines, via modems. Just before the end of the 1960s, the first interconnected computers emerged when two and then three such systems, all belonging to universities or research institutes, were linked (the initial attempt to have them ‘talk’ crashed the system). This was the start of the internet, although the word itself was not used until 1974.

    In 1971 all of the previous century’s achievements in information handling culminated in the Datapoint 2200, the world’s first full-function desktop computer, designed by the Computer Terminal Corporation’s Jack Frassanito, J.Phillip Ray and Gus Roche. It was developed from their earlier glass-screen replacement for the print-only teletype machines that were in common use at the time. Crucially, the new computer’s chip was the basis for the much better known IBM PC that followed, which makes the 2200 the progenitor of every such machine thereafter, including the laptop I’m typing this on. At home.



  • '1917' (2019)

    Arriving with considerable acclaim attached, Sam Mendes’s film tells a story of the intimate and the epic. During the Great War, two young British Army corporals are ordered to deliver a message across abandoned but still enemy territory that will save the lives of hundreds, but only if received by dawn. It is inspired by a story told to him by Mendes’s own grandfather and presented as though filmed in a single, two-hour shot. Two different questions are therefore prompted: does it work as a drama and does it work as a cinematic achievement?

    The action begins within seconds of the film’s opening, as Blake and Schofield are awoken from a doze and sent to their commanding officer to be briefed. The Germans have retreated and a British advance begining in the early hours seeks to waylay them as they do so. But reconnaissance has revealed this retreat to be a feint and the two battalions of the British Army about to commit to the charge must be stopped – by hand, telephone wires having been plot-conveniently cut (there is no mention, despite one later playing a critical part in the narrative, of aerial delivery). As they set off through friendly trenches to their jumping-off point into No Man’s Land, the camera alternately follows and leads as it dances between the pair and those around them. Here the film scored highly. It is refreshing after a dozen years of too-tight framing and increasingly frenetic cutting to sit and allow one’s eyes to roam a big screen image almost at leisure, aided, admittedly, by an excellent screening environment in my case. As a result I was unexpectedly drawn to and fascinated by the texture and colour of the mud and especially the richness of the solder’s uniforms, with their belts and straps, pockets and pouches, bayonets and tools.

    A memorable cameo from Andrew Scott as a resigned and somewhat louche officer sends the pair ‘over the top’; the camera moves with them, exposing us and the men alike to the sweep of green grass in the fields, but also the shell holes and barbed wire. As they continue, the sheer expanse of territory covered also impressed, neatly highlighted by subtle changes of camera angle and movement. The waist-high viewpoint for much of the time combined with crane-ups to reveal what is on the other side of berms and barriers reminded me strongly of Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and its exploration of another battlefield in another war, that through the wide eyes of a child. A particularly satisfying moment occurs when our viewpoint suddenly dips down into a vast crater, unexplained in the narrative but almost certainly from a mine, before skimming across the surface of the water filling its bottom as the two principals skirt round its perimeter. Pushing past a curtain (which appears to form one of the discreet edit points, since the film was, in fact, stitched together digitally from many separate shots) into an abandoned German bunker changes the atmosphere entirely for the duration of the tightly-done scene that follows.

    In truth the (pseudo) single shot – not, please, a ‘take’, which is an attempt to achieve a shot – approach is a red herring. I’m actually a fan of such things and adept at detecting them when casually inserted in typical film and television productions (a three minute circling shot was deployed for a night-time crime scene analysis in the BBC’s Collateral, for example) but was hardly aware of it here after the first few minutes. And that at least makes me query the worth of such a move, because what is actually key here is time. Single shot is certainly not incompatible with the achieving that but neither is it necessary, as its rarity proves. And creating that illusion is as much a function of the way something moves into or out of the frame, the lighting, the lens choice and of course the editing – fully visible in most films – as it is the particular approach chosen by Mendes. That he indulges in some visual and narrative sleight-of-hand at the midpoint that actually interrupts the one-shot in plain sight tends to confirm this.

    That break also introduces a compete change of atmosphere and lighting – to tell more would be a spoiler – that for me simply confirmed the redundancy of the single shot system for this film. It also begins a sequence which lacks entirely the clarity of the early material and shows a shakier grasp of those basic rules. The geography of this small corner of a foreign field, when read against the elapsed time of the narrative, seems equally uncertain, with its topography especially surely taking a giant leap into the unreal shortly afterward after one character does much the same.

    The final act returns us to open-air trenches but the magic of those opening shots has gone. Mirroring – in storyline terms – that earlier advance added little, and crucially the urgency that supposedly informed all of what came before and indeed is emphasised in the publicity was very hard to feel despite the midpoint break that is meant to enhance it. The actual climax seemed pat and unconvincing, again for reasons hard to disclose without giving much away. I was not much moved by any of it, despite my paternal grandfather serving in the same regiment as Mendes’s and winning a medal for a broadly similar act.

    George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman just about convince as Schofield and Blake though their unnatural, hybrid accents – RP endings added to everyday London beginnings, these their natural voices by all accounts – jar slightly. The dynamic between them is established at the start, with their separate motivations. Giving Blake a brother, and hence a personal stake in the mission is rather pedestrian and invariably reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan even if entirely reasonable in real life.

    There is much to admire in this film, with a fresh look at tested techniques and subjects, but ultimately the former overwhelms the latter and neither is exceptional.



  • 'Pre-Raphaelite Sisters'

    Britain’s Pre-Raphaelites have been rediscovered and reappraised in recent decades. This group of like-minded artists, who enjoyed a fifty-year flowering in the last half of the nineteenth century, have each been the subject of a major exhibition as well as a number of thematic shows. As compelling as their works are the intertwined lives they lived – as friends, lodgers, lovers and spouses. Crucial to both strands have been the women who posed for the pictures and in many cases entered relationships with the men who painted them – women such as Jane Morris, Elizabeth Siddal and Fanny Cornforth. Now, though, a brilliant new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery reveals for the first time just how widely and intimately involved in the making of this movement’s art a dozen women were.

    Joanna Boyce Wells, 'Elgiva', 1855

    The story of Effie Gray, art critic John Ruskin and painter John Everett Millais is well known – she was matched with and wed the former, who championed the latter but failed to consummate his marriage; Gray and Millais were eventually married – and thus a useful choice for the introductory section. But within this infamous love triangle Effie’s much fuller role in the work of Millais, for whom she had modelled, is now seen. As well as managing his studio she undertook research, scouted locations, sourced costumes and managed clients. She kept the books too. When Millais was awarded a baronetcy, Gray became Lady Millais; her husband still painted her into her sixties, as seen in a handsome portrait in the exhibition.

    John Everett Millais, 'The Violet's Message', 1854 - The

    model was Annie Miller, lover of artist William Holman

    Hunt, who lived to be 90 and died in 1925, having

    married an officer and left behind her humble origins

    Jane Burden, too, sat for the man who was to become her husband, artist and entrepreneur William Morris. She also modelled for several other Pre-Raphaelites including Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Edward Burne-Jones – a wonderful double family photograph of the Morrises and the Burne-Joneses serves to illustrate their close ties. Burden was made a partner in her husband’s business and managed the firm’s embroidery commissions, as well practising that skill in her own right.

    The exhibition also reminds visitors that some significant Pre-Raphaelite artists were themselves women, perhaps most notably Evelyn de Morgan, for whom Burden posed at the age of 65 – indeed one of the highlights of the exhibition are two photographs of Burden taken more than forty years apart, showing her aged around 26 and 66 respectively. Rather less known and thus something of a discovery was Joanna Boyce, who married Royal Academician Henry Wells yet produced several fine paintings of her own. That the Pre-Raphaelite women had many talents apart from modelling is displayed throughout the exhibition, confirming this richer reading of their lives.

    Such lives were of course occasionally truncated; Boyce died in childbirth, a tragedy that was later echoed in the destruction of many of her works in World War 2, and Lizzie Siddal may have committed suicide after years of illness. Both were barely 30. The most affecting fate is that of Fanny Cornforth (born Sarah Cox), model and mistress of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Another famous face of the movement, she ended her days in Graylingwell Asylum, suffering from dementia. Alongside her admission photograph, showing a serious, “stout and well-nourished” woman over 70 in black dress and white collar are the careful, entirely legible case notes. She is, we read, “confused and excited […] incoherent, and talks incessantly.”

    This is a hugely illuminating exhibition that neatly reverses the usual presumptions. The men, here, are the “artists, husbands, business partners and brothers” to Pre-Raphaelite women, whose own lives are complex and hard, loving and sad, inspiring and long. The message is conveyed succinctly and convincingly, yet never preachily. Do see it.

    Ford Madox Brown, 'Maria Spartali', 1869 - Spartali

    both sat to and was trained by Brown, becoming an

    artist herself

    ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’, curated by Dr Jan Marsh, continues at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London, WC2 until 26 January.



  • Places just to 'be'

    Writing today for the World Architecture Festival, Jonathan Meades (who, by the way, dissects the architecture of Franco’s Spain on BBC next Tuesday) rightly bemoans the mediocre buildings of today. Where, he asks, are those that are responsive to local topography, that “climb hills, turn corners, offer shade and rest and include within their fabric small shops, bars and cafés, plus useful services.” It can be done, of course, and was... in the permeable skyscraper lobbies of New York and Chicago, which offered a handy cut-through, shoe-shine or newspaper; in the nooks and crannies of Manchester’s post-war stars like Brett & Pollen’s luxuriously blue and bronze Pall Mall Court; and in each of several small-scale courtyard developments in St Albans, Hertfordshire, since 1945. Britain’s capital, it’s true, has missed out, perhaps from fear of damaging its richly historic fabric. And yet plans of that era had a lighter touch than commonly supposed, with respectiful infill and many little pausing places in the tight urban grain of the City of London envisaged by Holden and Holford and illustrated exquisitely by Gordon Cullen. So yes, let’s not ignore that need for built-in wellness and visual interest and embrace a bit of calm, friendly architecture.



  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Home

    Fifty years ago today, at 16:50 GMT, the three men of Apollo 11 were home. But when it was was only a couple of hours away from re-entry, a US Air Force meteorologist checking weather satellite data saw that a major storm was headed for the exact area planned for the ‘splashdown’. That information, today routine, was in 1969 top secret because the information was only used to task the American reconnaissance satellites the Manned Orbiting Laboratory had been designed to supplant, to minimise the problem of cloud cover obscuring the target. Through some urgent, confidential networking, the warning (though not the method of detection – Nasa was a civilian body and not permitted to know the satellites existed) was passed on and the naval recovery task force to a new location 200 miles away where the weather was due to be clearer. Apollo 11 too was moved by being given a revised course,

    because the conical command module – once separated from the support module and in the outer atmosphere – could actually be flown. The ship’s centre of gravity was intentionally off-set, meaning it descended at a slight angle. This gave it a degree of aerodynamic lift. To steer, the computer or the pilot (via hand controls) fired jets of gas. This type of vehicle and its flightpath still generated a great deal of heat, needing special sacrificial shields that charred in a controlled fashion, and high g-forces, which is why the crew sat with their backs to the direction of travel. Such capsules were also only able to be used for a single trip and they didn’t have much space inside. What was needed for the future was something that gave a softer, more controllable landing, allowed the crew to face forward and removed the need for parachutes. Such a concept had been originated in the 1930s by Austrian aerospace

    engineer Eugen Sänger, who envisaged a rocket-boosted bomber that could reach the edge of space, ‘skip’ along the outer atmosphere using what he termed dynamic soaring and reach any target in the world before dropping back to earth and landing like a glider. Twenty years later the US Air Force adapted this idea for its abortive Dyna-Soar programme, whilst throughout and indeed beyond the period of the Apollo programme Nasa flight-tested an entire family of blunt-nosed, wingless aircraft resembling shuttlecocks sliced lengthways – the lifting bodies. Some of these had rocket engines and some could only glide, but the aim was to find the right combination of shape, angle of entry and energy management regime that might give birth to the next generation of space vehicle, one that would be flexible and fully controllable during re-entry. It would still need protection from the heat but this could be provided in a more sustainable, re-usable manner. Almost a decade after the last Apollo Moon landing, the new Space Shuttle was squat, heavy and the size of an airliner. It could be fired into space, orbit the Earth, re-enter on a delta wing and use that same surface to glide to a conventional landing on an airstrip. Its first flight was crewed by Bob Crippen and John Young; the former was an astronaut originally recruited for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the latter was a veteran of Apollo 16. Three men were home, but for hundreds of others the journey was just beginning.



  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Flight

    To get Apollo 11 to the Moon, the programme bought 60% of the available microchips in the US to help make the world’s first portable, programmable digital computer; just a cubic foot in size, at a time when computers filled a room, the device was responsible for integrating navigation and vehicle orientation information and engine ignition and cut-off times to direct the command-service module accurately on its half-million-mile return journey. But in the final 15 minutes of the mission to land on the Moon, fate decreed that the lunar module would be flown down to the surface manually – 66 years after the Wright brothers became the first people to achieve powered, sustained flight – by one remarkably skilled pilot. In 1939, a Heinkel He 178 V1 became the first jet aircraft to take off, part of a secret programme for the Luftwaffe; barely five years after that jet fighters were in combat above Europe, just as a 15-year-old in the American Mid-West was learning to fly. By 1951 that man, Neil Armstrong, was just 21 and flying an

    F9F Panther jet fighter for the US Navy in the Korean War (Armstrong is piloting Panther S-116 on the left of this picture). When he was hit by anti-aircraft fire during one mission, losing part of a wing, he shepherded his aircraft back to his aircraft carrier before ejecting. In 1962, Armstrong was working for NASA and flew the rocket-powered X-15 above 200,000 feet at Mach 4. This research aircraft could manoeuvre in the atmosphere using its wings or at the airless edge of space using small hydrogen peroxide reaction ‘jets’, with the pilot manipulating a joystick and side-controller respectively; Armstrong had to use both to recover the aircraft when a new speed limiter device failed, his becoming the longest-ever flight undertaken in the type. In 1966, Armstrong was in orbit rendezvousing the two-man Gemini 8 capsule with a target vehicle when it began rolling so violently that he and his co-pilot Dave Scott were in danger of blacking out. By firing the ship’s powerful re-entry thrusters, Armstrong brought it under control – “it was my lucky day to be flying with him,” said Scott later. Two years after that, Armstrong was training to fly the lunar module by piloting the unstable, vertical take-off Lunar Landing

    Research Vehicle over California when a mechanical failure caused it to suddenly veer toward the ground; he ejected and went back to his desk without comment. And on 20 July 1969, whilst flying the lunar module from 50,000 feet above the Moon down to the surface, Armstrong realised its automatic guidance system had in fact overshot the planned touch-down zone and was also steering the craft into a dangerously rugged crater. Overriding the computer, and using the lunar module’s twin hand controllers, Armstrong selected a new landing zone, flew toward it, and brought the delicate ship carrying him and his co-pilot Buzz Aldrin down safely at 20:17 Greenwich Mean Time with about 30 seconds of fuel remaining. They had arrived.



  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Spectacle

    The mission was by far and away the most recorded event in human history. Every word from every console position in mission control and every radio transmission was taped to provide more than 30 simultaneous channels of audio, whilst the astronauts’ medical data – including heart rate – was transcribed on pen recorders from suiting-up to the end of the flight. Telemetry giving details of the hardware’s performance was continuously received from the command-service module, and its position as well as those of each rocket stage were also tracked by radar when in range. But Apollo 11 was, first and foremost, a visual event. Drawing is the most basic method for this, and artist Franklin McMahon, a member of NASA's Art Programme, was invited into mission control to sketch the team. Photography was the dominant medium, however, and this is reflected in numerous ways. Indeed before man got anywhere near the Moon, nearly 100,000 photographs had been taken by NASA's lunar probes of the body and its surface. For Apollo, contractors documented the designing, building and testing of the spacecraft on film while NASA did the same for the astronauts’ training and at all stages of the pre-launch checks – during that suiting up, for example, a stills photographer used three different cameras whilst a cinematographer shot moving images. The space agency also commissioned Theo Kamecke to direct a film covering the Moon shot for theatrical release. For this he and his camera crews were placed within the crowd, in launch control and – during the moonwalk – in mission control. The resulting production, ‘Moonwalk One’, has since achieved cult status. More than 200 of NASA’s own cameras were also emplaced around the launch complex using a variety of mountings, formats and operational modes. Modified anti-aircraft gun carriages allowed heavy 70mm motion picture cameras fitted with powerful telephoto lenses to track the rocket’s ascent smoothly, whereas fixed, high-speed 16mm cameras on the pad shot into heat-resistant

    mirrors from blast-proof boxes and were triggered automatically to produce slow motion footage. Some of these had even been mounted on the Saturn 5 itself on earlier missions, to record the separation, descent and ignition of each stage before being ejected and parachuted to Earth for recovery and development of the film. The world’s media brought their own cameras, both film and video, for newsreels and recorded and live television broadcasts. As part of a deal struck by NASA with LIFE magazine, the astronauts and their families were also photographed at home and at work for publication, a process that yielded memorable images of Janet Armstrong and her sons watching from a boat as Apollo 11 lifts off. And thousands of amateurs, members of the public and VIPs used every type of still and cine camera commercially available to make their own record of events. Crucially, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins took several cameras with them. Hasselblad medium-format stills cameras, shooting very high-resolution negatives, had been trialled on previous Apollos (one was used by Bill Anders to take his famous ‘Earthrise’ picture) and three were carried this time. One had a motor drive, and all had been extensively modified for use in space, reducing their weight and easing film transport and manipulation of the controls. Large-capacity magazines reduced the need to reload – more than 30 were carried, though the cameras themselves would be left on the Moon to save weight. A black and white television camera was fitted outside the lunar module, to be activated by Armstrong as he descended the ladder to make his historic step. Another was fixed to look out of one of the two triangular viewing ports, set to take one picture every few seconds. A colour television camera remained in the orbiting command-support module. What would they all see? One day to go.



  • 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.



  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Chance

    One way of looking at the chance of success when travelling into space was set out by Werner von Braun, who noted with pride that with a design tolerance of 99.999% perfection, fewer than two dozen parts might not be. Another is John Glenn’s apocryphal answer to the question of how he felt before lift-off: “I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of 2 million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.” During the Apollo 11 mission failure could have occurred at any one of a number of obvious stress points, including ignition of each of the three stages of the Saturn 5 stack. Indeed on the Apollo 6 mission two of the five engines on stage two malfunctioned and were shut down, the reduced thrust affecting the whole mission. Re-ignition of stage three to push the spacecraft out of Earth orbit and toward the moon was also cancelled. This worked on Apollo 11 but many more potential issues awaited, from the complex geometry of separating the command-service module from stage three and extracting the lunar lander to the two stages of that vessel working, and that was before its redocking with the command-service module engine orbiting the moon and ignition of its engine to come home. Most of those attached to the mission seriously considered the overall objective had only a fifty-fifty chance of success, though failure could take many forms short of fatalities. Death though had come to the Apollo program already, and not just with the loss of Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee in the launchpad fire that ravaged the Apollo 1 command module during a test in early 1967.

    Clifton C. Williams Jr. would have been on Apollo 12 but was killed when the T-38 jet fighter he was piloting – ironic\ally on a flight to see his dying father – crashed later in 1967; Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was also killed when flying as the rear seater in an F-104 the same year. Two Gemini astronauts who would undoubtedly have been on Apollo missions – Elliott See and Charles Bassett – were killed when the two-seater jet they were flying crashed in 1966. Another jet crash claimed Theodore Freeman in 1964. Had the Apollo 11 moon walkers not been able to return to the command-service module – seen as the most likely catastrophe – President Nixon would have read to the world a speech that remained secret for 30 years. Written by William Safire, it is eloquent and spare.

    “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown. In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man. In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts. For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”

    Three days to go.



  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Reach

    In 1926, Robert H. Goddard launched the first rocket that used liquid oxygen and gasoline as fuel. Others were well aware of this idea, including an amateur rocket enthusiast in Germany called Wernher von Braun. The A4 (‘V2’) his team developed was the world’s first intercontinental rocket. It used new technology, including a double-walled combustion chamber that used its own fuel as a coolant and carbon control vanes. After the war, von Braun came to America and continued his work, developing the A4 and giving his former enemy a head start in military and civil rocketry. America’s first satellite went into orbit in 1958, and four years later work began on a much larger system that would allow three men

    to reach the moon. In his “We choose to go to the Moon” speech in 1962, President Kennedy summarised this as-yet-unbuilt structure as: “a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun.” By 16 July 1969, the Saturn 5 rocket stack sitting on the pad in Florida was taller than the Statue of Liberty and weighed nearly 3,000 tons – most of that was fuel which, had it exploded, would have released energy equivalent to two kilotons of TNT; the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was sixteen kilotons. No-one was allowed closer than three miles; at lift-off, the flames turned concrete to glass whilst the shockwaves damaged launch control and caused a seismic event that registered in New York. Its first stage burned 20 tons of fuel a second, pushed the Saturn supersonic in seconds and was empty in 2.5 minutes, by which time the rocket was almost 40 miles high. The second stage fired for less than ten minutes, speeding the Saturn to 15,500 miles per hour. The third lasted for less than five minutes, and ensured the crew reached Earth orbit just 12 minutes from launch. A four-day journey lay ahead.



Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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


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


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