Distillations podcast

Deep Dives into Science Stories, Both Serious and Eccentric
September 8, 2020 Inventions & Discoveries

Space Junk

Historian of science and Institute fellow Lisa Ruth Rand talks about all the debris floating around in outer space.

Miss USA and Miss Australia stand with two men around a fragment of Skylab at the 28th Miss Universe pageant, held in Perth, Australia on 20 July 1979.

Outer space is crowded. Satellites, pieces of rocket, and stuff that astronauts left behind, such as cameras and poop, are just floating around. This space junk can pose a threat to our communication systems.

In this episode, we talk with Lisa Ruth Rand, a fellow at the Science History Institute, about her upcoming book on space junk. She tells us how space weather—that’s right, there’s space weather—can have an effect on what falls on Earth. She also talks about how our views on space debris reveal our attitudes back on Earth and how space junk truly made the space age global.

Credits

Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: James Morrison
Image credit: “Skylab debris displayed at Miss Universe contest venue,” National Archives of Australia

Resource List

Interview with Marie Ruman. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, January 24, 1978.

Judd, Bridget. “NASA’s Skylab met its demise in Australia more than 40 years ago—but was it really an accident?” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, May 30, 2020. 

The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, “Cosmos 954.” January 25, 1978, American Archive of Public Broadcasting. 

Rand, Lisa Ruth. “Orbital Decay: Space Junk and the Environmental History of Earth’s Planetary Borderlands.” PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2016. 

Rand, Lisa Ruth. “Wasted Space: The History of Orbiting Junk.” Science History Institute, December 5, 2019.

Trudeau, Pierre Elliott. Speech at the House of Commons of Canada, January 24, 1978. 

Transcript

Lisa Berry Drago:  On January 24th 1978, something very unusual happened in the wilderness of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Residents of Yellowknife, the closest city, were pretty confused.

Archival: When I first saw it, I thought it was a jet leaving the airport, and then I realized that it couldn’t be a jet because it had this long, fiery flame following it. And, uh, uh, I thought, well, it might be a jet that was on fire. And then, like I said, I realized it wasn’t because the, uh, the part which I thought was a jet was, uh, uh, like a fluorescent light. The whole thing was so bright. And, uh, I called, um, my son and daughter who were just coming out of the door to look at it, and we saw this thing passed over us. Dozens and dozens of pieces following it, and they all have tails, long, fiery tails.

Lisa Berry Drago:  The next day, it was clear what had actually happened. This is Jim Lehrer from the MacNeil/Lehrer report on PBS.

Archival:  Good evening, something scary happened yesterday, something science fiction buffs have been telling us for years was going to happen. A satellite with a nuclear reactor aboard fell out of the sky. The damage was apparently more psychic than physical. The Russian craft known as Cosmos 954 reentered the atmosphere over the wildest country of Canada’s Northwest Territories. All of it disintegrating into magnificent but harmless balls of fire before anything hit the ground.

Lisa Berry Drago:  American intelligence officials have been tracking Cosmos 954 in orbit since December of 1977, and they noticed it was acting erratically. Actually, it was completely out of control, which was concerning, of course, because it was powered by a nuclear reactor. What would happen if this thing landed on earth? Would it cause radioactive fallout? And how would we know where it would land? US intelligence warned the Canadian government, but neither government told their citizens about the threat. The Cosmos 954 Saga brought residents of Canada’s Northwest Territories into the space age, but not in any way that was beneficial to them. No, they got acquainted with Outer Space through the trash that space exploration creates. They got to know space junk.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  The space age became truly global not through moments of innovation, of technological innovation, but in moments of decay.

Lisa Berry Drago:  I am Lisa Berry Drago, and this is Distillations. On this episode, we’re talking to Lisa Ruth Rand. She’s a research fellow at the Science History Institute, a historian of science technology in the environment. We’re going to talk about her book in progress, Space Junk: A History of Waste in Orbit, and we’re going to find out what space junk tells us about our relationship to outer space. Who has ownership over space? And what are those people leaving behind there? So thank you so much for being here today.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Happy to be here.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Um, so, first, what is space junk?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Well, space junk like any other trash, any other waste, is really kind of contingent on the eye of the beholder. So what’s one person’s trash is another person’s treasure applies in outer space the same as it applies on the surface of the earth. In NASA and other state space programs, the general definition is of space junk or orbital debris, which is it’s more technical name is any object designed for use in outer space that currently does not serve a designated purpose. And that can refer to objects that are still in space and objects that have fallen to the atmosphere back to Earth.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Could you just really briefly give me an idea of like what are the types of things that are up there in space? What “waste” have we left behind?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  A lot of things fall under that umbrella. There’s everything from satellites that are no longer operating, pieces of rockets that launched those satellites that are no longer that didn’t, that didn’t reenter the atmosphere that are still up there pieces, objects shed from rockets and satellites. There’s also stuff that astronauts have left behind. Um, for example, um, astronauts on the moon left behind these garbage bags, every moon mission left behind a garbage bag.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Wait a minute, a garbage bag of what?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Well, that contained everything from food wrappers to unneeded devices to likely human waste. So there’s poop up on the moon that will outlive us all [laughing]. 

Lisa Berry Drago:  I’m so glad to hear you say that there’s poop on the moon [laughing].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Well, they, they, they, I mean, they left cameras up there too, because it was just you have to be careful, weight is always a consideration. So all the cameras that they used to take pictures on the moon left where they took a film out, but then they left the cameras behind. So, and then, and then one Apollo mission actually threw one of these garbage bags out on the way back and that is likely in a solar orbit at this point. It’s not being tracked. I don’t, we don’t know where it is. But, yeah, they opened the door, threw it out and said, “Bye-bye bag.”

Lisa Berry Drago:  Wow.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  It’s in the transcripts. 

Lisa Berry Drago:  That’s amazingly reflective of the attitude that we have toward space.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Well, it’s not only that, it’s more just the attitude we have towards our wastes, right?

Lisa Berry Drago:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  When we discard things, it’s we, we are, we are taking something we don’t want and putting it out of our vicinity. And it’s rare that it then actually disappears, it becomes someone else’s problem. Or it gets taken up by another, um, you know, taken up by the environment and moved to, to places that we don’t expect it to move. But our atmosphere does, does protect us from a lot of the bombardment. That said, if these interstellar tests happen and debris hits debris hits other debris hits functioning satellites, and suddenly, you have what’s known as the Kessler syndrome. So a, a kind of chain reaction domino effect where suddenly we no longer have use of orbit for satellites. That would be a major problem. This is something that I think is a very important part of thinking about space junk as an environmental problem.

Is that it’s, ultimately, we’re talking about an infrastructure. And infrastructure is a technological system that provides the backbone for multiple other practices, and that’s invisible it comes naturalized. It’s invisible until it fails. So we don’t think about electricity until the lights go off. We don’t think about the sewage system until our toilets back up.  We won’t necessarily think necessarily about our satellite information infrastructure until we can’t use it.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Because then, suddenly, you realize how much of what you and I do on a day to day basis is attached to satellites, whether it’s using a GPS on our phone, whether it’s taking money out of an ATM, whether it’s using the internet, whether it’s making phone calls, whether it’s flying on an airplane, whether it’s any sort of financial transaction is, is, in many ways, usually attached to satellites with, you know, any sort of live media. And our global modern world is supported by satellites. And if those were to go away, it wouldn’t be something that we would see or notice within our kind of in, in any way that we would if it’s any other sort of infrastructure we think of.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right, if a, if a bridge collapses, you understand-

Lisa Ruth Rand:  You notice it.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Yeah, you, and you probably understand it before it’s happening. You understand, “This is crumbling, you know, 1970s infrastructure. We need to strengthen this. There’s been some work done. There’s this crisis.” You see the before, the during, the after kind of, but a satellite communications blackout, globally, would be catastrophic. 

Lisa Ruth Rand:  But you wouldn’t, you wouldn’t necessarily, it wouldn’t feel catastrophic, you would just notice that things aren’t working the way that they’re supposed to. I like to think of it as you would feel in your body that something was different. Why are all of these kind of Cyborg practices that you’re so used to not working? And it’s because one critical piece of those, of those, of that, of that infrastructure is gone. So that is kind of why I think this discussion needs to be bigger, and why everyone should care about space junk. Everyone who participates in industrialized society, anyone who has a smartphone, anyone who uses, who consults weather reports, anyone who wants to be rescued in the case of a natural disaster or humanitarian disaster [laughs], anything.

Like any number of things that, that we rely upon, I mean our defense communities are completely reliant on space infrastructure to, to operate. It’s, it’s so deeply integrated into everything, but yet so invisible to the majority of users of satellites.

Lisa Berry Drago:  There’s more stuff being sent up year after year, and some of that is happening with private companies like with SpaceX. SpaceX is the one that keeps coming up again and again. So I’m curious what there is to say about the Starlink satellite launches to create new faster internet connections supposedly and, um… First of all, what is Starlink [laughs]? Let’s start there.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Starlink is a so-called constellation of satellites. So a cluster of many, many, many hundreds, ultimately, at the end, if not thousands of satellites that together are designed to provide broadband internet access across the world. Including in places where traditional broadband, either it’s difficult to connect people or they just don’t have access for, for multiple reasons beyond material feasibility. So in many ways, it’s kind of a noble idea and one that kind of relates to this idea of access to space being something that is ultimately limited by access by wealth and capital and resources.

But it’s been kind of tricky, in many ways, partly because this is something that’s being launched by a private company. Elon Musk has, who’s the head of SpaceX, has a- announced that he wants to launch two Starlink launches per month in 2020. And now each of these launches has several dozen satellites within each rocket. And so there have been 242 Starlink satellites total launch, as of the end of January 2020. And this is an exponential rise in the total number of artificial satellites in orbit around the planet. And when Starlink first started launching, astronomers, in particular, were very, very concerned and they, their responses were remarkably similar to the responses that astronomers had back in the early 1960s when they were concerned about the first communication satellites.

They were concerned about setting a dangerous precedent, what would happen if, um, exponentially more shiny objects were launched into outer space? Because each one of these satellites has a large shiny surface area that reflects sunlight at dawn and dusk when the satellite itself is against a dark sky, but the sun’s light is still coming around the horizon.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  So, um, particularly, when the objects are first launched, they’re in a lower orbit, um, they can really crowd up your field of view with artificial shiny things. There’s also of course concern about radio spectrum use which is like also a long-term concern among astronomers about how to protect their ability to observe in multiple wavelengths, not just optical belts or radio. And then, of course there’s also the concern about what happens when things break, right? So Elon Musk has, has made very clear, in response to these concerns that the original satellites will be designed to reenter quickly so that any, any detrimental effects will be short lived.

This is something that is verbatim the same as in particular one early space communications project called Project West Ford. That was one of the first real communication satellites that astronomers were concerned about what would happen if, if they stayed up forever. They were assured by the US Air Force MIT Lincoln Laboratory that they would come back to earth, and that any, any potentially detrimental effects will be short lived. So you’re seeing a lot of the same kind of the same argument, the same, the same protest, the same resistance back from the designers, to this question of who gets to put what up there, and, what’s at risk? What’s at stake?

And the, the, the big difference here is that unlike with West Ford and with these early space programs, instead of it being a state power, it’s an individual it’s a company that don’t answer to the same powers as, as state actors. SpaceX does not receive… I mean, indirectly, they received taxpayer money, but they are not funded directly by the taxpayers. They don’t have the same accountability, they don’t have the same bureaucracy. So there’s a lot of big question marks, and a lot of the same kind of recurring rhyming debates going on that have been going on since the very beginning of the space age, but just with a of a different shape as the actors change.

Lisa Berry Drago:  So you mentioned, you mentioned Project West Ford, um, in relationship to the, Starlink. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Sure. So Project West Ford, which was originally known as Project Needles, was a passive communication satellite system that was developed by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, uh, beginning in around 1958, and then they did two test launches of it, one in 1961 and one in 1963. And keep in mind that during this time period, we had very few artificial satellites to begin with. And when, Project Needles as it was initially called, went into development, we really didn’t have anything that you could describe as a communication satellite. None of the initial first, the first few satellites could actually transmit a satellite from one point on the ground to the other part of the ground.

And what the MIT Lincoln Laboratory was trying to do was to try to figure out if there was a way to use, um, multiple tiny satellites, um, to use as reflectors for signals sort of on the ground. So Project Needles is, was something that would not be recognizable to you and I as a satellite. So the space based components of the project were these tiny copper fibers called dipoles, which were thinner than a human hair and only a couple of centimeters long each. But there were some 400 million of them that were to be launched to an, to an altitude of about 3500 kilometers. And together, as an aggregate, they could serve as kind of artificial ionosphere. So the ionosphere is part of the atmosphere where there are a lot of charged ionized particles that,  we use to reflect radio waves across long distances over the horizon, in particular, where you can’t just do a straight l- line of sight.

But also during this time period, both the United States and the Soviet Union were launching space nukes. Basically, they were exploding nuclear weapons in outer space. And that had the effect of temporarily disrupting the ionosphere and making it so that any land area under the explosion could not communicate out using radio.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  So by creating a kind of artificial ionosphere much higher into Outer Space, much higher than any EXO atmospheric nuke could fly, Project Needles would provide kind of an important communications infrastructure that did not yet exist. However, you know, the Lincoln Laboratory as it was developing, it grew a little concerned that perhaps astronomers might, might have some concerns about the way that the project was being developed. Because they were gonna be these 400 million shiny copper fibers in space that were not there before. And so they made certain aspects public, they, they enrolled the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences, to evaluate it.

There was a lot of back and forth, there was a lot of resistance within the Space Science Board, but eventually, when,  when details were made public through a- astronomy journal, um, astronomers around the world really responded negatively. They were not so much concerned about the test project itself, but they were concerned about it. What they were concerned about was what if this became the norm? Now when we think of satellites, we think of these large behemoths that have lots of electronics on board, that  can accept, store, and amplify a signal back to another point on the ground. In many ways, this was kind of an interesting cheap way to have the same process, maybe not as high fidelity or as, as, as, high quality transmissions.

But a microwave signal sent from one point of the ground to this belt of dipoles, would then be scattered by those dipoles and picked up from, by a receiver on another point on the ground. So everything in space could be very easily cheaply installed. This is just copper, it’s not a very fancy, or, you know, unusual substance. Not a very complicated design, whether it can be cheaply and quickly installed at a moment’s notice if needed. And one that would provide the military with, um, communications backup, if say, space nukes become part of warfare, right? Become something where you can create an effective blackout over, say, Washington D.C. without actually destroying anything on the ground.

But, suddenly, the President can’t communicate with his nuclear arsenal around the world. Especially if that’s in conjunction with, kind of transoceanic cables. So they were concerned about what would happen if this became the norm. If this was just a test version, a more fully functional version would have multiple belts. We’d have one around the equator, one around the poles, and would be denser, have many, many more, dipoles. Then what if the Soviet Union wanted their own dipole belts? What if Europe wanted their own dipole belts and suddenly you have a sky full of reflective material? Now, why does this matter to them? Optical astronomers were worried that having all this reflective material in the sky, much like their concerns about Starlink now, um, would create a lot of visual noise.

So lots of little points of light that were not naturally occurring that were just human made artifacts. There were a lot of, um, optical astronomers who were also concerned about a collision hazard. So during the same time period, the very first orbiting astronomical observatories were being developed. And astronomers, many astronomers were very excited about this prospect because the atmosphere filters out a lot of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can’t observe from the ground by placing a satellite above, uh, uh, uh, just by placing a sensor above the atmosphere, suddenly you have access to gamma radiation, you have access to X-ray wavelengths, you have access to ultraviolet.

All these different wavelengths that you could, we couldn’t observe with before because of the atmosphere. There might be this revolution at stake, but what happens if suddenly you have all of these dipoles that the space telescope is lower than and, and then you’d have to put that space telescope even higher, which is riskier and more expensive [laughing].

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Or you have it in the same area then you have collision hazards.

Lisa Berry Drago:  For, for a project like this to have been one of the first big launches, I can see, I can see a lot of concern. Because, of course, here we are now [laughing]. Like they were right to be concerned. 

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Right, and West Ford was, uh, West Ford, uh, was not the only one that astronomers were concerned about. Anything that was large and shiny, any satellite really was something that they were really concerned about. But this was one that gained a lot of traction. And it got a lot of press. And one of the things that I found really interesting in tracing how that project changed and how different communities responded to it was that the first test launch, which failed to deploy the dipoles as planned, was a 1961. The second was 1963, and the dipoles did successfully deploy. And in the middle, 1962, was the publication of Silent Spring, which really kind of changed the way that mainstream communities thought about pollution, thought about what counts as what counts as pollution, and, and even thinking about pollution that’s invisible. And what’s been so fascinating to me as I research astronomers protests against these early communication satellites is that they’re using really pro environmentalist terminology to describe what they’re concerned about. They refer to creating a Space Pollution Control Board staffed by astronomers to, to try to make sure that outer space can be protected from destruction at the hands of these kind of faceless state authorities that are otherwise acting with impunity and without consent.

This is all really in the moment right before and during the publication of Silent Spring, the rise of mainstream environmentalism. So in many ways, the western culture was really primed to talk about invisible pollution like space junk, um, like nuclear fallout, like pesticides. They’re all kind of one and the same. Space junk really was, was part of that really for a very, very early stage. Uh, part of kind of a larger conversation about environmental protection and really and about authority. Who has, who has the right to pollute an environment especially, one like space which is supposed to be the domain of all humankind.

And the ways that, particularly, journalists discussed West Ford, I found a lot of op eds that talk about, the need to keep governments from polluting outer space, from littering orbit, from cluttering up space, right? So it almost sounds like just, you know, like, like throwing a can on the side of the road but, 

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  … but with copper needles in space. And, um, even, even as astronomers ultimately had, uh, stood down, that most astronomers by the second launch to downward were less concerned because, because of bureaucracy, because of having some reception within the people who, within the groups who are developing it, there were some safeguards put in. The project as it, as it was tested, had no real effect on astronomy. Astronomers were, most astronomers were satisfied that it would be okay. That Project West Ford would not impede astronomical observation. That said, it also wasn’t repeated.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  West Ford was the only one of its kind and active satellites really became the norm. The satellites that we think of that you and I think of now. But this is where, again, where Starlink is kind of an interesting case because you have very similar kinds of concerns as West Ford. But instead of hundreds of millions of tiny, tiny copper fibers, which, as you said, would not be visible to anyone without really sensitive instruments. And it, it turns out we’re not, we’re not actually visible to most instruments at the time. You have these objects that are visible to the naked eye, at least, in the very beginning stages. And you have hundreds and possibly thousands of them depending on if Elon Musk continues to launch at the rate that he’s, uh, launching. You know, you have the, the stakes have changed but the debate is very, very similar.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Mm-hmm [affirmative]. How does this typically work? How does space junk enter space and how does it come back down? What is that, what is actually the mechanics of that process?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  So there’s multiple ways that space junk can be created and how it gets up there. Now how it comes down is, I think, one of the most interesting parts. We often think of space as being a void, a place of nothingness. There’s no, you know, there’s no air, there’s no land to speak of, there’s no life. And yet it’s I like to refer to it as an, as an abiotic ecosystem, as, as a kind of geophysical landscape. It’s a place that the region’s just outside of our atmosphere. First of all, there’s really no clear cut off between where the Earth’s atmosphere ends and where space begins. Atmospheric particles extend hundreds of thousands of kilometers out into space.

And this is something that was kind of an interesting revision to our understanding of Earth’s place in the solar system that came about with the first satellites. When physicists were measuring how the first objects in space were moving. They realized that instead of being this physically isolated planet, that Earth had a lot of interactions with the solar system, especially, the sun. So the sun sends out radiation, it sends out plasmas, there’s rocky, rocky bodies, naturally occurring rocky bodies coming in and out of our vicinity. There’s magnetism generated by, by the earth, and there’s all these different interacting forces and material objects that move throughout this space and they all interact with the objects that we put up there. So, um-

Lisa Berry Drago:  So space is a little crowded [laughs]?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Space is crowded, but with things and with forces.

Lisa Berry Drago:  A- and it’s certainly, yeah, it’s certainly like energetic. There’s we-

Lisa Ruth Rand:  It’s very energetic.

Lisa Berry Drago:  … we think of it not having wind and not having currents and not having other things that we’re familiar with in air and water. But it does have, it does have the tug, it does have the, the push and pull on the back and forth going on as well.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Yes, it does. And the sun plays a huge role in shaping that landscape. We, I mean, we shape it by putting things into it, but the sun has a very, very strong force in shaping what, what stays up and what comes down. The sun undergoes a pretty regular 11 year solar cycle, wherein it sends out more or less energy depending on where it is in that cycle. And during periods of what’s called solar maximum, the sun’s out, sun sends out exponentially higher amounts of radiation and energy. And during those times, it heats up the Earth’s atmosphere which causes it to expand. And because of that expansion, atmospheric particles interact with objects that are no longer being controlled and exerts friction on them and their, and drag and they get pulled back into the atmosphere.

So that’s something that’s a natural process. The sun kind of has, the sun and Earth together interact to create this self-cleaning mechanism for orbit that sweeps clean a lot of our messes at lower orbits. Higher orbits, that’s less efficient because the, the atmospheric particle density is slower. So, I mean, kind of like, like a river or an ocean that can carry, that we, we, we count on to clean up our messes for us. Space does the same thing, although, apparently anthropogenic climate change is causing that mechanism to be-

Lisa Berry Drago:  Uh-huh [affirmative].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  … with just the efficiency. So we, we, we [laughing] think of it as being very specific to the earth but e- extends well beyond what we think of as being the biosphere, the, the effects of climate change.

Lisa Berry Drago:  What you’re describing feels like a solar tide in a way where you, you see things carried in or carried out.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  I like that, a solar tide. I hadn’t thought of it that way, I like that. Yeah.

Lisa Berry Drago:  But I’m just thinking about like things that are left behind and that are, you know, like the cleanliness of a beach or, you know, the sort of visible cleanliness or the perceived cleanliness of a beach can be dependent on what the tide brings in, what the tide takes out.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Right, I think that’s a very good way of thinking about it. Yeah, and of course, in some ways, it’s almost the reverse, though, because when the sun drags things back in, that’s when they become visible to us again.

Lisa Berry Drago:  So we’ve talked about the very smallest satellites [laughs], how about a really enormous, um, satellite that did… so the, the, the needles came back to Earth, but also so did, so just so did the Cosmos [laughs].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  But when you put it that way, it sounds like the sky is falling, which is [laughing] kind of how it felt in a lot of cases when large satellites began to fall in the ’70s. So I mentioned the solar cycle, that the sun sends out more or less energy depending on where it is in that 11 year period. Now, the very first solar maximum of the space age was the very beginning, right around 57 to 59 or so. And it was a very active solar maximum. There was lots of energy coming from the sun and hitting the earth. But we didn’t have any satellites up there, so we didn’t really know what was going, what, what the effects might be necessarily. 

Lisa Berry Drago:  And we, and we almost didn’t know whether or not it was just our own fault [laughs].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Right, we used to have a lot of data, right?

Lisa Berry Drago:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  So but by the late ’70s when the, when a solar maximum hit, satellites themselves had changed shape. So the United States and the Soviet Union had sent up much larger satellites, some newly massive satellites, but also satellites that had nuclear materials onboard, nuclear powered satellites. And kind of the first really big example of that was when a Soviet satellite called Cosmos 954 fell to Earth over the Canadian arctic in 1978.

Archival:  Good evening, something scary happened yesterday, something science fiction buffs have been telling us for years was going to happen. A satellite with a nuclear reactor aboard fell out of the sky. The damage was apparently more psychic than physical. The Russian craft known as Cosmos 954 reentered the atmosphere over the wildest country of Canada’s Northwest Territories. All of it disintegrating into magnificent but harmless balls of fire before anything hit the ground.

Archival:  The President of the United States phoned me sometime around 7:00 this morning, and said that they’re not, that they had it in their radar and that it was about to land and indicated where he thought the landing would be.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  You know, the American trackers were following it, saw that it started to behave erratically shortly after it launched. They didn’t know much about it because the Soviet Union was notoriously tight lipped about everything, but especially about their space technology. So based on older intelligence, they were able to kind of, kind of assume that it had a nuclear reactor on board. Eventually, the Kremlin admitted that it did have a nuclear reactor on board but that it would have been designed to eject the reactor further into space if something went wrong. That did not happen. So, again, things break in space, in the case of Cosmos 954, multiple things broke. And as the satellites orbit decayed with the reactor on board, there was kind of a flurry of activity of concern.

What, you know, there were, there were some state intelligence officials who were worried that it might detonate upon hitting the atmosphere like a nuclear weapon. It did not, so the Soviet Union was very clear that it wouldn’t and luckily it didn’t. But it fell into this region of the Arctic, um, known as, commonly known as the Barons, which is described as, you know, place where we’re, we’re, it’s, it’s very, very cold, it’s permafrost, there’s ice, it’s this is the middle of January. So there’s one piece that describes it as a place where flora and fauna must be tough to survive.

And when the remains of Cosmos 954 fell to Earth, um, it fell into this region. And a lot of reporting, when Canadian, and you know, American newspapers described it as, as being fortunate that it didn’t fall in a place where there was much life, particularly human life.

Jim Lehrer:  It doesn’t seem to be concerned at the moment, I shouldn’t say not concerned, any danger of  great danger of effects on people, it’s an uninhabited area.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Now this was false.

Lisa Berry Drago:  I, I was gonna say I bet that’s not true [laughs].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Of course, it was false. There were multiple indigenous communities that lived in that area, and that relied upon the water and food ways of that region for subsistence. But they were largely erased from that broader cultural narrative about what happened with Cosmos 954. And at the same time, we’re also roped into negotiations of who would pay for the cleanup when Canada filed a claim under the liability convention of 1972, which is the only time it’s really been fully executed against the Soviet Union. So they were kind of erased from the larger story that’s like, “Woo, at least everything’s fine, everything’s safe, um-“

Lisa Berry Drago:  Thank goodness, it only fell into place that we don’t, that our, our larger governments don’t care about [laughs].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Right, and, or, or where brown people live basically.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  So, I mean, even if you compare it, so it fell, the closest city it fell, um, near was Yellowknife, which is kind of, which is the Northwest Territories capital. And the reactions among predominately white citizens of Yellowknife versus reactions among DNA Inuit communities were remarkably different. Yellowknife citizens were kind of macabre humorous about it. You know, they made, they put, one person designed a t-shirt that had a… what was it? Like a crow writing the satellite waving his toucan in the air kind of like Dr. Strangelove [laughing]. Um, there were some who, who put on their, their restaurant, they put on their menu.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  The Cosmos 954 burger that was a fish burger because something was fishy about why they weren’t really told ahead of time about what was happening. So we thought it was funny and like-

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  … everything’s fine.

Lisa Berry Drago:  They’re, they’re all wearing these t-shirts of like I survived the Cosmos [laughs] 954.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Exactly, whereas, um, you know, the, the officials that held kind of public information, they did attempt to hold public information meetings. But public information meetings that were held in communities are predominantly Inuit had much higher attendance ratings relative to their populations. And citizens were, those communities were extremely concerned about their exposure to radiation from this satellite. And there were problems with translation, how do you translate, um, this danger into these, into the indigenous languages that made that, in some cases, according to their leaders, um, did not have words to describe satellite nuclear reactor, etc.

So there were a lot of challenges involved but a lot of a ratio as well. And, ultimately, there was, it was a multi, it was a long period of cleanup. But in the end the indigenous communities living the area were reassured that they were not going to have any exposure to high levels of radioactivity. Um, but, uh, a lot of, a lot of the materials that came out of that satellites remain in the environment. Because, um, a lot of them were, a lot of it was particulate, a lot of it kind of got absorbed by the permafrost, got absorbed by lake-beds. 

Lisa Berry Drago:  Was there a cleanup?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  There was a cleanup, it was called Operation Morning Light. It was a joint Canadian American efforts to locate, identify, and contain the radioactive pieces of Cosmos 954’s wreckage. And they were really thwarted a lot by the Arctic environment. They had to do a break for the spring fall, they,it was very hard for them to keep, keep their, you know, their radiation monitors from working in the extreme cold. And they haven’t, they, it was, it was a very, very, complicated process and one that they… it was also complicated in filing for liability claims because they had to kind of wrap it up within a year or two in order to meet the statue of limitations, or to file a claim.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Lisa Ruth Rand: So it was, um, ultimately, they, they did contain quite a bit of highly reactive way to actually material. But a lot of it, was just they just kind of assumed would be absorbed by this, the lake-beds and the permafrost, and therefore kept isolated from the local food ways. But, you know, indigenous communities that were concerned were concerned about, you know, if it gets absorbed by liking, that then get eaten by caribou that we then eat, or if it’s a lake-bed, is it gonna get into the water? Can we digest it that way? There and, you know, the American and Canadian test groups did conduct testing, they concluded that the particulate matter was not soluble so that it shouldn’t be something that could be adjustable.

And yet, I think one of the very interesting arguments that were made by citizens key citizens of the area was would the, would the reaction have been different if this satellite had fallen over Quebec? Over a city, over Toronto?

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Right, would this have been different if it was a place where with a much larger population, particularly, white population lived? 

Lisa Berry Drago:  Yeah, would it have been okay to leave any particulate in, in those environments?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Right.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Would it have been considered, would it have been considered, you know? Well, nature will probably absorb it [laughs]. You know, the, the, we assume a lot, we assume a lot. As, as you’ve said about, you know, air and sky being these like kind of boundless places that we can dump things into. And as long as it’s not too much, it’s probably fine.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  And ice too, ice is part of that as well. But as the ice kind of starts to recede and gives up, gives up the things it swallowed on our behalf, you know, it, that’s, that, that is kind of turning on its head in a lot of ways.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Well, and I’m struck again by the, the importance of something like Silent Spring to this entire question and problem. Which is that, you, you know, that space junk is in a way, and, and in many ways, it’s unlike other forms of pollution. But, in many ways, the, it manifests like other forms of pollution. You know, communities that are affected by it are not, these are not equally… space junk is not, much like pollution, space junk is not an equally distributed problem either.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  It is not, and it’s what we would now call kind of an, an environmental justice issue. So, particularly, with reentering objects like Cosmos 954, by quirk of which orbits we tend to use the most and by quirk of the geophysical landscape of orbit, the majority of objects that reenter the atmosphere without, you know, uncontrolled reentries tend to fall over regions of the global south or the north. Which is where… So, so basically in regions where people don’t ask proportionately benefits from using the satellite infrastructure that has this co-located waste system, but they suffer from the higher, a higher level of risk.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  So like other environmental issues of environmental equality, environmental justice, space has, has really shows a lot of the same attributes.

Lisa Berry Drago:  They’re getting few of the perks and a- almost all of the, the feedback [laughs].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Right, so none of the, none of the people in the crash zone of Cosmos 954 were really benefiting from the satellite infrastructure. They, what I argue in the book is that they were really kind of brought into, brought into the space age in many ways. Not through use of an innovative technology and benefiting from the use of an innovative technology, but rather through an encounter with the decay of that infrastructure, of the decay of those technologies. Um, so and this is something that’s, that’s throughout the space age that, that multiple communities become involved, become part, become a space faring, become part of the space age. Not through using satellites, but through encounters with, with space junk.

Lisa Berry Drago:  So I know that there’s another in the same kind of solar cycle that Cosmos has brought down. Um, there’s another large scale piece of “space junk” that falls to earth, Skylab.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  So that was arguably the most famous and kind of en- enduring story of space junk reentry. Uh, that was 1979, this was Skylab was the very first American space station. So a, a crewed spacecraft that stays on orbit for long periods of time. They had three crews visit it, and the hope was that the space shuttle would be developed in time to, uh, dock with Skylab, rendezvous with it and push it to a higher orbit so that it could stay up for longer. However, the-

Lisa Berry Drago:  Things break in space?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  What’s that?

Lisa Berry Drago:  Things break in space [laughs].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Well, not so, well, mainly that the shuttle was, was delayed in its development, and the solar maximum was stronger than expected. And so it pushed Skylab back into orbit before we could rescue it. And because it was so massive, it was a very, very large spacecraft, and arguably possibly because it was a slow new cycle, it became kind of a, a worldwide phenomenon. People kind of worrying about where it was going to fall.

Archive:  So how is it that 70 tons of space technology, an object as big as a locomotive is floating around in space out of control, and about to make a fiery return to the earth that launched it six years ago.

Archive:  Publicly, America’s space agency says there’s only a very remote chance of Skylab crashing into a heavily populated area. But, privately, some of the space agency officials are worried. At least, one NASA official has resigned over the way that the United States has handled the disintegration of this seat’s larger satellite.

Archive:  The space station which is about as big as three bedroom house is in a criss-crossing orbit over 90% of the world’s population, including Australia. Skylab will be traveling around 340 miles an hour spreading wreckage over a corridor 100 miles wide and 4000 miles long.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  There’s kind of a great bunch of kind of ephemera, pop culture materials where, you know, of tinfoil helmets,  shirts with, with targets on them. You know, Skylab hit here. Ultimately, um, Skylab broke into pieces and fell into kind of a rural part of Australia. And large pieces were recovered, nobody was hurt. So, ultimately, though, Skylab was really, uh, kind of a, a really big moment in bringing the risks of reentry to a larger, uh, mainstream audience.

Even though Cosmos 954 proceeded it relatively recently, it was only a year before, that was one that kind of became the moment that people remember when they think of, of reentry. So it was, it was Skylab.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Was there anything to do with the sheer size of it?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Yes.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Did it, did it generate like a particularly inordinate amount of waste [laughs]?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  So, I mean, the larger something is, and if it’s not designed to disintegrate, right, there is more likely, it’s more likely that pieces of it will survive. Now, it didn’t survive in its totality, unless anything, something has adequate heat shielding that’s not going to happen. So Skylab did not heat shielding, it was not intended to reenter the atmosphere. So when it did, it was subjected to all that heat and friction and pressure and it broke into pieces. Several large pieces did survive, they were charged, they were broken up. But, they did survive because they were not, they… that it was just so massive. That unlike smaller objects which can dissipate fully in the atmosphere to the point where we, they’re kind of undetectable, Skylab did not.

Lisa Berry Drago:  I think one of the questions that I have thinking about all this is what… if we’re going to keep putting things up in space, we’re going to keep sending people [laughs], machines, technology up, what are kind of, what are the ways… You know, A, that’s an assumption that we’re going to keep doing it should we keep doing it. And B, are there ways of reducing the amount of junk that remains in the atmosphere and then comes back down? I think that one of the, one of the things I’ve heard about is sort of the reusable rocket idea.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Yes, and that’s something that SpaceX is becoming well known for, but also Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is the name of his company. They also built a reusable rocket, but that’s meant for space tourism versus satellite launches, which is what SpaceX is doing. And also, and also human crew as well. So, yes, creating reusable rockets means that there’s at least a couple fewer bits of rockets floating around up there to be collision hazards or explosion hazards. That said, there’s still pieces that remain up there, um, whether it’s pieces of the rocket, if it’s a higher altitude launch, or the satellite itself. And what’s interesting to me about this kind of this new push towards reuse is that it’s not the first time we’ve tried this.

Spacial, initially, was intended to be fully reusable. It was not for multiple reasons, which I don’t think we should get into right now. But in the ’70s and ’80s, really, the ’60s through the ’80s, NASA attempted to move towards building, sort of refashioning outer space into a reusable infrastructure. One in which we didn’t just use throw away rockets, and once the satellite breaks, you leave it up there until it falls back to Earth if it falls back at all. Instead, they were hoping that using, with using this… creating a, a reusable space shuttle, which would serve as a kind of garbage truck and servicing vehicle also in conjunction with, A, an orbiting, you know, with, with some space stations that could be used as, as repair depots.

But also satellites that were designed from the beginning to be retrieved, refueled and repaired and redeployed. So there’s a three Rs in there, but there’s actually four Rs. But instead of reduce, reuse, recycle, it’s retrieve, repair, redeploy.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  And the hope was that by doing this, that there would be, there, it would, it would make the, make the space industry, basically, lower costs for operating of space, which was the main reason. But it had the ancillary effect of also keeping space a little more clear. You’re not just leaving things up there until, until fate sends them somewhere. So that said, it’s very, you know, it, it takes a lot of investment to kind of change something when it’s already in motion. And, uh, that said, there were a couple of satellites that were designed to be free art. Most famous being Hubble, the Hubble Space Telescope.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Was designed to be retrieved and repaired, and there were several repair missions that took place over the course of the shuttle program. Most famously when it originally launched with its primary mirror off balance and had to be repaired and had this, this sort of contact lens attached to it, so to speak. So if the Hubble had not been initially designed to be repaired, it would have been a complete failure. There would have been no way to fix it. And, uh, so it, it was kind of designed to fit in the space shuttle payload bay, it had handholds on board. It was, um, designed to be something that you could, that astronauts could go and grapple and work with in microgravity.

There were a couple of other satellites that were the same, but each time they tried to retrieve and repair those satellites, it was never something that could be standardized. You had to kind of reinvent the wheel each time.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Because when you’re working in microgravity, the same forces aren’t at play as they are on Earth. There were a couple times when satellites were retrieved or even brought back to earth which is, which is great, they could be reused, they could be, you know, scrapped. There could be, they could be in, in a museum, which is where pi- pieces of the Hubble are currently are. But Hubble itself now that the space shuttle program is retired, is going, is going to be destroyed. It will eventually reenter the atmosphere. We cannot boost it anymore unless they develop a new technology to do so. In fact, in the last servicing mission, they attached a ring to the bottoms so that it could be grappled by some future technology and dragged in a controlled fashion back into the atmosphere.So we don’t have another Skylab type situation on our hands, where it’s falling, where we don’t know where it’s gonna fall. 

So that said, you know, there so, there was the problem of the space shuttle not being fully reusable, um, and be more expensive than expected. There was the fact that it was hard to generalize operating procedures on how to re- reuse and repair satellites. There was the fact that not everyone was on board and standardizing when you have multiple actors at play. But then there was also the risk. The Challenger accident happened around the same time that they were, that NASA was trying to test out satellite reuse and repair. And ultimately the risk to astronauts’ lives was deemed too high to-

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right, it was who was repairing it?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Right, ultimately, um, it’s, it’s better to just have a single use satellite than to risk astronauts’ live repairing, uh, those satellites.

Archival:  It was a bitter cold but sparkling clear morning at Cape Canaveral. Here, the last seconds of the countdown.

Archival:  Four, three, two, one, and liftoff. Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission and it has cleared the tower.

Archival:  It happened just over one minute into flight.

Archival:  One minute, 15 seconds, velocity 2900 feet per second, altitude nine nautical miles, downrange distance seven nautical miles.

Archival:  From Mission Control, silence. Then the bland chilling report.

Archival:  We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. We are looking at to see what can be done at this point.

Archival:  A search effort couldn’t begin for some 15 minutes after this. Debris, they said, just kept raining from the sky.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  What’s interesting to me is, yes, so, so now we have these, these,  these reusable rockets that come back to earth and can be, can be flown multiple times which is reducing the amount of debris. And presumably also eventually producing the costs, which has always been what’s behind it all on. But they’re just talking about the launch vehicles, the rest of the infrastructure is still single use. So, ultimately, there’s one component that’s being taken out of the equation, but the others are still there and that are increasing. I mean, SpaceX is building however many reusable rockets, but they’re putting up hundreds of new satellites, hundreds and thousands of new satellites. So really it’s, it’s kind of six to one half dozen to the other. I mean, it’s good enough to have rocket bodies in space because they have fuel on board and can explode, but-

Lisa Berry Drago:  Sure.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  … it’s still there’s still this, this, this is not the solution to the problem by any stretch.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Like the sole solution to the problem, it’s not, it’s that’s not what, that this was, the, the larger, a a broader kind of ethos of reuse was something that, that this, the NASA of the ’60s through ’80s was considering as a way to kind of really more fully address the issue. But that’s not something that I think that current space powers have a really, have a real sense of. Um, and that I’m also hoping, you know, that having this historical background will maybe open that box a little and make it clear that, that this is, these are the considerations that went into it in the past. Then so we don’t, you know, constantly keep running into the situations.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right, right, that we’ve hit, we’ve maybe hit on the same solution but for a totally different ethos. So not, not an environmental awareness, necessarily, but a, a practicality, cost effectiveness.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Oh, it was, it was, it was that too in, in, in an earlier era-

Lisa Berry Drago:  Yeah.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  … but it’s just it’s really more a matter of scope. Um, SpaceX and its ilk are more concerned about just the launch vehicle, not the satellites themselves. So, yes, it’s reducing wastes and reducing costs for launches. But by exponentially increasing the total number of objects that stay in orbit and that could eventually reenter, it’s still exponentially raising the risk.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right, right, right because it’s, it’s the three, it’s reduced, reuse, recycle [laughs]. So they’re, they’re doing the reuse and recycle but then, but it’s not really a reduction in a meaningful sense.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  But, you know, it’s like, you know, that’s only, that’s sort of like only if you’re recycling glass jars, but all of your aluminum is just being thrown into the water, right?

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right, right, right.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  But the launch, but the launch vehicle is very visible. It’s something’s that’s exciting, we all get to see it happening. We don’t see the satellites as, as visibly as we do the launch vehicles, they’re very charismatic. They’re, they’re fun to watch, and anyone can. So then coming back to earth and landing, it’s, you know, it’s something that’s very easy to celebrate. But I think we’ve just become so used to satellites just being single use, and once they die, they’re done, that it’s not, this isn’t, this isn’t part of the current discussion, and I kind of wish it was.

Lisa Berry Drago:  So how much discussion is there around space junk? I mean, do people, do people know about and care about this, this idea? Because I think, I think you’ve demonstrated that there is, there are human costs in there are, definitely human concerns and environmental concerns around this. But how much is, how much is this getting, you know, air time or, or attention?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  It tends to get a lot of attention when there’s a crisis. Now there hasn’t been a crisis yet in a way that has had an actual material outcome for users on the ground. So one of the first big, the first really big accidental collision in orbit happened in 2009 when a functioning Iridium communication satellite and a non-functioning piece of Russian debris collided head on over Siberia, destroyed both, created two pretty big plumes of debris clustered along their orbital paths. But the Iridium satellite is part of a constellation, much like Starlink, so any outages were picked up by other satellites in the constellation. There hasn’t been any kind of real problem where a lot of people are, are experiencing an interruption to their daily technological practices.

Once that happens, there may be more attention paid towards what’s happening in outer space. But whenever big things reenter, there’s kind of a big flashpoint, people tend to pay attention. Or, for example, when astronomers make news and agitate the way they did for West Ford, the way they did for Starlink, that’s when the space debris issue becomes more visible to a general public. But it’s, it’s something that I think it’s a perennial topic and there are a lot of both state space agencies and startups that are coming up with ideas for how to remove space junk, which is called remediation. And there’s also been some discussion on how to, how to mitigate mitigation. So how to create less debris so that there’s less to clean up.

And there’s currently no legally binding rules for how to deal with space debris, but it’s something that’s kind of constantly in motion and kind of, kind of like up to the really good faith efforts of those who have the power to reach space and to operate in space to, to try to keep it clean for so they can continue to operate, then, so that others can continue to operate safely. But we’re kind of at a really interesting, yeah, moment of shifting of who’s in power and also just materially how much stuff is up there. That we’re kind of at a really important moment, and it’ll be really interesting, I think, to see in that story. And I like I don’t really feel like I can really predict what’s going to happen.

But I think in the coming years, this is going to be something that is the conversation is going to have to shift in order to prevent kind of a major space junk crisis from happening.

Lisa Berry Drago:  I think it might have been inconceivable that an individual or, or, or an individual company would have, you know, at the very beginning of these debates, was there a perception that it would only be governments or, you know, uh, large space agencies that were directing traffic in the space [laughs], so to speak? Was there a concept that, that there would be like an individual or an individual company that was sending up material into space?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  I mean, for the most part, during, during the early space age, during the Cold War, states were the only entities that had that kind of capital, or that kind of, those kind of resources to, to have a space program. But as we kind of move into this new Gilded Age, where we have these billionaires who had their vanity space programs [laughs], uh, I mean, Jeff Bezos has his own space program, Elon Musk has a space program. They all have, they all have their own space programs and this is something where suddenly individuals can have, can have capital on the, it’s the same level if not more than a state space program than a taxpayer funded space program.

I, I think it would have been inconceivable because that kind of wealth disparity was not quite something that was conceivable then at least, during, during that kind of that the height of the Cold War when the space, when, when, when NASA and the Soviet space program were at their height. America has this very, holds this very high value on entrepreneurs, um, on better higher faster. And the idea of bureaucracy and red tape has, is that those are, those are dirty words, right?

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right, like, like why would we want to stop these, these nice young excited people from absolutely filling our orbit with tiny bits of broken plastic and metal [laughs]?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Yeah.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Why would we ever want to stop them or get in their way [laughs]?

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Right, and but you have… But one, one of the things that’s so interesting about it as well, when you have your accuracy in red tape, you have safeguards, you have enough people approving, or examining a project to make sure that it will be safe. And that is something that astronomers, worked on establishing. And, actually, did end up getting codified in the Outer Space Treaty that international consultation of scientists had to be undertaken before any state could launch a space project that could pollute or contaminate that outer space. But, again, as the actors are changing, as we’re having startups going up that don’t have the same oversight, and that even when they are subject to oversight, don’t always comply-

Lisa Berry Drago:  It is a little scary because like what you’re describing, what, what some people labeled bureaucracy and red tape is really process. It’s saying that there is a process by which we choose to put things up into the atmosphere or not, you know. Um, and hopefully, more than the shareholders get consulted during that part, you know, more, more than the designers and the shareholders get consulted in that process. Hopefully, hopefully, if it’s a good healthy process, then a lot of different groups of people and interested people and experts are going to be, you know, affected communities. Constituencies are going to be part of that process you, you hope, like that’s, that’s the goal.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Right.

Lisa Berry Drago:  That’s the actual goal of a, of a red tape bureaucratic process. Is not to withhold progress or something, it’s to, it’s for all the people, the affected parties to have a chance to weigh in and say, “Here’s an angle that, that might not be considered by someone who has this great idea.”

Lisa Ruth Rand:  So, for instance, I think another good example of, of the opposite of that is that SpaceX launched that cherry red Tesla with a mannequin onboard a couple of years ago.

Archival:  Amazing pictures from space. Elon Musk pulls off an engineering feat. He sent his own kind of Rocket Man onboard a Tesla Roadster into orbit. Elon Musk has outdone himself this time.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  That is not something that a state space program would do because they are beholden to the taxpayers, they’re beholden to representatives who would likely, I mean, that, would, not have been, that would not have been that, that blatant kind of dummy, payload. There would, there would have been many, many more considerations going into what you would use that test launch to do-

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  … um, beyond a basically a glorified advertisement for one of the company, like for, for another company owned by Elon Musk, right?

Lisa Berry Drago:  Right.

Lisa Ruth Rand:  It was this kind of vertical integration between Tesla and SpaceX. I mean, it was just capitalism on full glorious display,  [laughing], without much checks and balances.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Well, I hope all the interested parties will read your book [laughs].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Absolutely.

Lisa Berry Drago:  I really hope so, before all of our satellites go down and we’re, we’re stuck refreshing our phones over and over and over and over for information [laughing] that’s not going to come. So thank you so much. This is really fascinating and I’m a little bit scared, which I think is healthy [laughing].

Lisa Ruth Rand:  Well, it’s my pleasure. Don’t be, don’t be too scared. I think we’re still okay, but we still need to be aware, right? That- that’s, that’s, that’s the kind of, with any sort environmental crisis, see, if we see it coming, you want, you need to be aware so that, so that it doesn’t reach that tipping point. The tipping point that we’ve reached in multiple other environmental crises, we want to try to prevent that from happening. So awareness is the first step.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Thanks for listening to this episode of Distillations. Tune into the next episode in this season next week. Remember, Distillations is more than a podcast, it’s also a multimedia magazine. You can find our videos, stories, and every single podcast episode at distillations.org, and you’ll also find podcasts transcripts and show notes. You can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for news and updates about the podcast and everything else going on in our museum, library, and Center for Research. This episode was produced by Mariel Carr and Rigo Hernandez. It was mixed by James Morrison. The Science History Institute remains committed to revealing the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts at sciencehistory.org/givenow. For Distillations, I’m Lisa Berry Drago. Thanks for listening

Listen to more episodes

Collage of images related to cancer research
DISTILLATIONS PODCAST

Cancer Virus Hunters: An Interview with Gregory J. Morgan

Seen as outcasts, some persistent scientists went against the grain to study viruses they suspected caused cancer.

Collage of images on blue background
DISTILLATIONS PODCAST

The Ames Test

Environmentalists championed biochemist Bruce Ames for his test’s ability to weed out potential cancer-causing chemicals. Then he seemingly turned his back on them.

DISTILLATIONS PODCAST

Is Ozempic Different?

The weight-loss drug has become well known, but many others have come before, often with horrific results.

    Republish

    Copy the above HTML to republish this content. We have formatted the material to follow our guidelines, which include our credit requirements. Please review our full list of guidelines for more information. By republishing this content, you agree to our republication requirements.