Lagrangian Futures

The first photo from space, taken from a modified V-2 rocket in 1946 (U.S. Army/White Sands Missile Range)

Robert Walker was confident that he would go to space. Paintings he saw of the space colonies commissioned by NASA in the early 1970s, the Pioneer and Voyager probes and the emerging Space Shuttle program ten years later were creating a line which would unmistakably lead to the individual American citizen. Rather sooner than later, but certainly before the turn of the millennium. Then, when his personal future in space had not materialized by the mid-1990s, he started his own mission. Once a year, he drives in circles to rendezvous with a contraption he keeps at a storage facility in Pasadena, California. He loads a year's worth of forgotten technological visions into what vaguely resembles a spaceship. But his craft, unlike Voyager, moves through time instead of space. It does not have a nuclear battery, but Walker's life insurance to keep it going after he dies. His hope is that the mission will end with the discovery of his archive by future humans and the recovery of the visions he collected. He asks us whether we knew that the payload of the first American rocket was a camera, back in 1946. Robert Walker is a fictitious character and part of a project by the author of this text, titled Forever Future, as part of a research residency at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

The historical originator of the idea of space colonization was the 19th Century Russian Orthodox Christian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov. As a radical consequence of his notion of kinship he put forward an idea he called the Common Task, on which all of humanity’s industry would have to be focussed until its completion. The Task was to be the “general resurrection, immanent resuscitation carried out with all the heart, thought and actions” through a technology yet to be developed in order to bring back every human being who has ever died. Fyodorov was well aware that a consequence of the Task would be a growing scarcity of resources on Earth as one generation resurrects its predecessors in a cascade leading back to the Biblical Genesis. In his writing, colonization of both the oceans and space can therefore be found as an explicit part of the Task.

Fyodorov was working as a librarian at Moscow’s Rumyantsev Museum when he met a young scientist called Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who immediately became interested in the theoretical problems that emerged from Fyodorov’s imperative, particularly the problem of being stuck at the bottom of Earth’s gravity well. The velocity a body needs to reach in order to break free had already been established, yet there is no element on Earth which in relation to its own mass contains enough energy to accelerate itself to 40,320 kilometers per hour. Tsiolkovsky started to look for solutions to the problem, mathematically at first, then in terms of engineering. In 1903 he published a scientific article titled “Investigation of outer space rocket appliances”, in which he proved that a propelled object could perform space flight if throughout the launch would shed parts of itself. A “slim angelic mysterious ship of stages”, as Norman Mailer later described the Saturn V rocket that he saw launching men to the Moon.

Propelled by pioneers like Robert H. Goddard, by the 1930s the push to turn Fyodorov’s ideas and Tsiolkovsky’s equations into reality was in full swing, in the United States and a handful other places. In California, a young scientist named Marvel Whiteside Parsons, now better known as Jack Parsons, joined the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at CalTech, just outside of Los Angeles. Working with Frank Malina and Theodore von Kármán, his role as a chemist was to develop an alternative to the gunpowder and liquid fuel which was commonly used as fuel to drive the small rockets at the time. He succeeded in combining asphalt and potassium perchlorate to create a solid rocket fuel, which is being regarded as highly instrumental in enabling both the American space age and the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. But Jack Parsons had another passion, that for the occult. In the 1940s, he had been Aleister Crowley’s favorite disciple, running the Agapé Lodge of OTO from his house on South Orange Grove in Pasadena. Before each rocket test launch, Parsons would chant Crowley's hymn to Pan. When the US military was finally able to prove his long suspected involvement in the occult, Parsons quickly lost his clearance to work on classified projects. The night before he was meant to emigrate to Mexico with his magical partner Marjorie Cameron, who would later appear in several of Kenneth Anger’s works, Parsons accidentally killed himself in a explosion caused by dropping a cup of fulminate of mercury at his home laboratory. He had been working on finishing a pyrotechnic effect for a studio in nearby Hollywood.

At one point, the fictitious Walker states that he may suffer from “nostalgia for the future”, a term borrowed from Michel Foucault. Fyodorov saw us as a society made of historical beings, perhaps more radically than anyone ever before, because his idea of kinship implicated it. For progress this is a crucial because without a notion of being situated on a continuum of developments neither it nor a feeling of nostalgia for another point on the continuum could exist. Even if there were progress outside of time, without a record of the past, the previous state would probably be forgotten before it could manifest itself as different.

But nostalgia for the future is fundamentally different, since it does not have a fixed spot on the historical continuum. Rather than the future, this nostalgia has a place of its own which, lacking a sufficient term for this place in the English language, may best be described as outside of time. Maybe Lagrangian futures would be fitting, borrowing from the Lagrangian points, five spots of neutral gravitational pull around the Earth where NASA physicist Gerard K. O'Neill envisioned space colonies to exist as “islands” in space. Lagrangian futures are suspended at a fixed, outside position yet often still eluding a an influential force on us through their respective narratives. Their ideas will never fully go away, and may find their way into fiction and from there back into the worlds of business and engineering. One way to read Walker’s ship then, would be as a physical manifestation of such a virtual place.

Technology, although shrouded in notions of logic, reason and profit, is a largely narrative endeavor anyway. Futures have to be thought before they can be built or sold and their thinking as visions, myths and also plain lies provides what Norman M. Klein fittingly refers to as “fantastic infrastructure”. It is hardly surprising then that both Tsiolkovsky and Parsons had a great interest in science fiction. Before he published in scientific journals, Tsiolkovsky had been writing fiction, only one year before his first influential theoretical article, he had published a novel about space colonization titled “Dreams of the Earth and Sky”. Jack Parsons was part of the Science Fiction Society of Los Angeles and would regularly meet with the likes of Ray Bradbury and L. Ron Hubbard at the appropriately surreal Clifton’s Cafeteria on Broadway. Almost as if to support the power of technological narratives, the Chinese government has recently virtually put a ban on stories which have time travel or alternate realities as a subject, claiming they “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation”.

A third aspect that runs through the ideas and ideologies of these spacemen, and this essay attempts to argue that it is the most crucial one for an understanding our desire for technologies and their promises, is a belief in forms of transcendence. Jack Parsons with his involvement in the spirituality of Aleister Crowley’s magick, which, once one thinks about it, almost seems complementary to rocket science. Parsons’ work, just like Tsiolkovsky’s, was an essential contribution to humanity’s ability to overcome the force of gravity which used to bind us to surface of the Earth and enable us to eventually transcend our planet. Lastly, Fyodorov’s reversal of death, an absolute demand of individual transcendence.

Every technology, it could be claimed, has at its heart a moment of transcendence, which may be technology’s true common denominator and the reason for our hunger for its promises. Here finally, nostalgia for the future becomes graspable as true transcendence is bound to be disappointed, since it can never truly be achieved. That especially technological transcendence leads to what anthropologist Gregory Bateson called “an exchange of partial views of the self” was an insight hard won by the failure of the American counterculture movement in the 1970s, and it is one that transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil appear to have utterly forgotten.

Read like this, those first photos from space that a German V2 rocket, launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico took on October 24th 1946 become deeply nostalgic indeed. A subjective visual narrative, situated outside of time, a vista from our Lagrangian future in space.

As appeared in Under/Current 06 'Future Retro'