Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

The fall, and artistic rise, of Kosmos 954

Cosmos | acrylic by  Nick MacIntosh
by Mark Rendell

Around midnight on January 24, 1978 a glowing object ripped eastward across the NWT skies, splintering into hundreds of flaming pieces.

The nuclear powered satellite carrying around 50 kilograms of enriched uranium – only slightly less than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – started its dive through the atmosphere off the Pacific coast. The wreckage splattered down east of Yellowknife in a radioactive mess covering 600 km from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake in Nunavut.

The story has always fascinated Yellowknife painter Nick MacIntosh.

“I’m attracted to the more funky offbeat history and local stories,” he said. “And I love the sci-fi factor. There’s not too many things where technology and outer space comes into play in the NWT.”

In August he decided to paint his pulp sci-fi interpretation of one of Yellowknife’s wackiest slices of history.

The Crash

Kosmos 954, a Soviet satellite designed to track Western merchant and military shipping, had been wobbling off course for over a month. Soviet cosmonauts tried beaming a signal up to the satellite to eject its radioactive core, but the mechanism malfunctioned. By mid-January it was clear the bird was going down, nuclear material and all.

Initially the Soviets claimed the satellite disintegrated on re-entry into the atmosphere. After a multi-million dollar search involving the Canadian and American militaries, however, it became apparent that radioactive wreckage was scattered across the NWT.

While 12 pieces of debris were eventually recovered, the location of the radioactive core remains a mystery.

Did it burn up? Or is it sitting at the bottom of some lake, just beginning its 714-million-year decay?

E.T. Call Ruskies

The painting began following a conversation with Mel Leonard about doing some artwork for the SSI Micro company clubhouse.

Nick didn’t have a commission, but he decided to begin the acrylic painting anyway.

“I thought they could have used it in a funky ad, like ‘if you crash, call SSI,’” he said. The blue signal pulsing towards the aurora is a riff on the SSI Logo.

Ultimately the manager of SSI decided not to buy the painting. “It’s too bad, but I can understand they didn’t want to be associated with a crash,” said Nick.

The scene itself was inspired by paperback sci-fi covers and comic books.

“It’s a creative interpretation. I know it didn’t come down by Giant, but it was the Great Slave area so I could have had a tracker or trapper come across. In the end I went with a miner.”

He painted the head frame from vintage photos of Giant Mine – given the slope of the roof, it could also be Con Mine, he said.

Unsure of what the satellite would have looked like, Nick used a picture of a jet engine from a plane crash for the satellite body.

“The blue rings broadcasting into the aurora, that’s to show where it came from. It’s like E.T. call Ruskies.”

The painting is for sale at the Visual Effects gallery on 48 Street.