I know there’s been nothing posted here for ages, but as a crazy academic year winds down, here’s something I’ve been thinking about
The contrasts and similarities between two astronaut-themed photo essays reveals something important for the analysis of space from the Earth Native’s point of view. The first of these is the 2010 series by Neil Dacosta, 14 images of NASA astronauts committing suicide in the run up to the end of the Shuttle program and in the context of President Obama’s April 15, 2010 speech at KSC where he dismissed the moon as a destination for the American space program. These are bleak, stark images of astronauts ending their lives, bleached of color and light, framed to emphasize anonymizing urban locations, loneliness, and ruin. The second, by Aaron Sheldon, is remarkably different. Richly colored and featuring Sheldon’s four-year-old son, these images show a diminutive astronaut exploring familiar but functioning places of daily urban modern life. They are quirky, funny, and express the wonder of discovery.
The obvious contrasts between the two takes up the common—and stark—thematic, affective, and aesthetic dissonances between different storytelling stances within contemporary science fiction: the dystopian v. the utopian, anomie v. wonder, cynicism v. inspiration. Newspace folks often decry the visions of artists and commentators like Dacosta, seeing them both as misrepresentations of NASA’s post-Shuttle life and as iconic of a broader and misdirected cynicism and narrative of national failure. Likewise, an astronaut kid with his cocked head and disorienting cuteness aligns with the constant refrain I have heard among Newspace advocates that space inspires youth and offers new and even not–yet-thinkable possibilities for human expression, joy, and wonder.
Yet, despite these differences, there are strong thematic and aesthetic unities between these two photo essays that can tell us something further about how we think about space. In both Dacosta’s and Sheldon’s images, the astronaut is completely alone in familiar places on Earth. There is no other human around, no community, just the individual either about to end a life or begin one, but in places that could not have been built by the astronaut alone. Where are all the other people—the community, the social—upon which actual astronauts depend? That is, in part, the point of Dacosta’s essay I suppose, but I would argue that the heroic (or antiheroic) figure of the astronaut results in us forgetting that vast numbers of people must work together to sustain human life in space. Indeed, the fact that we can name everyone who has been to space individually is part of the problem. We don’t think about space as a site for community or common purpose; we think of it as a place empty of human connection. The individual lives or dies according to their own ingenuity (like Mark Watney in The Martian) or personal and/or technological failure (like Ryan Stone in Gravity). Both Dacosta and Sheldon participate in disconnecting astronauts from what actually keeps them alive.
Moreover, with different lighting and color manipulation, Sheldon’s or Dacosta’s astronaut could swap places with little impact to the intended affective impact of the images. We can imagine the kid astronaut bravely and experimentally turning on the gas stove in the location of Dacosta’s image of the astronaut with his or her head in the oven. And one of Dacosta’s life-weary astronauts could find a relatively easy way to kill themselves in the barber’s chair or swimming pool where Sheldon frames his astronaut son. Likewise, both essays work by contrasting the peculiarity of the astronaut suit in use on Earth; it is the disjuncture between the unnecessary life-sustaining suit in Earth’s biosphere that is amusing and jarring in both photographers’ images. Yet, despite the quotidian, everyday terrestrial spaces in which suicide and wonder are represented in these essays, the point of the contrast is an extreme: extreme wonder and extreme despair. The everydayness is just the backdrop that allows for this extremity. What’s missing, again, is the ordinariness of daily life for the astronaut, the connection, the community, but also the humdrumness of life in space once a routine is established –indeed, even boredom.
My point is not to critique Dacosta or Sheldon for a failure to represent something they don’t intend to, but to point out that their essays are so evocative because they depend on the widespread tropes of space and of astronauts that pervade Earthbound (to quote Bruno Latour) humans’ understandings of space. It is, as we are told, an extreme environment, a site for extremely well-trained individuals to sustain life beyond Earth’s nature, with extreme consequences in the event of something bad, but with the possibilities for extreme payoffs, insights, and futures. I’ve written about the extreme as a trope for thinking through space with Debbora Battaglia and Valerie Olson, and a key point we make is this: the extremes of outer space make us forget the day-to-dayness of space for those who visit locations in low Earth orbit on the International Space Station (or who, as my Newspace interlocutors hope, may one day live permanently on Mars, the moon, or the moons of the outer planets). What appears extreme on Earth must become ordinary to some extent for those who leave it; you cannot be always struck by the wonder of newness, nor will your depression be allowed to go unchecked. Without Earth’s nature to buffer your wonder or despair, things will go awry. And there will be other people—many other people—around to remind you of that, to help you, and to sustain something beyond just the individual affective moment.