They're both under-known, and so they probably deserve their own posts, but the uncanny similarity of these two Alcoa Forecast program designs requires me to put them together.


Greta Magnusson Grossman was a Los Angeles-based Swedish industrial designer. According to the notes at the 2008 Drawing Center exhibition of her never-before-seen technical drawings, she was highly influential on her fellow Southern California colleagues in the 1950s-60s, including the Eameses.

That show included a sketch [above] for the personal aluminum oven she designed for Forecast. A small photo of the wacky, ball-shaped oven appeared in a collaged Forecast ad in the Dec. 28, 1959 issue of LIFE Magazine.


[update: whaddyaknow, the new blog The Modernlist reports that the Arkiteturmuseet in Stockholm has the first-ever Magnusson Grossman retrospective right now, through May 16. Definitely check out that crazy Grossman House.]

Graphic designer Lester Beall, meanwhile, is better known, at least by my criteria: I recognize his awesome, constructivist-style photocollage posters for the Rural Electrification Administration from MoMA's design collection. His portfolio site says he designed the Music Sphere for Alcoa in 1956, which seems remarkably early.


An unsourced tear sheet for a Forecast Collection ad on eBay says it's from 1969, which is remarkably late. I'm going to guess it's really 1959. But the real question is why the future doesn't have even a tiny fraction of the giant, shiny aluminum ball-shaped appliances we were promised?

"Aluminum that mirrors the designer's genius and the artist's virtuosity"? "Aluminum that endows any cabinetwork with the soft, warm luster of burnished moonstones"?? I think we have found Project Echo's official stereo!


While I remember where it came from, here's another image found in that Jan. 1961 Popular Science story starring William O'Sullivan Jr, who headed Project Echo and the whole satelloon paradigm at the fledgling NASA.

When you see a couple of guys at a 50' table, assembling, folding, and gluing Echo I's Mylar gores using not much more than a pile of footlong clothespins, you can understand why I still hold out hope of replicating one for exhibition as an art object. [On earth first, of course. Baby steps.]


Paul Brodeur in Talk of the Town, The New Yorker, September 3, 1960. The abstract pretty much captures the whole, short piece:

Comment on attending Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" at Central Park's outdoor Belvedere Lake Theatre.

We noticed that many of our fellow-theatre-goers were gazing upward at the stars & summer haze of the night sky...& we followed suit. With the opening lines, we realized that they were still lost in the galaxies overhead. We again directed our attention to the stage. The lord was saying, "Thou art a fool. If Echo were as fleet, I would esteem him worth a dozen such..." & suddenly, brought rigid by the unwitting bard, we turned our gaze aloft, where, shining majestically in sunlight beyond the pale of our night, Echo 1 floated in the west. For many minutes, as the satellite traveled toward its northeast solstice, we sat with tilted head, our spirit swiveling between past myth & future myth. Then, unraveling ourself from our involvement with Echo's awesome journey, we returned to the bleachers at the Belvedere, and thence to Shakespeare's Padua, filled with reborn wonder at the mastery of man.

And it turns out Calvin Tomkins himself did a long profile in 1963 of Dr John Pierce, who oversaw Project Echo at Bell Labs. Tomkins seems to focus on what I find most mind-blowing about the Echo satelloons: the whole thing was undertaken by a tiny, informal group, without a giant industrial-scale infrastructure. It was almost ad hoc and bricolage, something akin to making, not manufacturing.

Not sure when I'm going to have the time to read that...

image: a 40-second time lapse from Autumn 1960 of the Echo I satelloon in orbit, published in an extensive "making of/launching of" article in the January 1961 issue of Popular Science magazine.


I've been looking into how Google Street View panoramas are made, and it's been kind of awesome. Each equirectangular panorama is stitched together on the fly out of 21 photos.

Equirectangular projection, or plate carrée (flat square), is a technique that maps coordinates onto an evenly spaced grid of latitude and longitude, which produces significant distortions, especially along the perimeter. Like how Antarctica ends up looking bigger than the rest of the continents put together. Flickr user swilsonmc's images of flattened out Street View panoramas show the axis of distortion quite nicely.

I think there are other distorting elements in Street View, though; it appears that each panorama is anchored to a specific set of lat/long coordinates. [The Street View data layer on Google Earth shows this beautifully by plopping these 3D pano bubbles down on its own 3D landscape. (top) It's like simulation-within-simulation. Also, they look like inverted satelloons, only they're projecting back their surroundings from the center, rather than reflecting from the surface. I mean, just check out the highly reflective surface of the PAGEOS global mapping satellite for a minute. Am I right? Wait, did someone say mapping?]

Anyway, the panoramas pull together the best images of that spot, which are not necessarily taken at that spot. Google's roving cameras are shooting constantly, so there images approaching and leaving a particular panorama site. This introduces multiple POV and perspectival distortions into a single panorama. Which can result in awesome, zig-zagging thickets of tree trunks, fence posts, stanchions, and disembodied pedestrians. And which all remind us that these panoramas are not photos, but photomontages.

But wait, that's not all! swilsonmc also created a php script that turns every flattened Street View panorama into a frame of video. The flickr video above shows the trip up the Long Beach Freeway in LA, from Seal Beach to Glendale. It reads as a continuous trip, of course, but if you watch the traffic and the clouds, the other Street View distortion--time--so obvious it's invisible, becomes clear: there are photos taken on different days.

Roland Barthes described photography as "the presence of a thing (at a certain past moment)." The always didactic John Berger said,

Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation. A photograph is a result of the photographer's decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen
and on the intrinsic temporal content of photography, he said, "This choice is not between photographing x and y: but between photographing at x moment and not at y moment." I think it becomes clear that in the traditional, theoretical sense, whatever Google Street View images are, they are not photography.

Suddenly silver mirrored balls are everywhere.

Music video and filmmaker Roel Wouters created the trailer for last year's International Film Festival Breda:

A silver sphere on an endless checkerboard floor is the default for many 3D modeling applications. It can be seen as an icon for a sterile, makeable world. Reality though, is dirty and unpredictable. By recreating this icon in reality the beauty and imperfection of real life gets emphasized.

The recording was the result of 3 people controlling different parts of the installation, Roel controlled the speed of the balls, Benoit (Eurogrip) controlled the speed of the dolly and Sal focussed and zoomed the camera. It turned out to be a play were the 3 of us playing harmoniously together.

It's awesome. Coincidentally--actually, several coincidentallies--a selection of Wouters' work was screened just today in Den Haag, organized by a cinema club called Cinetoko. Cinetoko is a collaborative effort between Motoko, a motion and video design studio, and <>TAG, an art/tech/culture catalyst of some kind. It happens at the Zeebelt Theater, which is safely to the west of any Google Map camo or StreetView complications. [via manystuff thanks andy]


I could feel Mondo-Blogo was baiting me as I scrolled through the photos from MoonFire, Taschen's luscious 2009 commemorative book for the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. He was amped about the text by Norman Mailer, and the multiple insane limited edition versions of the book--with or without embedded lunar asteroid fragments and lander-style display cases--designed by Marc Newsom. I, meanwhile, was sensing some ur-satelloon spheres coming on, and--BOOM. This photo above.

But what was it? I couldn't tell the mission, and I couldn't find the same or similar images of such Sputnik-like satellites in progress, no matter how hard I Googled. And from the preview, neither Mondo nor I could read the captions. The trade edition of the book wasn't out yet, at least in the stores--and space bookshops, and the National Air and Space Museums--I visited last week. What to do? I asked Taschen's publicist for help, and voila. Project Vanguard.

This is a previously unpublished 1957 image from LIFE Magazine photographer Hank Walker of the Project Vanguard team at the Naval Research Laboratory, hard at work on the world's first "earth satellite." [Well, not quite the first, as it turned out.] But almost no one in the US knew about Sputnik on June 3rd, 1957 when LIFE ran an excited cover story about Vanguard's development ["Man-Made Moon Takes Shape," "Shell of Satellite Mirrors its Makers"] That's Vanguard scientist Alexander Simkovich, by the way.


Walker's other LIFE photos of Project Vanguard from the Spring of 1957 are just as awesome. Some of the most artistic highlights:

The crating: Apparently, at least 35 Vanguard and Vanguard II satellite shells were manufactured in Detroit by Brooks & Perkins, then shipped to Washington for assembly. I have to wonder what Eva Hesse was doing while these things were being packed:


The see-through model: Instead of an internal sphere full of scientific instruments, the 20-inch Vanguard II satellites were designed with a suspended, miniaturized, stacked core, as this plexiglass model showed:


This looks remarkably like the cutaway drawing for the first patent ever issued for a satellite structure. Satellite team leader Robert C. Baumann filed the patent in August 1957, and it was granted in 1958. In the mean time, of course, the Soviet Union had launched two Sputniks and the rocket carrying the first, grapefruit-sized Vanguard satellite, had exploded on the launch pad on live television [that satellite was recovered intact and is on view at the Air & Space Museum, btw]:


The making of: Brooks & Perkins manufactured the vanguard shells from sheets of magnesium [below], then plated them with gold. A remarkably detailed Time Magazine article from April 15, 1957 explains the rest of the manufacturing process:

When the satellites came from their manufacturer, Brooks & Perkins, Inc. of Detroit, they were thin-skinned magnesium spheres plated with gold. Aluminum is better for reflecting sunlight, but since aluminum will not stick to gold, the gold had to be covered with a thin film of chromium. Aluminum will stick to chromium, but it also mixes with it and loses part of its reflecting power. So the chromium film in turn had to be coated with glassy silicon monoxide, and then with aluminum.

The delicate work of depositing the coatings was done by the Army Engineers at Fort Belvoir, Va. Each satellite was put in a vacuum chamber and turned, like a chicken on a spit while the materials in the coatings were evaporated electrically and deposited on its surface. The final coat was a second layer of silicon monoxide.


In terms of the Space Race, Project Vanguard was only a fair success, and it was quickly superseded. A Vanguard II satellite launched in 1958 is currently still in orbit and is the oldest man-made object in space. So that should mean that at least a couple dozen of these iridescent masterpieces still roam the earth--or are stuck in crates in NASA scientists' grandchildren's garages waiting to be liberated and exhibited. The search is joined.

Oh, look, here's one that's off the list: a 1958 Vanguard Lyman Alpha replica or flight spare on display at the National Air & Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy site at Dulles.


It doesn't feel like a tangent to go from satelloons and museums on the moon to other aesthetic aspects of space and the space race. Plus there's the fascination at discovering, as a grown man, how much I hadn't been taught as a kid. As an American kid.

No one tried to ignore Sputnik or Yuri Gagarin, of couse, but it never registered with me that the Soviet Union reached the moon first. And landed the first spacecraft on it. And took the first pictures of the dark side of the moon. And from the surface.

The Soviets' Luna Program began way back in 1959, when Luna 2 hit the moon [after shedding a bunch of small Soviet emblems, apparently.] This, beefore America even got a balloon into orbit around the earth.

Also in 1959: Luna 3 returned photos of the far side of the moon.

And in 1966, Luna 9 made the first soft-landing on the moon and transmitted back the first five photos from the surface.

To avoid embarrassment in the case of failure, Russian missions were typically only announced after they succeeded. This meant that each achievement was met worldwide with a sense of surprise and skepticism/resentment.

The first image sent back from Luna 9, however, was intercepted by the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, which scooped the Russians' own announcement.

As an image, there's something familiar about it, at least in retrospect; it looks like what we [now] know the surface of the moon to look like. But in 1966, it had to have packed a punch. Add to that the level of political intrigue, the rivalry of the Space Race, and the ever-present military/nuclear threat of the Cold War, and this image becomes an incredibly powerful, important artifact.

One which I'd never heard of, or seen before last week. It's as if Apollo and 1969 wiped away the contentious, anxious experience and history of the earlier years. And along with it, the memory, recognition, and appreciation of the achievements that came first.


Part of re-creating the Project Echo satelloons as art objects is tracking down the documentation and history of it all, identifying archives and primary source materials, and finding out how, exactly NASA built these early, early satellites.

Because it's more than technically possible to replicate their efforts. America's first forays into space were literally ad hoc: the prototype Echo satelloon was twelve feet in diameter because that's how big the ceiling was in the workshop. They figured out how to fold the balloon after one engineer saw his wife's rain bonnet. They pressure-tested the Mylar skin on an armature made of 1-by lumber, pulleys and weights. [image above:]

I thought I'd have to track down a NASA archive facility in some Maryland backwoods, and make an appointment, and I may still. But it turns out NASA has converted a lot of the technical and fabrication documents for Project ECHO--ECHO I and ECHO II--to PDF format. The compilation of links at is pretty high in the Google results.

Here's what I especially like:


Ken Knowlton's artistic collaborations have been less well-known that his Bell Labs colleague, Billy Kluver, who created E.A.T. Experiements with Art & Technology, with Robert Rauschenberg and who introduced Andy Warhol to Mylar. But we'll get to that.

kluver_balloon_nyt.jpgIn collaboration with Leon Harmon, Knowlton made some pioneering, ASCII-style artworks, including a reclining nude transformed from photograph to a printout of dot-matrix symbols, which was featured in a NY Times article in 1967 ["Art and Science Proclaim Alliance in Avant-Garde Loft," Oct. 11, 1967].

The report was about an art/technology "news conference 'happening'" held in Rauschenberg's loft, and attended by corporate and union leaders, and politicians, including Sen. Jacob Javits, who is shown with large, pillow-shaped Mylar balloons floating behind him in "the Chapel," the two-story space at the back of Rauschenberg's Lafayette St. building. [The occasion was a reorganization of E.A.T.]

They're the same balloons Andy Warhol had used in his April 1966 installation, Silver Floations, which he'd learned about from Kluver. [Bell Labs, of course, was also the ground operator of the Mylar communications satelloons of Project Echo, which launched in 1960 and 1965.]

Anyway, 18 months later, it's Kluver whose seen batting these balloons around, with nary a mention of Warhol to be found. Odd.

Willard Maas made an awesome short film about the show in 1966. It's at YouTube or UbuWeb:

I'm still looking for the c. 1958-9 images of the 12-foot satelloon prototype being inflated in the US Capitol Building as part of NASA's push to fund the 100-foot version.


But look what I found in the March 14, 1961 edition of the Washington Evening Star, right above the story about the Mclean bridge club's Ab Ex artist hoax:

Workmen preparing an exhibit for the House Space Committee put another ring around a huge globe in the rotunda of the old House Office Building. Each ring represents the path of a satellite...
that's where my photo of the microfilm got cut off, but they're both Russian and US satellite paths. No idea yet what the hearing discussion was [see update], but this was just a couple of weeks before Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the earth, so I'd imagine this exhibit, whatever its purpose, was soon forgotten.

I'm sure it's too much to hope for, that the metal bands of satellite orbits hand-assembled 50 years ago for a congressional hearing exhibit [?] have survived in a government warehouse somewhere. But the photo's credited to the AP, so at least there's a chance of finding a vintage print of it, right?

UPDATE: Eh, from the Washington Post coverage a few days later, the Space Committee, which by 1961 was called the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, was contesting Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's rushed order for the Air Force to take over all military space development and to prepare to subsume NASA. So there you go.

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Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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about this archive

Category: satelloons

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Our Guernica Cycle, 2017 –
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Social Medium:
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Standard Operating Procedure
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CZRPYR2: The Illustrated Appendix
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YES RASTA 2:The Appeals Court
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HELP/LESS Curated by Chris Habib
Printed Matter, NYC
Summer 2012
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Destroyed Richter Paintings, 2012-
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Canal Zone Richard
Selected Court Documents
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