The Tsiolkovsky Axis
“Tsiolkovsky was an asshole”—the graffiti glitters in harsh sunlight, etched on a low positioned glass panel, perfectly readable for the passersby. This effective statement of resistance aptly combines ancient traditions of political graphics with today’s reality of a Type 2 Bernal Sphere, according to differing interpretations the third or fourth generation of self-sufficient space colonies.
Is it space colony or habitat? Are we referring to antiquity’s original concept, or the term’s use in the modern era? Proponents of “colony” are right, in that at least there does not appear to be any sign of any subjects to be colonized out here. Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky has come under heavy fire anyway. This Russian village school teacher had been the first, early in the twentieth century, to calculate the required escape velocities for space flight, and to conceive glazed space accommodation and space elevators. The Soviet space program was not the only one based on many of his ideas. The problem with Tsiolkovsky arises out of the context of bio-cosmism that surrounded him. The vanguard of the 1917 Russian Revolution soon caught up on the enduring injustices of the communist idea. The aim of a just world had been a spatial concept; to be achieved at some stage, but what good was the plan of establishing worldwide Soviets to millions who had already died in the struggle against the class enemy? According to the bio-cosmists communism had to be temporal as well, and benefit the resurrected dead. In turn this would obviously create a shortage of space on Earth, and hence, hey presto, the idea of space colonies; eternal communism in endless space.
The renowned misanthropist Tsiolkovsky and his bio-cosmic comrades had further ideas for improvement, which would have appealed to the German rocket pioneers at Peenemünde: “All our laws must be based on the premise of the elimination of any imperfect forms of life…. It is like a gardener weeding out useless plants from his fields and leaving only the best vegetables standing!”
That is how they imagined their interplanetary green houses. It is against this background that we are demanding the Tsiolkovsky Axis, around which our space colony is revolving, to be renamed, and this is why the recent graffiti near it assumes such relevance. F**k Tsiolkovsky; this colony must no longer be allowed to contribute to the historical belittlement of totalitarian utopias.
This is a reproduction of a letters page, taken from the newsletters of the L-5 Society, ca. 1979. It has come a long way from bio-cosmism. Americans had landed on the moon in 1969, not the Soviet cosmonauts. The image of our planet, a tiny blue marble surrounded by emptiness, briefly united the military-industrial complex with the alternative movement. The Club of Rome published ‘The Limits to Growth’ in 1972 with a dim scenario: excessive industrialization, scarce resources and overpopulation. In 1976 Gerard O’Neill proposed his solution: space colonies with gigantic solar power generators, endless space in answer to earthly overpopulation, and boundless solar energy against the oil crisis. ‘The High Frontier’, with its detailed technical descriptions, became a bestseller. Supporters of his idea set up the ‘L-5 Society’ in the United States. It united grass roots activists with technocrats, hippies, and advocates of American liberty. As lobbyists they supported pro-space presidential candidates and managed to stop the Senate from approving an amendment to the UN ‘Outer Space Treaty’, which would have prohibited private ownership claims in outer space and the commercial exploitation of celestial bodies, and thus ban the establishment of space colonies.
Gazing down today through the huge windows of our small world onto the Earth beneath us, we feel tempted to agree. And coming back to our disputed “colonial” terminology we are reminded of Foucault’s description of the floating heterotopia of the ship as it bears both utopian ideals and concrete economic interests along its trip to the New World.
On November 9, 1989, ABC aired the first ever ‘prime-time’ news item on ‘Biosphere 2′. It was a five-minute report on an experimental glass construction in the Arizona Desert, an enclosed and self-sufficient ecological system, “a small man-made world, including a rainforest, an ocean, savannah, etc.” Built between 1991 and 1993, it was inhabited by eight people, living off self-grown food and recycled air and water. It was an experiment to explore interconnected global ecological factors, as well as the possibility of establishing self-sufficient space colonies. The comment called it a utopian project, a “Noah’s Ark”, and an artificial Garden of Eden, and it goes on to emphasize the unpredictable nature of a hitherto unprecedented experiment. Would the system self-organize itself perfectly in a kind of miniature version of Earth, or would everything turn into green slime?
Our sequence cuts straight into the report on Biosphere 2, immediately following the initial signature tune of the program. The ensuing gap would have been filled with the day’s other epoch-making news: the fall of the Berlin Wall.
While the familiar bipolar world order was collapsing in its wake, giving rise to a new dimension in economic, cultural and technological “globalization,” eight people prepared for life in space. They, as much as their ideas, had been influenced by the counter culture of the nineteen sixties and seventies. Now, however, the rebellious concepts of 1968 had become obsolete, the United States proclaimed “victory” in the Cold War and the “End of History.” Biosphere 2 was wedged in between two epochs; a modest adjuster hinge, which broke during the tumult of historic change and got lost.
Elsewhere, erstwhile sociologist of science Bruno Latour was devising his philosophy of a new ecology, a radical extension of the biological concept of relational networks. He declared obsolete the modernist concept of the dichotomy of society and nature and called for a more holistic approach that includes animate as well as inanimate objects as “actants” in networks.
One of the nicest definitions of the kind of infinity surrounding us here was once given by a close follower of Latour’s, Graham Harman, an advocate of Speculative Realism: “In short, space is the name for the fact that things fail to be in direct contact without being outside all contact entirely.” Harman created the fundamentals for an object-oriented ontology along a path of “mythologies,” an assemblage of experimental thought combining mundane everyday experience, a history of philosophy, and narrative speculation. I should like to propose a similar conceptual experiment here. Let us imagine the readers of these lines were not positioned on board our space colony, not even at any location in our current present.
Let’s assume instead they lived in another time, somewhere in the past, the early twenty first century, as contemporaries of Harman’s. Space colonies would not be part of their reality, but they would belong to the realm of science fiction instead—somewhere in the distant future. Our own reality and daily life would be of their future. ‘A possible future’, one might add. Wrong. None of the scenarios imaginable by them could even begin to grapple with the complex reality of our real present. From the point of view of such an imaginary readership we would simply be inexplicable. With that tragic conclusion we feel ‘hardly able’ to continue writing about our current existence. What we can and have done is write about the past—to the extent to which it is shared by our readership. Objects from that past unite us, even if theirs and our perception of them differs. Even if our readers had no knowledge of them at all, such objects could be evoked.
Yet every blind rivet of the central axis of our space colony would defy description. We are able to deal with the Third Position-ideology between Soviet and Nazi space pioneers, deliver an analysis of the social background of members of the L5-Society, or expound on weather conditions during the collapse of the Berlin Wall; but any object from our current situation—be it the tiniest screw right through to rumors of political change—are impossible to describe.
So we are capable of writing on Tsiolkovsky. Though strictly speaking we’ve already gone too far by describing the dubious central axis. What axis? A graffiti? Did it get reported to the police as an act of vandalism? What sort of government would have passed the relevant laws and where? Based on which tradition, what sort of political theory? And ruling over what kinds of subjects? Perhaps even things?
Whilst space colonies had been sketched out fairly accurately in the nineteen twenties and seventies, by the beginning of the twenty first century, they had faded from people’s imagination. The full implications and emergent phenomena outside the realm of conventional earthly forces of gravity are unimaginable to our readership, whose enthusiasm for the latter is at best dubious. Would they be able to speculate on any ensuing social change, political activism, or independence movements? Could space colonies be analogous to nation states? Could we still evolve? Could it mark a biological benchmark? Or even of a resurgence of eugenics?
What role would religion have if we all lived in heaven? Will old colonies be vacated at some stage? Could there be a market for empty property? Would there be squatting? And what sort of utopian vision could the squatters entertain? Could there be new dispositifs in addition to the categories of gender, ethnicity and class to be discussed in new academic institutions? What media would it take to disseminate these ideas and texts? Unforeseen distribution channels evolving out of what kind of new technology? What sort of language could express all this, and in which language anyway?
We have definitely overextended our brief. The cracks in the construct of our thoughts appeared as soon as we mentioned the anti-Tsiolkovsky graffiti. A glittering explosion, illustrated by the news images popping up this very moment: “Tragic Accident: Leak kills two workers. Glass pane bursts during graffiti removal.”
“Tragic accident.” Tsiolkovsky, you asshole!