By Karlijn Korpershoek
“It’s not about possessions,
Money or religion
How many years we might live
When the only real question
That matters is still a matter of perspective”
These words, sung by a cute children’s choir, chime through the large conference room. The music is accompanied by beautiful imagery of a pristine Earth; of deserted deserts; of vibrantly green plants; of a cute monkey looking straight at the camera. The stuff you see in nature documentaries.
It is the opening ceremony of the 73rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC), and this 2015 song by a cohort of celebrities is being brought back to life to accompany a very specific presentation of Earth. One which, we as an audience, need to: “Keep [it] safe. It’s our world. Keep it safe”. The world, the one ‘we’ are supposed to keep safe, is presented as void of chaos, pollution, politics or for that matter, people. The shown spaces are not placed within a geographical, spatial or temporal context and are very symbolic of what Raymond Williams in 1980 already identified as “an abstract, idealist notion of nature as pristine and untouched by humans” (Williams in Sayre 2012). This pristine conceptualization is the first of many Earths, Worlds and Spaces we encounter during the 5 day conference.
IAC 2022 – Karaoke Opening Ceremony
The IAC is held annually, switching locations every year and this year it was held in Paris. Space companies, agencies and celebrities (and anthropologists) come together here to give updates on latest missions and technologies; to listen to plenary sessions on a wide range of topics, but mainly, to network. This year, the conference took place at the Paris Expo Centre Porte de Versailles, an enormous conference hall where simultaneously multiple other conferences and events were held. And within a day of ending the IAC, the traces of outer space would be removed and replaced with another large-scale conference. The location reminds me of Marc Augé’s non-place: after walking the ten minutes from the entrance to the exhibition hall, aided by the automatic walkways, you reach the security guards awaiting the attendees to do a quick check (Augé, 1995). This evokes a feeling of an airport; of a place where you travel through, not to. Additionally, the more than 9000 attendees, plus 500 staff, plus exhibitors and guests, make it easy to disappear in the crowds. Yet, the concept and purpose of conferences is the opposite: it is community building. The point is to meet people in your ‘field’. The one of space ends up being very fluid.
For the duration of the conference, outer space exists in many forms and shapes here. There is the large Ariane Rocket ‘welcoming’ the attendees at the entrance; there are banners and LED screens everywhere displaying this year’s theme “Space4@ll”; and then there is the congress centre itself. On the first floor, there is a large hall where companies and agencies have bought space for their stalls to create places where people can inquire and learn about their particular endeavours. Depending on where you walk and who you talk to, the place quickly shifts in meaning and shape. For downstream application companies, space is all about what it can do for us ‘down here’. For launchers, it is all about the importance of access to outer space. For students, the hall becomes a walking job fair. For small business owners, the hall is the place to make the connections that might secure a future for their company. For the national agencies, it is a way to show the particular paths they are taking to maximise space applications for its citizens. And interestingly, a way to promote their national identity by providing local drinks or snacks at the end of the day. Outer space here means whatever the attendants want it to: it can be the view of Earth from above, or the design of a speculative planet where you drink coffee under a tree created to evoke imagination, curiosity and relationality to outer space.
On the second floor, there is the main room where the plenary events are held. These are the big, awe-inducing events like the astronaut panel; a talk from science communication celebrity Bill Nye and the opening and closing ceremonies. Around those, there are the smaller rooms where every day is filled with panels: those are thematically bound sessions lasting 2 to 4 hours with a large number of speakers on a similar topic. Spending much time in those so-dubbed technical sessions, it becomes clear very quickly that no two rooms, no two sessions, have a similar meaning of space (or time for that matter). Certain sessions are incredibly technical, talking about specific aircraft designs and computations of orbits. Others are more speculative, like the session on space habitats, where architecture of our future on the Moon or Mars is presented as just around the corner. What strikes me, is that for an untrained eye (which in many cases, is my own), it is very difficult to distinguish between the attainability of the goals and hopes presented at these technical sessions. Forecasted problems of life on a faraway planet are presented with the same level of seriousness and urgency as problems of a satellite currently in orbit.
In 2012, David Valentine already demonstrated the use of attending space conferences when doing anthropological research into the workings of the industry. By focusing on commercial actors, he illustrates how within the NewSpace industry, capital investments and profit driven decisions are justified through social, ideological and cosmological ideations of a future enabled through space exploration. These narratives are still strong a decade later, also at a conference where it is not just “New Space” companies (a term used to delineate between ‘traditional’ state actors in the space industry from ‘new’ commercial companies entering the market) but also research institutes, national space agencies and students. Where Valentine focuses on the tension between narratives of long-term planning of off-earth futures and the actuality of a short term, profit driven industry, I want to finish by directing the attention to the paradoxical hope of the space industry to be international, collaborative and sustainable, while it is (as least as much, if not more) national, defensive and polluting.
As it is not only the different rooms where outer space shifts meaning, but also within the speeches and sessions where outer space seamlessly is used to represent a myriad of different things. For this, let’s return to the opening ceremony. The event opener alone is a repository of paradoxes, where within the same speeches, presenters seamlessly and unproblematically address how ‘we’ should build towards a common future for humankind, while emphasising national achievements and the importance of defence from foreign forces (speakers varied in their explicitness of naming Russia here).
This shifting from global and planetary perspectives to national prowess is also clear from the choice of performances in between the speeches. Throughout the ceremony, we follow the theatrical tracing of the life of a young girl, dreaming of the stars. While thinking about the possibilities of moving into space in the future, the Eiffeltower on the screen behind her transforms into a rocket that travels into the depths of the universe. Another intermezzo is provided by the French Breakdance team, who will be competing at the Olympics when the sport will be introduced at the event during the 2024 Summer Olympics in … Paris. Despite a focus on the international achievements of the space industry, the audience is not allowed to forget we are in France, who position themselves as the centre of the European and global space industry both in the present, future and past (it is emphasised repeatedly that Paris was also the host city in the first iteration of the conference in 1950). Space shifts from being “out there” to being directly here, in Paris, in France, in Europe.
It is a few hours later, during the heavily attended Heads of Space Agencies panel, that we can see more of these paradoxes play out in front of us. After each of the agencies (JAXA – Japan, ISRO – India, NASA – USA, ESA – EU and CSA – Canada) have each presented their achievements and plans, we go into audience questions. Towards the end, the moderator says she has a ‘very interesting and much requested’ question for the panellists. I move to the edge of my seat, as the most upvoted questions in the online poll are: “If the conference theme is space for all, where are China and Russia on this panel?” and “What is your opinion towards the future of ISS in the frame of current relationships with Russia? Do you think they can terminate their participation?”, questions that I have been wondering about ever since the conference theme was released. The moderator decides to go along the lines of the second question but decides to leave out the potentially controversial part of publicly addressing the issue of Russia’s participation in the ISS. Rather, it becomes the slimmed down and much less interesting question about the future of human settlement in space now that the ISS will be decommissioned in 2030. The Heads of Space Agencies grab their chance to promote the national-commercial partnerships they are working on. A bullet easily avoided as it was not fired in the first place.
Outer space at the International Astronautical Conference has many meanings. It easily and swiftly shifts from grand narratives about saving the future of our planet, to being about the specific designs of satellite navigation systems. It is about military defence, while maintaining that one of the primary goals is to provide benefits to all (without specifying who and what that entails). The question remains what exactly ties together all these competing, paradoxical narratives, and how do they relate to the difficult questions not being asked as well as the stories completely absent from the conference. That is something that over the course of the coming years, together with the other ARIES team members, I hope to better understand.
Augé, Marc. (1995). Non-places : introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London: Verso.
IAC. (2022). Karaoke Opening Ceremony. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fc7cXTZVFRk&ab_channel=IAC2022Congress
Sayre, N. F. (2012). The politics of the anthropogenic. In Annual Review of Anthropology (Vol. 41). https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-092611-145846
Valentine, D. (2012). Exit Strategy: Profit, Cosmology, and the Future of Humans in Space on JSTOR. Anthropology Quarterly, 85(4), 1045–1067. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41857289?seq=1