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Interviews

Lessons in Space

April 15, 2016



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A reflection on the landscape, thousands of kilometers from the earth.





The photo of Earth seen from space expresses two of the features which make us human beings: the sense of finiteness and the sense of universality. How might we explain this mysterious, age-old fascination?

Nowadays it’s usual, even familiar, for us to see photographs of the Earth. We can no longer imagine what was so mind-blowing in the 1960s, when human beings received a representation of their planet from the outside for the first time in the history of the species. Peter Sloterdijk claims that any representation of the Earth has a semi-metaphysical value, and he’s right. It’s true about maps, about the globes we’ve been making since the 16th century; but the photos of the Earth taken from space are an unprecedented radicalization of that value. In particular, the photo entitled Earthrise, taken by the Apollo 8 crew in 1968, clearly expressed the sense of the journey, and gave us an awareness of the cosmic landscape for the first time.

One of the great legacies of the space missions is the realization that the landscape is not made up of isolated places, of cosmic objects, but of relationships. And that these relationships become landscapes when they provoke a form of self-reflection in those captivated by them. All in all, it’s the same situation as that of Giacomo Leopardi, who started his reflection on infinity from a hill of his village of Recanati and from his contemplation of that hill. Landscape generates a self-reflection which in the case of space is focused on the destiny of the whole of humanity and of the very planet we inhabit. Moreover, until we’d seen it from the outside, Earth was perceived as a motionless body.

Husserl in fact wrote that our physical experience of Earth is that of an immobile body, even if the scientific knowledge we have of it is different. With the space explorations, our planet has become for us also sensibly, aesthetically a body in movement, floating in space, in which the notions of high and low for example are relative. It was no longer just the laws of physics which showed us this, but our senses. Le Socle du monde (The base of the world), one of Piero Manzoni’s magical bases now in Denmark, represents the sense of this experience very well; significantly, it was made just after Yuri Gagarin’s journey beyond the earth’s atmosphere. He was the first man to experience the absence of gravity.

 

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A typically military vocabulary and rhetoric is often used to talk about the Moon. Some of the photos which recount the astronauts’ missions however try to modify this idea, also conveying a playful side of the planet, with the satellite presented as a kind of large amusement park to jump around and plant little flags on. Isn’t this a bit of a paradox?

The photos and information we find today online, from the NASA site to Google Earth, present the Moon as an extension of the planet Earth. This process of “delunarization”, to use a term coined by Günther Anders, began immediately. The military approach behind all the space missions was rendered even more emphatic in the case of the Moon by the contest between the two super-powers of that time. The satellite was the last frontier of human conquest and at the same time the place to affirm one’s dominion of the earthly world, but symbolically, i.e. without having to start a war. In this way however the moon lost much of its otherness and mystery. The non-protocol things the astronauts did, such as hitting golf balls, throwing hammers and using the thermal covers as kites, was a way of appropriating a different dimension, doing things which on earth belong to the sphere of games.

 

The recent ESA mission with Samantha Cristoforetti on board was followed daily by the public thanks to the constant flow of images and thoughts which the astronauts shared on the social media. This approach doesn’t really seem to differ much from the constant vocal contact the first astronauts kept with Earth during the moon landing.

At the outset, the radio contact was a question of security, to minimize the possibility of actions being carried out without base control. The French critic and philosopher Maurice Blanchot has underlined that this continuous dialogue was the way the public received proof that we had gone outside, and it was the sign that language itself had progressed outside our world. Now things are different, we are more familiar with the space station, but the continuous contact with Earth remains a way of demonstrating the vitality of missions whose cost is huge while their actual usefulness is hard to understand. A constant flow of news, connections and photos is also a strategy to justify the existence of the missions. There’s another question which is never mentioned, a taboo subject: boredom in orbit. The case of the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity, then trying to understand if it is possible to cry in the absence of gravity, is a way of producing information, and at the same time of making the mission more interesting, of assuaging the boredom of a technical life made up of experiments and long spells of emptiness.

 

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How can we explain the recent explosion of interest in the missions, particularly as regards the Moon? I’m thinking for example of Richard Branson’s Project, Virgin Galactis, or Elon Musk’s Space X, which promises tourist trips from the Earth to Mars.

In the revived interest in space, the Moon is actually just one of the ingredients, and as in the past it counts essentially because it is the nearest and most accessible celestial body. There are mining prospects but they seem to be fairly modest, while tourism exerts a stronger pull, also fuelled by the presence of the things and traces left by men. In any case, in all space explorations there’s always an element of the frontier and of prestige, something which justifies not only the investments of huge fortunes on the web but also the efforts of countries like China, i.e. developing states seeking symbolic affirmation on Earth.

The founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, has undertaken the recovery of underwater missile wrecks in the Atlantic Ocean off Florida, a real new space era archaeology. But to prepare us for a familiar relationship with space, recent films like Gravity and The Martian have tackled a theme which was formerly unthinkable: a lone human being, without any crew and with the minimum or even sub-minimum of equipment possible, manages to survive and come back to Earth. Space remains the prototype hostile environment, but now even individuals are beginning to manage to tackle its dangers. The return to Earth in these films becomes possible even without thermal shields, or with a module which is open as if it were a convertible, as the main character of The Martian says. The image we get is of a liveable space, in which we can survive even on our own, defying and overcoming the limitations and technical conditions, a situation which is dear to American mythopoesis.

 

I’d like to end by talking about music, since you’ve been working with music programming on Radio Rai3 for so many years. What tracks would you propose in a playlist for a space mission?

In space, the lack of atmosphere makes sound diffusion impossible. Astronauts can hear music only inside helmets or special compartments. Back in the 1970s a “soundtrack”, today we’d call it a “playlist”, was almost completed, with Frank Sinatra first and David Bowie next. Nowadays, with the recent discovery of gravitational waves, the debate about what music to listen to in space has revived. But I do believe that music is destined to play an important role in space journeys, because it’s true that the long times of the journey are hard to cope with, and music is the best way human beings have invented to overcome boredom and in a certain sense to make the passing of time magical.

 

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