Things what I have seen in Montreal, #1

Despite being equipped only with a shitty phone camera, there are far too many things I stumble across that demand to be photographed. So I’ll put them up. First, shop window edition.

Strange shop display on Rue St Catherine.
This was the window display for a shop that designed and
supplied specialised or customized mannequins.
Creepy big-eyed winking shop dummies. I hope it wasn't one of theirs.
It's Canada - lumberjack shirts are not optional.
So they're really trying to protect their classy clientele and all the hard work they've put into making it look wonderful from the oiks outside. I wonder how classy it is inside...?
How classy? It's full of lava lamps - kneel before their levels of classyness, heathens.
This is a glass of Earl Grey tea with hot frothy milk. Look how authentic it is! - it has a London bus next to it. Needless to say it was revolting.
"Best swanky joint", eh? Praise indeed.

Montreal – a painted city

A minotaur, holding up the Rosemount overpass, Atlas-style

Spending days in a city with no one but the city herself for company goes something like this: wake up, breakfast, pick place on map, and start walking. Fortunately Montreal is a very walkable city.

First thing that struck me was how I’d ended up, again, in Hackney. When I went to see a friend in Barcelona for New Year’s several years ago we stayed in Raval, a down-at-heel barrio filled with Turks and recent immigrants and frequented by the usual low-rent arty types that find themselves in such places. Kebab shops, gyros, bars and haircuts – like Hackney. Then in Madrid, we stayed in Lavapiés, and found it much the same. Now my international tour of Hackney has crossed the Atlantic.

My hotel is on the edge of the Quartier de Specatacles, the museum, art gallery and theatre pedestrianised district east of downtown. Immediately around me is the Latin Quarter, whose latino qualities are either very deeply buried or non-existent, as it is mostly made of restaurants, cafes and bars and shops more reminiscent of Camden. It even has a community of crusty punks that sit around surreptitiously drinking and panhandling by the roadside. To the north, up slight hill is the Plateau, west is the gay village.

weird things on sale in the Latin Quarter

A stroll around on my first day led down Rue St Catherine, an artery that runs through the city for miles. New building sites, cheap eateries, the occasional strip club, grungy bars, art supply shops, galleries, coffee shops and graffiti everywhere left me in no doubt that this meant chalking up another international Hackney stop-off.

At the end of my road is a small square, Place Emilie Gamelin. It has a sloped grassy bank running down to a concrete plaza on which is marked out three checkered boards for playing giant chess. There is a water feature that wells up into three tree-like metal twists atop the hill, and then flows down a channel to a covered gutter at the bottom. Standing at the outflow at the bottom I thought how pleasant it was; the sun shining, the thoughtful men standing around the four-foot high rooks and pawns, chin-in-hand, the music playing from speakers mounted on high poles. I looked at my feet and saw a syringe tumble out of the water channel and bobble around the gutter. Druggies? Urban regeneration? Works of public contemporary art? All very familiar.

Unlike Hackney, however, Montreal is covered in graffiti of a very high standard. No so much grafitti as murals, in fact. Each of the two or three parts of town I’ve been to have a different flavour, some more serene, others more urban, but the quality – and the fact that none have been overwritten by tags – is the same (click on the image to see full-size).

There's quite a lot of this.
Like some kind of zombie Ray Charles
Arabesque grafitti on St Catherine
Back wall of a jazz club

Some are recognisably urban. Some are pretty bizarre. Some are just pretty. Some make no sense whatsoever.

I'm not sure what's going on here. Seeing as it's a Portuguese chicken shop, perhaps they're trying to tie Megallan's voyages with.. the discovery of the chicken? I'm not sure.
My friend Isabel warned me to "look out for Racoons",
I wonder if she meant this wacked out bunch
Winter scene in the Latin Quarter
Summer scene in the Latin Quarter
Grafitti with a Swan Lake vibe, in the Plateau
A loading bay painted with surreal, twisting scenes.

There’s also some Parisianesque details – these streetlamps have a certain Belle Epoque feel to them:

Parisian-esque street furniture? Or just wishful thinking.

I also like the mix of new and old. I’ve only walked through it quickly, but the Old Port dates from the 1700s and has a lot of massive limestone edifices with Greek-temple style architectural features, plinths, columns, and so on:


Everything later than about the 1950s looks very modern, practical and largely uninspired. I don’t really have a picture that captures it precisely, but there’s something about the houses built in the 19th century that makes them pretty much all look like something out of the Munsters or the Adams Family – all neo-gothic bricks and tiles, pointy roofs and oh honey, let’s have another turret:

We want classical. No, Gothic. Wait, fuckit, put it all in.
Like a brightly painted Scarborough, or something
Would have been interesting to see how that one
got past the planning committee.

I’ll keep looking to bring you the ultimate in Adams Family real estate…



On leaving town

The view from my window - my international tour of Hackney continues...

Waking up in the morning and realising that today is the day that you pack your life into a handful of bags and move to a foreign country is a fairly odd experience.

Months of talking about it, referring to it, explaining it to others using the same stock phrases and expressions, the same practised nuanced shrugs, gives way suddenly to actually doing it; actually packing, actually printing boarding cards, actually hurrying to the airport and actually panicking a little as what you’ve done seeps in.

Having to run from Liverpool Street station to London Bridge carrying three heavy bags while wearing para boots and a parka on a warm day because of traffic didn’t help.

Things looked up when I found myself sitting next to an attractive young francophone lady on the plane, but after starting a conversation with her she then said something in French to the stewardess and was promptly moved to a spare seat over the way. I tried not to take it to heart, and instead chatted to Jules, a 20-something photographer, snowboarder and chef from Montreal who had been visiting his girlfriend in Brighton. Would he be staying in Montreal for a while? “Hell no, it’s freezing. I’m heading to Vancouver in October,” he said. I tried not to take it to heart.

The flight passed without incident, apart from a beautiful view of Greenland through gaps in the clouds which the captain was kind enough to point out to all of us engrossed in watching Thor, the film showing at the time. I can safely say that I believe I enjoyed Thor much more because I couldn’t hear the dialogue. Greenland was a vast sea of white, with mountainous peaks jutting up through the ice sheet. What you expected to see, in other words, but impressive nonetheless. You could see the snowboarder in Jules thinking, “Whoah, great fresh powder, man”, or whatever it is boarders say.

Banking in low over the city, Montreal spreads a long way out. I haven’t been to North America since 1998, when I flew to and from Los Angeles en route to Mexico. There are similarities – you get the same grid of streets that are everywhere in the new world, and always look alien to my European eyes. You get the street blocks of flats, familiar to us only from countless scenes in crime films or The Wire, and reminiscent of our tower blocks until you see them up close. There’s the remnants of the Olympic stadium from the 1960s, which looks so deliberately space-agey and ’60s that it looks like a prop from Barbarella.

The immigration officer at Montreal airport (IATA code: YUL. Obviously they’d run out of relevant letters) gives me one of the grim stoney-faced looks as all border guards around the world are trained to do. He asks a lot of questions about where I’m going, who I am, what I do and why I don’t have a return ticket. He writes down things on a pad of paper. He taps on a computer and looks at a screen I can’t see. Is he checking I work for The Big Issue? Is he looking for previous articles I have written? Or is he just playing solitaire? Eventually my tale of visiting relatives across the continent in Michigan and British Columbia and a print out of my bank balance is enough to convince him to let me in. A few cubicles down, an elderly Indian gent is getting obstreperous about being made to wait, shouting “I’m a senior citizen, don’t harass me”, while harassing the immigration officers.

There’s a shuttle bus to the centre of town for a mere $8, which gets you a day-pass around town like a London travelcard. From the outskirts of town to the west, the bus cruises past insane North American style road mega-junctions, with a dozen freeways on 50ft stilts arcing through air under and over each other. Birmingham’s spaghetti junction has nothing on this. We run past decaying factories smeared in graffiti and youf statements (‘fuck tha police’), through to former factories now converted to warehouse apartments, and onto main streets lined with little wooden-fronted Victorian town houses. We cross intersections inhabited by either vast, glass and steel downtown skyscrapers or old colonial churches, carrying copper-green domes. Montreal and Quebec City are among the oldest cities on the continent.

My hotel is at the end of the line – the bus station. My hotel reminds me of the scenes set in New Orleans in the film Angelheart – all darkly painted wood and twisting stairs, over-the-top plasterwork around the ceilings and wonky floors. It’s 7pm local time, midnight UK time. I’ve been up for about 17 hours since 6am. I’m speaking French to people who apparently understand me, because they speak French back – more than I get in France.

Time for a shower, an explore, and to find out what piss passes for beer around these parts.

Using Ubuntu PPA packages with Debian or Crunchbang

Ah, the joys of package management. Every linux distribution flavour has a package management tool – even the venerable Slackware – to ensure the otherwise near-impossible task of installing programs and their dependencies and updating them to the latest versions is made possible for mere mortals.

Ubuntu, based on Debian, uses the same apt-get and dpkg tools. But as the pace of development at Ubuntu is much quicker and has a broader reach of users and developers than vanilla Debian, Canonical introduced PPA – personal package archives – on its Launchpad service to allow developers to create and maintain their own packages that can be accessed by Ubuntu users through apt-get, without having to bring them into the Ubuntu official release package tree itself.

While built for Ubuntu releases specifically, these packages can be used with Debian – and therefore Crunchbang – without much hassle. Two things are needed: firstly the location of the archive, usually an http:// or https:// web address; secondly the GPG encryption key that is used to sign the .deb packages, ensuring that the software you are installing on your computer with root permissions is, at least to a point, trusted.

In Ubuntu this is taken care of either using the add-apt-repository command, or by adding the package source using the Synaptic package manager GUI app. Neither comes with the stripped down and Gnome/KDE-free Crunchbang.

Instead we go old school again and edit the text file that the graphical app would be doing for us anyway, /etc/apt/sources.list. In this case, I’m installing the Darktable photo management and editing package, a sort of open source Adobe Lightroom. The PPA address can be found from the Ubuntu PPA achive on Launchpad. A search reveals the individual page(s) for Darktable.

In this example, there are three pages for Darktable, darktable-release, -release-plus, and -unstable. I’m using the cutting edge -unstable release in this case. Debian Squeeze (6.0.1) came out in February 2011, but I’ve used packages from the Ubuntu 10.04 “Lucid Lynx” release from April 2010 as it is a Long Term Support version and will continue to be updated long after Ubuntu 10.10 “Maverick Meercat” has been archived. Click the green link marked Technical Details about this PPA to reveal the source lines we need, beginning with deb:

We need to add the following text to /etc/apt/sources.list:

deb lucid main
deb-src lucid main

Darktable-unstable is the cutting-edge version in this case. The same deb line but substituting the words “darktable-release” would install from the more stable branch.

Running sudo apt-get update will force apt to add the new PPA repository to its list, but it will complain that it doesn’t have the GPG encryption keys we need to install packages:

Hit lucid/main Sources
Hit lucid/main amd64 Packages
Fetched 634 B in 0s (1,172 B/s)
Reading package lists... Done
W: GPG error: lucid Release: The following signatures couldn't be verified because the public key is not available: NO_PUBKEY 40C18E9EC07EE05F

To add the key we use the apt-key tool. Under the PPA source lines on the Darktable page, under the title Signing Key is an eight-character key, prefixed with 1024R/ (= 1024-bit RSA encryption). The key is per-user, so will be the same for each of the Darktable releases created by Pascal de Bruijn. To add it to our GPG keychain, the command we need is:

$ sudo apt-key adv --keyserver --recv-keys C07EE05F

Executing: gpg --ignore-time-conflict --no-options --no-default-keyring --secret-keyring /etc/apt/secring.gpg --trustdb-name /etc/apt/trustdb.gpg --keyring /etc/apt/trusted.gpg --primary-keyring /etc/apt/trusted.gpg --keyserver --recv-keys C07EE05F
gpg: requesting key C07EE05F from hkp server
gpg: key C07EE05F: public key "Launchpad PPA for Pascal de Bruijn" imported
gpg: Total number processed: 1
gpg: imported: 1 (RSA: 1)

Follow this with another sudo apt-get update, and we’re done. You can install away using the usual method, for example: sudo apt-get install darktable.

It’s a little less polished than Ubuntu’s tools, but what you lose in convenience you gain in speed and responsiveness, and a better understanding of how the system works underneath – a price worth paying, imho.

UPDATE: It’s worth noting that up-to-date versions of Darktable packages now appear in Debian Wheezy (1.0.4-1) and Debian Sid (1.0.5-1).

Using #! (Crunchbang) Linux

Crunchbang is sleek, fast, minimal linux flavour based on Debian, one of the largest families in the linux ecosystem. It uses the X-Window system and Openbox window manager, with a lightweight underpinning of GTK+2.0 but without the full Gnome desktop environment, making it considerably more snappy to boot and use than full-bodied distributions such as Ubuntu or Fedora.

I’ve been using it for a month or two and liked it enough to decide to rebuild my Samsung Q320 laptop around it. I’m going to cover a few of the tweaks I applied, problems I tackled, additions or subtractions I made – just in case they’re of interest to you, the reader, but mainly so that they’re written down for me when I come to repeat this process at some point in the future.

Continue reading Using #! (Crunchbang) Linux

Where science and politics meet, uneasily

I feel like I’ve spent a couple of months now reading everything I could find about the Chernobyl disaster, the unfolding crisis at Fukushima, and scientific papers on contamination effects, radiobiology and radiation. It has been informative, but I’m so full of it I almost feel like I’m emitting I-131 and Ce-137. The first of the articles is up now, the second will be in next week’s Big Issue magazine and will be up here soon after.

While interesting, especially in parallel with the progressively more and more polarised rants from the pro- and anti-nuclear lobbies in the media and online, it has made be realise the limits and fallibility of a number of things I suppose I’d always held to be pretty bulletproof. Probably quite naively so.

The UN is most certainly a sprawling and highly bureaucratic edifice. It sprouts acronyms like weeds. You need only watch the actions of the five permanent members of the Security Council to see how the politics of international power play off against the supposed humanitarian aims and instincts of the UN. But I was surprised to find just how easily its member states’ tendrils could force the hand of managers or turn discussion one way or the other – not only in the Security Council, but in organisations such as the WHO.

Dr Keith Baverstock’s experience of being advised to ‘avoid’ investigating evidence that might reveal a greater potential health problem than was accepted from radiation releases was not based on some sinister conspiracy originating in the IAEA. In a much more predictable fashion, it stems from financial implications for the US government from lawsuits brought by servicemen and civilians affected by I-131 fallout from surface nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s, not known to be harmful at the time. Or from French reticence to purchase and stockpile millions of potassium iodide capsules for the populations of major cities like Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Marseilles, and Bordeaux for the eventuality of a reactor failure at one of its 70-odd nuclear power stations nearby. To consider such realpolitik is understandable, but to enact it is ultimately reprehensible — especially when delivered through the mouthpiece of the WHO, for whom the health of the people should be the highest matter.

I was also amazed by the endless stream of contradictory scientific results. Studies that demonstrate a clear relation between cases of leukemia around power stations, increasing as distance to the plant decreases – highly persuasive epidemiological evidence — and then others that show no relation, or contradictory results. It seems that for whatever your position, there is a scientific study to support it. A lot of this comes down to the layman’s inability (or lack of interest) in understanding the nuances of scientific studies, and also journalists’ failures to understand or explain those points across clearly. You need only glance at Ben Goldacre’s work at Bad Science to see how little journalists are able to – or are bothered about – understanding what the study found, rather than what the press release claims. Even the IAEA/WHO’s 2005 Chernobyl report is guilty of this, hiding details in the report’s body behind a press release gloss. But some blame must also be carried by scientists who, by incompetence, by design, or most likely for lack of funds, end up writing up studies whose conclusions hold little or no worth because of methodological failures, lack of controls, and so on. Yet if they come with a catchy headline (“x causes/doesn’t cause cancer”) their substance can travel around the world.

In fact scientists have shown themselves to be a fairly partisan lot, no doubt partly because of a world in which those with the deepest pockets for funding scientific work also have the most vested interests. But it is far from edifying to see, for example in the radiological debate, one side casting the other either as shills for the government or nuclear industry, or environmentalists Luddites.

The truth is somewhere in the middle: true perhaps, but ultimately not very useful. Nuclear science is barely 100 years old. We still don’t know how radiation affects our bodies, we can only peer on either side of the ‘black box’ to see the inputs and the outputs, and make educated guesses at how they connect. The organisations set up to support and regulate the industry, such as they are, are tainted by the requirements of a Cold War nuclear peril that is no longer relevant, but whose long shadow still ties their hands to secrecy.

Suddenly there is a lot at stake: governments have carbon reduction targets to meet, and growing countries to power; the industry has fought off one disaster only to be faced by a second; environmentalists predict the end of the world as we know it. It would be wonderful to think that science without bias or vested interests can answer these questions, but I have found little evidence to see that may happen.

On Egypt and hypocrisy

No one can have watched the events in the Arab world unfolding this month and not been moved by the sight of spontaneous uprisings, people power, and the fall of corrupt and authoritarian regimes.

I had not paid such keen attention to the news in as long as I can remember as over those 18 days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, as 30 years of Egyptian anger and resentment boiled over and forced out the deeply unpopular president Gamal Mubarak. To see the running battles in the streets, the bravery and sheer bloody-blindedness of the protesters in the face of police violence, thugs, beatings and live ammunition used on unarmed civilians was extraordinary. To see that it worked, in some fashion, is more extraordinary still.

That a committee of military generals should be welcomed over an elected government, albeit one elected in a discredited poll, demonstrates the depth of disgust at Mubarak’s ‘revolutionary’ regime. It also shows Egypt’s unusual relationship with its army, no doubt made up itself of young conscripts not far in attitude from the protesters themselves. I was moved by the army’s statement early on that they would not fire on protesters. But the reports of army arrests of journalists and activists, of secret beatings and intimidation, and the troops’ failure to intervene between pro-Mubarak thugs and protesters revealed that everything is not as it seems. The army has an agenda of its own, and clearly decided that remaining popular — practically sanctified — in the eyes of the people was more important that backing Mubarak, whose position looked less credible by the day.

The wave of dissent has crashed down upon the sandy beaches of Libya, Algeria, Bahrain and Morocco. Whether Egypt’s neighbours can wrench freedom from their dictators’ hands remains to be seen, but even if this is possible, the true test lies in winning not the battle, but the peace that follows. The North African states historically have little in the way of civic society institutions to turn to, and those that exist are often severely compromised. They have their work cut out for them to build a new society, and the world will watch with keen interest at what follows.

What is readily apparent is how, as Libya too begins to crumble and burn, the extraordinary hypocrisy of the West is laid bare. Gaddafi’s status as a pariah was unshakable in the years since Pan Am flight 103, the shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher, and supplying arms to the IRA. And yet suddenly in 2007 Tony Blair is shaking the deranged octogenarian’s hand in a desert tent. The quid pro quo was that BP got its hands on Libyan oil, Gaddafi got his hands on British weapons, and the Libyan people, despite empty promises to the contrary, continued to enjoy the absence of civic freedoms they had become accustomed to since he took power in 1969.

The US gave more than $1bn a year to fund Mubarak’s army and militias — around $50bn since 1979 — and Tunisia’s ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was also the benefactor of American largess in respect of millions of dollars of military aid and sales. In Obama’s inauguration speech he said to “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit” that he was willing to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”. Instead, American interests were best served my armouring that fist further. Both the UK and US have spent millions — whether legally or illegally — to win favour for military contracts in Saudi Arabia, one of the worlds most oppressive, conservative regimes, and still an absolute monarchy in the 21st century.

Britain, Europe and America already find it to their advantage to support weak or sham democracies such as in Algeria and Egypt, or the absolute rule of sheiks and kings in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The government, by bringing Gaddafi into the fold alongside all the other authoritarian rules in the Middle East that already enjoy the tacit or explicit support of the West, ended the only principled bit of foreign policy in the region.

It has been a century in which the West’s approach to the Middle East is stained by the most blinding hypocrisy: from the betrayal of the leaders of the Arab Revolt in 1916, to the partition of the Middle East and ousting of elected civilian governments for despots, as in Iran in 1953, to the policy volt face that saw first Iran and then the Iraq armed against the other as the winds changed. The West has always found a way to support the region’s murderous dictators in defence of a status quo that suited it, all the while espousing democracy and civic freedoms that we knew to be illusionary.

So really it should come as no surprise to find that scant days after Mubarak is ejected in favour of Egypt’s generals, our prime minister is quick to make a visit. Not only to congratulate the country on it’s new found freedom, but for Cameron to drop by in the company of Britain’s finest arms manufacturers to try and drum up some sales.

Democracies have a right to defend themselves, he retorted — which of the countries in the Middle East might he have considered truly democratic? It has barely been a week since British and American-made weapons stopped killing people on the streets of Cairo. Today, they’re still in use in Tripoli.

Perhaps the Arab world — their people, if not their governments — would be wise to find their own path to democracy, and sculpt their institutions in their own fashion rather than looking for guidance from Britain, America, and Europe — countries frequently so morally bankrupt that they will back both sides at once while at the same time selling them the means to kill their own, or each other.

A novel approach to freelancing.

I received this the other day at work, into the email account normally filled with club/gig listings requests (we have no listings), work experience requests (we don’t have room), offers of illustration (occasionally used) and the rantings of lunatics.

From: Camila-Catalina Fernandez
Subject: A Blog for you?

I am an unemployed, highly educated (Bachelor and half a masters) very young girl, living in London. I spend my days walking around Kensington or Buckingham Palace with my iPod which only has one earphone that works. I am a Swedish Latina, highly attractive, but that’s not the point. The point is that I kind of like need a big break or some publicity or even some love. If you would read my blog and maybe laugh a little or recommend it to a friend, you would make one beautiful melancholic girl very happy. Maybe you could even feature it? If you don’t, at least I know I tried.

Now, while this is rather sweet (“at least I know I tried”) it’s not exactly a professional approach. And yet, stick in a quick reference to “Swedish Latina, highly attractive”, and lo and behold, we’re checking out her website just in case. Turns out it’s militant veganism, with a side order of poorly researched opinion.

This article is one example – complaining that “Silicon Dixoide, Caramel Colour, Citric Acid and Maltodextrin in your meat” is like “buying a crucifix from the devil” is a bit like suggesting that lemons (citric acid), starch (maltodextrin), and sugar (caramel colour) are going to kill you stone dead. As for the silicon dioxide, well… I’m sure it’s really, really finely ground.

The Gold Bar re-opens, again

Stoke Newington Church Street is a fairly busy thoroughfare with shops that do a good trade, but there are one or two buildings that seem to keep falling through the net. One is the Gold Bar, at least that was its most recent incarnation, which was open for less than a year before shutting last year after, apparently, a fire.

I noticed while having a pint at the Lion on Tuesday that it is due to become the Baby Bathouse, after its alma mater in the City. So we can all expect nipple tassels and pasties with our pasties in terms of food and drink on offer.

UPDATE: The Hackney Citizen carried the story in the same edition of this month’s paper that reported how Hackney council has banned strip clubs and sex shops in the borough, while allowing those that exist to stay open. Actual sex establishments, ie saunas, massage parlours and the like will be unaffected. Hmmm. So, establishments that allow women to charge for getting naked will be banned while the Baby Bathhouse and it’s ilk, where people pay to see women getting naked, open without comment.

This is sadly typical of the vastly irrational, tribal and ultimately harmful debate that surrounds what have become wrongly known as ‘sex encounter establishments‘, and the result is rarely anything than pointless gesture politics, Victorian throwback morality policing and, all too often, increased danger or even harm for the women working in the industry. The rise of burlesque as a supposedly acceptable alternative only serves to highlight how reasoned argument flies out the door the moment the bras come off.

Buran and Baikonur

Buran's launching tower and gantries at Baikonur, the centre of the Soviet space programme. Photos: English Russia/

In the same vein as my visit last year to Chernobyl and Pripyat, here is another abandoned part of the world that bears echoes of the past: these eerie photographs show the giant, hulking remnants of the Buran space orbiter project at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, once the crown jewel of the Soviet space program and the world’s most advanced spacecraft; now only thousands of tons of scrap metal.

The giant apparatus for lifting the Buran shuttle and the rocket that would
carry it into an upright launch position
An abandoned part of the huge Baikonur launch site. Photos:

Buran (Russian: Бура́н, ‘blizzard’) was the Soviet Union’s answer to the US Space Shuttle, which first flew in 1981. Proposed in 1975, it did not take its final shape until 1978, by which time NASA’s project was entering its final stages.

At a glance Buran appears physically similar to the Shuttle — Soviet scientists had come to the same conclusions regarding how to propel a re-usable orbital craft into space using booster rockets, and the laws of physics, then and now, apply equally to all nations. But the project team had taken a different approach – while NASA brought rocket boosters, a central fuel tank and the rocket engines on the Shuttle together as an integral system, the Soviets separated them into Energia, a multipurpose rocket launcher, and Buran, the orbiter.

Buran and Energia on the launchpad, 1988

Energia was to be the USSR’s new booster rocket platform to replace the giant and unwieldy N1 rocket that, while comparable to NASA’s successful Saturn V, suffered major engineering setbacks — four rockets were destroyed during test launches — and was eventually scrapped in 1974 at a cost of 2.5 billion roubles. With the sacking of the scientists leading the N1 team, a new approach was adopted to design a powerful and largely re-usable rocket system that could carry into orbit loads such as satellites or modules for the Mir space station in addition to Buran. Unlike NASA’s design the central Energia rocket could carry its own payload, not just fuel.

Buran, unlike the Space Shuttle, had jet engines like those on an aircraft, not rocket engines, and so was capable of controlled atmospheric flight, while NASA’s design glided down to Earth using only its re-entry speed. With less space taken up by engines and propellant, Buran could also carry more cargo, withstand higher heat intensities during re-entry and, extraordinarily, could even fly un-manned on automatic pilot. A scientist from the Molniya Company, a contractor working on Buran, early on in the project remarked drily on the comparison between the two:

“It is necessary to remember that Buran was created more than five years after the Space Shuttle. It has allowed us to apply more modern methods of designing, materials, manufacturing technologies, test methods, and has enabled our designers to take into account all foreign miscalculations and mistakes.

“Certainly, while over the years the Space Shuttle has had numerous updates, it has a main advantage compared to Buran: it flies.”

The most ambitious Soviet space program of all, between 1975 and 1993 more than one million people, 1,286 companies and 86 government departments were involved on the project at a cost of 16 billion roubles.

The giant distances across which the USSR spanned posed a problem in itself – the Cosmodrome launch site is in Kazakhstan, the Yuzhnoye rocket foundry is in Ukraine, and a great deal of other manufacturing was located around Moscow. The answer they came to was the same as that proposed by NASA: to piggy back Buran and pieces of Energia on to a much larger, stronger aircraft.

The result were two huge aircraft – the first was VM-T, a highly modified transport version of the Myasishchev M-4/’Bison’ 1950s bomber rebuilt to carry loads of 50 tons.

The 3M-T, renamed the VM-T 'Atlas' after designer Vladimir Myasishchev
The 3M-T, renamed the VM-T 'Atlas' after designer Vladimir Myasishchev


The VM-T 'Atlas' carrying parts for Energia

It was ready in time to ferry the Energia rocket stages and Buran itself to Baikonur, while its successor — the even bigger Antanov An-225 Mriya (Ukrainian: Мрія, ‘dream’) — was years later.

The An-225 is the largest aircraft ever built, with a load capacity of 250 tons. While only one was ever made, it is still in service with Ukrainian Anatov Airlines for the kind of cargo lifts that absolutely have to have the biggest plane in the world.

An-225, the largest aircraft ever built

In October 1988 Buran-Energia finally took off for the stars. With the manual control and life support systems not yet finished, the decision was made to carry out the first flight entirely on automatic — a unique and extraordinary feat, which earned Buran a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the first, and until NASA’s Boeing X-37’s maiden flight last year, the only spacecraft to do so. Lift-off and separation from Energia went without a hitch, and Buran orbited the Earth twice for 205 minutes before a practically pixel-perfect landing at Baikonur only a few feet from its designated landing point, without any human intervention. The onboard computer even detected the 40mph crosswinds at the landing strip and made the last minute decision to land from the opposite direction — correctly, but in the process no doubt taking years off the engineers nervously watching.


And what has become of all this technology, billions of roubles and the efforts of the finest technical and scientific minds the Soviet Union produced?

A Buran prototype cut up for scrap

After the breakup of the USSR, the project’s funding evaporated. Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, suffered from the same economic hardships that faced the rest of the disintegrating Union. In 2002, OK-1, the only Buran orbiter to have made a space flight, and its Energia rocket were destroyed when the ill-maintained hanger at Baikonur collapsed, killing seven workmen.

The collapsed hanger that destroyed the only functioning Buran

Several mock-ups and test models remain at Baikonur Cosmodrome museum, including one which visitors can clamber inside and sit at the controls. Others that were under construction when the Soviet Union collapsed have been dismantled or unceremoniously dumped, like OK-2, which now sits without wings or tailfin in a carpark in suburban Moscow.

Buran mock-up at Baikonur Museum

The flight test model OK-GLI, equipped with functioning engines, appeared at several airshows around the world before being sold and brought by boat from Bahrain in 2008 to the Speyer Technik Museum in Germany.

The Energia program ended, but the booster rockets lived on as the Zenit launcher, which performs space launches for commercial customers to this day. The rocket engines, the efficient RD-170 and its derivatives, have become a great Ukrainian export and power Lockheed-Martin’s Atlas V in the US, South Korea’s Naro-1 and the future Russian Angara rocket program.

The An-225 is still used as a cargo carrier, seen delivering huge 150-ton electricity generators to the tsunami-struck Samoan Islands in 2008.

One of the two remaining VM-T Atlas carriers, complete with Energia cargo module strapped to its back, is being converted into a tourist attraction to transport passengers 60 miles into the atmosphere to experience zero gravity for a few minutes. The first flights are slated for 2012.

Buran’s technology has not gone to waste, even if the hardware has: the techniques used in the heat tiles for Buran are now used to insulate Russian housing. You can even find original tiles on eBay now and again, ‘liberated’ by enterprising and cash-strapped looters.

This month marks 25 years since Challenger, the second NASA Space Shuttle, exploded shortly after take off, killing all seven astronauts onboard. The disaster, and that of the loss of the first shuttle, Columbia, in 2003 threw NASA into a tailspin, with questions asked at the highest levels what the organisation’s huge budgets were for. Questions and criticisms NASA to this day struggles to shake off, and the results of the organisation’s work apparently taking on progressively more military dimensions as a result as budgets are pulled.

It is 50 years ago this year that Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth for the first time, and more than 40 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. Yet the high ideals of spaceflight and exploration have foundered. Political will, vision and hard cash generated by the Cold War has given way to navel gazing and the commercialisation of the space programmes, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The NASA Space Shuttle program ends this year, with Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis making their final flights into the heavens in February, April and June respectively. The replacement, Project Constellation, was cancelled by Obama last year, despite his pronouncements on the importance of space. Despite the nascent beginnings of a private spaceflight and space tourism industry, the lack of viable launch vehicles could endanger the International Space Station – the most expensive object ever built at somewhere over $100 billion dollars, and our only manned ‘off-world’ presence.

There have been enormous technological leaps since the 1960s — look at how powerful, cheap and ubiquitous home computers have become, yet the Space Shuttles contain Intel 8086 16-bit processors, decades older than those found in a bog-standard PC, and in fact similar to that used in the original IBM PC.

Apparently neither the will nor the way to project humankind beyond our wet ball of rock three from the sun has kept pace. Despite the resources, the scientific discoveries, and the potential for not life-changing, but species-changing events and knowledge to be found beyond the skies, in a world of ever-increasing costs mired in national, ethnic and political squabbles, the dreams of science fiction seem destined to remain just that.