Landscapes in Orbit: The Material and Political Topography of Near-Earth Space

Sunday, January 4, 2015
2nd Floor Promenade (New York Hilton)
Lisa Ruth Rand, University of Pennsylvania
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Earth’s first artificial satellite into orbit. Many American citizens glimpsed a glowing point of light moving through the night sky that was not Sputnik itself, but the larger, shinier exhausted rocket body that had sent it aloft. From this first visual confluence of space craft and space trash, the distinction between functionality and waste in space became increasingly elastic as Earth’s orbit grew into a contested site of critical information infrastructure during the Cold War.

The larger dissertation project from which this presentation is drawn explores the environmental history of near-Earth space: how human intervention has shaped the natural environment of our planetary borderlands, and how changes in the orbital ecosystem have in turn affected people, practices, and environments on the ground. My research focuses particularly on the co-production of spacecraft and space debris, and the role of human-made waste in complicating the messy boundaries drawn and redrawn between the biosphere and outer space. The larger project considers how international environmental and scientific politics during the long 1960s influenced the construction of near-Earth space as a site of shared governance and environmental concern through multivalent perceptions of outer space as a locus of waste production—simultaneously threatened and threatening.

Near-Earth space boasts a complex abiotic ecosystem that has mutually shaped and been shaped by human interventions over the course of the space age. It is also an environment largely encountered and understood virtually through satellite technologies in orbit and the services they provide. By presenting the historically, politically, and culturally contingent meanings of space waste and the flexible boundary between terrestrial and alien environments, this poster will display my analysis of the ways different Earthbound communities came to an environmental consciousness of near-Earth space during the early space age and into the present. In historicizing the growth of a system of space waste, this research incorporates perennial, transnational characterizations of near-Earth space as reaching or on the brink of environmental disaster. The presentation will draw from several Cold War case studies used in my dissertation, ranging from an early military communications system that launched millions of tiny copper fibers into orbit and the debate among biologists about the dangerous permeability of the Earth-space border, to 21stcentury orbital collisions and debris events.

A major component of my research zeroes in on how human beings make sense of remote, illegible nature through physical or virtual encounters. Presenting this analysis in poster form will provide an excellent opportunity to engage with the unique methods used by different invested specialist and popular communities to visualize an otherwise largely invisible global environment. By making use of digital archives to illustrate the growth of waste systems in space, images of debris and debris impacts, and representations of contested space objects, I plan to use the visual medium of the poster to portray a physical and political topography of outer space—popularly understood by its nothingness, but far from a true void in both material and discursive senses.

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