WillyLogan.com

Technology, History, and Place

Tag: Cold War (Page 1 of 2)

Pyramids of waste

“What can be said of a culture whose legacies to the future are mounds of hazardous materials and a poisoned water supply? Will America’s pyramids be pyramids of waste?”

–Giles Slade, Made to Break (2006)

I think that Giles Slade meant for this comment to be ironic, not taken literally. In the opening of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, Slade compares the landfills of modern America with the pyramids of ancient Egypt. As Slade would have it, it is an indication of our societal decadence that the great mounds that we raise are not tombs for our god-kings but final resting places for our junked PCs, outmoded cell phones, and plastic pop bottles.

Of course, ordinary domestic landfills don’t really look like pyramids. Sometimes they have rectangular ground-plans; often they don’t. But there is at least one waste-containment mound that actually resembles a pyramid. It is in Missouri. And I’ve been there.

Weldon Spring Site is 30 miles west of St. Louis. During World War II, it was home to a munitions plant, which was converted to a uranium-processing facility in the Cold War. Like so many other Cold War industrial sites, Weldon Spring had plenty of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste lying around when it was abandoned in the 1960s. The Department of Energy took over the site twenty years later and began cleaning it up. All the untreatable chemical and radioactive waste from the site was entombed in an enormous mound. With its sloping sides and flat top, the mound looks a bit like a Mesoamerican pyramid, not so much an Egyptian one. (It is also a little reminiscent of the Cahokia Mounds nearby in Illinois, built by the Mississippian mound-builders.)

I should hope that some of modern America’s more inspiring monuments prove as durable as our pyramids of waste. At least what the Weldon Spring pyramid says about us is that we cared enough to clean up the mess we created (albeit twenty years late).

The Weldon Spring waste mound from across the visitor center parking lot.

The Weldon Spring waste mound viewed from the visitor center parking lot.

The sloping flank of the waste pyramid.

The sloping flank of the waste pyramid.

The stairway to the top of the waste pyramid.

The stairway to the top of the waste pyramid.

The broad crest of the Weldon Spring waste pyramid. (Where the builders of Teotiuhuacán would have erected a temple for sacrifices, the Department of Energy has placed benches and interpretive plaques.)

The broad crest of the Weldon Spring waste pyramid. (Where the builders of Teotihuacán would have erected a temple for sacrifices, the Department of Energy has placed benches and interpretive plaques.)

The Lunar Module of New Delhi

Lunar Module replica at the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi.

Lunar Module replica at the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi.

In one corner of the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi, there is a something a little surprising: a life-size Apollo Lunar Module, the spacecraft that Neil Armstrong and eleven other American astronauts used to land on the moon six times from 1969 to 1972. The replica is nicely proportioned and seems to be complete in its major details, although the paint scheme (white with a little black trim) seems to reflect an earlier design iteration of the craft, before gold-colored foil insulation was added on the descent stage. The IAF Museum LM looks fairly like an Airfix 1/72-scale plastic model kit that has been blown up to life-size. It even has a white-suited astronaut at the bottom of the ladder, ready to step onto the surface of the moon.

What in the world is a Lunar Module doing in New Delhi?

In 1969, Apollo 11, the first moon-landing mission, received worldwide news coverage. At a time when the world seemed to be coming apart at the seams—because of the Cold War struggle between superpowers, proxy wars, and widespread youth protests—Apollo 11 provided a rare moment of unity for humankind. Interest in Apollo 11 was as strong in India as anywhere, as the mission received front-page coverage in national newspapers.

The US government was eager to capitalize on this rare flood of positive coverage. On July 14, just two days before the launch of Apollo 11, the US Information Service (USIS) opened an exhibition in New Delhi about the moon landing. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a purpose-built full-scale model of the Lunar Module—the replica that now stands in the IAF Museum.

The USIS Lunar Module was also on hand in Bombay three months later when the crew of Apollo 11 passed through the city on their round-the-world goodwill tour on behalf of President Richard Nixon. The model was displayed to the public on Azad Maidan until a month after the astronauts’ visit. According to the Times of India: “The 23-foot model rests on a simulated moonscape. With flickering lights and a swinging antenna, the model is exact in every exterior detail. It was built by Indian craftsmen in New Delhi.”

Judging from a photo printed with another Times of India article, the model has changed little since 1969. The astronaut perched at the bottom of the ladder even seems to the same. The only discernible difference is that the flag and words “UNITED STATES” on the descent stage have for some reason been removed.

The Lunar Module at the IAF Museum is a relic of a time when the world was briefly united because of an American accomplishment, and the US government was ready to take advantage of the occasion.

The Lunar Module and astronaut at the IAF Museum.

The Lunar Module and astronaut at the IAF Museum.

Bilingual plaque for the LM at the IAF Museum.

Bilingual plaque for the LM at the IAF Museum.

Nepal Himalaya, 2009

The Cold War at 8,848 meters

The summits of the tallest mountains in the world, all of which are located in the great Himalayan range from northeastern India to Pakistan, remained inviolate until the 1950s and early sixties, when all of them were climbed for the first time. In 1950, Annapurna in central Nepal became the first peak higher than 8,000 meters to be climbed (there are fourteen in all) when a French team reached the summit. Next, in 1953, a British expedition reached the top of the highest of them all, Mt. Everest or Chomolungma.1

It was by an accident of timing and geopolitics that these great mountains were first climbed in the fifties and sixties. Major European and American expeditions had made attempts on several of the 8,000-meter peaks in the twenties and thirties, but then the outbreak of World War II put these expeditions to a halt. When they resumed after the war, the Cold War had begun, and the subsequent mountaineering conquests took place in the context of this global struggle of ideologies.

In 1960, the Chinese government launched an expedition on the north side of Mt. Everest, which stands in Tibet. This was the first expedition on the Tibetan side since China had annexed the country in 1950. The government reported that three climbers reached the top of the mountain and left a plaster bust of Chairman Mao there as a memento of their visit. Mountaineers in the West generally doubted that the Chinese party had actually made it to the summit, as the only accounts released were party propaganda with a little mountaineering on the side. (The Chinese summiting is more widely accepted as veritable now.) Whether or not the Chinese climbers really reached the top, the expedition was a geopolitical coup, an assertion of China’s sovereignty over Tibet.

Three years later, a very different expedition attacked Everest from the southern side, through Nepal. This was the American Mount Everest Expedition 1963, or AMEE for short. Well-equipped, well-staffed (with 20 expedition members, 37 high-altitude Sherpas, and 909 porters), and well-funded by donations and government grants, the expedition was also highly-publicized. The expedition leader, Norman Dyhrenfurth, was a cinematographer by trade; he produced a movie about the climb and got Orson Welles to narrate it. One of the six members of the team to reach the summit was National Geographic Society photograph Barry Bishop. The expedition even had its own chronicler, mountaineer-author James Ramsey Ullman, who wrote a piece for Life magazine, the script of Dyhrenfurth’s movie, and a full book, Americans on Everest (which is a good read).

In his official account, Ullman repeatedly emphasized that AMEE’s climbing of Everest was not a nationalistic endeavor. For example, this passage:

The Chinese, on their climb of three years before, had declared that “we thought of Comrade Mao, took strength, and moved onward and upward”; but such sentiment would not do for AMEE. With due respect to our Chief Executive, and due allowance for the politics of the various team members, it is highly doubtful if anyone was climbing Everest for the President of the United States.2

Yet even if the men who actually climbed the mountain did not do so for national glory, the expedition had to present itself in a national context in order to get funding. The American public and government asked: Why climb Mt. Everest? It has already been climbed. To which AMEE replied: Because it has never been climbed by Americans before.

The rhetoric convinced individuals, mountaineering clubs, companies, and the US government to donate $400,000 to the expedition. The State Department funded expedition costs in Nepal with a grant of $82,000 in Indian rupees, which the US government had earned from the sale of American wheat and other agricultural commodities to India under the PL-480 Food for Peace program. The State Department also funded a goodwill tour of selected expedition Sherpas around the United States after the climb.

A great, friendly American expedition to Asia aligned well with then-President John F. Kennedy’s internationalist agenda, which also produced the Peace Corps and USAID. When Kennedy presented the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal to the expedition after the successful climb, he emphasized the international character of Himalayan mountaineering, citing other nations that had preceded the Americans to Everest. But he omitted the Chinese, as China was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and this was the Cold War after all.

Nawang Gombu presents a kata scarf to President Kennedy at the ceremony for the presentation of the National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal to members of the American Mount Everest Expedition. (Source: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.)

Nawang Gombu presents a kata scarf to President Kennedy at the ceremony for the presentation of the National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal to members of the American Mount Everest Expedition. (Source: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.)

  1. The two actual summiters were Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Darjeeling. []
  2. James Ramsey Ullman, Americans on Everest: The Official Account of the Ascent Led by Norman G. Dyhrenfurth (New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1964), 237-38. []

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén