Noortje Marres 1 Jan 1998

Embrace Space

On the infinite possibilities of the {sc}NASA{/sc}, the universe, Hollywood and the underdog

Voici l'anticipation, la plus folle et la plus imaginaire sous les apparats du realisme.

Jules Verne


Embrace Space -

Photo: Giselle de Oliveira

What happens when 'infinite possibilities' are your context? The infinite possibilities of technology or the infiniteness of empty space - outer space? In Embrace Space, it's nasa versus the underdog; limitless faith in technology versus paranoia about the limitless possibilities of deception. Who do we believe, and why? The pictures that nasa sends to Planet Earth, or Capricorn-1? Or do we embrace outer space and its infinite possibilities ourselves: nothing has been discovered yet, everything is possible...

Think of the infinite panoramas that make you feel completely calm inside. Or of the weightlessness that overcomes you to the point that all your memories of hard luck disappear. What I'm getting at is this: space asks us to assume infinite possibilities. Essentially, anything is possible in space. Who knows what unimaginable events are yet to come? And who knows what technology will enable us to do?

Before you get the impression that the umpteenth metaphysical bed is being laid out before you here, allow me to go into the way that space imposes infiniteness upon us. It happens to be a much less esoteric state of affairs than it might initially appear to be. And how does space manage this? With pictures. Darkness filled with points of light, the surface of the moon, the Starship Enterprise, an astronaut repairing a satellite, etc. In short, pictures which manage to evoke the impression that space is very nearby. And anyway, the pictures are better than that great expanse up there, which can't even be seen during the daytime and which is usually obstructed by curtains or light pollution at night. And it's only at night that the heavens even manage to achieve what the pictures do: make us believe that we might actually be able to float around up there.

The infinite possibilities of space are possibilities which are unlocked by machines. From this moment on, the mysteries of the universe overlap with the marvels of technology. We're crossing into territory where the boundless possibilities of nature are deliquescing into those of human capability. The decisive questions then become whose human capability we're talking about, and what kind of human capability: the practical insights of a handful of engineers in California? And: what do people who are essentially capable of anything actually do?

But we're going too fast. Anyone who thinks that machines represent the singular key to space is quickly confronted with another kind of infinite possibility: that of deception. Anyone who's looking at a picture isn't even in space at all.

Universal Studios

The moon landing was shot at Universal Studios, and Mir is actually located in the steppes of Siberia: the rumours that manned space travel is a set-up are well known. In the film Capricorn-1 (1977), NASA fakes a Mars mission. The rocket is launched as usual, except the astronauts are removed immediately beforehand. They're flown over to a studio in Arizona, where during a live broadcast they take the first steps on a Martian surface made of polystyrene foam. What's interesting is that suspicions like these are chiefly made explicit in films. Images in contrast to the images that fail to make the deceptions visible. Of course Hollywood isn't alone in exploring the infinite possibilities of deception: the KGB espouses this tendency just as much. In 1957, an animal, Laika the dog, was shot into space for the first time in history. The mission went fine, except for the fact that when Laika came back to earth, she rolled out of the capsule burned to a crisp. The heat shield had been attached incorrectly, so upon re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, Laika got roasted. The KGB did a quick-change routine, and on that selfsame night there was a spirited little dog to be seen on the front page. But this quick-change routine is nowhere to be seen in the photograph itself.

What a film like Capricorn-1 overlooks is the fact it isn't just the public who only indirectly comes into contact with space. Whenever NASA or even the astronauts themselves make contact with space, it remains a mediated contact, much in the same way that Mission Control has to make do with long-distance signals. And there's always a life support system between the astronaut and space. Spacesuits limit the astronaut's range of touch, perception, taste and hearing to what he can sense from the inside of the suit. The only sensory organs that remain are his eyes, and they're shielded behind a layer of plexiglas. People who look at photographs aren't alone in only having access to space with their eyes; this applies to the astronauts as well. The only way the astronaut registers space directly is via the absence of gravity. But what sense does he register that with?

Contact with space is almost without exception indirect. The possibility, I repeat, possibility, of deception always remains open. And with regard to space, paranoia is justified anyway. And what about the infinite possibilities of deception? Deception was the precondition that allowed space travel to get off the ground in the first place. Space travel only became possible when a mission could first be carried out from A to Z on earth. When John Glen returned from having done three orbits around the earth during one of America's first manned missions in 1962, he was asked the inevitable question: and how did you feel then? His answer: as if I had seen it all before (because of the training in the simulation machine). This isn't something to get indignant about. And to think that Glen's words resound with disappointment is a misconception: he would return to space yet again. In magazines like Life and Time, you can see him itching to go.

What's the difference between NASA's infinite possibilities of deception and those of Capricorn-1? The difference is that NASA believes in pictures, and Capricorn doesn't. Capricorn demonstrates that when you're dealing with long-distance signals, there's no telling what's what. But NASA stakes all its bets on them; they dare to regard these signals as reality. And they have to: where would an astronaut be without Mission Control? (The hostile environment of space is also the best guarantee that what's provided for here on earth has to work up there as well: there aren't any people or other complex organic systems which can unexpectedly get in the way. The only bodies which are present up there follow mechanical orbits.) NASA can pride itself on the fact they can design models of all the critical factors solely on the basis of mediated signals. And rightly so. When a mission succeeds, NASA has already, as far as we know, simulated it perfectly on earth. By perfectly, I mean that there are no apparent limits to their capabilities. At no point does the deception collide with reality. One of NASA's slogans reads: out here, there are no stop signs. In Capricorn-1, it's exactly the fact that deception knows no limits as long as it isn't exposed which is transformed into something terrible. Up until that moment, the public and the astronaut hang like marionettes on the strings of the set-up.

In Capricorn-1, a NASA bigwig curses his own undertaking in a moment of weakness: it's too big, it's out of control. But if there's anyone who's out of control, of course it's the astronauts and the public in this film, and not NASA. They let themselves be taken in, while NASA effortlessly makes the changeover from infinite capabilities in terms of space travel to an unprecedented competence in deceiving the public. Capricorn confirms precisely what NASA already says about themselves: that they're essentially capable of perfect control. There's nothing you can say for sure that they'll never be able to do. In Capricorn-1, of course, NASA is ultimately brought to a stop. The lies are unmasked, and just for this once a limit is placed on the possibilities of deception. It's the only way that the underdog in Capricorn-1 can win. But aside from this exception, deception remains lying in wait. Always.

Something to look forward to

And what's next? Are infinite possibilities something to celebrate or not? Are we supposed to be driven mad by them? In Dark Star (1974), the infinite possibilities of space are depicted as terrifying, good only for chronic nervous disorders. A bunch of stray astronauts cover thousands of light-years per day and bore themselves silly in the process. All of the infinite possibilities in the world can't rid them of their misery; on the contrary, these possibilities are precisely what occasion it. This holds true as well for the trump card of the infinite possibilities, the possibility of extraterrestrial life. When one of the astronauts finds the guts to suggest that they make yet another search for intelligent beings, he gets snarled at. Remember when we discovered that 99% probability of life in the horse-nebulae sector? We found a mindless vegetable that looked like a limbed balloon. Sixty-four light-years for a vegetable. Don't give me that kind of bull. The alien, a pink ball on chicken feet, keeps getting in the way for the remainder of the film.

Dark Star parodies the logic of space: instead of the infinite possibilities still needing to be investigated, they've all been realised already. The astronauts need only lift a single finger towards an infinite possibility and they're stuck with its reification forever. In this way, Dark Star manages to bring one of manned space travel's greatest threats into focus: the danger that there might not actually be anything to do in space. Why do you think the Apollo astronauts were playing golf on the moon? NASA has difficulty coming up with a credible purpose for itself. During the past few months, they've had to lobby like mad to get scientists to do research in the International Space Station (the largest international peacetime scientific program in history! Launch date: October 1998). Even after the biological and chemical laboratories had already been completed, there were still next to no research proposals streaming in. NASA sent hundreds of letters around the world: what happens when a quail has to craw out of its egg in zero-gravity? Anyone interested?

If it is in fact the case that, for the time being, there's hardly anything to do in space, it becomes clear why infinite possibilities are so crucial. NASA scientist Eric Chaisson puts it like this: NASA is currently a PR office with a space agency as a subdivision, and not the other way around. Their campaigns have to keep alive the promise that there soon will be lots of things to do. And they're constantly on the verge of realising this promise: the first tourist initiatives are already in development, and within ten years we'll be mining for raw materials on the moon. Infinite possibilities thus provide injections of entrepreneurial drive, and are hardly occasion for idleness. With the promise gleaming on the horizon, hard work can allow NASA to plant the seeds of infinite possibilities. The Apollo astronauts actually had quite a lot to do: During the 3-day flight to the moon, the Apollo astronauts kept very busy: checklist, observation, housekeeping.

And NASA is delighted by the fact that space is supporting them in their efforts. They consistently stress the fact that they've managed to build up a fruitful collaboration with nature over the years. Both parties bring about marvels, and where one disappoints, the other makes good: Of course there's intelligent life on Mars, we put it there (according to NASA's industrial partner Lockheed Martin). And nature contributes to the presentation. Planets orbiting other stars, new-born solar systems: welcome to the greatest show in the universe. Space is an authority when it comes to limitless possibilities which are still unattainable, yet which you can already feel coming. The pictures give us but a glimpse of infiniteness, and the door is then quickly closed behind them. They're a panacea against exactly the kind of complete resignation that so plagued the Dark Star astronauts: for an instant, they penetrate the mundane state of affairs of an environment which has necessarily been realised already.

Dark Star gives the wrong image: space and its infinite possibilities are actually good for joie de vivre. NASA's brand of space travel places the possibilities of human endeavour in an extension of the infiniteness which is proffered by nature. Who knows what unimaginable events nature still has in store? And who knows what technology will enable us to do? Space travel is at its most convincing when it manages to upgrade this second expectation with the magic of the first.

But the underdog approaches things differently. In his space fantasies, in all the dreams about space which only exist in the media, the infiniteness of nature is not invoked in order to upgrade one's own ability, but rather to see the expectant underdog proved right. Everythink is different to what anyone of this world of today thinks. That sky is all different. Space serves as living proof of another high order's infinite possibilities. It will allow us to see through the loaded deck of humanity's spurious control. The underdog is looking forward to the moment when NASA will have to back-pedal from the notion that miracles stem from months of calculations and endless fiddling with solar panels. If those people from Mars communicate with people of this earth, people won't be able to do their work properly. Whereas NASA relies on what they already know, the underdog trusts in what he doesn't know. We can't see it, but we can feel it coming: another infiniteness.

The provocative thing is that all we can do is wait and see what actually is going on. Enticingly provocative, perhaps, but certainly in a way to make you nervous. In films, taut nerves generally get their release at the end, but first you have to sit in suspense for an hour and a half, much in the same way that the victims of Capricorn'''s deceptions have to wait until they see through the set-up before they're capable of transforming into decisive characters. For the most part, the underdog is temporarily passive, ascribing his unimaginably true events to another, higher power. But there are exceptions. For example, an underdog which puts its money where its mouth is: the Association for Autonomous Astronauts (AAA). A bunch of urban guerrillas preparing themselves to go into space on their own initiative. An independent space exploration program represents the struggle for emancipatory applications for technology.'' An underdog endowed with infinite capabilities. Finally!

The Method of Disproportionate Astonishment

The Autonomous Astronauts understand that technological mastery and another order of inconceivability aren't mutually exclusive. And in so doing, they fill a gap in the market. Because ultimately, NASA denies that other order the right to exist. They will indeed let others work with them, and let them work hard, but when it comes to the crunch, everything and everyone has to go along with NASA. The Netherlands' own Wubbo Ockels found this out firsthand. The one time he did something on his own, without NASA's authority, it was curtains for Ockels in space. When he made contact with ESTEC in Noordwijk via NASA's radio in the Space Shuttle, he spoke six words in Dutch: Jan, how does this work again? Upon returning, he was slapped with legal proceedings. The charge: illegal communications operations.

The Autonomous Astronauts will believe in their own infinite capabilities until there's evidence to the contrary. They see reality in images they've fabricated themselves. As I've already said, this is a necessary precondition for space travel. Of course, to meet this condition you actually need to have a military-industrial apparatus behind you, and you also have to be able to assume that what you want is also possible. The Autonomous Astronauts actually make themselves look ridiculous by trusting in their own capabilities without having the required backup. But listen to a tip from Dr. Peter Creola, the chairman of the Long-term Space Policy Committee of the ESA (European Space Agency). He's developed an absolutely estimable formula for generating long-term predictions for the future, the method of proportionate astonishment. It goes like this: imagine that the considerably insane builders of the first manned flying machine (1901), the Lebuady brothers, would be incredibly astonished by a Boeing 747. Now you ask yourself a question: what type of transport, one century from now, will cause a proportionate degree of astonishment? If we now unleash this formula in the realm of infinite possibilities, we can replace that proportional degree of astonishment with a disproportionate one. Ridiculous plans then immediately become within reach.



- Dr. Peter Creola, Space Visions for the 21st Century, Keynote address, Symposium Kuffner Sternwarte, Vienna, 1997.

- Heiken Grant et al, Lunar Sourcebook: A User's Guide to the Moon, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.

- 'Magnificent Cosmos' in: Scientific American, Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 1998.

- Catalogue from the exhibition Sputnik, Fundacion Arte y Tecnologia, Madrid, 1997.

- Jules Verne, De la Terre à la Lune, Garnier-Flammarion, Paris, 1870.

- Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, Jonathan Cape Ltd., Great Britain, 1980.

- Sarah Simons (ed. and transcription), No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again, Letters to the Mount Wilson Observatory 1915-1935, published by the Trustees of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, LA.


- Capricorn-1, Peter Hyams, 1977.

- Dark Star, John Carpenter, 1974.

- The American Space Odyssey, The History of American Space Exploration, Original NASA Films, Volume 2, TALAS, 1993.