Last year I picked up this extraordinary photograph, and then didn’t have immediate results researching it, so I put it away until now. Then, wow.
NASA launched the first Project Echo communications satelloon in 1960 to much fanfare, but the 100-foot diameter inflated Mylar sphere’s actual performance as a reflective signal relay fell short of predictions. Echo IA launched in 1960 and stayed aloft and visible from earth until 1966, but it partially deflated within a few weeks, which weakened its reflectivity. And the drag of such a large object decayed its orbital speed in ways that made it an unreliable relay.
Soon after Echo II’s launch in 1964 by NASA and Bell Labs, the US Air Force began pursuing a next-generation technology with one of its leading military contractors, Goodyear Aerospace: the grid sphere.
The grid sphere satellite was designed, near as I can tell, by Goodyear Aerospace engineer Howard Barrett. The 30-food diameter sphere of rigidized, laminated aluminum wire was embedded in a UV-sensitive plastic, which would photolyze, or disintegrate, after inflating in space, leaving the open grid sphere intact. The sphere was calculated to produce a backscatter reflection signal more than 5x as powerful as the Mylar solid sphere three times its diameter, and would be immune to its puncture, deflation, and solar radiation drag effects.
image via National Museum of the US Air Force
I’ve found mention of both 2-foot and 14-foot diameter grid sphere models, and another image of this 30-foot test inflation. Good gravy, did they really just inflate it using that tiny, leaf blower thing? I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that when it launched in 1966 from Vandenburg AFB on an Atlas rocket, the grid sphere satellite became the second-most beautiful object ever put into space. Between July 13, 1966 and May 24, 1968, when Echo IA burned up in the atmosphere, there were two satelloons and this open grid sphere, all orbiting the earth together, in Minimalism’s awesomest group show.
Which would be cool enough on its own. And then Andy Beach sends me this.
It’s Nicholas Mangan’s 2008 photo of Ed Grothus’s Doomsday Stone. Grothus was the atomic technician-turned-anti-nuclear peace activist-and-retail-icon who ran The Black Hole, the legendary military/scientific surplus store in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Grothus died in 2009 without being able to realize his decades-in-the-making Doomsday Stones memorial, a set of massive black granite obelisks carved with warnings in 15 languages about the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
The obelisks I’d heard about, but not this insanely awesome 1-meter, 1.5-ton, black granite sphere, which rests alongside them in a shipping container in Grothus’s backyard. Mangan:
In late 2007 Ed went to the Art in Public Places board in Los Alamos to offer them his monuments for public display. They rejected them stating that ‘they couldn’t think of anywhere in Los Alamos where they would fit in’. They backed up their rejection by claiming that Ed was not an ‘Artist’ according to their set of definitions and requirements.
There is something about a prophet in his own country here. Grothus’s Doomsday Stones are art in every sense of the word, and his work is an artistic practice of the highest kind, and should be recognized as such.
Large Red Sphere, Walter de Maria, 2010, permanent installation at Kunstareal, Munich, image: e-flux
The self-proclaimed art world ignores Grothus at the peril of its own credibility and relevance. If it’s just a matter of the research not being done, let’s get on it. If we need to inflate the critical balloon to give Grothus’s reputation the structure it is obviously meant to have, let’s start blowing. From his quixotic minimalist megalomania in the desert [Heizer, Turrell, De Maria] to his performative taunts in high Catholic regalia [Klein], to his fantastical historical dumpsterdiving [Dion], Grothus is Los Alamos’ own Simon Rodia. It’s just a question of how long it’ll take everyone to realize it.