Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Historic images of the Earth from space - how the view from the Tesla Roadster compares.

On February 6th 2018, Elon Musk launched his own personal midnight cherry Tesla Roadster into space on a test Falcon Heavy rocket. The car went sailing away from Earth with a mannequin in a spacesuit, a copy of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series on a disc, a Hitchhiker's Guide the the Galaxy Don't Panic sign, and a plaque engraved with 6000 names of SpaceX employees. There may have been some other things, but finding a reliable source is harder than you'd think.

Now that the dust is starting to settle, I want to think about something else - some of the iconic, world-changing images of the Earth from outside, and the addition of this new one seen from the front seat of a car.

Here they are:

Apollo 8, 1968

Image credit: NASA

Apollo 17, 1972

Image credit: NASA

International Space Station, 2011

The Cupola on the ISS, 2014

Image credit: NASA

Tesla Roadster, 2018

Image credit: SpaceX

This is something that I'll have to think a lot more about, but here are a few initial impressions. 

Early conceptualisations of what the Earth looked like from outside tended to be greyscale: it was assumed that the blue sky would only appear so from the surface of the Earth (due to Rayleigh scattering). The blueness of the Earth was a surprise that came with the first human spaceflight missions. It was translated into the blue marble, and the pale blue dot, in a colour scheme including white, black, and muted tones. 

Another factor is the presence or absence of the photographer. In the Apollo 8 and 17 images, there's no hint of them. Their absence accentuates a separation of the natural and cultural, setting the human observers apart from the world they're capturing on film. In the case of the whole ISS, the image is taken by a service vessel approaching or departing. We still don't see the photographer.

So many images of the ISS show the space station in relation to the partially curved Earth. Space is closer to us, with people living just a few hundred kilometres above our heads. Then we get the astronaut's eye view, as if we are telepresencing from inside their bodies. These shots are often taken from the Cupola, and often there are people in them. It's a more intimate relationship to the Earth, but it's always looking down. We have a more integrated view of the interconnectedness of Earth and space.

So what about the Tesla Roadster? The addition of the red colour against the blue and white is striking. The effect is almost cartoon-like. 

The other big contrast is how dominant the human presence is - and it's not even human! The Earth is only a backdrop: we're meant to focus on the car in the foreground. I don't know where the camera filming was (this is a still from the video), but we have both a hidden observer and a portrait of the Starman. (We can't see the rocket body which is apparently still attached).

While the other images are related to sensibilities of the Earth's fragility, environmental awareness, the erasure of national borders and the insignificance of Earthly conflicts and struggles (aspects of the Overview Effect), I don't think this is what is going on here.

The faceless driver is not even looking at the Earth. They're focused on leaving. 

I think this is a radical paradigm shift. I don't fully understand what it means yet, but I'm pretty sure others are going to start analysing this as we get further away from the event. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The space world to come, imagined in 1956

This book has such a wonderful dust jacket. I can't remember where I found it any more but I suspect it was on one of my expeditions searching second-hand bookshops and op shops in Adelaide for ex-Woomera literature. Often, the libraries of those employed at the Long Range Weapons Research Establishment find their way onto the shelves. I like reading the old books to get an idea of how people thought the Space Age was going to unfold, and what they thought the space environment was like.

Apart from its appealing design, the interior holds many delights. Of course, it was written before a satellite had been successfully launched into Earth orbit - which happened a year later in 1957 -  and at this stage, the USA expected that its Vanguard satellite would be the first human object in space.  Here is the authors' assessment of what it all meant:
The Earth satellites developed under Project Vanguard are to be the first space vehicles.  The prime purpose of these vehicles will be to derive basic data about the environment in which we live.  Yet this is only the short view. 
The longer view may easily rank in significance with the first steam vessel in 1802, the first railroad in 1825, and the first airplane in 1903.  Each of these radical inventions basically altered ways of life.  It is probable that space flight will do no less.  The orbiting vehicles can affect nearly every human activity, ranging from the discovery of new medicines to the development of new literature and philosophies. They can help bring about a universal peace or a universal chaos.
This book is concerned with the utility of space satellites and the way this aspect can affect every person on Earth. .... We can see them giving us long-range weather forecasts, improving our communications and transportation systems, helping us discover underground treasures, influencing military tactics, and questioning many theories (Bergaust and Beller 1956:13).

Not a bad forecast of the impact of satellites! However, where are the new literatures and philosophies? Science fiction already existed, although it has changed and evolved over the decades. Perhaps I might opine that it's only now that we are seeing the coherent emergence of new ways of thinking influenced by space. 

Bergaust, Erik, and William Beller  1956  Satellite! The first step into the last frontier - the full facts about man's coming exploration of space.  New York:  Hanover House