Tuesday, September 25, 2018

'Some people don't worry, baby': Skylab blues and space junk anxiety

I do love the music inspired by the re-entry of the US space station Skylab in 1979. This one is by Grimsdell, a person or band about which I can find out almost nothing. Like several other space junk songs, it is rather grim, focusing on junk falling on people and houses. Skylab is almost drawn into some kind of karmic economy - it is coming for YOU, as if the guilty will die and the virtuous be saved. Or perhaps it's that virtue won't save you, and this is what's most frightening. Be apathetic, like the couch-potato Coors-sippers, or don't; it won't matter when the end comes.

You could also say that Skylab here is just a metaphor here for a general apocalypse, standing in for nuclear devastation

They say Skylab's fallin' out of the sky
They say some people may have to die
Could fall on my house, could fall on yours

Some people don't worry baby
They just sit back, watch TV, sip on their Coors
But each day now that passes by
Death and destruction come closer from the sky

They say it'll rain tons of scientific trash
The camera vault, a one mile-crater it'll mash
One supersonic bolt or one supersonic screw
May be fallin' out of orbit straight for you

But each day now that passes by
Death and destruction comes closer from the sky
They say the scientists don't know where it will fall
But people you know, it's gonna fall on y'all

They say there's no place, no place to run
They say there's no place, no place to hide
When it's all over baby, don't you know,
Many people gon' die

But each day now that passes by.
Death and destruction come closer from the sky

Skylab blues
Skylab blues
Skylab blues
Skylab blues

Monday, September 03, 2018

Flying dreams and the human relationship to gravity

From time to time, I have flying dreams. Standing on my feet, just a tiny movement will launch me into the air, and I go soaring above the ground with my arms outstretched, as effortlessly as a bird, delighting in the freedom.

When I think about these dreams, they have certain elements in common. It's always sunny with a blue, blue sky - maybe a couple of white fluffy clouds. There is green, even grass below me. The ground is flat or gently undulating at most. There's always a house. Not a familiar house, more like a greeting-card house or a children's book illustration. There are no houses nearby, just the house on a wide green lawn. I fly above the house at a certain height. I can see trees and often there's a Hills Hoist clothesline in the garden. No fences, though. It's much lower than aeroplane height, and the view is always of the immediate environment of the house.

It's a domestic dream, and perhaps a child's dream, when your whole world revolves around the house and the extent of space is a concept you've yet to fully grasp.

When I wake up from a flying dream, I often still feel the lack of gravity. The sensation that I can just will myself into the air and fly stays with me until I put my feet on the ground and realise how heavy I am, and how adhesive gravity is. I feel intense sadness at this moment. Being heavy seems such a burden. After a few steps, the residues of the dream evaporate and I'm fully awake.

Thinking about these dreams has led me to a curious thought. What if they are part of a pre-adaptation to space?

Now it's true that the human body is not well adapted to microgravity, and we know a fair bit about this because of astronauts' experience in Earth-orbiting space stations. Blood pools in the upper body, muscles atrophy, bones lose their calcium and weaken. We probably don't really know enough yet about the long term health affects of living in space either - a year is a long, long time in space, and only a few people have spent that long up there.

Despite this, humans seem to have an urge to defy gravity, whether it's aeroplanes or rockets. This starts very early. Remember how you loved being thrown up in the air and caught when you were a little kid, and how it made you laugh? The thrilling sensation of a centrifuge, when an adult or older child held your hands and swung you around in a circle? And just how much fun swings in the local park were? Even little tiny babies love these things.

Swimming is fun because we can also defy gravity in water, moving in any direction we want with a twist and flap. In the water, our feet are not stuck to the clay of the Earth. There's nothing beneath them and our personal space expands to a sphere rather than a dome. It's just a shame that water exerts a drag that's absent in the air. Also, there are things that can bite you in water.

My desire to fly doesn't mean I'm drawn to sky-diving, or hang gliding, because that's not what this is about. It's about flight being in one's body, not a result of technology.

Having said that, I also have a slightly concerning desire to throw myself off heights just to experience the exhilaration of falling through the air. Maybe this is like Douglas Adams' 'learning to throw yourself at the ground and and miss'. I'm not afraid of heights, just afraid that if there isn't a barrier, the compulsion might become too great to resist. My lack of fear frightens me because I know logically that hitting the hard ground at acceleration is not going to have a good outcome.

I've learnt that this is called the High Place Phenomenon. One person described it thus: 'It was the opposite of vertigo. It was the urge to fly'.

I wonder how old this urge is, and if the much-vaunted 'urge to explore', when applied to space, is really just echo of a flying dream.

Collage by Pilar Zeta.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Outer space hats: inspiration for a drab Monday.

Who knew space millinery was a thing?

Below are two 'outer space hats' by the French designer Hubert de Givenchy (who died in March 2018). They're less space hats than space agey, though.

Image courtesy of  Conde Nast

Pierre Cardin loved a space hat. This one was made in 1965 and exhibited in Paris Refashioned 1957-1968, at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

According to the exhibition catalogue,
Molded felt hats that resembled space helmets became a signature of Cardin’s work during the 1960s, yet the designer had introduced the style as early as 1958. Vogue described a hat from that year as 'a unique Cardin projection into outer space,' underscoring the couturier’s early interest in futuristic design.
These Pierre Cardin sun and moon helmets are pretty groovy too.

Pattie Boyd and  Celia Hammond model the helmets. Photo by John French.

What, I wonder, is space fashion for the era of commercial and private space?

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Seven reasons to love French aerospace

One of the happiest months of my life was when I rented an apartment in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, so that I could do some work in the archives of the Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace at Le Bourget. Every morning I'd go down to the boulangerie on the ground floor of my apartment building for fresh pain and delight in the simple pleasure of perfect bread and butter. I may not have spent quite as much time in the archives as I intended, but what the hell.

Here are a few reasons to love French aerospace.

1. Asterix 1

Asterix 1. Image source: unknown.
When France launched Asterix 1 on a Diamant rocket from Algeria in 1965, it became the third nation in space. Asterix 1 is named for the plucky Gallic bande dessinee character who successfully holds the Roman invaders at bay against all the odds. His namesake, the sub-conical striped-and-antennaed satellite, is quite simply super-cute, and one of my all-time favourites.

Image source: author.

2. Alexandre Ananoff

While working in the archives, I became aware of an influential French space visionary. The name Alexandre Ananoff (1910 - 1992) came up over and over again. He wrote about the mechanics of spaceflight, the kinds of spaceships we might see in the future, and social aspects of space exploration. This article, by Pierre-Francois Mouriaux and Philippe Varnoteaux, appraises his contribution to French space exploration. They say:
A. Ananoff was a real ambassador for astronautics and a pioneer in space education for the general public—probably the first one in France.
In addition, he advised Herge about aspects of spaceflight for the two Tintin volumes where the boy adventurer goes to the Moon.

3. Tintin walks on the Moon

Image source: Tintin.com
To be honest, I wasn't interested in Tintin as a child, and don't have any memory of the books being around. But when I became aware, as an adult, that Tintin had travelled to the Moon, that was a different story! Objectif Lune and On a marche sure la Lune (Objective Moon and We have walked on the Moon) tell the story of Tintin and Co's encounter with rocket scientists and spies at the central European launch site in the mythical country of Syldavie and their journey to the Moon on a very V2-like rocket. As far as I can tell, it's one of the earliest depictions of footprints on the Moon.

4. Kourou

Image source: Guyane Evasion
Kourou, in French Guiana, is where the launch site of the European Space Agency is located. It has an excellent museum and a huge amount of spaceflight history. I spent a week there in 2005, also working in the archives. I touched a rocket in the assembly building, and perhaps a tiny portion of my DNA survived launch and is now in space! (Stop having a conniption, this was not a clean room situation). I also visited the famous Iles de Salut, where best-selling author and escapologist Papillon was incarcerated. I didn't see an actual launch, although I did sit in the control room viewing area and imagine the hum and chatter when it was full of people. Every day I sipped Ti-punch and thought, read and talked space.  It was fabulous.

5. Cool space words

One day, as my plane descended into Adelaide airport, I noticed a plane without wings lying in the grass near the runway. Oh, I thought, it looks like a rocket. Then I realised. Fusee - the French word for rocket -  is the same root as fuselage, commonly used to describe the body of a plane. D'oh.

The cool wordage doesn't stop there, though. My friend Alexandre Ananoff has a word for spaceship: Astronef. This, I think, it the same root as navy, and the French word for space shuttle is navette.

Scaphandre is space suit, also used for diving suit. To me, it has a Homeric ring. Or it could be a character in Aeon Flux

French has a word for landing and taking off FOR EACH PLANET AND MOON. This is beyond cool, a new galactic level of cool. You've possibly heard the terrestrial version of these words if you've flown a French airline - aterrissage. Terre is Earth, and aterrissage is landing on the Earth. Alunissage is landing on the Moon, and amarsissage is landing on Mars. In a future multi-planet solar system economy, the precision of these terms could be very useful. 

6. Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace, Paris

Just check out these babies. Image source: Capcom Espace
This museum, located at Le Bourget in Paris, is amazing. I don't pay much attention to the aeroplane side of it, to be honest, but as well as all the aerospace you could want, there are BALLOONS. Yes, balloons. This is not a Monty Python drill: you can learn all about the golden age of French ballooning right here. Asterix 1 is there too. And there's all the French animals in space: spiders, kittens, rats. One of the things I love about this museum is that we're so used to seeing US-dominated space material culture. It really is striking when you see another national style of technology, and a useful reminder to remain critical of US space hegemony.

7. Le Petit Prince

By Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Continuing the entanglement of air and space, this classic work of children's literature was published in 1943 and is still a favourite with kids across the world. It's really a moral tale, but it has the enchanting conceit of tiny planets or asteroids which grow roses. It was illustrated by the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. 

The little prince says:
I love listening to stars at night. It sounds like a hundred million bells.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

In Wild Air: Venus, Voyager, and more of my favourite obsessions

It's Monday <>, you are celestial.
Many thanks to the amazing Heath Killen for permission to republish this. You can find more of Heath's work here
Alice Gorman is
In Wild Air
I’m an archaeologist who studies space exploration – the artefacts, the places, and the perspectives that lead to how we understand other worlds. Here I share some of my obsessions about space and time.

Help us spread the good word.
The Venus of Willendorf
The Venus of Willendorf, discovered in Austria in 1908, must be one of the most famous and least understood women in all of human history. She was made during the Ice Ages, between 30 000 and 28 000 years ago. The 11 cm high figurine is carved from limestone and was originally thickly coated in red ochre.

Without facial features, or even feet, she’s all sexuality with great breasts and belly and a well-defined vulva. A multitude of theories have swirled around her: mother goddess religions, matriarchal cultures, Palaeolithic pornography, prehistoric selfies, the power of post-menopausal women, cross-cultural communication.

But she’s also a massive Palaeolithic fuck-you to the ideas of female attractiveness that are often investigated by evolutionary psychologists. This branch of science often ends up justifying current human gender inequalities as some sort of evolutionary fitness.

I think this is why I like her so much. She feels a bit like a revolutionary. She defies easy explanations. She is unique and herself.
Woman with Microscope
In 1977, two extraordinary spacecraft were launched on a mission to map the outer planets and then continue on to the space between the stars. Voyager 1 and 2 have become cultural icons, not only because they are the furthest extent of human culture and perhaps the most likely to make first contact with other sentient species, but also because of the Golden Records attached to them. The Records were the project of a team led by legendary science communicator Carl Sagan. They contain 90 minutes of music meant to represent the evolution of human culture, greetings spoken in many languages, and the natural sounds of life on Earth. 

There’s also 116 images. One in particular captures my imagination. A black woman in a lab coat bends over a microscope, tiered earrings falling gracefully from her pierced ears. She is simply called “Woman with Microscope”. All I know about her is that the earrings were the subject of some debate: would an alien recognise the concept of “jewellery”, or think they were some sort of technology, or even a name tag? 

She speaks to some very contemporary debates about women and other underrepresented minorities in science. Even today, little girls across the world are made to feel that they are not smart enough to be scientists, that space is the domain of men. The inclusion of a black female scientist on the Golden Records hence seems a bold statement about who gets to go to space. If only we knew her name.
Voyage to Venus
Venus has always been my favourite planet. As a child it was part of my atlas of the night sky and I was drawn to its association with creativity, passion, the arts of love, and mystery. And what lay beneath Venus’ impenetrable clouds was a mystery. It seemed a likely candidate for life, and many imagined a vibrant oceanic world populated with winged angelic beings who sang, telepathic frogs, or even dinosaurs. The USSR Venera landing missions of the 1960s and 1970s dashed hopes of a sister world with new solar system companions. Venus, under the clouds, was a pressure-cooker of dull brown rocks and slow soupy winds.

Perhaps, most of all, my love for Venus was fostered by reading C.S. Lewis’ beautiful evocation of a new world, as a teenager in the 1970s. Published in 1943, Voyage to Venus (also known asPerelandra) describes a planet of floating islands and sensuous experiences of colour, taste, and touch that have philosophical dimensions. The reality of the Venusian surface did not deter me from falling in love with this vision. Every now and then I feel an urge to read Voyage to Venus again and relive the terror and desire of a world beyond human aesthetics.
Cable Ties
I am obsessed with cable ties, as an artefact and a technology. There’s probably a stash of them in most households; and they’re used for everything from boning corsets to securing suitcases and backpacks. They seem so simple – a plastic strap that you thread and tighten to hold something together, cheap to buy and easy to throw away – yet they’re connected to larger currents of technology and politics that unite the worlds of aerospace and domestic space in the 20th century.

Archaeologists are always looking at the ground. Once I would have sought the tell-tale angles of an Aboriginal stone tool; now I look for the characteristic t-shape of a severed cable tie lying in the streets. I’ve become shameless about picking them up from the ground and stashing them in corners of my bag, no matter who is looking askance at me.

Cable ties were invented in 1958 in the US, for wiring aircraft. They migrated to Australia when NASA established a series of satellite tracking stations here in the 1960s. Antennas and computers needed a lot of cables. From there they insinuated themselves into everyday life, to the degree that most people don’t really even think about them. For me, they’re the quintessential space age artefact. And they are in space – inside the International Space Station, for example. Look more closely next time you watch a video of life on the ISS. Once you’ve seen them, they can’t be unseen – you’ll start to notice them everywhere.
Two Ways of
Thinking About Space 
1957-1958 was a significant year, or to be more precise, a significant 18 months. It was the International Geophysical Year, a massive effort of international scientific co-operation to understand the Earth and space. During the IGY, the first three satellites were launched – Sputnik 1 in 1957, and Explorer 1 and Vanguard 1 in 1958.

And two books were published which explored the way we relate to space. Alexandre Koyré’s 1957 From Closed World to Infinite Universe is a work of jaw-dropping scholarship. It’s about the “replacement of the Aristotelian conception of space—a differentiated set of innerworldly places—by that of Euclidean geometry—an essentially infinite and homogenous extension—from now on considered as identical with the real space of the world”.

Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 The Poetics of Space was rather a phenomenology of inner or experienced space, from corners, to attics, to the interior of shells. For him, the vehicle of space travel was the daydream: “One might say that immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. …And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity”.

The mark of infinity is the geometry of our senses, the mathematics of our dreaming.
You don’t have to go into space to experience microgravity. All you have to do is seek out your nearest amusement park. There you’ll find rides which simulate higher gravity and free fall. Scientific drop towers are experimental facilities where scientists test materials and chemical processes in microgravity; it’s the same principle used in amusement parks. For high gravity, try a spinning rotor – this is like the centrifuge that astronauts use in training, but fortunately you won’t be required to perform mathematical calculations at the same time. I tried this at Vienna’s famous Prater park and I can’t say it was a pleasant experience, but those around me were clearly getting a kick out of it. Free fall, on the other hand, was exhilarating! Until zero-g parabolic flights and space tourism become affordable for regular Earth people, this may be the closest we can get to microgravity, even if only for a few seconds. Start your astronaut training now!
The Archaeology of the International Space Station
The Archaeology of the International Space Station is a new project that I’m working on with Dr Justin Walsh. We want to investigate how a distinct space culture is created.

You can read more about this project and keep up to date with it on our blog.

Alice Gorman is In Wild Air

In Wild Air is a project by Heath Killen

Thank you for being here now

All rights reserved, all wrongs reversed

Sunday, April 01, 2018

I'm all burned out about space junk

My Twitter colleague @misosusanowa alerted me to this Devo song from Q. Are we not men? A. We are Devo. It was written in 1976, and released in 1978, the same year that a USSR Kosmos satellite re-entered over the forests of northern Canada, spewing nuclear fuel as it broke up. One year later, of course, the re-entry of Skylab caused a global sensation.

Well, she was walking all alone
Down the street in the alley
Her name was Sally
I never touched her, she never saw it

When she was hit by space junk
When she was smashed by space junk
When she was killed by space junk

'In New York, Miami beach
Heavy metal fell in Cuba
Angola, Saudi Arabia
On Christmas eve', said NORAD

A Soviet Sputnik hit Africa
India, Venezuela, in Texas, Kansas
It's falling fast, Peru too
It keeps coming, it keeps coming, it keeps coming

And now I'm mad about - space junk
I'm all burned out about - space junk
Walk and talk about - space junk
It smashed my baby's head - space junk
And now my Sally's dead - space junk

It's not a happy song, it has to be said. However, space junk hardly ever hits people or property, so poor Sally was extremely unlucky. Or perhaps she was unlucky in her choice of boyfriend, as there is a subtle undertone of domestic violence. The Cold War on the home front.