Space Shuttle Program (1981 – 2011)

After three decades, Atlantis which was launched on Saturday will be NASA’s last space shuttle mission. For the next eleven days, it will be orbiting the Earth, and for the next eleven days, the Iconic Photos will feature the most breathtaking images from the shuttle’s career.

Nixon and NASA administrator James Fletcher redefined the space program after the Apollo missions

First, a disclaimer: I am not a fan of the space program; my friends go so far as to say I have “deep-seated mistrust in science and scientific community”. Many articles and pundits this week noted — and will note — the space shuttle program’s extraordinary achievements. While I do not deny this, it is worth reflecting on its failed promises.

When first conceived in the 1970s, the shuttle was to launch once a week. However, since its first mission thirty years ago, only 135 flights were launched, a dismal average of one every three months. So much for a vehicle envisioned as an everyday freight truck.

But it is not very good at freighting either; initially, it was estimated that each kilogram sent into orbit will cost $1,400. Costs spiraled to $1.5 billion a mission, at the cost of $60,000 per kilogram. Although its big selling-point was reusability, extensive maintenance needed after each mission meant that it was never truly reused again.

Its supporters point out that actually less than 1% of the federal budget went to NASA. It is true but in three decades, at the cost of $192 billion, the shuttle program has cost American taxpayers more than the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Programme and the Panama Canal combined. Its safety record — 1.5 per 100 flights — is also not topnotch.

True, its achievements — like delivering the Hubble Telescope and countless other satellites — should not be ignored, but the space shuttle was costly, both in terms of money and human life. Other nations and robots will perform the shuttle’s duties, and American astronauts will hitch rides with Russian rockets. Those are cheaper, safer alternatives, even if they are less magnificent.

Fukushima Nuclear Incident

When I saw conflicting reports over the exploding nuclear power plant in Japan that had been damaged by an earthquake and a tsunami, I wanted to believe much of it was due to media-hype and difference in threat perception between the general public and the nuclear industry. Nuclear power was considered safe by experts, but the general public who grew up watching Homer Simpson bumbling at the Springfield Nuclear Plant always maintained healthy skepticism. Daily aerial photos of the fuming plant didn’t speak to me as powerfully as the image above, which chillingly reminds me of the images of Chernobyl disaster nearly three decades ago. Both the Soviet Union and nuclear industry never recovered from that incident. Today, the question is how bad the situation in Japan is going to get and how precisely the Japanese society will be transformed by this incident.

There are already some signs of disquiet. Yesterday, the Japanese Emperor Akihito gave a television address — the first time a Japanese emperor has given a speech directly to the people on television during a national crisis. Beyond poignant comparisons of the address to the radio address his father gave in 1945 to declare Japan’s surrender to the allies after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a harsh fact that the Japanese public broadcaster NHK instructed its employees to cut into the speech if there were crucial developments in the nuclear crisis. In a country where the Emperor is revered universally, this instruction bordered blasphemy, a potent indicator of the deep cultural impact of the crisis.

It is also undeniable that Japanese culture and psyche too will be greatly transformed by this crisis. In a country where cabinets and prime ministers (31 of them since 1947) came and went, government and industry are effectively run by elite bureaucrats and corporations, with whom Japan always had ambivalent relationship. While revered for Japan’s rapid growth since the Second World War, they were also reviled for elitism and insularity they represented. While the Soviet Union had nomenklatura, Japan’s top civil servants retire to high-paying corporate jobs in a system known as amakudari. Now they seems overwhelmed by the crisis.

While the Soviet belief in the messianic might of their empire contributed to the Chernobyl cover-up, the Japanese brief in discretion is equally troubling. Until recently, many Japanese people concealed their maladies from family members to avoid causing alarm, and disrupting calm. Reassurances along the same vein seem to be coming from Japanese authorities, despite the fact that the situation in the reactors seems to be deteriorating.

According to a wikileaks cable, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned Japan more than two years ago that strong earthquakes would pose “serious problems” to her nuclear plants. I am a strong supporter of the nuclear power, but have always been disturbed by the way industry reacts to such warnings. In university, I took a class on nuclear power with someone who is now the head of his country’s civilian nuclear program. He was very dismissive of my concerns over nuclear waste storage and transfers. Everyone else in the class (there were 15 of them) does not seem to be too concerned either, and quite worryingly, some of them actually went into nuclear industry. My professor have always insisted that Chernobyl was an isolated accident that could not have happened outside the Soviet Union. Let’s hope he’s correct.

The Completion of Transcontinental Railroad


Six years after work began in 1862, the laborers of the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad from the east met at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was there on May 10, 1869 that Governor Leland Stanford (one of the “Big Four” owners of the Central Pacific) drove the Golden Spike on the special tie of polished California laurel (later destroyed in an earthquake).

The completion of the transcontinental railroad was the world’s first live mass-media event: the hammers and spike were wired to the telegraph line so that each hammer stroke would be heard as a click at telegraph stations nationwide. Predictably, various problems occurred; the other ‘Big Three’ decided not to take the harsh journey. The ceremony was delayed by two days because of bad weather and a labor dispute, thus rendering the date engraved on the spike (May 8th) wrong. Eventually, technical problems force the hammer stroke clicks to be sent by the telegraph operators. The spike itself was merely gold plated (gold being much too soft for the purpose), and was immediately replaced by an ordinary iron spike. A message was transmitted to both the East and West Coasts that read: “DONE.” President Grant announced the message to the Capitol. The country erupted in celebration. Complete travel from coast to coast was reduced from six or more months to just one week.

I have always assumed that Leland Stanford was one of the people shaking hands at the center. Boy, was I wrong! Two people shaking hands were Samuel S. Montague (left) and Grenville M. Dodge (right), respective Chief Engineers of Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads. In fact, Stanford hated this photo by Andrew J. Russell mainly because he was not in the photo. He subsequently commissioned a painter Thomas Hill to create a cleaned-up version which removed the cheeky champagne bottle, and included Stanford and his closet associates, including Theodore Judah, the visionary behind the Transcontinental Railroad, who had died six years earlier.

This post was originally created on May 10th 2009. Re-posted with a new picture.



Maurice Broomfield (1916-2010)

Maurice Broomfield started his career documenting the devastated cities of Europe. When he returned, Imperial Chemical Industries asked him to photograph one of their factories, and this led to a new career for Broomfield. For the next three decades, he took pictures of factory workers across Britain for annual corporate reports, exhibitions and trade fairs as well as for syndicated newspaper columns documenting the progress of industrial Britain.

All his photographs of industrial life were epic and intriguing, resembling art installations more than dirty workplaces. An inverted and disembodied mannequin’s leg is set against a room of darkening shadows as the lab technician posed behind in Broomfield’s famous ‘The Nylon Stocking Test, Pontypool’ (1957). This picture was highly reminiscent of Man Ray’s avant-garde photography. Also inspired by Vermeer, Joseph Wright (18th century painter who similarly documented the advent of the Industrial Revolution), Bauhaus and choreographed theatre, Broomfield set out to create masterly compositions, sometimes surreal, sometimes terrifying, but always glamourous. A school drop-out who worked in a factory and attended art school at night, Broomfield conferred poise, humanity and dignity to industrial workers and technicians whether they were making nylon, insulation, ballbearings or ships.

By the time he retired in 1982, following the death of his wife, the industrial Britain he so adoringly depicted was slowly disappearing too. With the new millennium came a nostalgia for the promised sci-fi future and thus resurgence of interest in Broomfield’s works, which indeed looked like stills from a Fritz Lang or Stanley Kubrick movie. His works were rediscovered, and retrospective after retrospective surrounded the last years of Maurice Broomfield, who died last week at the age of 94.

See his most famous photos here.

Hot Shot East Bound

In 1955, O Winston Link set out to capture the last days of steam railroading in America . Responsible for establish rail photography, Link also pioneered night photography, producing several well known examples including Hotshot Eastbound, above and Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole showing a train crossing a bridge above children bathing. Link’s interest in railroads developed as a youth growing up in Brooklyn. He reflected: “The train is as close to a human being as you can get. It talks, it moves, it grunts and groans. And each engine has its own characteristics–its own sound and smell and sights.” In the 50s,  Link used a large-format view camera to take 2,400 pictures, most of them at night, of Norfolk and Western’s coal and passenger trains — the country’s last steam engines. The company retired its last steam engine in May 1960.

Although his photos exuded spontaneity, they were often the result of elaborate preparations and darkroom manipulations. “Hot Shot East Bound” was photographed on August 2, 1956, in Iaeger, West Virginia, in an effort to depict small-town American life at the end of an era. As the steam engine symbolically exits the frame, a young couple in Link’s own 1952 Buick convertible takes center stage, both literally and metaphorically. Later, in his darkroom, Link added the U.S. Air Force Sabre airplane on the movie screen to extend this metaphoric power. The photo was a poignant display of a cultural lifestyle in speedy transition. The 50s marked the beginning of excess, decadence, and conspicuous consumption. For Link, no landscape embodied this as effectively as the drive-in theater, a cultural space first created in 1928 by Richard Hollingshead in response to the United State’s burgeoning car culture.  By the late 50s, America — a nation of 40 million people — was buying cars at the rate of 8 million annually. Under President Eisenhower, more than 50% of federal transportation budget went to creation of highways and less than 5% to public transportation. Los Angeles had more cars than the whole of Asia, and GM’s profits overtook Belgium economy.

(See the Smithsonian Magazine’s account of how the photo was taken).

The Day of the Black Sea

You got to hand it to Chris Graythen of Getty — he sure can make an oil spill look beautiful. Actually, there are a lot of great photos being taken in the Gulf of Mexico right now. See here, here, here and here. I am not being callous, but you simply can’t turn your eyes away from these photos.

(Following is an opinion piece. Skip it if you are sensitive).

So this morning, U.S. Attorney General’s office opened a criminal case towards BP. I know BP is primarily responsible for the oil spill, but the case was nothing but making cheap political capital out of this tragedy. Yes, the case will be hideously popular, obscenely popular with the voters in the U.S. (say what you may about the administration in Washington, you can’t deny it is very shrewd, and its eyes were fully set on November elections).

Fingerpointing is all the rage in Washington it seems. In singling out BP with this criminal case, the administration blithely ignored the responsibilities and negligences on part of TransOcean, Halliburton, the White Houses (past and present), government agencies, local and state governments and the Congress. Eventually, the blame lies squarely on our doorsteps — our insatiable addiction to oil caused this crisis. Full Stop.

Knowing this, it is impossible to take a moral high ground; actually, despite this accident, the oil extraction is relatively less risky compared to other big scale enterprises like construction, Wall Street or NASA. There are always capsizing and pipeline bursts here and there, but the last time spills of this scale happened were in 1979 and 1990. Considering the number of wells around the world and how difficult it is to get oil, this can be considered a good track record. Since risks associated with such a drilling were calculated and regulated beforehand, it is also disingenuous to apply a law retroactively to make a business more liable (BP should be recommended here for taking full responsibility).

So where do we go from here? Well, we don’t go anywhere, but if you have enough money and are willing to take a risk, it is time to short BP. BP now risks being a target of a takeover (or at least a receivership) from the U.S. government. Taking the world’s third largest company out of private sector will have severe negative impact on a fragile economy. Only by shorting BP, pension and mutual funds will recover their investments. So buy BP shares, arrange some default swaps, and bet on them to fail. For a safer measure, bet on FTSE and Dow Jones to go down too. If you aren’t doing it, a lot of hedge funders are doing it anyway (BP lost $12 billion this morning alone).

Blown-Away Man

Rarely has an advertising image been hailed as a pop culture icon. In that rarified company of Marlboro Man and Benetto Pieta belongs this 1978 photograph by Steven Steigman, which would later be known as the Blown-away Man. The ad for Hitachi Maxell, the Japanese manufacture of stereos has since been parodied from Family Guy to P.Diddy, and to this day, has been recycled and reused by Maxell is its ad campaigns.

The ads showed hair and tie of a man sitting in a Le Corbusier chair — along with the lampshade and martini glass next to him — being blown back by the tremendous sound from speakers in front of him. Who actually modeled for the ad is unclear. Steigman wanted a model with long hair (for obvious reasons), but when a model could not easily be found, Steigman used a makeup man working for his ad agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves. The model is identified only as Jack. To achieve the wind-blown position, Steigman put tonnes of hairspay on the model’s hair, and tied some hair strands to the ceiling with fishing lines. The lampshade, tie and martini glass were also likewise tied to fishing lines.

The photo was instantaneously a hit, a powerful statement that music has power and force to move the mind and the soul. It was so popular that it was expended into a TV ad campaign. In the television versions, either Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries or Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain was the music responsible for those powerful waves.

Climate v. Politicians

(Clockwise from left to right: Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of European Commission; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, American President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown).

Minutes before this picture was taken, Obama was meeting with China, India, South Africa and Brazil, when the main elements of his accord were stamped out in a humiliating slap in face for US and Europe. The above meeting during the final hours of the Copenhagen Summit on 18th December 2009 was not behind the closed doors. As the Daily Mail mused, Gordon Brown served the appointed note-taker for the group, scribbling away furiously, seemingly struggling to keep up with Merkel. Nick Clegg pointed out the above photo in this evening’s debate, saying Brown sat on the sidelines at Copenhagen. He is only partly right: Europe and Brown were pushed out to the side by Obama and China. But I thought I might begin with that photo before seguing into a political rant on an issue (I think) I am qualified for:

I agree with Clegg (and to lesser extent Cameron) on renewable portfolio standards. I was privileged to have been part of three commissions that complied the cost-benefits analyses of nuclear and wind power. As Clegg said, nuclear just doesn’t pay off, and government subsidies are just wasteful. Europe is trying to build third generation plus reactors in trial-and-error method, which is even less cost efficient. (In Finland, their reactor’s concrete shell had to be torn down after it didn’t meet standards and the reactors is already 37 months behind schedule 45 months into building).

Don’t let scientists and politicians fool you by saying nuclear costs comparatively the same as wind and solar. It is true ONLY if the construction finishes ontime (the industry has the history of 250% delays and bond defaults), and if all special material costs remain uninflated (which they don’t) throughout the construction. In addition, there is no waste fuel processing facility in planning, and nuclear plants have security precautions that force them to stop operating in hot days (24 C and above). They are harder to get back on the grid once shut down, and need entire restructuring of the electricity grid because their output doesn’t vary (though demand does). The world produces only a third of nuclear scientists needed every year and with big plans in China, the gap will become even greater. Yes, we can overcome all of this but it will make nuclear far more costlier than say a national initiative for carbon use efficiency, which I totally support.

On windpower, onshore windpower is be a political disaster–Natural Parks and marginal constituencies won’t wear it. Noise. Vast expenses of land wasted. Agricultural aircrafts redirected. High transmission costs (from Norther Scotland, where current onshore windplants are). It too need restructuring the grid to account for intermittency of wind. Offshore wind (the proposed London array) near quickly-developing Southeast is looking good, but all three parties have their own reservations and supporters for the project (foreign investments, diversion of resources from marginals in the North) and it is going very slowly if at all.

Please don’t comment on this post with “climate change is a hoax” comments. What I am advocating for is a change towards responsible living (insulation, solar panels on roof, less carbon footprint, cheaper bills, energy diversification, technological investment) which I believe is a good thing to adhere to with or without climate change.

… and I saw this when I was in Copenhagen for the conference and thought it was witty.

Krakatoa Explodes

Since Eyjafjallajökull is grounding me and providing thousands of people in Northern Hemisphere with the Icelandic volcano excuse for flaking out on their commitments, I thought I would just lay in bed and blog. This explosion is not even the biggest (Volcanic Explosively Index of probably 2 to 3) we have seen.

In May 1883, after having been dormant for more than two centuries, the volcano of Krakatoa in Indonesia erupted — and kept on erupting for another 4 months. The explosions peaked with four blasts on the 26th and 27th August, when the above picture was taken. One of the explosions — heard 3500 miles away from Perth and Mauritius and considered the loudest sound ever made in history — had the force of 100.000 hydrogen bombs and created an acoustical equivalent of an earthquake. (Every barograph in the world ducumented this wave, which bounced back and forth between the eruption site and its antipodes for nine days).

The island itself sank into water, unleashing tsunamis that reached 10 miles inland and killed more than 36,000 people. The waves travelled at the speed up to a 350 miles per hour and reached height of 135 feet, and were detected even in the English Channel. Twenty cubic kilometers of ash were erupted some thirty kilometres creating “blue suns” and “orange moons” in Europe and North America. It cooled the global temperatures by 1.2 degrees C in five years that followed.

The explosions were one of the first photographically recorded natural disasters. Spectacular sunsets and cloud formations were painted by artists all over the world, including Edvard Munch who painted the celebrated The Scream. The Royal Society formed Krakatoa Committee and invited responses from the public. They received “wagonloads” of material for their 494-page report, two-thirds of which was devoted to unusual visual phenomena of the atmosphere. A lithographic copy of the above photo was included in their final report in 1888.

Automobile Delange | Lartigue

In America, Jacques Henri Lartigue’s claim to fame was that he was replaced from the cover of Life magazine by the assassination of John F. Kennedy.* However, in the wider world, Lartigue was probably the symbol of the transformation of photography into an affordable family pastime. The greatest of the earliest amateurs, he showed how a mundane scene can be transformed into a magnificent image.

He started with photographs of family games and childhood experiences, later moving onto the beginnings of aviation and cars and the women of the Bois de Boulogne. Without even realising it, he became the father of “modern” photography. One of his favourite subjects was the motorcar, which he photographed as early as 1910, in the above photo of a two-wheeled bobsleigh taking a turn at 60 km/h.

But when he saw the picture he took on that 26th January 1912, the eighteen-year old was disappointed. The number six car is only half in the frame, the background smudged and strangely distended. He put the photo away and forgot about it until September 1954, when the French photography magazine “Points de vue – Images du monde” published “In the heroic times of the motorcar”. Of all photographs of car races taken by Lartigue, the above photo stood out. Automobile Delage, taken at the French Grand Prix in 1912, as someone pointed out, “conveys a remarkable impression of velocity–the wheels of the speeding car are elliptical and tilted forward, their spokes blurred with motion, and the road itself is but a streak of grey”. It showed “all the rush, the energy, the velocity that were so important during the years … in which racing drivers are popular heroes, new speech records are established and broken every week,” wrote Philip Blom in The Vertigo Years.

The picture, ultimately one of Lartigue’s most famous images, transformed him overnight from a painter with photography hobby into “France’s leading amateur photographer” — as the magazine called it. He retired as a society photographer, taking the official portrait for President Giscard d’Estaing. For someone whose photo career began at the age of six — with his father’s camera — in 1900,the title of his firsbook, a journal he kept throughout his life was especially fitting: Diary of A Century.


* Actually, this greatly helped his fame, for many more people bought that issue of Life magazine.

The Solvay Conference

In 1911, Ernest Solvay, the Belgian chemist and industrialist founded Conseil Solvay, the world’s first physics conference. Initially aimed at solving problems in physics and chemistry, the conferences are held every three years.

The above group photo was taken at the end of the October 1927 Fifth Solvay International Conference. The tensions were high: Einstein sparred with Heisenberg over the latter’s Uncertainty Principle. The attendees disagreed on the Copenhagen interpretation of atom, was promoted by a faction led by Niels Bohr, and opposed by more conservative faction lead by Albert Einstein. By the end of the conference, Bohr’s faction had prevailed.

First Row (l to r): Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Pierre Langevin, Charles Eugene Guye, C. T. R. Wilson, Owen W. Richardson

Second Row (l to r): Peter Debye, Martin Knudson, W. Lawrence Bragg, Hans Kramer, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr

Third Row (l to r): Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Edouard Herzen,Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrodinger, Jules-Emile Vershaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Howard Fowler, Leon Brillouin.

Seventeen of the twenty-nine attendees were or became Nobel Prize winners.

McMinnville UFO

McMinnville, Oregon. 7:30 pm. May 11, 1950. Evelyn Trent was walking back to her farmhouse after feeding rabbits on her farm while she saw an unidentified flying object in the sky. She called out to her husband, Paul, who took the above picture. At the urging of a friend, they later submitted the photo to the local newspaper the Telephone-Register, which put it on the front page on June 9th. The Oregonian published the photographs the next day, and within a month they were published in LIFE magazine (June 26 1950).

LIFE subsequently misplaced the negatives and they were through to be lost for 17 years. Since its rediscovery, the photograph had since been subjected to intense scrutiny involving computer analysis and sophisticated scanning and stretching procedures. The Trents’ background was also thoroughly checked. Some thought they hanged an object from the power lines. Some measured the shadows and assumed it was ‘staged’ in the morning time. Others insist the Trents’ original resistance to publish the photo was a testament to their honesty. It has never been satisfactorily explained, and some believe it is the best (if not only) authentic UFO photograph. The affair led to a “UFO Festival” being held in McMinnville each year, which is the biggest such gathering apart from Roswell, New Mexico’s.