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This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.
n the early morning of 5 September 1962 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, two police officers on their routine patrol discovered a 20-pound piece of metal buried three inches deep into the asphalt of 8th Street. Though they initially ignored what they took to be a metal ingot from a local plant, radio news reports of the disintegration of the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik IV over the United States made them reconsider the origin of the object. Analysis indeed confirmed it to be a piece of the Sputnik, whose body re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over Wisconsin on that very day and brought Manitowoc very tangibly in touch with the Cold War space race. For forty-five years, this more-than-earthly encounter appears to have remained a local news story – until 2007, when the now-yearly Sputnikfest was launched to celebrate the 1962 event with contests such as the Ms. Space Debris Pageant, open to all “human life forms”. The festival has put Manitowoc on the map of space and sci-fi enthusiasts, space history explorers and fans of out-of-this-world fun.
The encounter of Sputnik with the asphalt of 8th Street demonstrates the challenge of setting territorial boundaries to the trajectories of vertical material practices. The landing of Russian space debris in Wisconsin signals that such practices can hardly be contained within the territorial boundaries of the earthly nation-states which are their main funders. Moreover, the Sputnik encounter shows that though the space industry tends to be perceived as contained within space labs and high-security facilities, its effects are widespread and often much more pedestrian. In Manitowoc, the Sputnik-asphalt encounter significantly transformed the earthly relations of the town, generating a specific affective economy and forms of representation that have had major effects on the ways in which the town is perceived, imagined and promoted.
On the other side of the globe, in Kazakhstan and in the Russian Altai Republic, objects travelling vertically both to and away from the Earth have been a much more common sight. This is particularly true on the rocket flightpath extending 1,000 kilometres northeastwards from the Baikonur Cosmodrome – a Russian rocket launching facility located on the Kazakh steppe. The frequent traffic back and forth from Earth’s orbit has generated a significant amount of debris in this region. Russian media estimates that over 2,500 tons of such detritus, mainly booster rockets, have fallen back on Earth here since the 1950s. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Russian base of Baikonur became an extraterritorial space in the young country of Kazakhstan. At about the same time, the rocket debris also ceased to be collected by state agencies in any systematic way, inducing a growth of the specific scrap metal economy in Kazakhstan, with groups of specialized collectors combing the steppe after each launch in search of saleable metals. The rocket launches have thus, on the one hand, created a specific branch in the rural economy. On the other hand, they have generated a fear of vertical material practices, as things – mostly rocket parts and fuel – fall from the sky onto unprotected pastures and villages.
While the Sputnik debris in Wisconsin was harmless, the raining debris in Kazakhstan and the Altai Republic regularly causes tensions around the question of accountability as falling objects impact people and animals not only under the designated flight path but also beyond. Being a Russian territorial body within Kazakhstan, Baikonur and the objects taking off from it and then falling back onto Kazakhstan’s territory are also entangled in debates on the meaning of national sovereignty, and on Russia’s protracted presence in post-Soviet Central Asia.
While the earthly effects that vertical social-material relations between the Earth and its orbits have produced in Manitowoc and Kazakhstan might seem locally specific, others extend globally and have long become part of everyday life, such as satellite television or GPS navigation, which both have played a crucial role in the emergence of the global as a scale for discussing environmental, economic, cultural and political processes (Parks, 2005). Digital communication between GPS satellites on the one hand and smartphones and computers on the other also has profoundly altered the ways in which humans navigate their horizontal itineraries on Earth, and what they pay attention to in their environment.
The orbital gaze that the satellites enable also offers a different perspective on the nation-state and on the question of territorial sovereignty. The view from the orbit, which highlights continental masses, global cloud formations and other continuities in land, water and human activity – for example in the form of electric light – renders territorial boundaries invisible. Meanwhile, multi-tier satellite systems, including GPS satellites but also the emerging Chinese satellite constellations, facilitate a much more pervasive monitoring of state boundaries and territories, in fact expanding the capabilities of territorial technologies beyond Earth (Pollpeter et al., 2017). As the boundaries of nation-states become invisible to a human eye from the Earth’s orbit, the technological eye allows their nearly panoptic surveillance, placing them at the centre of political interest in orbital activity.
As vertical social-material entanglements multiply, the epistemological context in which theory production has so far operated – implicitly focusing on relations that extend more or less horizontally between people, places and objects within the reaches of the atmosphere – is changing (Valentine, 2016). Let us consider, for example, how one of the key spatial concepts proposed to grasp planetary modernity – ‘time–space compression’ (Harvey, 1989) – transforms when applied to relations where the atmospheric context that determined its conceptual trajectory can no longer be assumed. On the Earth’s surface, the Euclidian distance of 100 kilometres can be overcome by capital and privileged humans in no time. However, how different this very same distance appears when it has to be overcome vertically to reach the Karman line, drawn 100 kilometres above the Earth. Some of the inequalities that underpin ‘time–space compression’ are also conceptually valid for analysing the more-than-Earth relations. Yet, the multiplication of those very relations is thoroughly altering the earthly categories of being, knowing and governing, thus invoking a plethora of urgent questions on the boundaries of the human, the extent of the economic, and the limits of the political.
Harvey D (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell.
Parks, L (2005). Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.
Pollpeter, KL, Chase MS and Heginbotham E (2017) The Creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force and Its Implications for Chinese Military Space Operations. RAND Corporation www.rand.org/t/RR2058.
Valentine, D (2016) Atmosphere: Context, detachment, and the view from above Earth. American Ethnologist 43(3): 511–524.