5 — Space
On Evangelion, Nausicaä, and the Vehicle Assembly Building
Interstate 50 is only a five minute drive from my apartment. Every couple of months for the past year I’ve gotten the urge to drive to its end, due east from Orlando. One morning, two summers ago, my partner and I inextricably woke up together, wide awake, at 5 am. One morning, last fall, I dropped my friend off at the airport much too early and drove past my apartment through a blanket of fog. Most recently it was during another all nighter during lockdown. Though I had been up for about 24 hours at that point while my partner and I attempted (in vain) to jump start our circadian rhythms, I found the morning ritual rejuvenating. I should’ve been shutting down, but it’s hard to stay tired when the sun is directly at the end of the road.
Closer to the city, I50 is called “Colonial Drive.” It ends in Titusville, intersecting with A1A and, just beyond that, the “Indian River.” But if the road followed my gaze and continued into the rays of light, it would reach the base of a monolith, silhouetted by the low sun. The Vehicle Assembly Building, the only feature on the horizon in this part of the Intracoastal.
The VAB is an anomaly. It’s no longer on the list of tallest buildings in Florida (that honor goes to about 20 condos in Miami), but it still holds the peculiar record of tallest building outside an urban area in the US. It’s significant because we’re not used to seeing such a structure so idle, at least not since our first skyscrapers a century ago. And in the middle of a wetland national park, the next tallest building a surf shop over in Coco, the boxy building evokes the same unease as The Sentinel, with all the sensory fuckery of 2001’s finale.
There was a brief period after the Shuttle program, as Cape Canaveral transitioned to the next generation of projects (namely SpaceX and SLS), that the VAB was opened to the public. According to the earliest pictures on my phone, it was eight years ago. What I remember most of the superstructure is its doors. There’s one big one, tall enough to move a Saturn V, and many smaller ones. Very normal doors made for our bodies lead to what is essentially one tall room. The space is surprisingly well lit by windows running up the 500 foot wall, but shadows stretch beyond a hatched grid of support beams that surround the interior like a permanent scaffolding. The newly retired shuttle Atlantis was 30 feet away, overshadowed by its unnecessarily large hangar.
The VAB has me thinking about, more than the machine, the spaces we build. The rockets weren’t built in the VAB. They get put together there (it’s in the name) and placed on a crawler-transport to be moved to the launch pads. But the thing about the building where every manned American spacecraft has been prepared for launch is that almost every single one of the-most-complex-machines-built-by-man-at-the-time had passed through there in the latter half of the 20th century. The Space Shuttle main engine’s alone contain 50,000 parts, three of them on each orbiter. Only 47 were ever made. What’s more, the SSMEs and all of the Apollo program predate CAD. It’s impressive enough we got to the moon with the tech, but somehow even more astounding to me that we could construct the rockets entirely on paper.
The VAB is a liminal space for the otherworldly bodies we built to carry our own, and it is its own blueprint. As the machines we make are constrained by our tools and our very minds, they are shaped by the space surrounding them. It is incredibly human; anthropomorphic and self-similar on many levels. “We could have made them look like anything” reminds us to question the assumptions of not only what we build, but the spaces we build to contain our bodies.
And as mecha has grappled with the idealized bodies we construct, it has approached the question of spaces: catapults, hangars, colonies, containers. The VAB strikes me most in its similarity to the liquid-filled docks at Nerv HQ, the one Shinji stands on a catwalk in, looking up at his father. The negative space of the underground bunker is even replicated by the silhouette of the structure every morning. And like the VAB, the “ultimate manmade multipurpose combat weapon” wasn’t built entirely in NERV. Whatever that fleshy thing beneath its plating is, it’s beyond this space. Not yet the intangible hyperobject that man is better at creating, but too big and too otherworldly for the moniker of “machine.”
My first thought as I turned onto A1A that morning, however, wasn’t of Evangelion. It was the short preamble to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. When we talk about the giant mech-adjacent God Warriors of Nausicaä, we often bring up how Hideaki Anno worked on the animation. It is so tempting to think of the giants that walked the Earth while it burned as proto-Evas, strikingly similar to the angel walking out of an N2 mine minutes into the anime. But these giant’s did not originate from Anno’s hands. Nausiccaä was, of course, adapted from Miyazaki’s manga of the same name, in what was a necessary step to creating both the film and studio. And there they are, frightening as ever, placed even before the world map. A warning against the things we might build:
In a few short centuries, industrial civilization had spread from the western fringes of Eurasia to sprawl across the face of the planet. Plundering the soil of its riches, fouling the air, and remolding lifeforms at will, this gargantuan industrial society already peaked a thousand years after its foundation: ahead lay abrupt and violent decline. The cities burned, welling up with clouds of poison in the war remembered as The Seven Days of Fire. The complex and sophisticated technological superstructure was lost; almost all the surface of the earth was transformed into a sterile wasteland. Industrial civilization was never rebuilt as mankind lived on through the long twilight years…
My friend Elizabeth told me after one of her AP bio classes in high school that the most efficient machine known to man is the human cell. Not the LHC, not the RS-25. (Now she has a degree in a very particular field I can never remember the name of, and she reassured me this is still true.) The irony of all invention is that man’s pursuits are already delimited by the materials of our own construction. The human cell is to engineers what the human-sized doors are to the VAB — necessary to function, and a boundary of possibility — for we are all a product of the spaces that construct us.
Your favorite social construct,
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