Monday, August 22, 2011

Brick Moon

The Pageos Satelloon (ca 1966); Piranesi, Carceri (ca 1750)

The other day I found a copy of Arthur C. Clarke's 1968 edition of The Promise of Space one of my neighbors had thoughtfully placed on his stoop along with a collection of equally ancient self help books. In it there is a spectacular image of the "Pageos satellite" and a brief description that I had been planing to email to my satellooon loving friend Greg Allen
For simplicity it would be hard to beat the "balloon" satellites, of which the Echo 1 was the first and most famous. On June 24, 1966, NASA launched singularly perfect specimen, the 100-foot-diameter Pageos, which looks like a giant highly polished ball bearing. Made of Mylar film 0.0005 inch thick, Pageos weighed only 120 pounds and when inflated in orbit was half a million times larger than the canister into which it had been skillfully packed. Moving in a polar orbit at an altitude of 2600 miles it is easily visible to the naked eye.
Sol Lewitt, Sphere lit from the top (2004); David Stephenson, Dome #41712 (2004)

One doesn't see a lot about satelloons, besides on, so I was very surprised last night to find Echoe 1 make an appearance in JG Ballard's 1966 book The Crystal World:
Peering upward, he stared into the star filled sky. In front of him , at an elevation of forty-five degrees, he picked out the constellation Taurus and Orion. Passing them was a star of immense magnitude, a huge corona of light orne in front of it and eclipsing the smaller stars in its path. At first Sanders failed to recognize this as the Echoe satellite. Its luminosity had increased by at least tenfold, transforming the thin pinpoint of light that had burrowed across the night sky for so many faithful years into a brilliant luminary outshone only by the moon. All over Africa, from the Liberian coast to the shores of the Red Sea, it would now be visible, a vast aerial lantern fired by the same light he had seen in the jeweled flowers that afternoon. Thinking lamely that the balloon might be breaking up, forming a cloud of aluminium like a giant mirror, Dr. Sanders watched the satellite setting in the southeast.
Power of Ten (1977): Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970)

I am not a Ballardian. had picked up the wrecked paperback of The Crystal World because it was cheap, but also I am a fan of the artist Robert Smithson. Along with Chris Marker's 1962 short film La Jetée, one of Ballard's stories (about a guy named Powers - sweet), The Voices of Time, is credited by the artist Tacita Dean with having inspired Smithson's massive 1970 earthwork, Spiral Jetty. Later Ballard wrote an essay about Spiral Jetty where he likened it to Pacific Island cargo cults. 

I had read bits of Clarke's Promise of Space as I moved around the city on the subway that first day I after picked the book up, but since then it had been sitting on my drawing table with a buch of other stuff I have been meaning to read. The synchronicity of finding Echoe 1 mentioned by Ballard sent me back to a chapter I had noticed in Clarke's book but hadn't gotten a chance to read: Imaginary Voyages. In it, Clarke gives a short history of space travel in literature starting with Lucian's imaginary trip to the moon via water spout, followed by Kepler's demonic Somnium, and a hat tip to Voltaire's Micromega. But Clarke reports reports that it was an American writer (and one-time chaplain to the U.S. Senate), Reverend Edward Everett Hale, who wrote the "first treatment of both in fiction and non fiction of an artificial satellite." 

In his story, The Brick Moon (published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1869), Hall imagined a ceramic satellite (hence the brick moon) 200 feet in dimeter launched by rolling the thing down a huge grove where it be pinched between two massive hydro-powered flywheels that would shoot it like a wet pip into an orbit 4000 miles above the earth. Exactly like the Echoe 1, Hall imagined the brick moon would reflect the sun's light back to earth, and that unlike Echoe's Polar orbit, the brick moon would hang above the Greenwich meridian, and would therefore act as a longitudinal guide for navigators - proto GPS. Clarke writes:
The money to build the brick moon was raised by public subscription, and the flywheels were constructed in a remote part of the United States. The moon itself was not a simple shell of masonry, but had its interior divided into thirteen spherical chambers, in contact with each other so that "by the constant repetition of arches, we should with the least weight unite the greatest strength." However, things did not go quite according to plan. One night owing to a ground subsidence, the brick moon was accidentally launched together with all the workmen and engineers who decided that its spacious chambers made beter living quarters than their log cabins.
Clarke goes on to explain that the thirty-seven men, women and children launched into space had a good store of food and some hens and were able to make a go of it in their new habitat. Clarke's description reads a bit like steampunk Contact or a pre-14th Amendment Iain M Banks - one needs only to imagine the World Machine Consortium as a limited liability subscription and the brick moon laid up as a Paranesi-esque Micromégas of interlacing N-dimensional hyperspheres housing a cashless socialist utopia. 
Contact (1997); Anish Kapoor, Leviathan (2011)

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