Whilst the Space Shuttle will always be one of the most iconic spacecraft that humanity has created it’s design was one of compromises and competing objectives. One of the design features, which influenced nearly every characteristic of the Shuttle, was the requirement from the Department of Defense that stipulated that the Shuttle needed to be able to launch into a polar orbit and return after a single trip around the earth. This is the primary reason for the Shuttle being so aeroplane like in its design, requiring those large wings so it has a long downrange capability so that it could return to its launch site after that single orbit. The Shuttle never flew such a mission, but now I know why the DoD required this capability.
It was speculated that that particular requirement was spawned out of a need to capture spy satellites, both their own and possibly enemy reconnaissance craft. At the time digital photography was still very much in its infancy and high resolution imagery was still film based so any satellite based spying would be carrying film on board. The Shuttle then could easily serve as the retrieval vehicle for the spy craft as well as functioning as a counter intelligence device. It never flew a mission like this for a couple reasons, mostly that a Shuttle launch was far more expensive than simply deorbiting a satellite and sending another one up there. There was also the rumour that Russia had started arming its spacecraft and sending humans up there to retrieve them would be an unnecessary risk.
The Shuttle’s payload bay was also quite massive in comparison to the spy satellites of the time which put further into question the DoD’s requirements. It seems however that a recently declassified spy satellite, called HEXAGON, was actually the perfect fit and could have influenced the Shuttle’s design:
CHANTILLY, Va. – Twenty-five years after their top-secret, Cold War-era missions ended, two clandestine American satellite programs were declassified Saturday (Sept. 17) with the unveiling of three of the United States’ most closely guarded assets: the KH-7 GAMBIT, the KH-8 GAMBIT 3 and the KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellites.
“I see a lot of Hubble heritage in this spacecraft, most notably in terms of spacecraft size,” Landis said. “Once the space shuttle design was settled upon, the design of Hubble — at the time it was called the Large Space Telescope — was set upon. I can imagine that there may have been a convergence or confluence of the designs. The Hubble’s primary mirror is 2.4 meters [7.9 feet] in diameter and the spacecraft is 14 feet in diameter. Both vehicles (KH-9 and Hubble) would fit into the shuttle’s cargo bay lengthwise, the KH-9 being longer than Hubble [60 feet]; both would also fit on a Titan-class launch vehicle.”
HEXAGON is an amazing piece of cold war era technology. It was equipped with two medium format cameras that would sweep back and forth to image an area, capturing an area 370 nautical miles wide. Each HEXAGON satellite carried with it some 60 miles worth of film in 4 separate film buckets which would detach from the craft when used and return to earth where they would be snagged by a capture craft. They were hardy little canisters too with one of them ending up on the bottom of an ocean but was retrieved by one of the navy’s Deep Submergence Vehicles. There were around 20 launches of the HEXAGON series of craft with only a single failure towards the end of the program.
What really surprised me about HEXAGON though was the resolution they were able to achieve some 30+ years ago. HEXAGON’s resolution was improved throughout its lifetime but later missions had a resolution of some 60cm, more than enough to make out people and very detailed images of say cars and other craft. For comparison GeoEye-1, which had the highest resolution camera on an earth imaging craft at the time of launch, is only just capable of a 40cm per pixel resolution (and that imagery is property of the USA government). Taking that into consideration I’m wondering what kind of imaging satellite the USA is using now, considering that the DoD appears to be a couple decades ahead of the commercial curve.
It’s always interesting when pieces of a larger puzzle like the Shuttle’s design start falling into place. Whilst it’s debatable whether or not HEXAGON (and it’s sister craft) were a direct influence on the Shuttle there’s enough coincidences to give the theory a bit of credence. I can see why the USA kept HEXAGON a secret for so long, that kind of capability would’ve been down right scary back in the 80’s and its reveal makes you wonder what they’re flying now. It’s stuff like this that keeps me obsessed about space and what we, as a species, are capable of.
There’s really only one thing that stops me from playing most of the Call of Duty series on the day of their release and that’s simply the price. Whilst the games will more than pay for themselves in terms of hours played vs hours worked to acquire them I’m still never happy shelling out $80+ for the game on Steam when it costs a whole lot less in another country. For Call of Duty: Black Ops then I simply waited long enough until it went on sale for half off before grabbing it which I was much happier to shell out, even if the overseas store also received it at half price. Still I had had enough people bugging me to get into this game ever since its release that I figured there had to be something good about it and strangely enough I’ve also been suckered into the multiplayer, something I usually avoid with these kinds of games.
Call of Duty: Black Ops takes place during the cold war with the vast majority of the missions being recounted in flash backs by the main character, Alex Mason. At the beginning you awake in an interrogation room, strapped into a chair and wired to an electric shock device. Your captures then start questioning you about the location of a numbers station and attempt to jog your memory by running you through past events and occasionally jolting you. If I’m honest I really don’t like having stories retold in flash backs as too often its used as an easy way to patch together a plot that’s made up of otherwise incongruent elements. It’s still serviceable however and if we’re honest with ourselves here no one is buying this game based solely on the plot of the single player campaign.
The cold war setting does make for some extremely interesting environments for the story to play out in. Whilst there’s no gratuitous space scenes like its predecessor there are an incredible amount of what I called “treat” scenes that just seemed to be in there to wow the player with eye candy and action hero style antics. The screenshot above is one of these such scenes where Mason is tasked with stopping the Soviet Union from launching Soyuz 1 and 2 with the mission culminating in shooting a prototype missile at the already launched craft. That’s not even the most ludicrous scene that plays out in Call of Duty: Black Ops but it was one of my most guilty pleasures in the game.
The Call of Duty series has done extremely well with creating a game experience where you feel both like the hero and part of something much greater all at the same time. Whilst I’m not adversed to being the lone hero in games I’ve found myself enjoying games that make you feel like a part of a bigger picture. The first game to get this feeling just right was Freelancer where in one of the later missions you join up with a large fleet as part of the final series of missions. Black Ops manages to recreate this feeling consistently with you almost never being alone and in many cases being surrounded by your fellow men, powering forward towards your goal.
The game play itself is nothing revolutionary but Treyarch have done their best to make sure that all of Black Ops isn’t just one long cover based shooter. Whilst you will be spending the vast majority of your time ducking in and out of cover in order to take out an inordinate amount of resistance there are several sections where you’ll be doing something out of the ordinary. Such things range from flinging explosives from hand made catapults to guiding soldiers on the ground from the cockpit of a SR-71 Blackbird. For the most part they’re welcome breaks from the almost constant combat that takes place but some proved to be more progression blockers than anything, especially if you missed the cue to do something out of the ordinary.
One such event was a section of the Vietnam missions where you’re fighting your way down an embankment. The actual goal of this particular section was to kick barrels of napalm in order to clear out the section up ahead. However if you’re like me you would have thought that it was just another run and gun section so I instantly made a break for a machine gun nest so that I could cover the rest of my team mates. Doing so took me out of ear shot of my companion who was instructing me to kick the barrels and thus I spent about 30 mins wondering why the game would put in a section with practically unlimited enemies in it. I eventually came within earshot and figured it out, but it still felt like there should have been an on screen prompt for those like me who might have been a bit too keen to man the guns.
Unlike it’s predecessor though I didn’t feel the same level of immersion with Call of Duty: Black Ops. I think this can be put down to the way the story was presented as each section stood pretty well on its own so that the breaks between them with the interviews felt like good places to stop if I felt even the slightest bit bored with it. Couple that with the epicness fatigue (I.E. after everything being so epic for so long you just don’t feel it anymore) you’ll undoubtedly suffer and the single player mission in Black Ops is best enjoyed in shorter bursts of 1~2 hours. That being said you’ll more than likely be done with the entire game in 5 sittings in doing that, so it’s not the worst thing in the world.
Once the single player is over however many of Call of Duty: Black Ops’ players will spend many more hours in the multi-player, and rightly so. Realistically the single player of any Call of Duty game is the hook with which to draw people into multi as that’s where the player base spends the vast majority of its time. Coming into a multi-player game this late in it’s release was something I wasn’t looking forward to, thinking that I’d do a couple hours just for the review and then be done with it before I raged like I used to back in my Counter Strike days. Strangely enough though I found myself quite enjoying the multi-player experience, to the point of playing it for as long as I had played the single player.
If you’ve played any Call of Duty (or any multi-player FPS for that matter) the game modes that are available in Black Ops will be familiar to you. Indeed not much about it differs from previous Call of Duty games with the persistent levels and ability to customize your class being the main hooks that keep people coming back. I knew this getting into it, figuring that I’d be slaughtered for the couple hours I dared touch multi. However even with an uncustomized class I found myself being quite competitive and it didn’t take me long to get the required levels to unlock some decent kit and create my own class. By the end I felt I was nigh unstoppable with my character being almost grenade proof, able to take out enemies both near and far and even topping the servers a few times. I still find myself going back for a round or two every so often when I’ve got some time spare, and I think I will keep doing so for a while to come.
The question I keep asking myself is: was it worth missing out on this for so long just to save $40? Considering I had so many other games to play at the time I didn’t really miss playing Call of Duty: Black Ops but suffice to say those who were pestering me to play this game gave up long before I bought it and I haven’t seen one of them playing it since. Still despite that the game was very enjoyable and even managed to reverse my stance of not bothering with the multi-player in these kinds of games. In hindsight it would’ve been worth the cost of admission had I got it on day dot but I guess when principles and my wallet are both hit at the same time it’s enough to override my other impulses, no matter how strong they are.
Call of Duty: Black Ops might not break any new gaming ground or try very hard at being original but it’s still a blast to play, especially when you play it online. It’s not often that a game makes it into my bag of titles that I’ll come back to when I just want to blow an hour or two on something fun but I feel like Black Ops will be there for a while now, at least until the next one comes out. So if you’re a long time fan of the Call of Duty series or just FPSs in general you won’t go wrong with Black Ops and even if you’re not there’s still a good 8 hours of single player to be had, more than enough for gamers in today’s market.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is available right now on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 for $79, $68 and $68 respectively. Game was played on the second hardest difficulty setting with around 8 hours of total game time. Mutliplayer was played on multiple Australian servers with my most favored game mode being Team Deathmatch on Nuketown with around 6 hours of total play time and reaching level 18.
50 years is an almost incomprehensible amount of time for a young person like myself. That’s nearly double my entire time on this planet and even in my short 26 years I’ve seen wild changes to this world, so I can only imagine the changes anyone someone who has lived 50 years or more has seen. One of the most incredible changes that the last 5 decades has brought us has been the invention of space flight which has dramatically influenced humanity as we know it today, even if its presence is mostly invisible. Two days ago saw the anniversary of our very first tenuous steps into the final frontier with the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first ever human to enter space and orbit our beautiful blue marble.
Winding the clock back 50 years puts us right in the middle of the cold war, a political battle fought over decades on a global scale. The first artificial satellite was created just 4 years prior and the space race between the then USSR and the USA had reached a fever pitch. Both sides were working fervently to stake their claim on being the first to accomplish anything in space and at this point the Russians were winning after their success with Sputnik. They weren’t resting on the laurels however and they were aggressively pursuing the goal of getting the first man into space. The mission was to be called Vostok 1.
The craft Gagarin was to ride into space wasn’t a large one by any stretch of the imagination, being a mere 2.3 meters in diameter and looking a lot more like a submersible craft than one destined for the vacuum of space. In true Russian fashion it was also incredibly robust and when compared to its American counterparts it was incredibly simple. The craft also lacked any control surfaces and didn’t have any backup thrusters, which is why the craft was mostly spherical, since unlike the American craft it couldn’t orientate a heat shield to protect it on re-entry. This also meant that in the event that retrorockets didn’t fire Gagarin would have been stuck in orbit for up to 10 days, and as such the craft was equipped with enough supplies to ensure that he’d survive.
The mission began at 5:30AM, 12th of April 1961. Both Gagarin and his backup pilot, Gherman Titov, were awoken at this time with the launch scheduled to start 2 hours later. Things went pretty smoothly although doctors reported that Gagarin wasn’t himself at this time, being somewhat pale and unusually reserved. Still in comparison to Titov, who had to take medication to calm himself down, Gagarin was as calm as ever with a resting heart rate of that of a long distance runner. About an hour after being awoken he was secured in the Vostok capsule (which had to be resealed once due to it failing the first time) and was left in there for another 40 minutes before blasting off into space.
In total Gagarin spent just over an hour orbiting the earth, completing one full orbit and touching down in a field outside of Engels in the Saratov region. His descent from the heavens startled a farmer and his daughter who witnessed this alien like creature in an orange suit with a white helmet descending from the heavens. He later recalled the situation:
When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!
Gagarin and his capsule were both successfully recovered. He returned back to Moscow a hero and a figure that will be remembered as one of the great pioneers of the final frontier. Although he never orbited the earth again he was heavily involved in the USSR’s space program afterwards, helping design new craft and was a backup pilot for the very first Soyuz mission a craft that is still in use today. Tragically his life was cut short in 1968 in a routine test flight over a Russian air base, but the legacy he laid down will last on for as long as humanity exists.
I’ve often said that I don’t give the Russians enough attention on this blog and they should be recognized for their amazing accomplishments in space. 50 years on the influence of early pioneers like Gagarin and his team are clearly visible in all facets of the Russian space program. It’s a testament to their strong ideals of simplicity and robustness that a craft designed decades ago can still be in service today and still meet the needs of both NASA and the ROSCOSMOS. Whilst I may be a bit late to the party in remembering the great feats of the Russian space program I hope you’ll join me today in recognizing their accomplishments, and wishing them all the best for the next 50 years.