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Author: H. J. McCracken

52 Photographs (2018): #3, A satellite spotted in ESTEC headquarters, Netherlands

52 Photographs (2018): #3, A satellite spotted in ESTEC headquarters, Netherlands

Another trip: to Leiden and Noordwijk, the Netherlands. In Noordwijk, a seaside town, there is the headquarters of ESTEC, the European Space Research and Technology Centre. This is the European Space Agency’s technology centre.

In the excellent cafeteria, one can see things like this:

A satellite spotted at ESTEC headquarters
Sergio Larrain and “Valparaiso”

Sergio Larrain and “Valparaiso”

In Don Delillo’s play “Valparaiso”, an everyman becomes a media star simply because he gets on the wrong flight. Instead of going to Valparaiso, Indiana, he takes a jet for Valparaiso, Chile. The story is told entirely in the form of a series of interviews in which the unfortunate man tries to define himself in terms of his unwanted celebrity. In the end, we never get to find out what Valparaiso, Chile is really like. So it was with interest that I saw a small, cloth-bound book in a bookshop the winter before last with the handwritten words “Valparaiso” on the cover. This, it turns out, was Sergio Larrain’s “Valpariso”.

Larrain was a interesting character: born into a wealthy and privileged family, he decided quickly that he would not follow the path that had been pre-ordained for him. Attracted to a nomadic photographic life, his photographs quickly brought him attention and he became friends with Cartier-Bresson who invited him to join Magnum. At Magnum, he tried photojournalism, and was remarkably successful, managing to get an impossible photograph of a well-known Italian mafia figure by posing a tourist. And then, after only a few short years, he returned to south America, bought a house in a remote hilltop village in Northern Chile, and retreated from the world. He felt that he could not be a professional photographer at Magnum. But there was one place he continued to photograph, and that was the port city of Valparaiso. A small book of those photographs had been published in 1991 and had become legendary amongst photographers and commanded exorbitant prices on the second-hand market.

However, Larrain became increasingly reluctant to publish his work and be interviewed, and it was only after his death in 2012 could one even think about publishing his photographs. He corresponded closely with Agnès Sire at Magnum, and had even sent her an updated version of his book. And so, the Valparaiso that was published in winter of 2016 is an expanded version of that 1991 book, and includes photographs that Larrain took throughout his whole life. You can see a few photographs from the collection Over on Magnum.

I bought this book when it was published a year ago, and I return to it often. The rationalist part of me does not know what to make of Larrain’s talk of the cosmic consciousnesses and his obsession with yoga (he apparently gave yoga lessons during his visits to the Magnum offices in Paris). The photographs, however, have their own logic and charm. I am not sure I am so keen on all those macro shots of flowers and droplets of water, but the message behind them is straightforward and compelling enough. You must observe, you must see things that no-one else sees, and if you do, wonders may possibly be revealed to you. Most photographs are quiet photographs taken with a normal lens and they insist that you look at them carefully. But go just a little deeper, and the understated photographs have more meaning than they seem to at first.

No, this is not a Sergio Larrain photograph, but there are steps and some close-ups.

Larrain’s book is not a reportage about life in Valparaiso, although looking at the pictures you do get some sense of what that place might be like. People go up and down stairs, boats arrive and depart. But you see, he is finely attuned to the strange things that can happen in any place if you look hard enough. At the start of his career he realised that Valparaiso was a fine place for such things: at the exact moment he was taking a picture of a young girl with a bob haircut, exactly the same girl stepped into the frame. A double. That is what photography seems to be about: to be able to create situations where the unexpected may happen.

It has been observed countless times how surprisingly difficult it is to take photographs worth looking at. Today, this is even more confusing because cameras will make all the decisions for you — with the exception of where to point the camera, which is the most important one. Looking at Larrain’s book I found it could be considered as an interesting reflection on what a good photograph might be, and how one might find them. One could not ask for more from a book of photographs.

52 Photographs (2018): #2, Ventilation fans inside the 193cm telescope dome, Provence

52 Photographs (2018): #2, Ventilation fans inside the 193cm telescope dome, Provence

Each winter we make a trip to L’Observatoire de Haute-Provence (or, OHP). I wrote about it before On this blog. It is always a challenge to find something new to photograph!

This year I spent a lot of time photographing heavy machinery inside the domes. Very old heavy machinery because this stuff was made in the 1950s. Here are the ventilation fans inside the dome of the largest telescope, the 193cm (this is the first telescope in the world that detected a planet around another star). Much later, other instruments like the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope would also adopt similar strategies to improve atmospheric conditions inside the domes. The fans are an attempt to make air flow freely over the telescope and remove turbulence, which is the effect which make stars twinkle. Great for poets, not so great for astronomers.

At OHP, as far as I can tell, they are not used any more, and it’s not clear if they made a big difference. The “intrinsic seeing” of site is quite bad.

Breaking out of low-earth orbit: realising the promise of Falcon Heavy

Breaking out of low-earth orbit: realising the promise of Falcon Heavy

So it seems, maybe, that the “high frontier” of human space exploration may not be closed after all. The successful test flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Lift vehicle was also the first time a private company, rather than a government, sent anything beyond low earth orbit. In a master-stroke of publicity and whimsy, SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk decided to attach his red electric car, manufactured by SpaceX’s sister company Tesla, to the front of the second stage booster. Sitting inside, one hand on the draped nonchalantly over the windowsill and the other posed coolly on the steering wheel, a mannequin modelled SpaceX’s appropriately futuristic but actually fully functional space suit. By the time this unusual cargo reached orbit, there was enough propellant left over to inject both the booster and the attached car into an elliptical orbit around the sun reaching to the asteroid belt. Out there, it will probably be undisturbed for millennia.

You can’t go home again…

The livestream of the launch was carefully choreographed, with cheering SpaceX employees heard in the background behind the engineer-presenters, together with blasts of pop music at the appropriate moments. It was much more exciting than any rocket launch had been for a long time, partly because (it seemed) no-one was entirely sure what would happen. But what happened, in the end, matched almost exactly what had appeared in a simulation video only days before. Does this mean, perhaps, that prospects for manned space exploration might be improving soon too?

Recall, for an instant, what manned space “exploration” has been like for the last fifty years: a series of uninspiring endurance tests in an orbiting space station, the ISS. In fact, the space station itself seems to have been created to give a safe destination for manned rocket launches and to assure the future of heavily subsidised American aerospace industry. It’s not clear at all how we can dig ourselves out of this particular hole of sending people into orbit to (mostly) take pictures of the Earth through fancy windows.

Pessimistic SF writers had imagined that the frontier had closed, so the reasoning went, because all the engineering talent was now going to writing software for internet start-ups, most of whom were just interested in finding new ways to distract people in order to sell them more advertising. Worse, fingertip access to the world’s store of knowledge (or at least Wikipedia) meant that it has become discouragingly easy to find out just how impossible it was to do something that had never been done before. But the truth turned out to be more complicated and interesting than that.

On the one hand, those internet start-ups created a new class of geek-entrepreneur who love rockets and spaceships, and advanced software engineering turned out to be very useful for lowering launch costs by enabling boosters to return to the landing sites. The most impressive aspect of the Falcon Heavy launch is how perfectly the highly complex system followed the simulations made before launch, validating SpaceX’s impressive engineering capabilities. However, all this still takes place within the systems which have paralysed the human exploration of space over the last half-century.

“My god, it’s full of stars”! Elon’s car looks like this now.

Elon Musk has decided that no resources will be devoted to making Falcon Heavy meet NASA’s stringent requirements for manned launches. Instead SpaceX are focussing on near-term launches to the ISS with the smaller Falcon 9, because that’s where the money is. Meanwhile, NASA themselves are locked into a vast multi-year spending program for their new rocket, the Space Launch System (or more unkindly, the Senate Launch System), a billion dollar disposable rocket with no clearly defined destination. In an unfortunate commentary on the state of innovation in rocket technology for the SLS contractors, the spacecraft actually makes use of spare parts left lying around after the end of the shuttle programme.

Meanwhile, in low earth orbit, the ISS is supposed to be decommissioned at the end of the next decade. Needless to say, not everyone is in favour of this, especially those whose livelihood depends on it. In an attempt to find some use for the fantastically expensive SLS, it has been proposed to create a new space station — but this time, groan, in orbit around the moon. Reaction to the Falcon Heavy launch has been mostly positive, although one ill-informed killjoy commentator did insist that we should “think about the environmental impact”. Yes indeed. Today, Musk is about the only player in this game with a clearly defined vision extending beyond low Earth orbit. Let’s hope he makes enough money from his satellite launches to realise it.