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A View from Stephen Cass

North Korean Space Mission Goes For Classic Look

The isolated nation’s Launch Center appears to be deliberately designed to echo the heyday of the space age.

  • April 12, 2012

Rocket scientists sit behind rows of bulky grey consoles, intently monitoring readouts–it could be an iconic image from the Apollo era, but in fact it’s the scene shown in recent pictures from North Korea’s launch control center outside Pyongynag. Sometime between now and Monday, this center will be used in an attempt to boost a weather satellite into orbit atop a three-stage rocket.

In an unusual display of openness, North Korea allowed the foreign press to visit the launch control center for its upcoming satellite mission. Credit: Associated Press

And it appears the similarity to the iconic images of the space age may have been deliberately fostered. The size of the consoles in NASA’s legendary mission control room in Houston, Texas, and the launch control center at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, was an unavoidable function of the technology of the day.The rat’s nest of wires required for banks of dedicated control buttons and indicator lights, along with the sheer mass of the cathode ray tube displays used, meant that the consoles were big and solidly built. The displays were so heavy that handles had to be mounted on the front panels to make it easier to pull them out for servicing. (As former mission controller Sy Leibergot details in his memoir, Apollo EECOM, these grips were dubbed “security handles,” because they were sturdy enough to hang onto while a controller gathered his wits in a crisis, such as in the aftermath of Apollo 13’s fuel cell explosion.)

However, pictures from the North Korean Launch Control center show that the displays in use there are not CRTs, but light-weight, flat-panel, screens. General-purpose computer keyboards and mice have replaced the banks of dedicated control buttons. Yet the displays are still mounted on cabinets that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the sixties. That the size of the consoles isn’t due to some quirk of North Korean technology is demonstrated by pictures of the control center that is in charge of monitoring the satellite post-launch–there, the controllers’ flat panel computer displays sit on standard desk stands, as in modern control centers in the rest of the world.

This is not to say that the consoles are necessarily just essentially big empty metal boxes purely for show: they probably contain computers (or perhaps the rear of the consoles are actually shelves or storage cabinets for the controllers in front?) But there’s a lot of ways to arrange computers and screens (or even shelves) today that don’t replicate such a specific look. 

So, the question is: did the North Koreans build their launch center with a deliberate intent to trigger a visual association at home and abroad with the glory days of the space race, or is it a case of cultural osmosis, with the control room being simply being built the way space control centers are supposed to look? 

In one regard though, the North Koreans have outdone their predecessors in the visuals department; in the Apollo-era, short-sleeve shirts were the order of the day for mission control. North Korea’s rocket scientists are shown wearing bright white lab coats.

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