Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Historic images of the Earth from space - how the view from the Tesla Roadster compares.

On February 6th 2018, Elon Musk launched his own personal midnight cherry Tesla Roadster into space on a test Falcon Heavy rocket. The car went sailing away from Earth with a mannequin in a spacesuit, a copy of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series on a disc, a Hitchhiker's Guide the the Galaxy Don't Panic sign, and a plaque engraved with 6000 names of SpaceX employees. There may have been some other things, but finding a reliable source is harder than you'd think.

Now that the dust is starting to settle, I want to think about something else - some of the iconic, world-changing images of the Earth from outside, and the addition of this new one seen from the front seat of a car.

Here they are:

Apollo 8, 1968

Image credit: NASA

Apollo 17, 1972

Image credit: NASA

International Space Station, 2011

The Cupola on the ISS, 2014

Image credit: NASA

Tesla Roadster, 2018

Image credit: SpaceX

This is something that I'll have to think a lot more about, but here are a few initial impressions. 

Early conceptualisations of what the Earth looked like from outside tended to be greyscale: it was assumed that the blue sky would only appear so from the surface of the Earth (due to Rayleigh scattering). The blueness of the Earth was a surprise that came with the first human spaceflight missions. It was translated into the blue marble, and the pale blue dot, in a colour scheme including white, black, and muted tones. 

Another factor is the presence or absence of the photographer. In the Apollo 8 and 17 images, there's no hint of them. Their absence accentuates a separation of the natural and cultural, setting the human observers apart from the world they're capturing on film. In the case of the whole ISS, the image is taken by a service vessel approaching or departing. We still don't see the photographer.

So many images of the ISS show the space station in relation to the partially curved Earth. Space is closer to us, with people living just a few hundred kilometres above our heads. Then we get the astronaut's eye view, as if we are telepresencing from inside their bodies. These shots are often taken from the Cupola, and often there are people in them. It's a more intimate relationship to the Earth, but it's always looking down. We have a more integrated view of the interconnectedness of Earth and space.

So what about the Tesla Roadster? The addition of the red colour against the blue and white is striking. The effect is almost cartoon-like. 

The other big contrast is how dominant the human presence is - and it's not even human! The Earth is only a backdrop: we're meant to focus on the car in the foreground. I don't know where the camera filming was (this is a still from the video), but we have both a hidden observer and a portrait of the Starman. (We can't see the rocket body which is apparently still attached).

While the other images are related to sensibilities of the Earth's fragility, environmental awareness, the erasure of national borders and the insignificance of Earthly conflicts and struggles (aspects of the Overview Effect), I don't think this is what is going on here.

The faceless driver is not even looking at the Earth. They're focused on leaving. 

I think this is a radical paradigm shift. I don't fully understand what it means yet, but I'm pretty sure others are going to start analysing this as we get further away from the event. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The space world to come, imagined in 1956

This book has such a wonderful dust jacket. I can't remember where I found it any more but I suspect it was on one of my expeditions searching second-hand bookshops and op shops in Adelaide for ex-Woomera literature. Often, the libraries of those employed at the Long Range Weapons Research Establishment find their way onto the shelves. I like reading the old books to get an idea of how people thought the Space Age was going to unfold, and what they thought the space environment was like.

Apart from its appealing design, the interior holds many delights. Of course, it was written before a satellite had been successfully launched into Earth orbit - which happened a year later in 1957 -  and at this stage, the USA expected that its Vanguard satellite would be the first human object in space.  Here is the authors' assessment of what it all meant:
The Earth satellites developed under Project Vanguard are to be the first space vehicles.  The prime purpose of these vehicles will be to derive basic data about the environment in which we live.  Yet this is only the short view. 
The longer view may easily rank in significance with the first steam vessel in 1802, the first railroad in 1825, and the first airplane in 1903.  Each of these radical inventions basically altered ways of life.  It is probable that space flight will do no less.  The orbiting vehicles can affect nearly every human activity, ranging from the discovery of new medicines to the development of new literature and philosophies. They can help bring about a universal peace or a universal chaos.
This book is concerned with the utility of space satellites and the way this aspect can affect every person on Earth. .... We can see them giving us long-range weather forecasts, improving our communications and transportation systems, helping us discover underground treasures, influencing military tactics, and questioning many theories (Bergaust and Beller 1956:13).

Not a bad forecast of the impact of satellites! However, where are the new literatures and philosophies? Science fiction already existed, although it has changed and evolved over the decades. Perhaps I might opine that it's only now that we are seeing the coherent emergence of new ways of thinking influenced by space. 

Bergaust, Erik, and William Beller  1956  Satellite! The first step into the last frontier - the full facts about man's coming exploration of space.  New York:  Hanover House

Thursday, January 04, 2018

My mama told me never trust a space engineer

My recent space girl dance research led me to this cruisy number by The Imagined Village. (Lyrics underneath).

Space Girl

My mama told me I should never venture into space
But I did, I did, I did
She said no terran girl could trust the martian race
But I did, I did, I did

A rocket pilot asked me on a voyage to go
And I was so romantic, and I couldn't say no
That he was just a servo robot how was I to know?
So I did, I did, I did

She told me never venture out among the asteroids
But I did, I did, I did
And she said that the Milky Way was something to avoid
So I did, I did, I did
She said that Venus was too hot and Saturn not much fun
And bug-eyed monsters tended to be just a trifle dumb
She said I'd need a blaster and I'd need a freezer gun
And I did, I did, I did

My mama told me never trust a space engineer
And yes, I did, I did, I did
She said freefall and superdrive would surely cost me dear
And yes, they did, they did, they did
I've been as far in hyperspace as anybody can
I've travelled through the time warp in the Psycho Plan
They say a gal must travel for to find her superman
And yes, I did, I did, I did
And yes, I did, I did, I did
Oh, I did, I did, I did

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Space girl dance

Marko Lulic is a Viennese artist who created a three minute video called Space-Girl Dance, which was exhibited at the Sydney Biennale in 2014. I wish I had been there to see it!

Image: Marco Lulic and Gabriele Senn Galerie, Vienna

Sadly, the dance did not take place on Cockatoo Island (where it was screened). It was filmed in the garden of German sculptor Eric Hauser. The garden contains spacey stainless steel sculptures, which form the setting for the dance.

Image: Marco Lulic and Gabriele Senn Galerie, Vienna

The dance and video were inspired by a segment in the 1970 US television series Raquel!, starring Raquel Welch. The background for Raquel's Space-Girl Dance was a set of sculptures commissioned to commemorate the 1968 Mexican Olympic Games, called the Ruta de la Amistad (Friendship Road). Now, many of the sculptures have been vandalised and are in poor condition.

Here is one of the spacey sculptures on the Ruta de la Amistad.

Image from http://www.reporte.com.mx/

According to the Biennale notes, Lulic was interested in the relationship between the copy and the original, but also
the relation of the body to space, movement to stillness, human to monumental, and the man-made to the natural world.

I feel a Dr Space Junk Dance coming on.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Space haiku: afternoon constellation

Afternoon constellation
Data from space
Drowns in my teacup

Illustration by Dr Space Junk


I was challenged to write a haiku about space on Twitter, by @spacejake_, - and no inspiration came. Some days later I was sitting in the 4th South Australian Space Forum, and a speaker mentioned the afternoon constellation of satellites. A couple of minutes later he said something about data from space, and the first two lines of this poem fell into my head.

Afternoon constellation made me think of afternoon tea, sitting at a kitchen table with a cup of tea and the afternoon light falling through the windows. I imagined satellite signals falling unperceived with them, the data lost in milky tea. Signals are no good unless you're listening for them, with the right instrument.

It's probably not a technical haiku, just short lines evoking that form, but close enough is good enough as far as I'm concerned.

I drew a picture to go with it because that's what I think my space poetry hero, @tychogirl, would have done.

Monday, December 04, 2017

The right stuff: how archaeologists come to be.

Am I an archaeologist because I'm interested in the stuff? Or am I interested in the stuff because I'm an archaeologist? Which came first?

Some time ago, I was talking with the erudite Dr Duncan Wright about how common it was for archaeologists to have been collectors as children. I collected fairly ordinary things - shells, stamps, feathers, and tram tickets, and had hoards of apricot stones stashed in hollows of trees. Nothing more exotic than that. Today, I have a possibly unhealthy interest in lids, pencil cases, tiny spoons, and the fairies-on-sticks that you buy at agricultural and horticultural shows. (There's a whole cabinet at the Pitt Rivers Museum full of tiny tiny spoons for removing ear wax! Oh the splendour! And there is nothing more satisfying than a well-fitting lid, not a screw-top like on a jar, but a tea pot lid, for example). Healthier collecting interests are space things (obviously), icons, fans, gloves and hats, 1960s tea cups and other ceramics, and stone tools. (This feels a bit confessional. Don't judge me).

The tactile and aesthetic qualities of things are important. I think I like tiny spoons because of the scale; perhaps this a child's interest in the miniature. Gaston Bachelard has a whole chapter on the miniature in The Poetics of Space.

With the 1960s tea cups, it's the asymmetric ones that appeal; they seem subversive and space age-y.  And they are lovely to drink from too.

Fans and gloves are elegant (Dr Space Junk is all about elegance) and old-fashioned; but they are also bloody useful things to own in hot or cold weather, so I love that they can be both beautiful and functional. The mark of a perfect fan is how silent it is when you use it. 

Pencil cases partake of that too, and they are of course receptacles for treasured pencil stubs and beautiful pens that are a pleasure to write with. These days I store assorted USB sticks in my pencil case as well.

So perhaps I was interested in the stuff first.  Perhaps that's why I'm an archaeologist, apart from, as Heather Burke says, being nosy.

I guess what I'm getting at here is partially the difference between history and archaeology.  Would I be content to just read about places and things? I remember the experience of being at the Centre Spatial Guyanais at Kourou, and my delight and satisfaction at placing my palm flat on the surface of an Ariane 5 rocket booster, leaving an invisible hand print of bacteria and oils. The physicality of things, the materiality, does matter to me. I want to touch them. (The continual temptation of art galleries and museums).

In historical archaeology, one of the underlying principles is that the artefacts and places can tell the stories of people who get left out of histories, often the oppressed and poor. So it has a political dimension of giving forgotten people a voice through the material traces they leave behind. It's not just stuff any more; it's stuff that speaks.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Space-themed money boxes

This charming photo of vintage Commercial Bank of Australia moneyboxes was sent to me by Stephen Muller. It's a little blurry but I still think they're awesome.