A while back I roamed the streets of India with tiny Mars probes, speaking to strangers about space missions, aliens, climate change and nationalism. It was the start of a thrilling adventure exploring the history and future of India’s space program within the context of global geopolitics, militarization and cultural imperialism. From astronauts to afronauts, from cosmonauts to vyomanauts, how can deep space exploration inspire us to create more democratic future visions?
Here’s the video of my talk at Webstock in February 2016, where I shared some of my adventures around the Mangalyaan probe, space explorations and plural futures.
And here’s the full transcript with some slides.
Kiora Wellington. Alongwith Jon Ardern, I am the co-founder of a small design studio called Superflux. Recently we have developed projects around drones, air pollution, prosthetic vision, iot, (un)smart cities and much more. Being small and mostly autonomous means we try to exploit our freedom to the fullest. We imagine and investigate alternate, plural, uncertain futures and explore the tensions and complexities of those worlds.
One such recent project is called ‘Mangala for All’, based around India’s successful Mars probe Mangalyaan, an ingenious bit of space engineering. Built using blocks and components from earlier missions, the probe has a payload of just 15 kg and cost just $75 million, proving to be cheaper then building the Shard or producing the film Gravity.
Whilst the national press went berserk, the international press’ initial response was a bit odd. The New York Times published this cartoon and the Economist came up with a rather tragic headline. But soon our newsfeeds were flooded with this picture, showing ISRO’s female scientists celebrating. It broke all stereotypes, nationally and internationally.
At Superflux, we wanted to explore and understand the multidimensional side of any such scientific endeavour. So we designed and manufactured 50 Managalyaan Miniatures, a deified version of the Mars Probe, as a tool for our enquiry. We packaged the golden probes into little kits and took them to Ahmedabad in India. It’s the city I grew up in, but more importantly, the birthplace of Vikram Sarabhai the founder of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Equipped with a camera, a sound recorder and the bunch of space probes we wandered the city — exchanging a probe for an interview, learning what the mars mission meant for people and their everyday lived realities. We heard stories of jugaad, scientific innovation and creativity in Mangalyaan’s success, alongside hidden narratives of nationhood, geopolitics and the space race. It was a remarkably humbling experience.
It made me revisit the city of my childhood, where, in the absence of televisions and computer games, long hot summers were spent moving effortlessly in and out of weird and wonderful worlds of mythology, fantasy, religion and fiction. And whilst we immersed ourselves in fantasy worlds, science lurked in our school corridors and backyards. Local trips to the reptile park would have us crouching on our stomachs to see this huge rocket at ISRO just next door — which then felt like a pretty mind-blowing experience.
Growing up in this continuous-split-world of science and mythology shaped my worldview in more profound ways then I realised. At the time I didn’t know that this specific Indian worldview was any different from the rest of the world. I had no exposure to the science fiction and pop culture consumed in the west. Revisiting these memories after having lived in the West for the last 13 years has made me appreciate that difference. As we experience different cultures we realise that there are vastly different understandings of the world that co-exist. Each new experience adds to the rich cultural expanse we nurture, an expanse that we can carry inside us for the rest of our lives. All of this is basically a long winded way of arriving at what I really want to talk about today. ROCKETS OF INDIA.
The story of modern rockets in India began on November 21 1963 when this Nike Apache sounding rocket was launched. Parts of the rocket were brought to the launch pad on a bicycle and assembled at the launch station.. a local Church in a village in Kerala. The bishop’s house was converted into a workshop. A cattle shed became the laboratory. Vikram Sarabhai created ISRO’s formational philosophy. Referring to the Apollo Moon missions he announced — “We do not expect to send a man to the moon or put elephants, white, pink, or black, into orbit around the earth.” Instead, ISRO’s focus would be to develop innovative applications for space technology focused on the Earth and directed at enhancing the livelihoods of people. And it sort of did go that way — the space program brought education, infrastructure, medication, weather management to the country.
This is the first geostationary satellite called APPLE. It was meant to be carried on a padded air conditioned truck but the metal was interfering with the satellite’s antenna. So a bullock cart made of wood was chosen instead. ISRO has since launched 80 Indian satellites of multiple types from earth observations to meteorology to remote sensing to geostationary. So you might ask, how did India develop such a prolific space program — way back in the early 60s? It was a time when India was just barely independent, struggling economically, trying to define its post colonial future. Who had time or money to think about sending rockets into space?
The answer lies in the aspirations that some political leaders set off for the country. Mahatma Gandhi was the voice of the country, his vision was complex and experimental. He rejected the western model of a nation state, instead proposed an India of autonomous village republics articulating the cause of the Charkha, a cottage spinning wheel which would provide both an economic and moral alternative to reliance on machines. On the other hand — Nehru who actually took over as the first prime minister was not quite agreeable — he linked economic, cultural, educational, social and political progress to science and technology. His focus was on building a modern scientific nation state choosing the logic of technological progress over Gandhi’s distributed, semi-autonomous, self reliant, nodal social order. M N Saha a scientist working with Nehru articulated this vision rather well when he stated ‘in spite of what our saintly mahatma may say, the future belongs to those who know how to use machines.”
Nothing could represent this vision of a modern scientific nation state better then this rather surreal tableu by the department of science and technology marching confidently during India’s Republic Day celebrations.
We know where else we had heard such technological determinism. Pretty much around the same time a similar ideology was promoted in the cold war — a race for supremacy in spaceflight beginning with USSR’s Sputnik in 1957. As we know, it was essentially a different kind of arms race, each country attempting to outdo the other through kamikaze style satellites, orbital nuclear explosions, intercontinental ballistic missiles and so many proxy wars — the consequences of which continue to influence global geopolitics today.
There was even a plan to explode a nuclear warhead on the moon, with Carl Sagan and physicist Leonard Reiffel put in charge of the research. Thankfully they decided that sending humans on moon would have a far bigger impact, and so we had this era defining moment, the moon landing.
What followed was sheer euphoria — time magazine promised $5,000 lunar vacations. Pan Am began its Moon Flight Club. but there were also those who were critical of this — for instance Lewis Mumford, the historian and urbanologist, called the moon landing “a symbolic act of war”. And in many ways it was a very clear message to the rest of the world: don’t mess with us — if we can put a man on the moon we can definitely put a nuclear warhead in your capital city. In effect the cold war institutionalized a global commitment to huge, permanent peacetime military-industrial complexes and large-scale military funding of science.
Equally in the modern scientific nation state of India, alongside the prolific civilian space program, a stealth nuclear program was thriving. Underground nuclear tests in the hot desert village of Pokhran, not once but twice took the world by surprise, the consequences of which are faced till date by the local villagers. The tests become a stark physical example of an ideological position of pro-progress. The state’s big vision of where they want to go and power they want to achieve was at odds with the people who were living in that area when their land was radiated by nuclear tests. This exemplifies a critical thing — those with the most power set the vision and the agenda. Ideological conflict was at the heart of the space race, as capitalism and communism came head to head in a fight for hearts and minds.
Underlying these ideological conflicts has been a deeper assertion of technological determinism — the astonishing belief that the growth of technology will bring limitless comfort and potential prosperity. Where rockets ships and atomic reactors were indeed prototypes of better things to come, where Nasa’s spaceships would evolve into luxurious interplanetary passenger liners. These stories of technological progress have penetrated popular culture through a heady mix of government propaganda, mainstream science fiction and corporate media — from the merging of national pride with the space program to the ridiculously seductive visions of space colonies created by Rick Guidice for NASA to the obvious Hollywood vision of space conquests. With the exception of few epic and transcendental moments we have been increasingly overpowered by slick special effects, worlds full of rapacious, all-consuming aliens and two dimensional superheroes.
These stories and images although always bigger then the technological reality, have become in themselves powerful weapons in creating a sort of a cultural imperialism. Even though the technology and politics have moved on, when we try to think of the future these images still have a hold on us. Like an occupation force of immense power, stories of technological promise have colonized the deep space of our collective subconscious.
Somewhere along the way the visions that were routed in the nation state have now been replaced by the aspirations of the market. The gold rush for private space exploration has only just begun, and its frontrunners are seen as today’s superheroes with seductive stories of thrill and promise. From Elon Musk’s intensely ambitious/ludicrous ideas to nuke and colonise Mars to others like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, who aspire to win the race for interplanetary tourism and asteroid mining, ever more seductive computer renders are key to success.
In fact, the computer render stands as the humble artifact of a relentless promise generation machine that churns out the same future in different shades of blue — from mars exploration and robots on moon to smart cities and seamless connectivity. The ideology presented through these contemporary visions of the future often feel even less democratic then the space race era. The progress of disenfranchisement of people from being part of this movement of the future, of space exploration. Maybe its time to shift focus from this particular dominant ideology to see what people’s aspirations for space were in other parts of the world.
As America prepared to send Apollo 11 to the moon, in the Zambian desert, grade school science teacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso set up the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research, and Astronomical Research in an old farmhouse from where he hoped to launch a spacegirl and two cats into space before America or Russia could. To prepare his astronauts, Nkoloso rolled them down hills in 44-gallon oil drums or cut the rope of a swing at its highest point to simulate weightlessness. We do not know what became of the would-be space pioneers, other than that Matha the space girl became pregnant and was taken away by her parents.
This strange but heroic effort has been commemorated in a photo book called The Afronauts by Cristina De Middel with a stunning space costume lovingly sown by her grandmother.
And in a film also called ‘Afronauts’ by Ghanaian filmmaker Frances Bodomo said Nkoloso was essentially a prankster, but what he did was really profound. “When you’re outside the grand narrative of history, to get in by playing the game is futile. You have to poke holes in the game. Leave cracks in it, open it up, redefine it.”
And in China, for decades the dreams of space exploration and conquest have been visualised through the recurring image of that interplanetary future: chubby-cheeked toddlers cruising through space with puppies and bunnies. The country’s space dreams went from a romantic notion to a very technocratic one as seen in the images of today’s Taikonauts. But it remains unique in its different, alien aesthetic to the more known space programs.
In Cuba, Arnaldo Tamayo-Mendez was the first non-american citizen to fly from the western hemisphere. His journey and many more were commemorated through these stunning stamps. In India astronauts are often called vyomanauts, vyom being a sanskrit word for space. Embedded in my memory is ofcourse the dashing Captain Vyom a live-action superhero aired on national TV way back. The series imagined a world where humans had conquered the solar system by 2220, where earth is governed by a World Government, headquartered in Delhi.
There is no doubt that these attempts are deeply entwined with the political agendas of state and non-state actors. But what is also evident is a powerful plural voice and cultural aesthetic. An aesthetic that skillfully uses elements of fiction, fantasy, and magic realism to question histories, borders, and technological narratives. Here in New Zealand similar ideas are explored through phrases like Aotearoa Futurism and Space Maori.
These forms of ambitions for space exploration represent not just pluralistic identities but visions of how alternate futures are voiced and made visible.
As science fiction writer Octavia Butler said,“You’ve got to create your own worlds. You’ve got to write yourself in.”
Why does that matter? Because we — as people and as a species — need to beyond the objectives of nation states and corporate agendas and take control of our futures. As Gandhi said, the future depends on what we do today. But at the moment we lack the inspiration to do so, and this is understandable when our highest vision, our organising paradigm, our rallying cry is economic growth. Whilst market economics may have dampened our desire for an all out global war, it seems to have done little for the planetary scale challenges that lie outside of next quarterly returns.
We know this image. Earthrise, taken by Apollo 8 crew member Bill Anders on December 24, 1968, while in orbit around the Moon. Many people saw it for the first time when it appeared on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue, and the man behind it, Stewart Brand said “We are as gods and might as well get good at it” — it was relevant and inspiring. But in the years since the message, I wonder how it has been interpreted. Have we heard its call to take responsibility for our global fate? Or simply embraced a hubris of believing we can take what ever we want from our planet because “we are as god’s”. Transcendent to the laws of nature, able to renegotiate the planetary terms and conditions.
Have we embraced a sense of planetary entitlement and hubris of believing we can do what we can because we can always magic a solution? We need to understand our place in the universe as it truly is, which is awe-inspiring but also humbling. So how can we reclaim our imaginations, hopes and ambitions? I think perhaps what we need is a new vision, one that acknowledges worlds outside of our own.
Its time we turned our gaze away from the earth for a moment to understand our true place in the universe. I am reminded of this image taken by the hubble space telescope. Looking out from earth, it picked a point of apparent emptiness, an area equivalent 1 mm by 1 mm square of paper held at 1 meter away.
What appeared to be a cold dark void was in fact a breath taking glimpse into the vastness of the universe we inhabit. Every single dot was a galaxy, and there were over 3000 of them, some of which are among the youngest and most distant known.
The series of images help us make sense of what this means.
Inside our solar system.
Our solar system’s interstellar neighbourhood.
Our interstellar nieghbourhood within our own milky way galaxy.
Contained inside its local galactic group.
Which sits inside a virgo supercluster.
And this virgo supercluster is just one of numerous local superclusters.
All of them inhabiting what is called the Observable Universe.
Which contains over 200 billion galaxies and around 1 billion, trillion stars.
It’s at moments like this that we have a real feeling of how immense the universe is. This vastness and our place within it can give us a deep perspective of possibilities. A perspective to see time scales and space scales bigger then a nation, bigger then a solar system, bigger then a galaxy, bigger then the time it took for us to evolve from a shrew to a bipedal monkey.
It’s the vision of humility, collaboration and acknowledgement, that we are not as gods…but instead, we are as children lost in dreams, yet to realise our true potential and place in the universe.