Sunday, March 17, 2019

Space Age Suds: women, washing machines and the astronautics of everyday life

'Space Age Suds' is a charming and slightly alarming little vignette which is about the seeping of the Space Age into domestic life, machines and technology and how they structure social relationships, and gender roles in the Space Age. It's meant to be humorous, of course, but there is so much going on here!

The author isn't just anyone - it's beloved South Australian writer and journalist Max Fatchen. I found the article on Trove and now can't relocate it, but it seems likely it was published in the Advertiser, Adelaide's daily broadsheet. The date is a bit uncertain but it's clearly Apollo era.

I like that the Space Age reverses gender roles and that by the analogy of the washing machine with the space capsule, the wife is accorded the power of technology. After some searching I was able to find her first name but not her original surname, so we will have to call her Jean Fatchen here.

Because the image is a little fuzzy, here is the text.

Space Age Suds: the script

So the Russians are developing a low-orbital bomb. Well, it's just one more complicated space-age development, like our washing machine.

Our washing machine has a shape like a capsule and it is computer programmed and uncanny.

I was never much of a one with technology, and as a member of the avant garde laundry set, I'm all washed up.

There's no longer the simple meshing of gears as with our old washing machine. The cheerful days when I got my tie caught in the wrangler are past.

Our washing machine is automated in a cold, impersonal way, and my wife now calls herself a laundry technician.

She subscribes to advanced scientific journals, keeps up with the Apollo space project and runs off at the mouth on everything from transistors to laser beams.

I have been given the title of junior wash and garment line adherer, which means I hang out the clothes. I suppose I should be grateful.

Yet I dread washing mornings. I belong to a generation of boiling coppers and copper sticks, the hot sudsy smell of saturated sheets, and of bars of yellowed soap.

Now there's an air of bristling technology in the laundry, with split-second timing and ruthless efficiency.

"Load", my wife rasps. I stuff the clothes into the washing machine.

She consults her watch. "Four minutes to wash off," she says.

She looks at the console. "Close hatch," she orders. I shut the washing machine. She begins the countdown, "Five.....four.....three..."

"Look, dear," I interrupt, "I've forgotten a couple of my shirts...."

"Clear the complex", she says icily. "". She throws a switch.

I humbly take up my position.

"Motor running", I report.

Strange, uncanny sounds come from the interior of the machine.

'Hot water entering,' I chant, consulting my check sheet.

"All systems are go," says my wife.

I sit back and light a cigarette with clammy hands.

Time goes by. The washing machine murmurs, thumps, sighs and gurgles. Its programme goes its relentless way.

"Check machine and report," rasps my wife from the kitchen.

"Machine on course, entering spin-dry period," I say.

"Check systems," she says.

"Check, check, check," I cry. "Hoses running. Pump stops ... four...three...two"

"Clothes touch down, five minutes," says my wife. "Stand by."

"Machine spinning," I cry.

"Fire retro-rockets," she says absentmindedly.

At last the machine is silent.

My wife climbs to her feet.

"Open hatch!" she orders. "Alert clothes waggon".

She begins unloading the washing machine.

She lets out a shriek. "These clothes still look dirty".

"You didn't," she says, "put in the washing powder, did you?".

"Well," I bluster, insubordinate and defiant to the last, "this machine is supposed to think of everything. If it hasn't enough brains to use washing powder....."

"That's all," she snaps. "We'll have to do another orbit. Get the powder".

No, I haven't been on the moon but there are times when it sounds attractive!


So much to say about this little piece! I'm only going to scratch the surface here.

There's the idea that the Space Age changes how we do small domestic things on Earth: more like machines than messy humans. Both the wife and the washing machine are now operating as Space Age robots (it's a little bit Stepford Wives-ish tbh). It shows how the public interpreted the machine-human interfaces of space technology, down to checklists just like those that the Apollo astronauts used. It's also very cybernetic, getting status updates and adjusting the conditions.

The washing machine drum is a little gravity machine in itself, spinning like a space station or a centrifuge such those astronauts train in. Front loading washing machines with a glass porthole resemble spaceships too. 

The countdown has permeated into the domestic level: precision timing is the key to Space Age efficiency. As a domestic astronaut in her small domain, Jean has assumed power: she commands and Max obeys. She is a robot herself, icy and distant, intolerant of human foibles like forgetting a few shirts - and also the washing powder. (Thanks a bunch, Max. I would have been far more annoyed were I Jean).

The irony is that the power of astronaut Jean is illusory. While Max is pretending to help, he's actually demonstrating a typical trope of the inept male. He boasts about hanging out the clothes, but in this scenario, he forgets the washing powder and sits about smoking a casual ciggie (as people did in those days) while Jean multitasks, back in the kitchen. He finishes with that golden oldie, the nagging wife. It's a perfect illustration of the separate gender spheres of the 1960s, when women were excluded from being astronauts in the US.

'Fire retro rockets,' Jean says, absentmindedly. Doesn't this seem at odds with the ruthless robot housewife, all hard, streamlined efficiency? It took me a few reads before I realised what the subtle Max was implying with this sentence. She is absent-minded and talking about retro-rockets - which the washing machine does not have - because she is dreaming. Standing in her apron at the kitchen sink washing the breakfast dishes, while Max lounges around in the laundry, she is an astronaut. She is in command of a space mission, brave and true. The washing machine is as close as she can come to realising this dream. It makes me feel a little sad.

Once upon a time in France (well probably about 2005), I saw a washing machine advertisement in which a rather attractive nude man crouched in front of the washing machine's porthole, presumably waiting for the spin cycle to finish. The caption read 'One small step for man, one giant leap for women' or something to that effect in French: the idea was that is was a bloody big leap to get a bloke to do any housework, so nude dude's efforts at laundry were going to emancipate women and allow them to leave the house, even go to space! In effect, the effort involved in getting a man to do the laundry was equivalent to landing on the moon!

Gallery of Space Age Suds

As it turns out, there are quite a few connections between washing machines and the Space Age. Here's a small sample.

A space-age shop front in Sheffield, UK. Used with permission, from
Look at those rocket portholes lined up outside this charming shop!

A rental property in Carson City, NV, USA, was advertised with a Space Age Laundry!

From Freaking News,
This is a reference to the Apollo 13 mission.

Source: unknown
This advertisement from 1900 explicitly references the gravity of spinning.

I'm sure I could find many more examples if I kept searching. Le me know if you find any!

And I'd like to finish by saluting astronaut Jean Fatchen. Here she is with Max in 2004.

Jean, with Max. Picture: Grant NowellSource:adelaidenow

Friday, February 22, 2019

Here now the Sun: a poem for Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space

I. Ready for launch

The suit is working well.
The inflow stream is working well.
I’m ready for launch.
I feel excellent.
Everything is normal.
I’m not a delicate lady.
Everything is normal on board.
I’m ready for launch.
I’m taking up the initial position.
Feeling excellent.

II. Launch

The vehicle’s moving smoothly,
vehicle’s moving smoothly.
I feel excellent.
Vehicle’s moving well.
I feel good.
I feel good.
I see the Earth on the porthole.
I feel excellent.
The Earth is very beautiful.
The vehicle is moving smoothly.
I see the Earth in the porthole,
slightly obscured by clouds.

III. Orbit

I’ll do everything that I need to do.
I don’t understand.
I didn’t see anything.
I feel excellent.
The clock is moving.
I see the horizon through the observation port.
I see the Earth in the observation port.
I feel excellent.
All systems on the vehicle are working perfectly.
Everything is excellent,
I hear you perfectly.

IV. The other cosmonaut

I hear you perfectly,
I feel excellent.
I feel excellent, excellent.
I’m approaching Cape Horn. At the outer ring …
The little star disappeared, wasn’t that you?
Don’t go far from me, my friend.
I can’t see the Moon.
The stars are passing further up.
I am seeing such a bright star.

V. The ships are on their way

The vehicle is responding perfectly, perfectly.
From the southern point I called him,
he’s silent,
from the north,
the same.
At our harbour the ships are silently smoking… 

Can you hear?
For the real boys, the harbour is the native home,
comrade to comrade,
they’ll always stand together.
And far far away, 
the ships are on their way,
and all who are young at heart,
stand shoulder to shoulder.

VI. Fourth orbit

19 hours 25 minutes
I sang songs for him
In the centre,
such a blue spot.
Here now the Sun
so orange, not red,
not light red, but
I’m also feeling excellent.
Here now the Sun
visible and lit up.
In the outer ring
the horizon is visible.
It’s a very beautiful sight.
at first it’s light blue,
then lighter,
then dark…

VII. Greetings to all the women of the world

Soviet women!
Greetings to all Soviet women.
I wish you personal good luck
and great success
Women of the world!
Greetings to you from space.
I wish you good luck
and success...

VIII. The flight is normal

Cabin pressure 1.15
Humidity 61 percent
Temperature 23 degrees
Carbon dioxide 0.1
Oxygen 250
Pulse 84-90-100
Breathing 22
I feel excellent.
See you soon in the homeland!
I hear you perfectly, perfectly.
The flight is proceeding normally.
All systems of the ship are working perfectly.
I feel excellent.
I hear you.
I’m waiting.
Everything is excellent.
The spaceship is working perfectly.
I’m in good spirits.
I feel excellent.
I hear everything well.
The flight is normal.
All systems on the ship are working perfectly.
Pressure in the suit 1 atmosphere
Humidity 40 percent
Temperature 28 degrees
Carbon dioxide 0.2 percent
Oxygen 200
All systems on the ships are working excellently.
I feel excellent.

IX. Dear Nikita Sergeyevich

Dear Nikita Sergeyevich!
I will use all my strength and knowledge to fully complete the flight
‘Till we meet again soon on our Soviet land.
Moscow, Kremlin.
I am reporting.
Dear Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev.
The flight is proceeding normally.
All systems on the ship are working perfectly.
I feel excellent. 
Thanks to all the Soviet people
See you soon in the homeland!
Dear Nikita Sergeyevich,
deeply touched by your attention.
With all my heart
Dear Nikita Sergeyevich!
I will use all my strength and knowledge to fully complete the flight,
‘Till we meet again soon on our Soviet land.

X. Shadows

There aren’t enough fingers to block the Sun.
It’s very sunny, difficult to see
at the present a very bright sun,
illuminating the very high clouds...
the horizon above the bright clouds
transitions into shadows.
The dark sky is visible in the survey viewport.
The flight is proceeding normally.
I feel excellent.

XI. This is Chayka

This is Chayka. Over.
This is Chayka. Over.
This is Chayka. Over.
This is Chayka. Over.
This is Chayka. Over.
This is Chayka. Over.
This is Chayka. Over.
This is Chayka. Over.
This is Chayka. Over.


This is a poem made using a technique called erasure, removing words from an existing text to create a new one. The words are from an edited transcript of Valentina Tereshkova's spaceflight. In 1963, she was the first woman to enter space and remains the only on to have performed a solo mission. 

I took the transcript from a paper by space historian Asif Siddiqi. This was not a complete transcript, so poem is only constructed from what Siddiqi reproduced, and of course it is important to remember that the transcript is translated from Russian to English. The transcript lent itself to short, repetitive sentences. My influences in taking this form were Gertrude Stein and HD, particularly her poem Eurydice. Another influence is Christine Rueter (@tychogirl), who first made me aware that poems existed within other texts, waiting to be brought out.

I used only Valentina's words; I wanted to maker her voice front and central, give her a narrative that was purely from her perspective without the judgement of others. She was in conversation with many people during the flight, including Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. I erased anyone who wasn't Valentina, and then removed paragraphs, sentences or parts of sentences to arrive at the poems you read here.

The other cosmonaut referred to was Valery Bykovsky, who was orbiting at the same time. They were supposed to sing a duet together from their separate spacecraft, but in the end Valentina sang by herself. In 'The ships are on their way', the latter part of the poem is from two different Russian songs, ‘Textile Town’, a 1960s hit by Mikhail Tanich, and ‘Friendship Song’, according to Siddiqi. This was Valentina's own mash-up within the text.

Valentina's flight was heavily criticised and constantly dissected. She was, in fact, not feeling excellent, but in the circumstances unable to admit this - a common problem for astronauts in the USSR and US. Space sickness was poorly understood, and admission of anything less than perfection could risk future flights. In addition, an engineer had made a mistake - the Vostok capsule was programmed to ascend, but not to descent. Valentina discovered this a few hours into her flight, which must have been a shock. The error was rectified, fortunately.

The sequence, with one exception when I moved text about the Sun to the same poem, is in the order in which it was spoken, so represents the chronological unfolding of her mission.

The final verse is made up of a phrase which was used repeatedly throughout the transcript. Tereshkova's callsign was Chayka (seagull). At the end of every segment of speech, she says 'This is Chakya. Over'; so I made this the end of the poem sequence. She repeats 'Over', but the poem does not include return to Earth. I wanted to create the impression that this was a moment in time, that she might still be out there, suspended, her state of existence ambiguous. Like she's flying into the sun, and the brightness of the sun prevents us from following her trajectory any further, fading her out like the radio signal.

Siddiqi, Asif  2009 Transcripts give new perspective on Vostok-6 mission. The first woman in Earth orbit. Spaceflight 51: 18-57

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Ready for launch - a poem for Valentina Tereshkova #2


Ready for launch

The suit is working well.
The inflow stream is working well.
I’m ready for launch.
I feel excellent.
Everything is normal.
I’m not a delicate lady.
Everything is normal on board.
I’m ready for launch.
I’m taking up the initial position.
Feeling excellent.

Valentina Tereskova preparing for launch.
Image credit: @Sputnik

This is a poem made by selecting and rearranging words from a segment of conversation in the transcript of Valentina Tereshkova's epic orbit of the Earth in 1963. So in a way we are joint authors of this work. Note also the influence of Gertrude Stein.