Friday, January 27, 2017

Technological rites of passage in the liminal space of Earth orbit.

In February 2016, a  cosmonaut on the International Space Station lobbed a USB stick out of the hatch to become an orbital object for perhaps a few weeks, before a fiery death in the Earth's atmosphere. To give it enough mass to leave, it was attached to an empty film cannister stuffed with paper towels. Presumably these objects were due for disposal as waste in any case.

Cosmonaut Sergey Volkov about to release the package.
Image credit: NASA TV
The USB stick contained messages and videos from the 2015 celebration of Victory Day, May 9, which commemorates German surrender to the USSR at the end of World War II. It was the 70th anniversary of this day.

It's not entirely clear from the media accounts whether the flash drive was material from the cosmonauts themselves, or of Russian people and celebrations back on Earth. I think it is most likely the latter, as otherwise, surely, cosmonauts could have thrown their own USB out for the actual 70th anniversary in 2015, rather than a year later in 2016.  (Although I suppose they may have had to wait for an EVA).

It's worth musing a little further on this hybrid orbital object, though. It was composed partly of junk, and yet it was not itself junk. The usual definition of space junk is something in orbit that does not serve a useful purpose now or in the foreseeable future. Mostly, we think of space junk as all the many thousands of defunct satellites, rocket bodies and fragments of spacecraft.

The purpose of this object was (1) to BE in orbit and (2) to vanish from orbit. Its brief passage of time in space between launch and de-orbit was all it was about. Clearly, though, the materiality and physicality of both the object and the sequence of events is important - the fact that it happened even though no evidence survives and no-one can access those messages and images.

It's hybrid nature is also evident in the combination of tangible objects and intangible data. The videos and messages were not actually playing as they left the ISS. They were passive and silent. You'd have to plug the USB stick into a computer to see what they were. In this ceremonial act, seeing the videos and listening to the messages was not important.

You could argue that the data was not intangible as it was physically stored in the device as 0s and 1s. What's intangible, though, is the interpretation and meaning given to a certain de-coding of those numbers, as perceived by a body with a certain range of senses.

The old archaeology joke is that if you can't tell what the hell an artefact was used for, then it was ceremonial or ritual. Sometimes this is actually true! Rituals can be classified in a number of ways. The celebration of Victory Day is a commemorative rite, marking the end of a war. On Earth there are probably millions of war memorials from grand triumphal monuments to plaques and honour boards. They have a static component and an active component when people gather on significant days to carry out ritual actions and speak ritual words. The USB release is also commemorative as it marks the 70th anniversary of a ritual.

But it's also a sort of technological rite of passage. Van Gennep's classic Les Rites de Passage uses the metaphor of passing from one room of the house to the next. The nature of the commemoration was to allow the USB to pass from one state, space, to another, the Earth. In van Gennep' terms, the stages of the ritual are separation, liminality and incorporation. Orbit becomes the liminal space, neither one state nor the other, suspended, falling, as ambiguous as the junk-notjunk. Incorporation comes when the object disintegrates in the atmosphere, returning to Earth with the new identity of spaceflown object. For this ritual, to have lived and died in space is more important than never having existed in the first place.

Note: I wrote about this because I found some notes scribbled on a piece of paper from a talk preparation, so this is to help me remember the ideas - I've recycled the paper already!

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