Orbital Decay: Space Junk and the Environmental History of Earth’s Borderlands, 1957-1985

Lisa Ruth Rand is a recent Ph.D. graduate of the Department of History and Sociology of Science, at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2015-16, she was a Dissertation Fellow of the Consortium.

My dissertation traces changes over time in the natural environment of near-Earth space—the region between the Moon and the contested upper limits of the atmosphere. I use the highly mobile, unruly space waste artifacts colloquially known as “space junk” to illuminate how humankind mutually shapes and is shaped by the global ecosystem surrounding our planet. Situated at the intersection of the histories of science, technology, and the environment, this research highlights the interpretive flexibility of space artifacts along a constantly shifting dialectic of waste and utility. My dissertation illustrates how space junk in orbit and falling to Earth brought geographically and politically disparate states into dangerous proximity during the Cold War. I demonstrate that an international consciousness of outer space as a fragile environment at risk emerged early in the Space Age, concurrent with the rise of mainstream environmentalism, and influenced the negotiation of new modes of international scientific and environmental governance in near-Earth space. A decade before the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment amplified the concept of the global environment at the level of international discourse, outer space became the focus of scientific, diplomatic, and lay attention to the need for planetary-scale environmental management. At its core, my research questions historically and culturally contingent definitions of nature and the natural at the first moments that humankind first ventured beyond Planet Earth.

My dissertation begins with a case study of the rocket that launched Sputnik and accompanied it into orbit. Most Americans who reported seeing Sputnik cross the night sky actually glimpsed the much larger, shiner core of the rocket. Different communities around the world understood and used this globally mobile artifact as a scientific instrument, political tool, and intelligence commodity, among many other definitions. I follow this initial case study with a broader analysis of conflicts over nuclear tests in space and Project West Ford, a highly controversial American military space communications system. West Ford spurred contentious debate among specialist and lay communities around the world about what constituted pollution in outer space. Astronomers on either side of the Iron Curtain represented themselves as the ideal judges of environmental safety in this newly accessible natural environment, a position that would be codified in early international space law. Astronomers’ claims of moral environmental authority opened the door to ongoing negotiation of who ought to police and protect near-Earth space from contamination.

I next examine the dangerous permeability of the borderlands between Earth and space—what happens when what goes up comes back down, as all orbiting space objects eventually do, particularly during periods of stormy space weather. When space junk reentered the atmosphere and fell in places it should not, particularly in regions of the Global South, these artifacts became dangerous boundary objects, bringing far-flung states, legal regimes, ecosystems, and bodies into unexpected proximity and reifying Cold War nuclear anxieties of destruction from above. The final chapter explores a brief, temporary foray into an ethos of reusability in the American space industry during the long 1970s, contextualizing this departure within larger patterns of consumption, reuse, and waste in postwar American culture, and historicizing the current race towards a reusable rocket in the private sector aerospace industry.

As a Consortium as a Dissertation Writing Fellow, I reaped immeasurable benefits from being an active part of a generous, diverse intellectual community. Working alongside fellow-fellows, including Dissertation Writing Fellows Carolyn Roberts and Lawrence Kessler, fellow-in-residence Julia Mansfield, postdoctoral fellows Joseph Malherek and Phillip Honenberger, and the many Research Fellows who came through the CHSTM offices over the course of the year provided me with unparalleled opportunities to engage with emerging scholarship in the history of science, technology, and medicine; it also pushed me to rethink how my research might speak to others in affiliated fields and different time periods. Babak Ashrafi promoted collaboration among fellows and involved us in discussions of pedagogy and public outreach. I participated in a compelling virtual community through the many working groups that assemble on a regular basis through the Consortium, and took advantage of the opportunity to develop drafts of my chapters by presenting to several of these groups, from the Earth and Environmental Sciences group to the Physical Sciences group. As someone who has participated in CHSTM events and working groups for much of my graduate career, I found that immersion within this intensive environment for the final year of my doctoral work provided me with the ideal vantage point from which to look both forward and backward—and construct the final pieces of my dissertation atop a solid but dynamic foundation.

Over the course of my year as a Dissertation Writing Fellow, I presented pieces of the chapters I developed while in residence at several conferences including the annual meetings of the Society for the History of Technology and the American Society for Environmental History. I also accepted invitations to give high profile public talks to audiences on CSPAN and at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. While in residence at CHSTM I completed a scholarly article draft, saw the publication of a science and technology policy report that I coauthored with a senior engineer at the RAND Corporation, and published three book reviews for scholarly journals serving different readerships within the fields brought together under the auspices of the Consortium. While working through the final chapters of my dissertation, I also benefitted from career counseling provided by Babak and senior scholars within the Consortium network. Towards the end of the fellowship period I accepted a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for the Humanities for 2016-2018. My time at CHSTM made a concrete contribution to this particular professional success. After several years of solo work in conversation with my committee and the occasional participation in a working group or conference, being embedded in an active, kindred intellectual community for this final year honed my ability to speak effectively about my research to scholars in a range of affiliated fields and disciplines. In addition to providing the necessary time, resources, and generative community to support the dissertation completion, the fellowship also fostered the next steps of my academic career. I am grateful to the Consortium for providing me these invaluable resources at such a critical time in my scholarly formation.