thoughts on disaster, time, and history

Two weeks ago I was in Las Cruces, New Mexico for the 10th International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, my final official ethnographic fieldwork trip.  The day after the conference, I joined the usual tour of Spaceport America—about a 90 minute drive from Las Cruces—and was as usual awed and dislocated in time by the shiny, futuristic “Gateway to Space” terminal out in the desert.  It is from here that Virgin Galactic has planned to launch its long-delayed SpaceShip2 (The running image on this blog is from when Spaceport America was still under construction in 2010).

Yesterday was upended by the terrible news from Mojave—where SpaceShip2 has been developed—of its destruction, minutes after it separated from its carrier craft, WhiteKnight2, in only its fourth powered flight.  One pilot died, another is seriously injured, and the lives of many people have been transformed by this event.  I  mourn with the family, friends, and colleagues of the dead pilot.  The future of Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America now looks even more in doubt than it had been, and this event —along with the loss of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket earlier in the week—have been the lead stories in major media outlets.  Even as I’ve ended my regular fieldwork, it seems as though I should be just starting.

Among detractors, critics, and the general media, these events (but especially SpaceShip2’s destruction) have already led to a huge output of speculation (and in some cases, badly-disguised satisfaction) that the commercial spaceflight—or Newspace—industry might have fallen off its horse, that it has reached, if not an end point, then a turning point, and that that turn can only be in one direction: back down, toward Earth and reality.   There have been plenty of critics of commercial spaceflight, in particular from legacy aerospace company whose business models have been upended by Newspace industry entrants like SpaceX.  Underpinning many of these critiques is recourse to a particular narrative of time and history: Newspace companies are going too fast, they’re trying to short-circuit time, reaching too deeply into the future, and taking too many risks to get there.  Legacy aerospace companies frequently tout their long experience and point to their list of successful launches over time.  The implication is: doing space over a long period of time in a predictable way with proven technologies is the way to go.  History should unfold just so, according to various risk-management strategies with clearly defined, limited goals directed by terrestrial business models, quarterly budget cycles, and a steady-state economy and environment.

The alternative narrative from Newspace industry members and supporters is based on another theory of time: History has gone wrong.  It may be that they adhere to the same idea about history as a progressive movement forward, but for Newspace folks, human presence in space is a matter of destiny, evolution; that is, it is viewed along a scale of time that reaches back to early hominid evolution and forward to a deep future of human communities on Mars, the moons of Saturn, even leaving the galaxy on interstellar generation starships.  For Newspace folks, then, the moment that Neil Armstrong’s foot hit the moon’s surface on July 21, 1969, history became unfixed from time itself.  Real history would have resulted in a progressive development on the back of Apollo, a long-term and massive human settlement of space.  But at that moment, the space race had been “won” and the US government drew back from touted goals of moon and Mars exploration and settlement. That it did so can be pinned to a whole range of historical, economic, and political events and forces, but the idea that history went wrong—that the natural evolution of humans to places off-planet was truncated—deeply pervades Newspace thinking.  For them, legacy aerospace and its lockstep adherence to the shifting and incoherent plans of a politically-driven NASA for short-term profits are the ones who are lost in time.  So, whether you are working right now for the far shorter-term goals of sending well-heeled tourists and scientific experiments to the edge of space like Virgin Galactic or its competitor XCOR, or cargo and crew to the International Space Station like SpaceX or Orbital Sciences, or are planning to mine asteroids or the moon, or designing moon bases, or any other number of activities, the end goal is not a terrestrial balance sheet, but a cosmic reckoning.

As such, for Newspacers, the goal has been to put history right.  If the nature of humans is to move into new environments, embrace curiosity, seek out new resources, new ways of doing things (a theory of humanness that I’d argue is broadly shared across the American political and cultural landscape), then the movement to space can be seen as part of a long sweep of history and cannot be stopped by a single, or even multiple, disasters.  Yet, when history is punctuated by such moments, that sweeping vision is challenged and must be invoked again.

Space Is Hard” is a line I have heard from the beginning of my fieldwork in 2009, as is the acknowledgment that at some point, a disaster will strike, that someone will lose a life, and that the industry (and the social movement that I think it is) needs to prepare for its consequences. Starting yesterday, we began to see people doing just that.  But it would be missing the point entirely to see this only as industry “damage control” or “spin.”  At yesterday’s post-crash press conference in Mojave, Virgin Galactic’s CEO George Whitesides, visibly shaken and grief-struck, repeated this line—space is hard—and gave the usual corporate assurances one often hears in these kinds of press conferences.  But he and Stu Witt—the outgoing CEO of the Mojave Air and Space Port—said other things in that press conference that only makes sense if you understand how time and history appear to Newspacers.  “The future rests in many ways on hard, hard days like this,” said Whitesides.  Witt, a central figure in making Mojave a center for Newspace industries, went further in responding to a young reporter’s question: “We’re doing this for you and your generation, it’s worthy, good business, it’s a cause greater than any of us.  I see this as being like the Magellan mission.”  For Whitesides the distant future and for Witt, the historical past make sense of the terrible loss they were enduring (and yes, I will be writing more about such colonial analogies at some future point, but not today).

If you hear these statements as pablum, as inappropriate, or as covers for corporate malfeasance, then I think you’re missing the point.  I’d challenge you to find any other post-industrial-disaster press conference where people talk about the distant future or past in these ways, under duress, under the pressure of grief.  The point is that Whitesides, Witt, and a host of other women and men have a deep commitment to a particular view of history and the future which—whether you find it compelling or not—helps them make sense of a death and the fracturing of daily life that have resulted from this crash.  For them, the loss of this pilot’s life—a friend and colleague—is a sacrifice to a larger, historical goal.  (For the best characterization of this view, see Rand Simberg’s Safe Is Not an Option).  While questions abound about Virgin Galactic’s safety culture and the advisability of sending SpaceShip2 on this flight, for the myriad space settlement advocates who see history as coming back in alignment with its true course, this disaster should not spell the end of the Newspace mission because it is, in Witt’s words, worthy.

I have many things to say about what Newspace proponents miss about history and time, or what  I think they presume too easily about humanness, exchange, community, and culture.  But what I’ve learned from them is to think about history and the future in ways that challenge the easy assumptions we see across the American political and intellectual spectrum about the nature of time: that what counts is the near-now, the immediate.  It’s not that we should dismiss contemporary problems—or moments of disaster—by reference to the future or by historical analogy, but what the present is is challenged by such a broad, scalar view of history, and I think we can learn something from this.

Meanwhile, right now, a family and their friends are grieving.  My thoughts go out to them.

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5 thoughts on “thoughts on disaster, time, and history

  1. Pingback: Disasters, And Time | Transterrestrial Musings

  2. Ed Minchau

    I don’t feel the need to set history back on the right track, or see myself as championing a worthy cause for future generations.

    I just want to go to space. Myself. In my lifetime, and on my own dime. I want to see it for myself, even if it is the last thing I do.

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    1. David Valentine Post author

      Sure, I realize I’m generalizing here — though I don’t think these two objectives are necessarily contradictory. It’s also the case that quite a few people in the space community have no interest in going to space, but adhere to this longer-term goal. But you’re right, I am depending on an overarching generalization. Thanks for pointing this out, Ed.

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  3. Pingback: Allgemeines Live-Blog ab dem 2. November 2014 | Skyweek Zwei Punkt Null

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