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Architecture: it's not rocket science - or is it?

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The first space rocket fired from Cape Canaveral was an old German V2 rocket with a US Army WAC Corporal missile mounted on its nose as a second stage.

Separation worked and on 24 July 1950 the Corporal reached a height of 25 miles.

I mention this because, according to the charts sold at the noise-deafening gift shop at the newly opened Nicholas Grimshaw-designed Millennium Point museum of science and discovery in Birmingham, this never happened. Instead, the first space rocket ever was the Soviet A-1 that launched the first-ever Sputnik satellite in 1957.Of course you can see the compilers'point.Sputnik versus Vanguard equals the CCCP versus the USA. It is partly true, but also partly false, like all the simplified, hands on, 'thrillingquest-for-knowledge' exhibits at Millennium Point. 'Feel what it's like to shake hands with a boneless body, ' for example.

It was while mulling over these oversights in the acoustic equivalent to a deep tunnel on the Bakerloo Line that I realised that, in the end, it did not matter. History is data and data can be ordered in different ways. Do not look for facts, look for shape.

At first sight, all vertically launched rockets look the same, like all high-rise towers. The 1958 American Juno, for example, looks like a miniature Saturn Apollo (1967), while all the Soviet multi-engined boosters from A-2 Lunik (1959) to D-1 Salyut (1971) have the same 'things-to-come' 1930s trousers. Interestingly, when the Americans later took up clustered boosters, with their Titan III (1971), they refused to fit these Soviet-style spats, instead adopting a C Y Lee-style 'early robot' configuration, with two short tubes like legs and a central long tube surmounted by a head.

Thus equipped, the final US Titan 34D of 1982 was the nearest approach to a space rocket looking like a high-rise building ever (except, perhaps, for the modest Japanese Lambda triple-booster communications rocket of 1970 and its successor, the 1975 N1), and one whose configuration was only ever formally resolved differently by the monster wideskirted Soviet G-IE 'Super booster'of 1969, which was also the only rocket of comparable take-off cross-sectional area to the US Space Shuttle of 1981.

Looking at these generations of rockets, and metamorphosing them in one's mind into buildings, is interesting. For a start, the numerous American examples - the US has sent up more rockets than any other country - show the least formal innovation. On the other hand, the two Chinese 'Long March'missiles CLS-1 (1970) and CLS-2-FB-1 (1975) keep open the debate on open latticework between the booster stages and the payload, which gives them the kind of architectural appearance first seen on the Soviet A-2-E Mars/Venus rocket, and on the A2 Lunik of 1959 long before that.

As for the corbelling out of the topmost 'storeys' of a rocket to a greater diameter than its base, as initiated with the Titan III E-Centaur of 1974, this appears to have been as uninfluential as the Shuttle itself - only the first version of the European Space Agency Ariane rocket of 1979 ever following its example. Similarly, the stepped reduction in diameter, so typical of the man-carrying Saturn missions (1967-73), has also progressively given way to the featureless 'bullet nose' or conical point at the top of a cylindrical vehicle of constant diameter.

Colour presents more variety.Every launch vehicle of the Soviet era seems to have been painted dark green, a colour perversely adopted by the American Delta series which, beginning in 1965, saw the withdrawal of obsolete Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles from silos in England to satelliteplacing duties instead. Other US rockets have invariably been painted white with black anti-reflective trim.

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