What the Trash We Leave in Space Says About Us
When archeologists and anthropologists want to learn about other cultures, they often look at the garbage those cultures leave behind. Pieces of broken pottery, burned animal bones, empty soda bottles, and dead cell phones can tell a researcher much about the daily lives of the people who cast them aside and what was important—and not important—to them.
From the moment humanity began exploring space, we started leaving our garbage there, too. Space debris or space junk is anything we put into orbit around Earth that is no longer considered useful and can include objects that range from something as small as a fleck of paint all the way up to bus-sized satellites.
Estimates by the European Space Agency (ESA) place the number of these discarded objects higher than 100 million as of 2019. Because each item poses a potential hazard to spacecraft and satellites, there are calls to limit the amount of trash left in space.
For Lisa Ruth Rand, a new assistant professor of history at Caltech who specializes in the history of technology and the environment, this debris is not just a problem. It also tells a story. By studying the junk left behind as humanity stretches into the airless realm beyond our atmosphere, we can learn about the evolving ways human cultures relate to space and how space is changing those cultures.
Rand received a bachelor's degree in English and astronomy at Barnard College, and a master's and doctorate in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania. She has held positions at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia; the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine; the University of Wisconsin–Madison; and the National Air and Space Museum.
We spoke with Rand about space debris, space as a global human environment, and how concepts about gender and difference have intersected with space exploration.
How did you become interested in the history of space and, more specifically, orbital debris?
I've been a space nerd for most of my life. I grew up in north Florida, just a few hours from the Space Coast, watching space shuttle launches from my front yard.
I studied English and astronomy in college, and completed an honors project on gender politics in the American and Soviet space programs. I planned to continue this focus on gender and space technology, but the same year that I began graduate school, the first major accidental collision of two human-made objects in space took place. I started reading reports about close calls and potential collisions between that debris and other objects in orbit, and it occurred to me that there's an environmental history here.
Human actions weren't the sole drivers of historical change in outer space. The natural environment of outer space also played a role in shaping the wilderness of orbit into a landscape and had been doing so since the start of the Space Age.
How do human actions and the nature of space interact to create a unique environment?
Human actors from powerful, wealthy nations made decisions about what to put into space, where to put those objects, and what purposes they would initially serve.
However, as specialists learned more about geophysical forces in the regions surrounding the planet and observed how objects in orbit interacted with them, those decisions changed.
Satellites had to be built to operate within the extreme environment of outer space. And when those satellites stopped working, satellite operators were no longer in the driver's seat. Space itself superseded human intent as the dominant force shaping the pathways these objects took through space and where they eventually ended up. Some broken objects stayed aloft, and some fell back to Earth. Where and when they fell often had as much to do with natural forces as human choice.
What does it mean for outer space to be a global environment?
Thinking about it very simply, space is a global environment, in that every part of the planet is contiguous with outer space even if different regions of the world experience that environment differently. What I show in my work is that space was one of the first places where this idea of a global environment, a natural resource that could be globally shared and governed, was first worked out at the international level.
And this wasn't just about using space for satellites but also about managing a new kind of industrial waste that could zip across enormous distances in no time at all, that could fall into unexpected places or stay in orbit and cause problems down the line. For many regions around the world, encounters with the space industry first took place not with technologies in use but technologies in decay.
Even from day one this was arguably the case. In 1957, the Soviet Union sent the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into space. Soviet engineers expected that people around the world would try to see this new kind of moon and that the small satellite wouldn't be visible from the ground without special equipment. So, they added reflectors to the core of the much larger rocket that launched the satellite to catch sunlight against a dark sky at dawn and dusk. When people looked up, they saw what appeared to be a bright star zipping through the sky. That bright point of light was not Sputnik. It was the rocket body.
But it didn't really matter. Seeing something new in the night sky proved the same political point: the seemingly backward Soviet Union had beaten the U.S. into space.
That was the first direct experience some people had with the cultural and political era that would become known as the Space Age. And it was with something that no longer could be used for its designed purpose but was still symbolically valuable. That shiny bit of rocket could be seen as either space junk or spacecraft, depending on your point of view.
You also examine in your work how humans relate to space as a natural environment, right?
Yes. It's like any natural environment that we might recognize on Earth. Those who launch things into space rely on the orbital environment to handle the by-products of the space industry. It's kind of like a factory that dumps effluent into a river with the expectation that the river will carry it away. Of course, "away" doesn't mean "gone"; it just means that the waste becomes someone else's problem farther downstream.
When something in space breaks or goes where it's not supposed to go, at least in low orbits, the space environment often cleans up the mess. The atmosphere drags things back to Earth and disintegrates a lot of stuff before it can reach the ground. It does us a pretty big favor by being a shield and orbital cleaning mechanism.
But waste in outer space does have downstream effects. More and more satellites followed Sputnik and its rocket into space and back. Because of the orbits that were in high use and other physical variables, most space debris objects recovered from land had fallen in regions of the Global South, often in places inhabited by people who did not benefit from using functioning satellites. The treaties we have governing space are imbued with egalitarian rhetoric, but in practice, outer space is a not a fairly shared natural resource. Powerful nations enjoyed nearly unfettered access to space while less powerful regions dealt disproportionately with the wastes produced. This was a period in which nations excluded from the satellite industry pushed back against what many argued was a neocolonial order in outer space that followed existing global hierarchies.
You also are interested in studying the concept of "republican motherhood." What is it, and what is its role in space exploration?
I love getting to put my gender and queer studies hat back on to think about the ways that categories of difference have shaped imaginary or anticipated interplanetary futures. In another research project, I explore a remarkably static idea in frontier narratives and colonial efforts: that the primary civic role for people with uteruses is that of being reproducers. Women may not be able to vote, but they can bear and raise sons who will. The reproductive capacity of the white republican mother plays a crucial role in projects of displacement and colonial violence. It's also presented as the reason to bring women on voyages despite their perceived weaknesses. You can't have a long-term colony without babies, and you can't have babies without a uterus, so women have to come along, whether out west in the 19th century or in arguments for including women in the astronaut corps in the 1960s. Lots of other political realities have changed, but women as a kind of reproductive cargo has endured.
In addition to archival research, I look at science fiction and feminist theory to study these narratives. In future worlds where things like faster-than-light travel and planetary terraforming are possible, reproduction is still uniformly relegated to a fleshy process undertaken by female-gendered bodies. I've spent a few years working through the different Star Trek series to see how they deal with reproduction. This is a fun part of my job, though also often infuriating! There's a lot more traumatic pregnancy and childbirth in Star Trek than you might imagine.
What excites you about being at Caltech?
I can't think of a place better for a historian of technology than an institution like Caltech. I look forward to being part of a faculty doing groundbreaking work in the humanities and social sciences as well as being co-located with renowned specialists in planetary and space sciences. The rising presence of sustainability studies on campus makes this an ideal place to be involved in conversations at intersections of science, technology, and the environment. With the proximity to JPL and the rest of Southern California's aerospace industry, I feel well positioned to study space history and culture.
Being at Caltech also means I get to work and learn with remarkable undergraduates. Caltech students are going to be the next generation of leaders in science and technology, some of them in the space industry; some of them are going to be driving the discussion about space exploration, orbital management, and interplanetary futures. My hope is that critically engaged leaders can help move those futures out of deep-set colonial grooves.
How do you like to spend your time outside of work?
I'm kind of a hobby dilettante. I tend to try a lot of things and get sort of good at them, but never to the point of being an expert, whether that's sewing clothes or roller skating or playing bass guitar. Over the last three years, I have grown red lettuce from seeds that flew on the International Space Station. I harvest seeds from each crop and save them to plant the next season. I recently planted my latest crop. So, I guess you could say that I am a somewhat competent sewing, roller skating, bass-playing space-lettuce gardener.