Valerie Olson


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

Cover Interview of June 24, 2018

The wide angle

I was a graduate student at Rice University in Houston Texas when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated overhead as it was returning to Earth. I watched communities in and around Houston go into grief and shock, and I tracked news from NASA as it grounded its fleet and investigated the accident. This compelled me to seek an understanding of the complex hidden worlds of spacefaring. I ended up going into places that have been prohibited to outsiders, and spending time with people who are trying to create the connections, separations, and artificial environments that keep living things alive in spaces beyond Earth.

So, what are spaceflight-based ways of thinking and building? I was curious about spaceflight’s most quotidian and far-out environmental systems work. My book begins with underwater “space analog” training missions that draw the sea and outer space together. It goes into space biomedicine networks, where astronauts are managed as one among other systemic parts of a larger mission system. I examine how spacesuit and space habitat design problems force engineers and architects to challenge cultural ideas about the “natural” boundaries between bodies and spaces. I end by examining how new attempts to manage “space weather” (asteroids, solar radiation) extends global economic and environmental politics beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

In NASA, every kind of thing, from a human body to a spacecraft to a galaxy is described as a system within a broader system. The spaces that matter to keeping humans alive in space, like the tiny space between one cell and another, or the incomprehensible expanses of galactic and intergalactic space, are understood to be environments.

In this way, spaceflight systems work has both a conceptual and political impact: it authoritatively universalizes a way of thinking about relations and spaces. The book calls attention to Western cultural conceits about human exceptionalism and boundaries, and also to the ways that spaceflight programs in and out of the U.S. produce new ways to the relational interdependence of living and nonliving things.