Nicholas de Monchaux

Prelude: Pine Gap

Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, code named RAINFALL, sits outside of Alice Springs, in Australia’s unincorporated Northern Territory. There are no pines there, and, practically speaking, no rain either. Instead, sprinkled on the red desert lies an irregular assembly of white geodesic domes and low buildings. The result almost precisely resembles contemporary renderings of settlements on Mars.1 Planned from 1966 and operational from 1970, the facility was referred to in public until 1988 as a station for “Space Research.” It is not.

Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, as shown on Bing Maps, 2017. Screenshot, Bing Maps

Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, as shown on Bing Maps, 2017. Screenshot, Bing Maps

SpaceX rendering of Mars Settlement, 2017. Courtesy SpaceX

SpaceX rendering of Mars Settlement, 2017. Courtesy SpaceX

Staffed by employees of the NSA, CIA, and National Reconnaissance Office, as well as the US Army, Navy, and Air Force, the station is one of several hubs of the United States’ program of global electronic surveillance. It services a constellation of geosynchronous spy satellites that monitor wireless communications across Asia and the Pacific; these include military transmissions, microwave-radio signals, and many millions of consumer cell phones, whose world-wide, warrantless surveillance was highlighted by the documents revealed by the former US Intelligence operative Edward Snowden. Since the 1970s, the station has also—despite its deliberate isolation—been home to repeated non-violent protests against US military activities, and not least the perceived violation of Australian sovereignty.2

1. Cosmos

In April of 1959, responding to the announcement of the seven astronauts of NASA’s Mercury space program, as well as to a decree issued from the Politburo four months earlier calling for “manned spaceflight,” the Soviet Air Force issued the “Directive of the General Staff of the [Air Force] for the Selection of Cosmonauts.”3

It was the first official use of a new word for Soviet spacemen. This was not for lack of language: the word “astronaut” already existed in Russian (actpohaBt), and was in global currency from the 1920s. The shift was more essential; The suffix “naut,” in Russian and English both, originates literally with the ancient Greek ναύτης, or sailor. The “astronaut,” sailor of stars, entered English language in the early twentieth century from “aeronaut,” an eighteenth-century neologism coined for balloonists. The precise division between air and space would await a myriad of modern scientific definitions. But the two ideas remain joined by their nature as realms apart. “Good bye to you—people of Earth,” exclaimed Charles Ferson Durant in his First American Aeronaut’s Address of 1830, distributed in fluttering handfuls from a balloon above Manhattan. “I am soaring to regions above you.”4

The word “cosmos,” however, carries a different payload. From the Greek κόσμος, or “order,” it was used by Pythagoras and his followers to define the world, planets, and stars as a whole, in their “perfect order and arrangement.”5 The word languished in disuse, however, until revived by Alexander Von Humboldt in 1845 for what would become his five-volume treatise, Kosmos; an attempt to describe the physical nature of space and earth together. And it was in this sense that Soviet nomenclature cast the cosmonauts’ mission not as a journey beyond the earth, but as an extension, and expansion, from it. “New Soviet People,” announced Nikita Kruschev himself in 1960, “will conquer cosmic space.”6

2. Space

Kosmos was a literary phenomenon in its day, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, and on the way transforming the western understanding of nature. It was also controversial for the fact that it did not contain any mention of God. The first volume, published in 1845, was divided not between heaven and earth, but between what Humboldt termed the “Terrestrial portion of the Cosmos” and the “Celestial portion of the Cosmos.” Humboldt’s more specific outline of his subject—“a physical description of the universe, embracing all created things in the regions of Space and in the Earth”—does, however, contain a seed of the divine 7 It was John Milton, in 1667’s Paradise Lost, who in Satan’s voice, first used this sense of the word “space”:

“Space may produce new Worlds; whereof so rife / There went a fame in Heav’n.”8

Plate 12 of Gustave Doré’s 1866 engravings for Milton’s Paradise Lost showing the angel Lucifer being cast down from heaven. Wikipedia commons

Plate 12 of Gustave Doré’s 1866 engravings for Milton’s Paradise Lost showing the angel Lucifer being cast down from heaven. Wikipedia commons

The word “space” therefore, describes its own opposite: the realm of man on the one hand, and that apart from man on the other (even Humboldt termed its denizens “heavenly bodies”). Beginning in the first balloon flights of the eighteenth century, and increasingly with the dawn of the twentieth, mankind encountered the boundary between the two as a physical reality. Jacques Alexandre César Charles ascending to 10,000 feet only a few weeks after the first Montgolfier ascent of 1784, encountered the hostility of altitude to human bodies for the first time, complaining of “intense fright and unease, cold, and earaches.”9 Despite a long and distinguished scientific career, Charles did not fly again.

From the nineteenth to the twentieth century, the boundary of space gained a common scientific definition that followed from Charles’ experience of the hostility of altitude. For a whole variety of disciplines, “space” is that distance from the earth that we need technology to access; for a doctor, pressurized oxygen; for an engineer, a wingless rocket. And while the relevant altitude varies widely by discipline, the more profound implication remains consistent: space is, very precisely, that great portion of the cosmos where our technology positions us apart from man, as gods. And therefore, while almost completely empty of normal matter, it is densely saturated with imagined possibilities and utopian dreams.

In real terms, however, it remains an almost entirely uninhabited, inhospitable vacuum.10

3. Desert

There is a related realm on earth: the desert—a landscape named for our absence from it. Describing the resulting interdependence of arid environments and architectural imagination, Reyner Banham reflected that “In a landscape where nothing officially exists (otherwise it would not be ‘desert’), absolutely anything becomes thinkable, and may consequently happen.”11 Where there is nothing—or rather, where we imagine there is nothing—everything appears possible.

4. Vacuum

The legal version of this idea, terra nullius, is derived from the Roman legal concept of res nullius, or, literally, “thing of nothing.” Historically, this precept allowed men, animals, and objects seen to be without an owner—abandoned slaves, buildings, and livestock—to be claimed by discovery and use. Terra nullius was a concept developed by direct analogy and applied to the occupation of territory. In English law, the idea has its origins as well in what was termed vacuum domicilium: literally, a “vacuum home.” By the end of the nineteenth century, the term was in common use as a shorthand for the legal principles underlying European occupation of colonial land.12

This legal rationale for colonization and occupation of the New World was initially not deemed necessary. The preface to Richard Hakluyt’s 1582 Divers voyages touching the discovery of America and the islands adjacent, addressed to Henry VIII, speaks of “Godley rationale for riches and taking lands and things.”13 “The ends of this voyage are these,” Hakluyt concluded, “1. To Plant Christian religion. 2. To trafficke. 3. To conquer. Or to doe all three.”14

By 1630, however, John Winthrop, Founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, would invoke not just power as a rationale for colonial settlement, but also principle. “Being thus taken and possessed as vacuum domicilium,” he would proclaim of the territories outside his original royal grant, “gives us a sufficient title against all men.”15 For Winthrop, as in part for John Locke writing at the end of the same century, territorial rights, and so citizenship, were grounded not in simple occupation or use of the land, but in the “improvement” of it by permanent (European) structures.16 “We claimed Winicowett as within our patent or as vacuum domicilium,” Winthrop writes in March 1639 (of what is now Hampton, Massachusetts), “and had taken possession thereof by building an house there above two years since”17 To this end, early maps of the colony took care to depict the structures of colonial settlements, while omitting the dwellings of native peoples in their separate villages in favor of only trees.18 Yet in the legal and administrative records of the American colonies, there was recognition of native sovereignty as well. The Governor of New Haven, Connecticut, for example, wrote in 1647 to the Dutch administrator of New Amsterdam, rejecting his claim to Connecticut lands: “we first came into these partes, & vppon due purchase from the Indians, who were the true proprietours of the land (for we fownd it not a vacuum).”19

5. Incognita

When Captain James Cook set out from England in 1768, it was with the charter to seek out the postulated Terra Australis Incognita or “unknown southern land.” On becoming the first European to land on the east coast of Australia (named Botany Bay for the diversity of its alien-seeming plants), he termed the vast continent Terra Australis.20 Unlike the experience of the United States, Australia was a landscape where throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, no native sovereignty was recognized.

On his second voyage of 1772–75, Captain Cook would resume his search for a second uncharted southern continent, still imagined to exist alongside the first. On this journey, he made the first recorded crossing of the Antarctic circle in 1773, and sailed the following southern summer to the edge of its ice-shelf. Reaching 71º10’ south on January 30, 1774, and facing a solid cliff of ice while surrounded by dangerous floes, Cook recorded in his journal, “I who had ambition not only to go farther than anyone had been before, but as far as it was possible for man to go, was not sorry in meeting with this interruption.”21

6. Terra Nova

The physical exploration of Antarctica would await the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It would culminate with the 1911 race to the pole between Roald Amundsen’s Norwegians and the ill-fated party of Robert Scott, whose expedition was named for its supply ship, the Terra Nova. In his harsh recounting of their polar odyssey, The Worst Journey in the World, Scott’s most junior surviving lieutenant, Aspley Cherry-Garrard, concluded, “Even now the Antarctic is to the rest of the earth as the Abode of the Gods was to the ancient Chaldees.”22

Both despite and because of the new expeditions onto its vast surface, the legal and territorial status of Antarctica was uncertain. Overlapping claims were made on almost all of her territory by Argentina, Chile, Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia, France, and Norway. The US, while not making a territorial claim, reserved its right to do so by establishing multiple bases on the Antarctic coastline. In 1956, a party led by US Navy Rear Admiral George J. Dufek was the first to stand on the geographic south pole since Amundsen and Scott in 1911, having arrived by air in a modified Douglas Aircraft DC-3 named Que Sera, Sera.

Commander William “Trigger” Hawkes interviews Admiral George Dufek at the South Pole. © US Navy

Commander William “Trigger” Hawkes interviews Admiral George Dufek at the South Pole. © US Navy

In that same decade, conflicting national claims on Antarctica moved towards open conflict.23 The legal resolution of national claims on the continent, and its enduring designation as terra nullius—free of sovereignty and citizenship—would emerge, not incidentally, alongside a similar legal order for the entire non-terrestrial (i.e. “celestial”) cosmos.24 This grand new legal order was the result of an informal dinner party held in a compact suburban home at 1105 Meurilee Lane, Silver Spring, Maryland, on the evening of Wednesday, April 5, 1950.25 The result would also make much of our modern world, not least the contemporary surveillance of Pine Gap, possible (and perhaps, inevitable).

7. IGY

The dinner was an impromptu celebration at the home of physicist James Van Allen and his wife, mathematician Abigail Halsey Van Allen. The occasion was a visit from Britain by Sydney Chapman. Merle Tuve, Lloyd Berkner, Harry Vestine, Wallace Joyce, and Fred Singer joined the party.[^26](Ibid.) Save Tuve, Vestine, and Abigail Van Allen, all the guests were in the direct or indirect employ of the US government, and almost all were experts in high-altitude physics. The cause for celebration was the first measurements taken of the earth’s magnetic field at altitudes of 100 kilometers by Aerobee sounding rockets off the coast of Peru. To the scientists’ delight, the launch showed credible evidence of what had been a previously theorized jet of charged particles racing into the Earth’s upper atmosphere from the magnetic equator.26

It is illustrative of both the intimate scale of the postwar scientific community and the influence it had forged for itself in the fires of wartime science that an idea hatched by the group on the tails of this discovery and end of the dinner party, (“while sipping brandy,”) would quickly become global scientific and diplomatic policy.[^28](Ibid.) Credited to Berkner, with contributions from Abigail Van Allen and Chapman, the idea was for a third, coordinated year of polar scientific research to follow that which was undertaken in the Arctic in 1882–83, and in the Antarctic in 1932–33. Before the “year” took place (actually timed from July 1957 to December 1958, to coordinate with the cycle of highest sunspot activity) it was expanded in both name and ambition. The INTERNATIONAL GEOPHYSICAL YEAR would combine coordinated measurements of geophysical phenomena at the poles and along four lines of longitude with measurements in the upper atmosphere—and ultimately beyond.29 Not only would the measurements involve ballistic “sounding” rockets such as the Aerobee, but they were planned from the outset to involve rockets launched so far and fast that their payloads would keep, continually, falling around the earth, and constantly examining it from above. These were to be the first manmade satellites.

8. Infinite Sovereignty

The Aerobee rockets were conceived of as an inexpensive substitute for captured Nazi V-2 rockets, which James Van Allen had started launching for scientific measurement above the deserts landscape of White Sands on April 16, 1945.30 By 1955, both the Soviet Union and the United States were racing to expand the range and power of such missiles to allow nuclear weapons to be genocidally hurled across the globe. With their massive engines, such “intercontinental” missiles, their makers understood, would also allow the launch of large, photographic surveillance satellites, by which means the US could freely photograph the vast, otherwise inaccessible landscape of the Soviet Union’s interior.27

This second objective provoked a legal and strategic debate within the Eisenhower administration, around the unsettled question of sovereignty as it extended beyond the earth. Long tradition allowed a nation to fire upon and capture a foreign vessel in its adjacent waters. This legal notion had been more recently extended to the near-boundless air above (and would support, for example, the assault on Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spyplane in 1960). But how high did, or should, sovereignty extend? The debate raged. Many advocated the notion of “free flight,” allowing satellites in space to legally transgress national boundaries on the globe below. But there was also official support for the opposite position—the infinite extension of sovereign space, expanding in crenellated cones of citizenship, across the universe.28

At an influential summit in Geneva in 1955, Nikita Khrushchev expressed preference for the latter position when pressed by Eisenhower into considering the former.29 But the Soviet Union’s subsequent actions would settle the question otherwise. As had been long-planned part of International Geophysical Year activities (including detailed discussions at scientific conferences leading up to the IGY), the Soviet Union launched the first earth-orbiting satellite on October 4, 1957. The effect on the global imagination was unprecedented, and unexpected. (The first publication of the feat in Pravda placed the successful launch below the front page’s fold; only subsequent international attention brought a banner headline on October 9.34) Marking the pistol-start of the space race, Sputnik also effectively established the principle of free flight for all subsequent satellites—leading some to even (incorrectly) surmise that the US had allowed itself to be beaten.

While the Soviet Union had organized its entire rocket program as a centralized military enterprise with one, robust rocket design developed from captured Nazi hardware by “chief designer” Sergei Korolev, the United States was home to multiple, competing rocket programs. The Eisenhower administration had deliberately chosen the least developed of these rocket systems—a largely civilian effort named Vanguard—to launch the United States’ own satellite planned for the IGY, Explorer 1. For Eisenhower and his staff, the decision to use the civilian Vanguard rocket over multiple military alternatives was an important statement of principle in light of the IGY’s public and scientific nature. But the decision to join the Soviets in planning a satellite launch for the IGY was also made for military and strategic reasons—the idea being that a self-evidently civilian US satellite could best establish the principle of free flight on which later surveillance efforts would depend. After the unexpected propaganda victory of Sputnik, the US raced to get its own (now clearly competing) satellite in orbit as fast as possible. After a series of failed launch attempts, the administration would sideline the Vanguard rocket in favor of Juno—the latest variant of the Nazi V-2 rocket that was being developed at the time by rehabilitated Nazi Von Braun for the US Army.30 Unlike Sputnik, however (which only contained instruments to record temperature and pressure in its own interior), the Explorer satellites, would contain scientific experiments to observe space directly for the first time, built under the direction of James Van Allen.31

William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun holding a replica of the Explorer 1 Satellite after its successful launch. © NASA

William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun holding a replica of the Explorer 1 Satellite after its successful launch. © NASA

The establishment of non-terrestrial space as an extra-terrestrial terra nullius—where sovereignty is confined to vessels, and where any may pass freely—was established de facto by the activities of the International Geophysical Year, and de jure by one of the last, indirect results of its administration: the “Treaty on the Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies,” signed in 1967.

9. Mabo

The reality of postwar, post-colonial cold-war politics is inextricable from the “space race” that followed the IGY.32 The public-relations realities of cold-war politics were also the precipitating reason for the gradual recognition of Aboriginal rights in Australia. The most globally recognizable of countless sacred landscapes for Australia’s native people being Uluru, a massive sandstone formation lying just a few hundred kilometers from Pine Gap in the same sparsely-settled corner of Australia’s vast Northern Territory. In slow stages from 1948 to 1967, citizenship rights for indigenous Australians were extended, culminating in a nationwide referendum in 1967 that extended Aboriginal rights to that of full citizenship, including access to state pensions and inclusion in the national census.33 It had only been in 1962 and 1965 that Aboriginal people had gained the right to vote in state elections in Queensland and Western Australia respectively, and as late as 1957, all indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory had been declared “wards of the state” and denied the vote.34

Eddie Mabo. Courtesy Rex Features

Eddie Mabo. Courtesy Rex Features

A fuller verdict would await the 1992 landmark Australian High Court ruling Mabo v. Queensland (No 2), commonly known as Mabo.35 Ruling in favor of a group of indigenous Torres Strait Islanders led by Eddie Mabo, and against the government of Queensland, the decision established native sovereignty in Australia for the first time. The text of the ruling dwells extensively on the notion of terra nullius as it was developed for colonial purposes in the nineteenth century, and its use as justification first for the partition of Africa, and also across a range of cases against native land claims in Australia. The decision takes particular pains to point out that, in Africa as in Australia, the existence of ecological deserts cannot be used to justify the imagining of legal, political, and social deserts overlaying them. The conflation of ecological “desert” and legal terra nullius is addressed directly: “Even the proposition that land which is not in regular occupation may be terra nullius,” the judgment finds, “is one that demands scrutiny; there may be good reason why occupation is irregular.”

“The fiction by which the rights and interests of indigenous inhabitants in land were treated as non-existent,” the ruling concludes, “was justified by a policy which has no place in the contemporary law of this country … The lands of this continent were not terra nullius.”36

10. Ions

Today, expeditions to the Moon and Mars are presented anew to the public imagination. Instead of the struggle of the cold war, however, the raisons d’etre are the transnational ambitions of today’s technological superpowers. But for Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (Blue Horizon) or PayPal and Tesla’s Elon Musk (SpaceX), the Moon and Mars offer a surface identical to that appropriated by the twentieth-century’s more traditional empires; a canvas on which to project the promise and power of their own earthly mastery. “You want to wake up in the morning,” Musk announces on the opening page of SpaceX’s Mars website, “and think the future is going to be great.”37

The interplanetary space these plans consider is currently devoid of long-term human occupation, but not empty. One profound and particular problem that would plague any human outpost relates to outer space’s hostile ecology of electromagnetism. More specifically, it highlights the remarkable, invisible envelopes to the earth discovered by James Van Allen using measurements from Explorer 1 and its follow-on Explorer 3 and subsequently named in his honor.38

The Van Allen belts extend from 500 to 58,000 kilometers above the earth’s surface. They consist of charged particles of solar wind trapped by the earth’s magnetic field. While hazardous to geostationary satellites (which orbit at nearly 36,000 kilometers), the belt’s charged particles deflect interplanetary radiation and the that from the sun, and prevent both from reaching—and effecting—the earth and its inhabitants. Without Van Allen belts, the atmosphere we breathe would have long since been stripped away from the planet.39 And it is only thanks to them that all humans, including long-term residents of the International Space Station (orbiting at an average altitude of 253 miles above Earth), are protected from a constant barrage of potentially lethal radiation.40 We are fortunate, too, that the earth’s magnetic field generally aligns with our planet’s axis, meaning that these magnetic fields are thinnest in our relatively desolate polar regions. Aurora Borealis and Australis are the result: an endless cascade of cosmic contamination.

11. Fooled

A 2016 medical paper outlined the effect of this ocean of invisible radiation on its only human sailors—the astronauts of Apollo’s missions 10 through 17, each of which spent between six and twelve days beyond the Van Allen belts.41 The study examined a single indicator of health—mortality due to cardiovascular disease—and found that Apollo’s extra-planetary astronauts were more than four times as likely to die of cardiovascular disease than their equally fit low-orbit compatriots, and more than twice as likely to die of cardiovascular disease than the American population at large.42 A manned journey to Mars would involve many times more exposure to cosmic radiation and solar wind, and each doubling of spacecraft shielding—a prohibitive exercise itself given the physics of spaceflight—would reduce this risk by only 10 percent.43 A 2016 Smithsonian article dryly concluded, “Engineers have yet to find ways to protect astronauts from cosmic rays and solar radiation.”44

Outer space indelibly remains the surface on which we shadow our aspirations and ambitions for our technological future. Yet it is also our technology’s most unforgiving gauntlet. As Richard Feynmann concluded his personal Appendix to the official report on the 1986 destruction of the spacecraft Challenger; “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”45

12. Ashes

Thanks to the legal framework of 1967’s Outer Space Treaty, when Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface and its astronauts erected the American flag, they did so not as an expression of permanent sovereignty, but as a deliberately staged performance of the origin of their own, momentary occupation. It remains the case that the entire, multi-billion-dollar exploit of Apollo can best be understood as a vast machine for the creation of a single image; that of an American, and American flag, on the surface of the moon.46

Buzz Aldrin salutes the flag on the Moon’s surface, Apollo 11 mission time: 110:10:33. (Aldrin’s fingertips can be seen on the far side of his helmet.) Image AS11-40-5874, courtesy NASA

Buzz Aldrin salutes the flag on the Moon’s surface, Apollo 11 mission time: 110:10:33. (Aldrin’s fingertips can be seen on the far side of his helmet.) Image AS11-40-5874, courtesy NASA

The three-by-five-foot nylon flag so highlighted was obtained from a government supply catalog and altered only by the addition of a hem across the top, to hold the crossbar allowing the flag to unfurl in the absence of all but the cosmic wind.[^52](Ibid.) Yet in describing the final flight of the Lunar Module’s iconic, angular ascent stage, pilot Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin remembered: “There was no time to sight-see. I was concentrating intently on the computers, and Neil was studying the attitude indicator, but I looked up long enough to see the flag fall over.”47 And even if it was still standing, subjected to decades of unfiltered radiation and solar wind, the mass-market pigments on the nylon surface have undoubtedly eroded to oblivion. Dennis Lacarrubba, whose New Jersey based flagmaker, Annin, likely sold the flag in question for $5.50, considered in 2008 the effect of thirty-nine years of UV light on even an earthbound flag: “I gotta be honest with you,” he reported; “It’s gonna be ashes.”48 If any surface remains, it is only as a fallen, dusty square of white.49

13. Conclusion

In 1966, ex-army-parachutist and countercultural entrepreneur Stewart Brand drove from a barely-formed Silicon Valley to the political hotbed of Berkeley. Standing under the arches of Sather Gate, he sold white buttons to the thronging students, bearing a simple message in black text. “Why,” the button asked, “haven’t we seen a picture of the whole Earth yet?” It was Brand’s paranoid-yet-credible thesis that, five years into manned spaceflight, and a decade from the first satellites of the International Geophysical Year, a picture of the undivided disk of the Earth was being deliberately withheld from the global public by the US government. In the presence of such a photograph, Brand believed, national and political identity would crumble in the face of our common citizenship of an undivided globe.

As with much in the military-industrial realm, what was seen as strategy was in fact a tangle of administration and circumstance. Even back then, most cameras sent into space justified their cost through surveillance, and were thus designed, like the satellites controlled from Pine Gap, to magnify the smallest pieces of the globe instead of inspecting it entire. While a composite image from an earth-surveilling satellite, ATS-3, was released in 1967 (and used by Brand for the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalog), the first true photograph of the whole earth would await the sunset of Apollo.

This was not seen as initially possible. The Apollo missions, arcing far beyond the earth’s surface, were scheduled while the moon was half, or quarter full, the better to throw the dangerous features of potential landing sites into relief on its earthward face. Earth and moon are illuminated, of course, by the same light source, and so when the moon is obscured from the earth, so the earth from the moon. It was only in December of 1972 that increasing mission experience, and lobbying by Senator Gaylor Nelson (who had penned legislation declaring the Earth Day originally proposed by ecologist John McConnell two years earlier), produced the opportunity for such an image. The command module of Apollo 17, America, undertook a modified trajectory that allowed the capture—immortally—of the full and illuminated disk of the earth.

NASA image AS17-148-22727, taken by Harrison Schmitt.

NASA image AS17-148-22727, taken by Harrison Schmitt.

The photograph, NASA Image AS17-148-22727, was taken by Harrison Schmitt, the last man, and only civilian, to walk on the moon, using used a 70-millimeter Hasselblad camera with an 80-millimeter Zeiss lens. It is now the most reproduced in history, and quickly replaced a screen-printed version of the ATS-3 image on John McConnell’s Earth Day flag.

Appropriately, the only continents it features prominently are Africa—that which empire and mapmakers both have most mistreated, and Antarctica—the only real terra nullius. And yet, like the imperially colored maps to which, in Brand’s eyes, it stood as an indictment, it tells its own lies. Massive and solid, the vast sphere of earth is not in fact our home. Indeed, the earth’s interior of molten, radioactive magma is as inhospitable to us as outer space. Instead, our natural habitat is a thin curtain of gases—the atmosphere—invisibly clinging to the vast sphere’s surface. This is a small place; if this air-ocean’s molecules were liquid water instead of gas, it would extend only a few dozen feet above our heads. Which is also why the outpouring of gaseous carbon dioxide—our industrial civilization’s most ubiquitous product—has transformed it so much. The result is the ultimate indictment of sovereignty as well. Molecules of air belong to no one, and everyone. They have sustained—even the many millions inside you now—almost everyone who has ever lived, and, we hope, countless more to come. And thanks to the air’s disregard for borders, the calamitous effects of climate change fall most on those nations who have least contributed to it, in the tropics and global south.

In the end, what the detailed modern surveillance of Pine Gap misses is, most profoundly, the scale of the planet and cosmos that it seeks to command. Instantaneous and impossibly detailed, bereft of all but the narrowest gaze, the informational artifacts of today’s surveillance state deploy cosmically-scaled infrastructure to serve a profoundly limited vision of our global future: not knowledge, but data. This stands in stark contrast with the outlook of indigenous Australians (including the native Arrente people on whose ancestral land Pine Gap sits), whose civilization existed continuously for 40,000 years alongside the hostile Australian ecology before its devastation by European arrival.50

Conflating the accelerating rate of technological change on earth with a mastery of (outer) space defined by technology’s use, today’s renderings of extra-planetary settlement risk the same myopic gaze. Most of all, we imagine new planetary homes as an escape from the consequences of inhabitation on our current one, and assume that the mastery of a profoundly more hostile planet will save us from our failure to master our assumptions here on earth.51

In searching for a justification, that would match the suffering of his and his party’s journey into the unknown a century ago, Antarctic pioneer Aspley Cherry-Garrard concludes as follows: “[our goals] were striven for in order that the world may have a little more knowledge, that it may build on what it knows instead of on what it thinks.”52 The most essential legacy of our exploration of the cosmos is likely this perspective on our own, and only, Earth.

  1. See in particular the resemblance to the Elon Musk renderings shown here: Tariq Maliq, “Elon Musk Teases Images of SpaceX ‘Moon Base Alpha’ and ‘Mars City,’” Space.com, September 28, 2017, [https://www.space.com/38310-elon-musk-moon-base-mars-city-images.html](https://www.space.com/38310-elon-musk-moon-base-mars-city-images.html), accessed Dec 10, 2017. permalink

  2. Ryan Gallagher, “The U.S. Spy Hub in the Heart of Australia,” The Intercept, August 19, 2017, https://theintercept.com/2017/08/19/nsa-spy-hub-cia-pine-gap-australia/, permalink

  3. Asif A. Siddiqi, Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945–1974. (Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA History Div., Office of Policy and Plans, 2000), 243. 

  4. Charles Ferson Durant Scrapbook, box 233, AIAA History Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. 

  5. See for example the entry for “Cosmos” in ed. Charles P. Krauth, A Vocabulary of the Philosophical Sciences (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1881), 621. 

  6. Deane Simpson, “The Vostok Cosmonauts: Training the New Soviet Person,” in 2001: Building for Space Travel, ed. John Zukowsky (New York: Abrams, 2001), 108. 

  7. Alexander von Humboldt, Kosmos: A General Survey of Physical Phenomena of the Universe (London: H. Baillière, 1845), 22. 

  8. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, line 650. Cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as the modern “Space.” Also Book II, lines 1052 and 1045. 

  9. Melvin B. Zifsein, Flight: A Panorama of Aviation (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), 9. 

  10. For a larger exposition of this universal definition of “space,” see Nicholas de Monchaux, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 12–26. 

  11. P. Reyner Banham, Scenes in America Deserta (Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, 1982), 44. 

  12. Lauren Benton and Benjamin Straumann, “Acquiring Empire by Law: From Roman Doctrine to Early Modern European Practice,” Law and History Review 28, no. 1 (February 2010): 1–38. 

  13. Hakluyt Society, Original Writings and Correspondence of the Two Richard Hakluyts, 2 vols., second series, 76–77, ed. E. G. R. Taylor (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1935), I, 178. 

  14. Ibid., 331. 

  15. John Winthrop, quoted by David Grayson Allen, “Vacuum Domicilium: The Social and Cultural Landscape of Seventeenth-Century New England,” in New England Begins: The Seventeenth Century, Vol 1, eds. Jonathan L. Fairbanks and Robert F. Trent (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1982). 

  16. Ironically, while Locke recounts the principle of ownership through improvement in his Second Treatise on Government of 1790, his intent was as much to emphasize the sovereign right of English citizens over lands under their improvement as it was to provide any rationale for colonial expropriation. See Paul Corcoran, “John Locke on the Possession of Land: Native Title vs. the ‘Principle of Vacuum Domicilium,’” Proceedings, Australasian Political Studies Association Annual Conference, (Melbourne: Monash University, September 2007). 

  17. Richard S. Dunn and Laetitia Yeandle, eds., The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630–1649 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996) 283. 

  18. Lawrence J. Vale, From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 23. 

  19. James Warren Springer, “American Indians and the Law of Real Property in Colonial New England,” The American Journal of Legal History 30, no. 1 (January 1986): 56. 

  20. The Dutch had landed on the north coast of what they called New Holland as early as 1606. It was officially named “Australia” by its British occupiers in 1830, a half-century after the establishment of the first penal colony at Sydney in 1783. 

  21. Logbook of Lieut. James Cook (1770), The British Library, Add Ms 27885, f. 55. 

  22. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in The World: Antarctica, 1910–1913 (Toronto: Penguin Classics, 2006), 49. 

  23. Klaus Dodds, Alan D. Hemmings, and Peder Roberts. Handbook on the Politics of Antarctica (London: Edward Elgar, 2017). 

  24. Roger Launius, “Establishing Open Rights in the Antarctic and Outer Space: Cold War Rivalries and Geopolitics in the 1950s and 1960s,” in Dodds et al., 217–231. I am grateful to Dr. Launius, as ever, for drawing my attention to this text and these larger connections. 

  25. R. Bulkeley, “Origins of the International Geophysical Year,” in S. Barr and C. Luedecke, eds., The History of the International Polar Years (IPYs): From Pole to Pole (Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer, 2010), 235–38. 

  26. James A. Van Allen (1983), “Genesis of the International Geophysical Year,” EOS 64(50): 977–977, doi:10.1029/EO064i050p00977-01. 

  27. Until the 1980s, satellite surveillance photography still used physical film, which necessitated complex airborne rescue missions of the returning celluloid in protective capsules. See Pat Norris, Spies in the Sky. Surveillance Satellites in War and Peace (Berlin: Springer Praxis Books, 2008). 

  28. See Launius, ibid; also The Report to the President by the Technological Capabilities Panel of the Science Advisory Committee, Vol. II, Meeting the Threat of Surprise Attack (Washington, DC, February 14, 1955), 151. Office of the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, NSC Policy Papers, Box 16, Folder NSC 5522, Technological Capabilities Panel, Eisenhower Presidential Library. 

  29. Howard Jones, Crucible of Power: A History of American Foreign Relations from 1945 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009), 80. 

  30. Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) 112–32. 

  31. Unlike Explorer and subsequent US satellites, which used transistor electronics, Sputnik had a pressurized atmosphere, the main purpose of which was to prevent damage to the vacuum tubes that constituted its electronic equipment. As the vacuum of space was inevitably more empty than the vacuum achieved by Russian tube-making machinery, the Soviet “vacuum” tubes would otherwise have exploded. See M. K. Tikhonravov, “The Creation of the First Artificial Earth Satellite: Some Historical Details,” first presented in Russian at the 24th International Astronautical Congress at Baku, Azerbaijan (then part of the Soviet Union); translated in 1994 by Peter A. Ryan and published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 47 (1994): 191–94. 

  32. McDougall, 56. 

  33. On May 27, 1967, 90 percent of Australians approved a referendum on the question “Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled—‘An Act to alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the People of the Aboriginal Race in any State and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the Population’?” Since Australia was administered as six separate colonies until Federation under the Australian Constitution in 1901, a variety of regimes had governed Aboriginal citizenship until that time in the separate states, most restrictively in Queensland and Western Australia, which had the largest number of Aboriginal residents—the section of the constitution in question was designed so that these numbers did not inflate their parliamentary representation—and in the Northern Territories, which remained under federal control. Aboriginal Australians had, technically, the right to vote in all federal elections from 1948; however this was optional and only became mandatory, as for all other Australians, in 1983. It is a popular misconception that the 1967 referendum established the Aboriginal right to vote; however it was undeniably an instrumental and essential step toward full citizenship rights. 

  34. See Australian Electoral Commission “Electoral Milestones for Indigenous Australians,” http://www.aec.gov.au/indigenous/milestones.htm, permalink: https://web.archive.org/web/20171218050038/http://www.aec.gov.au/indigenous/milestones.htm

  35. High Court of Australia, Mabo v. Queensland (No 2) [1992] HCA 23; (1992) 175 CLR 1 (June 3, 1992). 

  36. Ibid., sections 48 and 56. 

  37. http://www.spacex.com/mars, accessed December 10, 2017, permalink: https://web.archive.org/web/20171218065212/http://www.spacex.com/mars

  38. Explorer 2 did not successfully launch due to the failure of its Jupiter rocket. 

  39. James A. Van Allen, Origins of Magnetospheric Physics (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004). 

  40. Even then, space station astronauts are instructed to shelter in the thickest portions of the station during active periods of solar storms. See Nola Taylor Redd, “Radiation Remains a Problem for Any Mission to Mars” Smithsonian.com, May 17, 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/radiation-remains-problem-any-mission-mars-180959092/, accessed Dec 10, 2017; and Tony C. Slaba, Christopher J. Mertens, and Steve R. Blattnig, Radiation Shielding Optimization on Mars, 2013, <http://purl.fdlp.gov/GPO/gpo45816>. 

  41. M. D. Delp et al., “Apollo Lunar Astronauts Show Higher Cardiovascular Disease Mortality: Possible Deep Space Radiation Effects on the Vascular Endothelium.” Sci. Rep. 6 (2016) doi: 10.1038/srep29901. 

  42. Ibid. It is theorized that the solar wind, interacting with the lightweight aluminum, of which spacecraft substantially consist, produced charged particles particularly destructive to DNA and cellular reproduction of fragile cardiovascular membranes. 

  43. Slaba, ibid. 

  44. Redd, ibid. 

  45. Richard F. Feynmann, “Personal Observations on the Reliability of the Shuttle,” Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Volume 2, Appendix F (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1986): https://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/missions/51-l/docs/rogers-commission/Appendix-F.txt

  46. The NASA-convened Committee on Symbolic Activities for the First Lunar Landing, gathered in February of 1969 and briefly considered the use of a United Nations Flag, but its own mission statement charged it with envisioning activities to “signalize the first lunar landing as an historic forward step of all mankind that has been accomplished by the United States.” Anne M. Platoff, “Where No Flag Has Gone Before: Political and Technical Aspects of Placing a Flag on the Moon,” NASA Contractor Report 188251, August 1993. 

  47. Col. Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. with Wayne Warga, Return to Earth (New York: Random House, 1973), 239. Recent evidence from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter suggests other flags on the moon, or at least their staffs, may still be standing, but suggests confirmation of Aldrin’s report of the Apollo 11 site. See Mark Robinson, “Question Answered!” July 27, 2012, website of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, Arizona State University: http://lroc.sese.asu.edu/posts/537, accessed December 10, 2017, permalink https://web.archive.org/web/20171218061553/http://lroc.sese.asu.edu/posts/537

  48. Tony Reichart, “Finding Apollo,” Air & Space Magazine, September 2008. 

  49. Paul D. Spudis, “Faded Flags on the Moon,” Air & Space Magazine, July 2011; also James Fincannon, “Six Flags on the Moon: What is Their Current Condition?” Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, 21 April 2012, https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/ApolloFlags-Condition.html, accessed December 10, 2017, permalink https://web.archive.org/web/20171218064548/https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/ApolloFlags-Condition.html

  50. Morton Rasmussen et al., “An Aboriginal Australian Genome Reveals Separate Human Dispersals into Asia” Science 22 (September 2011) doi: 10.1126/science.1211177. 

  51. Musk himself has referred to his Mars schemes as a “backup drive for civilization.” Chris Heath, “How Elon Musk Plans on Reinventing the World (and Mars),” GQ Magazine, December 2015, permalink https://web.archive.org/web/20180112173656/https://www.gq.com/story/elon-musk-mars-spacex-tesla-interview

  52. Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, 49.