Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Do rockets really exist? Identity and continuity in material culture.

I've been trying to find out if there are any R7 (Semyorka) rockets still left in orbit, but it's probably a bit late on a school night - my head is going fuzzy from staring at the data. I suspect they were all probably too low and have reentered.

Anyway. After trying to track some down in museums, another one of those blindingly obvious things struck me. For staged rockets, the actual whole spacecraft does not survive launch: bits of it are released along the way. So whole rockets are always unflown, and those remaining in orbit are only parts. If all you had to go on were the orbital remains, would it be possible to reconstruct the technology? And do the unflown ones represent unsuccessful technology? (Or are they like the hundreds of perfectly fine backed blades that were never used that you find lying around?).

(Oh. I like that metaphor).

So rockets are mythical creatures that can only be discerned through disjointed parts. The candles in the Platonic cave. Bloody hell. I'd better go to bed before this gets out of hand.

But no - because the rocket with all the parts together really only exists for a short time, from assembly before the launch window, until the first stage separates. I'm remembering here my wonderful tour of Kourou where I saw the components in various stages of assembly (and I touched the jupe arriere, so my cells went into space!).

A rocket therefore has a very different mode of existence to that of a satellite.

Yes. Going to bed now. I really am learning so much from the intellectual exercise of creating my space heritage list.


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