Recently, the Nevada Museum of Art confirmed what many of us following Orbital Reflector—Trevor Paglen’s satellite sculpture—have been suspecting for awhile now. It’s gone, or rather lost, orbiting the earth with no NORAD tracking number and no way of being dragged back into the atmosphere without its 100-foot balloon, which never deployed and will never deploy since communication between the spacecraft and the FCC went dark during the government shutdown.
It was supposed to appear in the night sky as a “fast moving star.” We were supposed to look up and “see reflections of ourselves.” Instead, the Orbital Reflector will circle the planet every eight days or so without fanfare, forever. That may sound dramatic, but that’s because it is dramatic, and I care—maybe more than I should—about this nonfunctional satellite. Somewhere between driving eight-and-a-half hours to watch the launch last December, obsessively refreshing my Star Walk app for tracking updates, and doing several astral body meditations to tap into the location of the satellite—I developed a (certainly healthy) emotional attachment to this brick-sized CubeSAT. The idea of something out there, looking down, reflecting our humanity back to us almost fills the God-shaped hole in my head that desperately wants to be part of a grand plan.
By training our eyes on the same cosmic monument, we were supposed to share an experience that inspired awe, transcended geopolitical boundaries, and gave us permission to imagine what else we might be capable of. So it’s hard to hear that the satellite will never deploy. In this sense, we could call the project a failure. But maybe we should just call it a metaphor. Though Orbital Reflector will never literally reflect us, it still reflects plenty about us. Here are some things that come to mind:
Humans overlook success.
Before Orbital Reflector disappeared, it was the second non-functional satellite sent into space as an artistic gesture. (Humanity Star was the first.) It involved a three-year development process with aerospace engineering firms Global Western and Space Flight Industries, a five-year collaboration with the Nevada Museum of Art, a Kickstarter campaign, a SpaceX “rideshare” stunt, a launch delay (a launch delay, a launch delay), a launch, coverage of a launch, communication between a satellite and the FCC, a PR machine, and—now—an unopened box floating 575 kilometers above our heads. A lot had to go right in the last eight years to get to this point, and it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge the effort.
Space exploration is a choice we will make again and again.
In 1962, five years after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space and one year after they launched the first man into orbit, there was a national conversation about whether sending a U.S. astronaut to the moon was worth the cost. Then, President Kennedy delivered his famous “we choose to go to the moon speech,” and the collective disquiet all but disappeared when space was framed as manifest destiny. If we wanted to make sure exploration was a peaceful pursuit, Kennedy made it clear that the United States would have to be at the forefront. It wasn’t a question of should we, but when should we. The answer—then—was “now” and 57 years later, the answer is still “now,” as we chase a horizon that by definition can never be reached. Next stop, Space Force?
Non-functional art objects make us lose our damn minds.
When Orbital Reflector launched, it received a ton of press, each time getting a mention about how controversial it was to send a satellite into space without a purpose, citing light pollution and space junk as concerns. Currently, there are 1,900 active and 3,000 inactive satellites in Earth’s orbit—so these are valid issues, but they should apply equally to the thousands of satellites already in play. Last month, Elon Musk received clearance to put 12,000 Starlink satellites into low earth orbit for worldwide internet coverage. (The first 60 were set to launch on May 15, but the launch was delayed.) Jeff Bezos plans to do the same with his own network of 3,236. This exceeds not only the amount of satellites we have orbiting our planet at the moment, but almost doubles the number that humans have ever launched into space. And yet, where is the coverage about light pollution and space junk? Mega-collisions from debris? Unintended consequences we can’t possibly foresee? It’s something we haven’t done to this degree before, so why not employ the same level of scrutiny as we did to a single satellite that was supposed to self-destruct after a few months?
We have an idiot president.
There’s no way of knowing whether Paglen’s balloon would have inflated had there not been a government shutdown. But … furloughing FCC employees guaranteed that it didn’t even have a chance. As Paglen said in his Medium post following the “lost in space” status of Orbital Reflector, “If the project’s goal was to provoke a conversation about the politics of space, it has been nothing less than a stellar success. And the story of [Orbital Reflector] has become an embodiment of those politics: the Trump administration’s insistence on building a wall between the United States and Mexico led to the demise of a spacecraft whose purpose was to question those very kinds of politics.” These days, you can turn any stupid thing that Trump does into an analogy for what is wrong with our country—but this one seems earned. Ideas about who gets to access to what (land, power, private communications) have always been themes in Paglen’s work. In turning an eye to space, the artist calls into question the myth of the frontier—our collective belief in rolling progress and unending freedom—at the very same time that Trump declared a national emergency to send a message that only certain people have access to these ideals.
The tragedy of the commons extends to the thermosphere.
No one owns space, but everyone launches stuff into space, creating a shared resource with few boundaries and an ever-increasing amount of debris. At the time of Kennedy’s “moon speech,” 45 satellites circled the earth. Today—in addition to the 4,900 satellites in orbit—there are paint chips, spent rocket debris, smashed solar panels, and the human remains of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (among other human remains)—contributing to over 779,000 pieces of space debris. This, combined with billionaires’ upcoming plans for future satellite networks and the recent rise of anti-satellite tests—countries destroying their own satellites as a demonstration of military strength—create collision hazards between these mega-constellations, which, in turn, create more space junk.
More on Orbital Reflector: “Space race,” Kris Vagner’s interview with Trevor Paglen
Just as “Earthrise” (the first photograph of earth taken from space) showed us how singular, fragile, and unique our planet is in contrast to the black void, the first computer-generated map of orbiting space junk showed us an image of our own disregard for that same fragile planet. Paglen gives us a few lasting images as well. The first is a literal picture that launched into orbit seven years ago, in a project called The Last Pictures. Working with materials scientists at MIT, Paglen developed a micro-etched, gold-plated disc containing 100 photographs that tell the story of human existence. Engineered to last billions of years, the Carl-Sagan-inspired disc was meant to outlast our species and our planet. What wasn’t meant to last very long was Orbital Reflector. Once the satellite’s diamond-shaped balloon inflated, the drag from the balloon was supposed to slowly—or quickly—usher in its descent and eventual burn-up the atmosphere. But because no one can authorize it to deploy, we now have a mental image picture of an unopened satellite circling the planet, never stopping, never realizing its potential.
Shiny objects are distracting.
I think this sense of uncertainty is exactly what we need from our space art these days. Instead of a temporary star to remind us of our greatness, maybe a lost, looping box makes more sense. A dark orbit that turns us inward, inverts the frontier, calls attention to our confusion (and infinite potential). Of course, we can always look up and see real stars, too, if we want to be inspired. They are pretty spectacular.