Valerie Olson


On her book Into the Extreme: U.S. Environmental Systems and Politics beyond Earth

Cover Interview of June 25, 2018

In a nutshell

Into the Extreme offers an unusual look into the vast domain of U.S. human spaceflight. I wrote it after doing years of fieldwork in its workplaces that are off-limits to the public. Usually, social and historical studies of human spaceflight focus on rocketry or international relation-building. Instead, my exposure to the everyday work of sending people beyond Earth prompted me to focus on the two basic cultural ideas that spaceflight depends on and extends into the universe: “system” and “environment.”

These are humble everyday terms. But they are also historically loaded concepts of relationality that have come to empower Western thought, technical practice, and global interactions. The “system” concept emerged as a theoretical organizing principle during the Enlightenment, when it became clear to astronomers gazing through telescopes and biologists peering into microscopes that it wasn’t just important to know what things are but how they are interrelated. “System” became the official term for designating parts in relation to kinds of wholes, and for presenting those wholes as connected or separate from one another. “Environment” emerged in the nineteenth century as a term with which to think about the exterior forces that form systems.

Today, the “system” and “environment” concepts influence how people speak about and question what is included or excluded from worlds that matter: social, political, ecological. People speak of joining systems and beating them; people love environments and fight over them. Spaceflight elaborates and extends these concepts more intensively than most other types of social practice. I did fieldwork for my book in sites where living systems are being experimented on, artificial environments are being built, and far-off unEarthly environments are being connected to U.S. institutions through modes of occupation and remote sensing.

The book is therefore grounded in the anthropological understanding that social groups have different ideas about how things are connected. Such ideas can be extremely powerful but can also be completely taken for granted. People may not question how such concepts are cultivated or how they shape the worlds they live in. As an anthropologist, I have been pursuing this question: What are some basic concepts of relatedness that motivate thought, action, and power?

As a result, the chapters of the book engage a few key questions: What can spaceflight practices and social activities teach us about these basic relational ideas that inform diverse U.S. political perspectives, technical practices, and imaginations of futures? Or about how experts control what counts as “in” or “out” of relation? Or about how modern cosmologies get produced? I attempt to answer these questions by taking the U.S. relationships with the solar system as its object of study.