Objects in Space

Comet 67P on 4th November - NAVCAM - European Space Agency, Flickr

November brought Christopher Nolan’s $165m space blockbuster Interstellar; and the astonishing culmination of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, landing a module on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. We watched both of these on the same day; switching from the pared-back production values, in-jokes, and glitches of the European livestream in the afternoon, to Nolan’s full-blown, high-concept, heart- and eardrum-stopping spectacle that evening. The ESA’s broadcast offered a multiplicity of voices, each trying to impose their own meaning, significance, and narratives on the success: The mayor of the small German town of Dahmstadt, home to ESA’s mission control; Dr David Parker, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, reminding the audience that the first meeting about the mission, back in 1986, was held in the UK; James L. Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science, highlighting the huge number of countries involved in the endeavour; and scores of scientists and project leaders nervously leaning across their monitors. By contrast, Interstellar gave us burning cornfields, whole planets of oceans and ice orbiting a black hole, and a straight-talking American hero. By midnight, we were left with a bewildered whiplash: ‘What was that?’

Since then, we’ve seen the delayed launch of NASA’s new exploration vehicle Orion, as mediated through livestreams of winter mornings in Florida and photos from NASA’s own Flickr stream, lumps of content sluicing through the chatter and ferment of other social media channels. We’ve also been impressed by Wanderers, a three-and-a-half minute film from Swedish animator Erik Wernquist. This short piece splices together actual photos and scientific map data, the words of secular space prophet Carl Sagan, and concepts from science fiction to create a compelling, immersive ‘vision of humanity’s expansion into the Solar System’. Produced by, at most, only a handful of people, futurist Stuart Candy sees, in Wanderers, a ‘new situation where such things are possible – photorealistic, far-flung futures on a shoestring.’

This reminded us of a similar short, Ambition. Produced in Poland and shot in Iceland, Ambition casts Irish actors Aiden Gillen and Aisling Franciosi as post-human beings of some far future, looking back on the Rosetta mission as a significant moment in their own past. Premiered at the BFI’s science fiction festival, ‘Days of Fear and Wonder,' Ambition’s gloss and high production values appeared to place the work in a similar kind of domain as Interstellar. Yet Ambition was funded by the ESA, as a way of explaining their work on the Rosetta mission. This was a dramatic departure from similar videos produced by space agencies, such as Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror, which have relied on simulation to depict missions in a much more direct, straightforward way. Ambition, in the words of the ESA, ‘adds a human dimension to the scientific and technological achievements of the mission, which include curiosity, drive, and ambition.’ The film collapses the feedback loops between speculative fiction and existing technologies, depicting the interaction of a pair of post-human space wizards as they describe (and simulate) the here-and-now of Rosetta. Techniques of cognitive estrangement that we might more commonly find in science fiction have been taken up by one of our own space agencies, with the explicit intent of ‘humanising’ their mission.

Tell me, what was it all for?
Yes, but we also wanted to show what was possible.

Across the experiences of Rosetta, Philae, Orion, Wanderers, Ambition, and Interstellar, we can start to see a reconfiguring of public expectations around space science and technology. Our understanding of space remained relatively static for the duration of the twentieth century; it was a site for exploration and the demonstration of engineering prowess, a source of wonder, a new frontier. We have always been only a few decades away from the first manned Mars mission.

These stable, static ‘legacy’ expectations reflected a domain characterised by enormous barriers to participation. Involvement in space science was restricted by hard technical, economic, and biological limits, with each functioning space programme built on the back of proven engineering capabilities, a solid knowledge base, access to launch facilities, and organizational capacities for command and control.

Orion preps for heat shield installation - NASA Kennedy, Flickr

The slow reconfiguring of public expectations seen in Ambition, Wanderers and Interstellar reflect broader shifts in the space science landscape, as the ebbing dominance of the US is accompanied by a broader unbundling of the functions of the state: NASA has had its budget and resources cut, its independent launch capabilities rolled back, and its facilities parceled out to Google and Elon Musk’s SpaceX initiative. Today, the US space shuttle is a museum artefact, with writer Warren Ellis making a compelling argument for the Orion mission to be seen as a work of ‘experimental archaeology.’ As postscript to a history in which spaceflight was presented to the US public as inherently patriotic, NASA’s chief scientist Ellen Stofan now describes how space exploration has to be an international endeavor.

Beyond ESA, NASA, and the activities of their private sector contractors, we have a new range of actors limbering up. Lunchbox-sized satellites offer ‘affordable orbit’ to small companies and citizen scientists, while start-ups like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic lever their own private financing to make it out of Earth’s gravity well. Innovation competitions such as Google’s Lunar XPrize offer up to $20 million for private groups to safely deliver a robot to the moon; while crowdfunded science projects such as Lunar Mission One offer t-shirts and preferential access to a dedicated online community for the same. Developing countries are also moving in, with the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mangalayaan mission being the first to enter Mars orbit on its first attempt.

Asking what it means to participate in space offers many answers. The space of space remains heavily regulated, and tied to international protocols – one does not simply fire a cubesat into low orbit from one’s back garden. Online chatter around spaceflight pales in comparison to, for example, the multi-person, real-time reporting of struggles in Hong Kong or Tahrir Square, while space tourism remains the preserve of the extraordinarily wealthy.

Nonetheless, cubesats and nanosats are an order of magnitude cheaper than the technologies that preceded them, and access to their data streams is cheaper still. The Orion and Rosetta missions have positioned the public as audience, witnesses to their endeavours. Space agencies give their machines first-person Twitter accounts, leveraging anthropomorphic tools as a way to make space travel intelligible, proximate, culturally familiar, and emotionally resonant.

NASA PhoneSat - Steve Jurveston, Flickr

Does a democratisation of access to space then also, to follow Stuart Candy, include a democratisation of the ability to create compelling moments of anticipation around technologies and the future? Designer Hefin Jones’ Welsh Space Campaign uses the language and aesthetics of space as a way of talking about Welsh national identity, culture, and craft traditions. Superflux’s Mangala For All will see its representatives on the streets of urban India, exchanging model spacecraft for insights into what Mangalyaan means to those they meet.

The whiplash-triggering dissonance of switching from the ESA’s Rosetta livestream to a cinema screening of Interstellar can be seen as the byproduct of a proliferation of narratives about space; a friction between a once-dominant Golden Age idea of science fiction as spectacle and the glory of technological progress, and the messy, muddled actuality of spaceflight as a system in flux.

Ambition and Wanderers both ‘work’ as forms of public engagement. Both mobilise a sense of purpose, of progress, but operate with an economy of time and vision, finding and occupying a niche in the existing landscape. Meanwhile, shaped and supported by technological and cultural infrastructures, the ‘live’ events of Orion and Rosetta convene publics, engage audiences, and condition our understanding and expectations of space.

As Howard McCurdy describes, the events around early American space missions confounded initial anticipations: ‘The prophets of space flight, having created rich vision of their endeavour, had to deal with the unfolding realisation that much of the actual venture did not fulfil first expectations.' While they remain grounded in the resource-intensive, highly controlled realities of spaceflight, these films and objects offer no singular dominant vision, but rather, a collection of elements from which to pick and choose; a range of voices, points of chaos and uncertainty. These anticipatory futures have the potential to be potent policy tools, but they are fragile, and their success or failure rests on their ability to work with – and react to – the world.

- Justin Pickard and Georgina Voss