Blackstar Real or Fantasy?

One of my secret obsessions is the history of space programs. I've never managed to do anything with it in my academic work, but I have my hopes. Late last night I was browsing through sci.space.history, a USENET group that still is a great source for information on the topic when I ran across this thread, referring me to a lengthy Aviation Week and Space Technology story on a secret government space plane called Blackstar.

Now AWST isn't the Inquirer. On the contrary, it's published by McGraw-Hill and its usual readers are people in the industry or the government. But if this piece, by William B. Scott, a senior editor of the journal, is to be believed, a two stage-to-orbit space plane was developed in the 1980s and may have become operational in the 1990s only to be cancelled recently.

As the piece details, the program was built in response to the loss of the Challenger and subsequent military concern about access to space. During an ultra-secret crash development program, the SR-3, a mothership based on the XB-70 Valkyrie bomber and the XOV, a low-Earth orbiter derived from the X-20A Dynasoar were developed.

xb-70 taking off

This isn't all that far-fetched, Scott suggests, both projects were well under development in the 1960s and there was talk about launching the Dynasoar from the XB-70 at altitude, much as SpaceShipOne was launched from the White Knight carrier (wondering aloud: is Blackstar something an inspiration for Rutan? … of course White Knight flies at sub-Mach speeds and the Blackstar mothership would have flown at Mach 3 or above and SpaceShipOne is incapable of orbit, but still … if anyone could take the general idea of Blackstar and run with it, if only to taunt the Feds, it would be Rutan). The small orbiter would be able to slip into space, make a lightening-fast overflight of a site and return to a horizontal runway. Other applications suggest launching small satellites from its payload bay and retrieving and servicing satellites and perhaps even a role as a weapons platform.

dynasoar x20

Pentagon officials, the article reports, think that the project may have been owned and operated by companies, not by the government to ensure plausible deniability of its existence. Top military space commanders remained in the dark about Blackstar, which may have been operated by an intelligence agency. Blackstar's existence would explain the mysterious retirement of the Lockheed SR-71 reconnaissance plane in 1990. Observers have long wondered why this program was cancelled. The article concludes with a discussion of sightings of mystery aircraft.

The article is certainly filled with conjecture and speculation. Noted space analyst James Oberg was skeptical, and cites sources saying it was simply unworkable due to the laws of physics. Dwayne A. Day in The Space Review ripped the Aviation Week article, suggesting that the journal also published a mistaken story about a Soviet nuclear bomber in 1958 and then giving evidence as to why the story couldn't be true. Maybe Oberg and Day are right, but AWST is a major publication, not the Inquirer and if Day suggests Scott has been barking up the wrong tree since the 90s, Scott's position is that he has 16 years of files and wants to present that research. Day makes a lot of noise about the government officials being anonymous, but last I heard, it was still illegal to reveal classified information.

Some of the posters on USENET suggest that there is a reason for this leak now. Perhaps it is because the program is operational and in being cancelled will deprive some corporation of a large contract. Perhaps it is an attempt to force reconsideration of the Apollo-style CEV, which seems to many like a move in the wrong direction when a smaller Dynasoar like vehicle, especially air-launched, seems like a much more attractive possibility. Maybe it's just that some old Cold Warriors started thinking that their work wouldn't make it into the history books.

Remarkably, however, the mainstream media have barely picked up on this story. Google news delivers very few hits on the topic, leaving me to wonder if we will ever learn the truth about Blackstar. Is it merely misguided conjecture? Or has the most important story of the US military in outer space just been broken?

AUDC at High Desert Test Sites, May 2005

AUDC will be at High Desert Test Sites on May 6 and 7, bringing telecom hotel One Wilshire back to the desert.

Greg Goldin explains the project far more succinctly than I could in an article he wrote for the LA Weekly last year:

Seen from the outside, function doesn’t matter. Windows, mullions, floor dividers, two-story-high lettering, are all, now, superfluous. One Wilshire could take any shape, have any exterior. And ””? here’s where the fun or disaster begins ””? the cyberbuilding is free from the traditional demands of architecture to produce an effect or meaning, the way, say, Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall billows atop Bunker Hill or Norman Foster’s Swiss Re tower blasts off into the cosmos above London. It could be a flat, black box; it could be a green mound; it could be a stainless-steel funnel.

One Wilshire, as “Ether” shows, is architecture without moorings. The building can be picked up and moved anywhere and deployed for any purpose. And so the exhibit ends with a photograph of the scale model transplanted to a rocky cul-de-sac in Joshua Tree National Monument. Wildly out of context, One Wilshire remains stupefyingly unchanged by the new surroundings. A frightening realization, yet one perfectly suited to the “empire of ether.”

simon ungers

While in Limerick for a short time, I heard the sad news in the Architect's Newspaper that architect Simon Ungers has passed away. Ungers, who was at Cornell before I got there, is a critical figure in the history of recent architecture, whose work is, regrettably, underappreciated. Ungers is important as one of the first "shapers", architects who, influenced by Minimalism who turned to strong forms that avoided either the flacidity of blobs or the reductiveness of the box (see Bob Somol's 12 Reasons for Getting Back Into Shape in OMA's Content for more on OMA's interest in shape). Architecture is much poorer for the loss.

T House by Simon Ungers

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Annenberg Center for Communications Fellowships

The Annenberg Center (where I am this year) recently posted a call for applications for 6 postdoctoral fellows and one visiting scholar position for 2006-07. We're looking forward to having an interesting group of scholars in residence at the Center in the fall. Please blog and post widely!

Cubicle Culture

Fortune Magazine carries an article Robert Propst and the history of the cubicle. As moves away from physical offices toward more fluid, cybernetically conceived spaces, cubicles were an evolutionary step toward the networked workplace of our own day. Along with the fascinating history of this ubiquitous part of office design, the article makes some surprising observations about the present, most notably that 26 million Americans now telecommute via broadband. The article is, unfortunately, vague about whether this mean they just check their email once a day from home or whether they don't bother going into the office at all.
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Verb Conditioning Shipping

Amazon has finally shipped my copies of Verb Conditioning, great news since this book, which I first saw back in September, puts in print AUDC's project on Muzak.

Mustard Gas Party

How can you resist a site calling itself "Mustard Gas Party"? Bring the hot dogs and gas masks, it's time to visit some modern ruins in this site full of very nicely done photography.

Johnson Symposium Summary

Archinect's Yale school blogger Enrique sums up the Philip Johnson symposium in an eloquent post. Enrique mentions that the symposium left him feeling "a little creepy." Harrowing might have been the term I would have used. If it was billed as a celebration of Johnson, the symposium was far from that, by no means the kind of pre-digested conference so common in architecture schools. Much praise goes to conference organizers Emmanuel Petit and Robert Stern for not shrinking from debate in organizing the conference.

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the car is the new office

Today's New York Times reports on studies showing that the use of cell phones in automobiles is increasing at the expense of radio broadcasts. As reported by the Times, the study did not account for iPod usage, which makes the validity of the results a little questionable since in my personal experience, at least, the iPod receives about equal time with my cell phone with radio a distant third. Nevertheless, it suggests that busy commuters are continuing to extend their workplace from office and home-office into their transit time. Or maybe they're just trying to figure out what groceries to bring home. Intriguingly, the survey notes that cell phone conversations in the car are longer than outside of the car. Will "call you from my car" soon denote the most highly prized of conversations? Will it become important to live far from one's workplace in order to have longer, more sustained conversations without the disruptions of email, IM, co-workers, or family members?
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Project Cybersyn

On the topic of convergences between cybernetics and design, there's also the rather wild Chilean Cybersyn project. In 1970, Dr. Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile. Against the wishes of the United States, Allende and his Popular Unity government hoped to create "the Chilean Way to Socialism," La v??a chilena al socialismo. Allende and Fernando Flores, his 29-year-old minister of finance (now philosopher and management consultant) were faced with the challenge of managing newly nationalized industry but hoped to avoid the top-down methods of the Soviet model. As a doctor, Allende was attracted to scientific methods and when Flores proposed a technocratic means of controlling the industry, he agreed, hiring on his recommendation British management guru/scientist/visionary Stafford Beer to create Project Cybersyn, a system with which to monitor the output of factories, the flow of materials, rates of absenteeism, and other indicators on a daily basis. Through Project Cybersyn, Beer hoped to implant an electronic "nervous system" into Chilean society. The country would be linked together via a vast communications network to create what the Guardian calls a "socialist Internet." Finding about 500 abandoned TELEX machines in a factory, Beer networked these together to a provide input for software written by Chilean engineers in consultation with British engineers from Arthur Anderson called Cyberstrider that used Bayesian statistics to create a self-learning control system. cybersyn opsroom All this was fed into the Cybersyn Opsroom, designed by Grupo de Dise?±o Industrial, a government Industrial Design Group led by former Ulm School Professor Gui Bonsiepe. Although the room was never operational, it was understood at the time as "the symbolic heart of the project," to quote Eden Medina, a scholar who wrote her dissertation at MIT on the topic and presented the material at Bruno Latour's Making Things Public exhibit as well as in the catalog for the show. In a setting influenced by the design of 2001, seven swivel chairs with buttons in the armrests""?themselves influenced by Saarinen's Silla Tulip Chairs""?were clustered in a circle as advisors processed data from large projection screens. The armrests of each chair were outfitted with ash trays and spaces for drinks. Although there was no space for writing, which was prohibited, buttons allowed occupants to control the material on the screens and provide feedback. Since the advisors were used to secretaries doing the typing, there was no keyboard interface. Instead, large buttons, fit for pounding on, if necessary, allowed officials to make their decisions. But computer graphics was not yet ready for the job. The displays were not CRTs with computer generated data. Instead, industrial designers would painstakingly produce the diagrams by hand. These would be photographed and projected as slides onto the display screens. As Robert Sumrell mentioned to me, this proves that they had more faith in the computer than if they had actually had machines produce the renderings. cybersyn opsroom chair Even as it consumed massive amounts of the Chilean economy, Cybersyn initially appeared to be successful when, during October 1972, conservative small businessmen went on strike. Some 50,000 truck drivers blocked the streets of Santiago, but through Cybersyn the government was able to identify 200 trucks that remained loyal and coordinate food deliveries to the areas of the city that needed it most. A year later, however, on September 11, 1973, Allende's government was overthrown in a military coup with support from the United States government and, allegedly, telecommunications conglomerate ITT, which specialized in owning telecommunications monopolies outside the United States and owned 70% of the Chilean Telephone Company. Cybersyn's simplifications proved unable to comprehend what was to come and the Pinochet regime destroyed the Cybersyn project and the Opsroom.

Technorati Tags: 1970s, computers, cybernetics, history of new media, object culture, ulm

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