The days of yore, part four

It’s only been two and a half years since the last days of yore, I know – I apologize for banging them so close together like this…

An SLR (single lens reflex) camera is a great thing. In a nutshell, what you see is what you get, since as you aim the camera, you’re looking through the same lens that takes the photo. Sure, it increases the size and complication of the camera body a little bit, but the benefits greatly outweigh this. Imagine trying to frame an image properly if you couldn’t see through the 300mm lens, and were trying to estimate focus and framing based on a tiny rectangle marked within the ‘normal’ view of the camera, without the magnification of the telephoto lens.

Argus C3 rangefinder "brick"At one time, this was actually the case. Before SLRs, we had rangefinder cameras, and you didn’t focus through the lens that took the photo, but through a viewfinder lens above the film box. Seen here is an Argus C3, and to focus, you had to look through a peephole on the back of the camera that came out through those little rectangles near the top of the camera (also, through a round window that forms the center of the ‘rangefinder’ dial at upper left.) With the magic of a semi-silvered mirror and a couple of lenses, you could see a dual image of the subject that would resolve into a single image when the focus was proper. I would explain how this works but it’s not immediately germane to the topic. What is germane is that, since you were not focusing through the lens that captured the shot, it was possible to take photos while the lens cap was still on and never realize it – this was, in fact, a standing joke in the fifties and sixties. My first 35mm camera was a rangefinder (not this one,) and I only forgot the lens cap once…

images of the surface of Venus from Soviet probes Venera 13 and 14Now we come to the early eighties – 1981, to be precise. What was then the Soviet Union had launched a series of probes to orbit and eventually land on the surface of Venus – with varying success. Some crashed, some failed. The primary difficulty was, Venus is wickedly hot – like, 460°c (860°f) at the surface. Aluminum melts at those temperatures, and while you can construct a probe of better materials than aluminum, it still has to have delicate electronics within, and eventually the heat penetrates to the interior and shit stops working. And during the journey through space and the descent through the upper atmosphere, the cameras have to be protected – you can’t just have the lens poking out there.

Venera probes 9 and 10 had two cameras each, but only one of each sent back photos; the lens cover for the second camera was flawed and would not release, and they did not include a little robotic arm to jiggle the damn things. Veneras 11 and 12 were worse: both sets of lens caps stayed in place, and no photos were sent back to Earth. So, for Venera probes 13 and 14, they redesigned the covers to ensure that they would eject free from the lens ports.

The results you see here: nice color images of the surface of Venus, taken in the few hours that the probes were operational (they were intended to last just thirty minutes, but both continued transmitting info for much longer than designed.) Venera 13’s view is at top, and 14’s below. In the upper image, that’s not a broken Native Venusian bowl in the image, but the probe’s own lens cap sitting where it had ejected from the port. Yes, I know they make those little cap-keeper leashes, but that’s tourist stuff, and the Soviets wanted to look more professional. The arm to the left of each frame is the soil compressibility tester.

In fact, if you look close at the bottom frame, you’ll see where the lens cover for Venera 14 ended up. That’s it, sitting right smack underneath the compressibility arm – the probe sent back information on the density of its own lens cap. Sometimes you just can’t win. But at least they got the pics this time.

I imagine the info from the compressibility test came back before the photos, leading the scientists to believe that the surface was remarkably hard (the lens covers were titanium,) before the images explained the results. Then, I imagine the Russian expletives uttered when the photos came up on the screens – I think I personally would have tried sending commands to bang that arm up and down a few times just to bounce the cap out of the way (or simply vent some frustration.)

I don’t want to give the wrong impression; I have a lot of respect for the Soviet/Russian space program and the accomplishments that they’ve achieved, as we find ourselves at the anniversary of the first human in space: Yuri Gagarin went into orbit on April 12th, 1961, only fifty-six years ago. In fact, I don’t even like nationalistic demarcations, since this isn’t a competition; while too many of the politicians and citizens viewed it that way, the scientists and engineers were more concerned with how than with who. And that’s the way it should be – scientific advancement benefits us as a race, at the very least, but even more so as a planet. Ego should always take a (distant) back seat to progress and problem-solving.

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