Sunday, July 17, 2011

The psychological effects of Skylab: divine retribution

It is 1979 in Punjab, India. The U.S. space station - SKYLAB - hurtles toward the Indian sub-continent. A young Punjabi boy, six-year-old Puneet, just stomped on a frog during play. Now, as he listens to a radio broadcast about the imminent crash, he fills with dread that SKYLAB will strike his home and kill him and his family. This charming story, inspired by true events, draws us into Puneet's exotic world and with his struggle as a boy growing up.
Written & Co-Directed by - Arshdeep S Jawandha
Directed by - Pat Pecorella

This short film was made in 2006. I find it interesting for the way it depicts a particular response to Skylab - the idea that an event in the heavens is caused by an action on Earth (The pre-enlightenment view that heaven and earth are interconnected - as above, so below......).  In the little boy's eyes, the disparity in scale does not seem odd at all: he is convinced that the fall of Skylab is caused by his naughtiness in squashing a live frog. Skylab is used as a way to illuminate the boy's understanding of how the world works.

He's terrified that the small world we see in the film - the house, the kitchen where his mother prepares meals, the garden, his father reading the newspaper in the sitting room - will be destroyed when the space station falls on it. Skylab is a metaphor for his awareness of the instability of all that seems solid around him. He's like the frog, for whom the violence of his stomp comes without warning and from above.

The director, Pat Pecorella, commented that:
Scientists attempted to guide it [Skylab] into the Indian Ocean, but its crashing somewhere in India was a possibility. Indian people remember this event and how frightened they were as children.  

Arshdeep  S. Jawandha, who wrote it and also co-directed (I guess he was basing it on his own experiences as a boy), seems to be a psychiatrist who specialises in children, if my internet sleuthing is correct. (On the other hand, they could be two completely different people).

The film starts, as you will see, with the text:
NASA launched the Skylab space station in 1973.  It sustained severe damage during liftoff. It was expected to fall somewhere in the Indian subcontinent, where exactly was unknown.

It's true, of course, that the space station was damaged during launch.  But this text implies that the damage was the cause of its de-orbit, which is not the case.  All the same it's a quick and simple way to explain to a general audience how a spacecraft falls out of the sky. Perhaps Jawandha was conscious of not making people believe that this sort of thing could happen at any old time (which it can, and does) - he has to make a plausible, predictable reason to prevent the same panic shown by little Puneet.

Puneet is concerned about some sorts of scale. He asks his mother,  "Can it [Skylab] be bigger than our house?";  "Is space bigger than Earth?"  The next morning, he finds the body of the frog and buries it.  Then he hears on the radio that Skylab fell into the Indian Ocean, as if his penitence has averted the disaster.

So, in my reading, it's all about causality and scale in the mind of a child.



  1. Mike Adamson6:40 pm

    An interesting metaphor, to be sure! But a touch of artistic licence about the impact footprint? Didn't the bulk of it disintegrate over Australia? I remember listeing to the radio late at night on that day in 1979, making notes furiously in longhand as Skylab met her end, and seeing the famous newstape of the burn-up over Perth, plus pieces recovered from the desert... M

  2. Not really - there was great uncertainty about where it would come down, and indeed some of it is in the Indian Ocean .... people had a perception of higher risk than such an event might elicit today because we are more familiar with controlled de-orbits, and no-one has died yet because space junk landed on them. Do I detect some thesis procrastination here??????

  3. Anonymous9:08 am

    Hi! Guys, I am Arshdeep the writer of this film. I am very impressed with Dr. Space Junk's review of the film. Thank you for looking at it in such an involved way. I remember as a boy that in those days the radio news in India were full of possibility of Skylab falling on Indian soil. In those days sometimes people used to sleep out in the open e.g. rooftops, verandahs (with mosquito nets) and that night no one slept outside - at least amongst the people that I knew. Actually none of it fell in India. Pieces were scattered in Indian Ocean and Australia esp Esperance? a small town - a piece actually fell into someone's house while he was still in the house - no causalities were reported.

  4. Anonymous9:09 am

    BTW - I was trying to show a child's ego-centric world view i.e. everything happens around me and because of me. We reattribute causality more appropriately as our knowledge of the workings of our environment grow.

  5. Hi Arshdeep, glad you got in touch! Are you the same person as the child psychiatrist? Really interesting that no-one you knew slept outside that night. Would love to know more about why you were inspired to make your film based around Skylab. Top work by the way!