Itamar Franco (1930 – 2011)

Itmar Franco, the Elmer J. Fudd of Latin American politics, died last month, aged 81.

To many, the former Brazilian President Itmar Franco was remembered only for one thing: an unfortunate photograph of him kissing and dancing with a Playboy cover girl during the 1994 Rio Carnival. Taken from below the presidential podium, it showed that the model, 27-year old Lilian Ramos was wearing only a T-shirt, and nothing else, not even a fio dental (literally, dental floss — a Brazilian euphemism for a thong).

While many dismissed that lack of underwear was a carnival tradition, the photos scandalized the Brazilian establishment, and nearly brought down the fledging Brazilian democracy. The Catholic Church condemned his behavior, while the military considered an impeachment. But Franco survived, later joking: “What was I supposed to do, lend her a pair of panties? How am I supposed to know if people are wearing underwear?”

Chosen as vice-president only to win the support in his crucial home state of Minas Gerais, Franco found himself in the hot seat when his predecessor resigned over corruption charges. He was nobody’s idea of a president; an insomniac and sufferer of many nervous ailments, he once told reporters, “I believe in ghosts and Saci-Pierre”, referring to Brazil’s mythical one-legged, pipe-smoking bogeyman.

Born premature at sea, he was often mocked as being “immature and lost at sea” throughout his presidency. While many found him as naive and neurotic as Elmer J. Fudd or Forrest Gump, he was by no means colorless. One of his hobbies was writing erotic short stories, and after he became president, the Brazilian edition of Playboy quoted a passage from one of his works.

Yet, on the continental stage filled with cigar-chomping demagogues, drug-dealing kleptocrats and sabre-rattling caudillos, Franco remained a minor character; domestically he nonetheless presided over a pivotal time in his country’s history. A honest upright man in a country that had recently escaped military dictatorship, Franco restored the public’s belief in political system. He inherited a poor, underinvested country where the accumulated inflation was 1,800 billion percent from 1968 to 1993, and laid the groundwork for its recovery. Aided by a bright team of economists, his finance minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso created the Real Plan — a bold economic overhaul that created a new stable currency, reined inflation, slashed government spending, and raised interest rates to attract foreign capital. In a sense, Brazil’s slow revival began in Franco’s steady hands.

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photos taken from below can be unflattering. click for uncensored version.

Lucian Freud (1922 – 2011)

Lucian Freud, a giant of modern painting, died last week, aged 88.

A 20th Century Master: Freud's studio life was meticulously documented in photos by his assistant of 20 years, David Dawson

The death of a painter rarely makes front-page headlines, but Lucian Freud was no ordinary mortal; like the great and the good who passed through his studio, he was larger-than-life — an icon whose past was a colorful mixture of fact and fiction. Some suggest that he fathered as many as 40 illegitimate children, but the number is probably around a dozen. He claimed he accidentally burnt down his school in Dedham with a stray cigarette.

He chose friends wherever he wanted, painted whoever he wanted. He befriended both the royals and the Krays; his friends, lovers and subjects came from all walks of life, from art students to supermodels. He viewed human experience, of the working class and the aristocracy alike, as essentially forlorn, and spiritually if not physically painful. To extract this misery, he would torture his subjects with excruciatingly long sessions (he never worked from photographs) during which his intimidating gaze scrutinized the sitter’s every twitch and inflection.

His work was often controversial, as when he painted Queen Elizabeth II with a six o’clock shadow in 2001 (below). The Times wrote the Queen’s neck “would not disgrace a rugby prop forward”. The Sun called it a “travesty”. Even as his international stature and price of his paintings ascended, and he became “the greatest living painter” on Bacon’s death in 1992, Freud rarely harbored pretensions, especially in his last years. He deplored journalists, but friends were always welcomed to tea and to view his works in progress. His studio was cramped, paint-encrusted, littered with dirty rags, and heated to an uncomfortable degree. There, Freud and his models would strip down to capture the human body in its most anguished and chiseled glory.

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The Queen was one of the few who didn't have to come to Freud's studio

The Marlboro Marine

An Enhanced Photo graced many frontpages

For over a century, cigarettes were not just icons of cultural sophistication, sexual attraction, freedom and youth; they were sources of comfort and reassurance to many — especially to those that the front. During the First World War, sheer boredom and anxiety of the trenches was soothed, to some extent, by cigarette smoking. A shared smoke was an act of camaraderie amid the violence, even between the warring factions which exchanged cigarettes (among other items) during the Christmas Truce in 1914.

During the Second World War, Bull Durham tobacco company reassured that “When our boys light up, the Huns will light out.” Even today, war and cigarettes go together. One of the most iconic photographs of the Iraq War depicts a soldier, with a bloody scratch on his nose, smoking after 12 hours of combat in Fallujah. The dirt-smeared, battle-weary face with a cigarette languidly dangling from the lips belonged to Lance Corporal James Blake Miller, who would be quickly dubbed “the Marlboro Man” or “Marlboro Marine”.

The photo was taken by Luis Sinco of Los Angeles Times on 10 November, 2004; Miller told the intruding photographer, “If you want to write something, tell Marlboro I’m down to four packs, and I’m here in Fallujah till who knows when. Maybe they can send some. And they can bring down the price a bit.” The photo was depicted on the cover of more than 150 newspapers and magazines, including the New York Post, whose headline read, “Marlboro Men kick butt in Fallujah”. Dan Rather called it “the best war photograph of recent years.”

Because of his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, Miller is now separated from his wife and family and currently lives alone. He is unable to discuss certain things that happened in Fallujah. Read Sinco’s touching tribute to Miller here. Read the Guardian’s and the Seattle Times’ coverage here and here.

Mussolini’s Demise

During the last days of the Second World War in Italy, Benito Mussolini attempted to escape the advancing Allied Army by hiding in a German convoy headed toward the Alps. Partisans stopped and searched the convoy at a small village on Lake Como; in the back of a truck, they found a private suspiciously wearing a general’s pants under his overcoat. It was, of course, Mussolini.

The partisans took him prisoner and he was later joined by his mistress, Clara Petacci. The council of partisan leaders, lead by the Communists, secretly decided to execute Mussolini and 15 leading Fascists. They were executed on April 29, 1945, and their bodies were brought back to Milan, where the fascist dictator’s meteoric rise to power began two decades ago; the bodies were hung from an Esso gas station in the Piazzale Loreto, the scene where Mussolini’s own fascists executed fifteen partisans (the so-called Martyrs of Piazzale Loreto) the previous year.

The photos of Mussolini’s gruesome demise was widely reproduced and sold to many Allied soldiers. Meanwhile in Berlin, Hitler heard how Mussolini was executed and vowed he would not let this happen to him. The end was near and Gotterdammerung was about to begin. (See an extremely gruesome picture of Mussolini’s defaced (literally) body here).

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Mussolini’s body was buried in a secret grave, but fascists found the body and removed it a year later. A small trunk containing the remains moved from a local convent to a monastery to a police constabulary until it was finally returned to Mussolini’s widow in 1957, and was buried at Predappio, Il Duce’s birthplace.

Best of the Rest

Tubular!!!: Cocoa Beach surfers watch Atlantis' launch on September 8, 2000.

To ponder the distant beginnings of the shuttle program is to concede what a different time it was. Sunny Ronald Reagan had just became president. Charlie’s Angels was still on television; the top song that summer was Kim Carnes’s Bette Davis Eyes. When the shuttle first went up, the personal computer revolution was just getting underway. Tandy and Apple were already out, but the most successful one, the IBM PC, was still months away from its debut.

The first shuttles were controlled by a computer running on only 500-kilobyte of RAM; it was upgrade to 1 MB only in 1991. During the past 3 decades the computer system performed flawlessly, and why replace something that has worked well? (More amazingly, since 1974, Soyuz ran on Argon-16 flight-computer software with just six kilobytes of RAM. In 2003, the Russians finally upgraded, and Soyuz disastrously crash-landed subsequently. So another reason not to replace.)

When the first shuttles went up, nothing captured the giddy sparefaring mood more than a new network that was launched later that summer. On August 1st, MTV was born with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,” accompanied by portentous images from launch and landing of Apollo 11. Instead of American flag, MTV’s logo unfurled changing colors, textures and designs. For the 81ers, space was totally fresh, rad, and choice.

That summer, a new generation of America was born; a small part of that generation died with the final shuttle.

(See The National Geographic’s The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures).

Atlantis and Mir

As I wrote two days ago, the last time the photo of a space shuttle docked to a space station was taken, it was in 1995, when Atlantis docked with Russia’s Mir. In the photo above, taken by a Mir cosmonaut as Atlantis departed, five astronauts bid farewell to Mir after a three-day visit in November 1995. It was the third Mir-NASA missions, during which the shuttle used its robotic arm to attach a docking tunnel to the Mir, so that future shuttles could dock without getting too close to the station’s delicate solar panels.

On June 29th 1995, Atlantis became the first US spacecraft to dock with a Russian spacecraft since the Apollo-Soyuz mission two decades earlier. During the Cold War, Mir-NASA would have been not only unthinkable, but also antithetical to what the space shuttle stood for.

In fact, even the International Space Station was initially conceived as a Cold War venture; when he greenlit the project in 1984, Ronald Reagan harbored Kennedyesque ambitions to one-up the Soviets and their puny Mir. With their enormous cargo bays, the shuttles became a crucial tool for these ambitions. (Nothing revealed these Cold War ambitions more than the names of these space stations. Mir meant Peace, while throughout the 1980s, NASA planned to launch another space station called Freedom).

Then suddenly, the space race was history, and nine Mir-NASA missions were carried out between 1995 and 1997, with Atlantis only flying seven straight missions. Last months of the joint project were terse, as the mission battled near-disasters; the aging Mir posed many problems to the shuttle astronauts. When Mir was launched into orbit on Feb 20th 1986 — less than a month after the Challenger exploded, it was planned to be in orbit for only five years, but flew for thrice that length of time.  The Russians had initially planned to deorbit the abandoned Mir in early 2000, but thanks to some private investors, it lived for a year more. It finally came down on March 23rd 2001.

To Boldly Go ….

A Texan neighborhood gathers around Columbia's debris in 2002.

Editorial: You can just look at the photo above and skip this post if you want.

I have been receiving many messages — mostly negative, obviously, because only people who are seriously pissed about something bother to write complaints, although i appreciate the polite tone of most, if not all, of emails — regarding my criticism of “NASA”.

Unless you have been living under a rock, or doing something more productive than reading a blog (which is more likely), you would have noticed that I have been posting space photos lately. My commentaries accompanying most of them tend to point out shortcomings of the space shuttle program.

May be I wasn’t really clear; may be people just skim, but the readers miss the point. My criticism was solely targeted towards the space shuttle (and yesterday, the ISS), not against NASA and other spacefaring programs in general. I think Hubble was great (btw, it could have been delivered without space shuttles). I think Mars Rovers performed admirably. I don’t think NASA’s budget is bloated, but time, effort and money it devoted to space shuttle was unnecessary and unwise.

Unlike Apollo, Saturn or Gemini, the shuttles failed to deliver. Everywhere else, projects of such scale would be accompanied by failure standards; but the shuttle didn’t appear to have any, for if it had, it would have broken many of them (see the first post). As much as I hate to type this, I must admit the failure of space shuttle is the failure of capitalism and politics. Aerospace contractors loved that the shuttle launches cost so much. Boeing and Lockheed Martin which control the shuttle business through an Orwellian sounding consortium called the United Space Alliance, consistently lobbied against unmanned rockets as cheaper shuttle replacements. They were also helped by congressional delegations from Texas, Ohio, Florida and Alabama, where shuttle-flight-centers are based.

There are two additional issues I would like to discuss here; many point out that military budget far outpaces NASA’s. That’s true and I am no fan of huge defense budgets either (it’s another area where Orwellian consortia thrive) but this is a straw man argument. Secondly, many point out sidebenefits of space programs. Assuming that the same amount of budget that went to NASA had gone to other science projects, we can delve into hypotheticals. But I am not going to. This article which discusses myths and realities surrounding those sidebenefits will do a better job than I would.

Ciao.

Shuttle and ISS

Space travel involved taking risks and making sacrifices. Among many sacrifices were really expensive cameras. When astronauts came back from the moon, they left their Hasselblads on the moon to make space for moon rocks. After Paolo Nespoli took the above photo, he left his three Nikons to fiery destruction.

It was the ultimate photo-op: the first ever – and the last possible – photo of a space shuttle docked to the International Space Station. (Previously, only photos of  Atlantis docked to the Mir Space Station were taken — back in 1995.) It was taken on May 23rd 2011, during Endeavor’s last mission, and months of preparation and negotiation went into the making of this photo. Officials from the US and Russia arranged to overlap Endeavor’s mission with Soyuz’s, so that someone can take these photos.

The honor was given to the Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli who was leaving the ISS with Soyuz. Cape Canaveral and Moscow also agreed to rotate the ISS 130 degrees to give Nespoli the full view. However, Soyuz allows no extra weight aboard the descent module. After taking out the SD cards, Nespoli left $20,000 worth of cameras in the orbital module, which destructs in the Earth’s atmosphere. Since Soyuz is also not equipped to transmit the photos, the world didn’t see the photos until Nespoli landed back.

You can see all the photos and videos he took here. One day, they will no doubt be in textbooks, showing two of the most expensive things mankind has ever built.

And we will say, never was so much spent on so few things to achieve so little.

And we will say, what a wonderful age it was. What a wonderful age it is.

The Things They Carried

In addition to astronauts and satellites, the shuttles hauled many mementos into space.

With countless telecommunication flotsam and jetsam drifting there, the space now resembles the Earth’s attic. Space shuttle mission took many a cherish keepsake, both personal and communal, into that shared space: monopoly pieces, the Olympic torch, a replica of the golden spike from the Transcontinental Railroad, and rocks from the top of Mt. Everest and the surface of the moon. The doomed Challenger carried with it a drawing of the earth made by a kid inside a concentration camp during the Holocaust. On the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, a cargo tag from the colony accompanied Atlantis.

There were often corporate sponsors too. Since the very first space shuttle flight in April 1981, M&Ms accompanied every mission, right up to the final one that’s currently underway. In 1985, at the giddy peak of the Cola Wars, Coca-Cola and Pepsi both went up, ostensibly to “test packaging and methods of dispensing the liquids in a microgravity environment”.

In the recent years, as the public support over the shuttle program slowly dwindled, the PR campaigns were stepped up. Luke Skywalker’s original lightsaber, Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story, and ashes of Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry were sent up, highlighting the fine line between fantasy and reality. For fanboys everywhere, the last shuttle mission will carry an iPhone and an Android Phone skywards.

Sport fans are appeased by a wide variety of memorabilia that went up: the home plate from Shea Stadium, dirt from Yankee Stadium, jerseys if every shape and color, including Lance Armstrong’s Tour-de-France-winning yellow one. An astronaut threw a first pitch via video from the ISS. Three green NASCAR starter flags were included in a shuttle mission that began with: “Gentlemen, start your space shuttle main engines.”

The Challenger Disaster

I have previously written about it, but no history of shuttle program will be complete without one of its low points: the Challenger Disaster. 

Hours after the Challenger disaster, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation. The astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth … to touch the face of God,” he said, quoting the poet-aviator John Gillespie Magee. But a more memorable quote that day was that of the mission control; as the shuttle exploded with seven astronauts onboard, an oddly detached commentary came: “Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

Writing in the Washington Monthly five years before the disaster, Gregg Easterbrook warned that the shuttles’ solid rocket boosters were not safe. On that fatal day, the cold air created a rupture in a seal on one of the boosters, letting a jet of flame escape and igniting the fuel. The last words from Challenger were “We are go at throttle up!” — this application of maximum thrust turned out to be a fatal act.

It was assumed that some survived the initial explosion but subsequently perished during descent and impact. The crew’s remains were flown from Kennedy Space Center to Dover Air Force Base for formal identification. The above photo was taken at that poignant moment as seven fellow astronauts accompanied the caskets on the journey. The crew was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. NASA buried all the remains of the Challenger in an old missile silo and sealed it with tons of concrete so the debris would never be auctioned off or commercially exploited.

The subsequent investigation, the Rogers Commission, was a revelation; engineers who knew about the boost-joint problem asked NASA not to launch that day and were ignored. NASA and its private contractors had at first failed to recognized the design flaw, then “failed to fix it and finally treated it as an acceptable flight risk”. In short, the commission noted that it was an “accident rooted in history”.

But interestingly, the committee recommended that essentially nothing change. No one was fired; no additional safety systems were added to the rocket boosters whose explosion destroyed Challenger; no escape-capsule system was even discussed. Easterbrook wrote, “Post-Challenger “reforms” were left up to the very old-boy network that had created the problem in the first place.”

Astrophotography | Thierry Legault

They look just like specks of dust on the surface of the sun, but those black dots were the silhouettes of the space shuttle and the International Space Station.

From this distance, you can really appreciate the immenseness of the sun and the space. The sun is 93 million miles away – several orders of magnitude farther than the shuttle and the space station’s orbital distance of some 250 miles. But comparison, the Hubble Telescope orbits at some 350 miles. Further still is the Earth’s much cluttered geostationary orbit – over 22,000 miles — the distance at which an object takes 24 hours to orbit the Earth, and usefully hovers consistently over the same point of planet and thus the home of many communication and geolocation satellites.

The above photo was taken by the French photographer Thierry Legault, whose specialty is in taking pictures of solar eclipses, planetary and satellite transits. Earlier this year, he caught the moment just 50 minutes before Atlantis docked with the ISS; to take the photo, he traveled to Madrid so he would be inside the narrow five-mile wide visibility band that stretched across Spain, southern France and Northern Italy.

It is an extraordinary image, considering that the actual event was visible for just 0.54 of a second, because of the speed of two spacecrafts. To catch the event, Legault had to use an extremely fast shutter speed, combined with a pin hole-sized aperture.

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Space Walks

It was one of the most famous images of the Space Age. What many people didn’t realize was how far that “untethered space walk” travelled.  

Spacewalking was nothing new by the time space shuttles began to soar. In March 1965, the Russian Alexei Leonov became the first person to take a “walk” in space in an exercise that nearly went wrong. Three months later, American Ed White followed his lead, but  both were tied to their spacecraft.

It was left for two astronauts on the shuttle Challenger, Bruce McCandless and Robert Stewart, to try an untied version. With Robert Gibson taking photos from inside the shuttle with a Hasselblad, McCandless achieved this on February 7th 1984, becoming the first “human satellite” traveling at some 17,500 miles per hour.

He reached a distance of 320 feet, with the azure Earth 150 nautical miles below, but McCandless spent just a little more than an hour free-flying. Even today, spacesuits are awkward, unwieldy and uncomfortable; while spacewalks typically lasted no longer than three hours, the astronauts are often trapped in their suits for as long as 10 hours, and had to drink through straws.

Although McCandless’ photo inspired many sci-fi fantasies, his spacewalk would amount to nothing more than a stunt. After McCandless and Stewart, four other astronauts on later shuttles flew untethered, but after 1984, NASA stopped producing the nitrogen-powered jet pack (in that inelegant space jargon, known as Manned Maneuvering Unit). The shuttle’s robotic arm precluded the need for such daring spacewalks.

Today, a modified version of the jetpack is worn only as a emergency backup during spacewalks. It was smaller but by no ways capable of reaching the distances previously travelled.

 And there in a way is a metaphor for the American space programme.