Casting into the Cosmos: Magic and Ritual in Human Spaceflight (Part 1)

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Taylor R. Genovese.

Field Notes – September 8, 2016 (Cape Canaveral, Florida):

I see the light and smoke first. The radiant fuel pours out of the rocket’s engines and the glow is absolutely blinding—like the brilliant ball of light at the end of a welding tool. I have to squint and look away from the base of the rocket as if I am staring directly into the sun. Then the sound comes. Roaring ripples of sound, reflecting off the Banana River and ricocheting off of buildings before finally kicking me square in the chest. The reverberations rock through my body as this asteroid-interceptor spacecraft, nestled on top of a cylinder of explosives begins to pick up speed—punching through the thick atmosphere of our planet. Within a few seconds, it is nothing but a small point of light high in the eastern sky—in a few more seconds, it has vanished.

I walk down the observation gantry and sit in the cool grass while other spectators begin to file out of the enclosure. I look up into the reverent afterglow of the rocket’s exhaust—the contrails swirling and slithering into sublimely beautiful colored shapes in the high winds of the stratosphere.

A mother and her son walk by. The mother asks her child what he thought of the launch. Clutching a toy rocket, he looks up at his mother and replies unabashedly and honestly:

“I have never seen quite a beautiful sight.”

These were my initial thoughts and feelings while experiencing my first rocket launch last summer. I scribbled these words down quickly and haphazardly, like the furious sketches of an artist attempting to capture a street scene that is moving quicker than their hand ever could. My hurried writing defiantly disobeyed the straight lines in my notebook; I didn’t want to look away from the rocket’s splendor. This was the first time I felt I had participated in a magical or religious encounter. In this two-part post, I would like to engage with magic, witchcraft, and ritual in human spaceflight—not only in a reflexive manner from my own field experience (Part 1), but also by historically and anthropologically analyzing the recorded rituals of astronauts and cosmonauts (Part 2).

Before I get into that, however, I feel that it is important to disclose that the terms “magic” and “witchcraft” are loaded with colonial baggage, as well as Western suppositions about what these terms mean within the dominant Judeo-Christian theology. In these posts, I do not mean to appropriate or dilute the intensely real experiences that blossom out of what some anthropologists in the past labeled as magic and witchcraft (and sometimes these labels were accompanied by a skeptical sneer). In fact, I hope for the opposite: to show that even those steeped heavily in the scientific method—a perceived objective practice supposedly removed from magical actions—are participating in what anthropologists have outlined as ritualistic behavior.

But first—to the eastern coast of Florida in the beginning of September . . .

I watch as a bead of sweat slips slowly down off the tip of my nose and spirals wildly—its death throes—until the poor, salty little pearl impacts the ground. I stare down at its resting place among the wilted blades of grass in which I’m sitting cross-legged. God, it’s hot. Actually, as a native Arizonan, I’m used to the heat. It’s the damn humidity that’s the culprit. I feel like I’m encapsulated in cellophane. Like I have a plastic grocery bag over my head and tied around my neck—humidity’s executioner hood. After a big sigh, I squint painfully through the sting of sweat on my eyelids down the line. Next to me in the grass, stretching back hundreds of feet, are at least two hundred fellow space enthusiasts, waiting to board the buses to take us to the exclusive LC-39 Observation Gantry. Months prior, I sat at my computer, waiting for the LC-39 tickets to go on sale. The LC-39 site is the closest you can get to a rocket when it launches from Cape Canaveral—as such, the tickets are highly sought after. In fact, the tickets sold out in two hours, but I managed to secure one. However, the only thing that mattered now was that I get into that air-conditioned bus as fast as I could. As the line surged forward, my obsession to arrive early to everything paid off as I boarded the first bus and was greeted by that familiar blast of artificially cool air.

The bus surged forward after a few minutes. I began to listen to the conversations happening around me and I heard a variety of different languages and dialects of English: British, Australian, German, Dutch, Russian. Did they all come to the United States just for this rocket launch? Is this a technoscientific pilgrimage? I was sitting on a bus with 50 other people—behind us, there were five other buses to cart the rest of us—all to witness a fleeting moment of awe together.

A crawler-transporter on the route to the observation gantry.
Image credit: Taylor R. Genovese

The bus drove over the Banana River on human-made causeways built to support NASA’s infrastructure. It drove past the press areas with leering reporters scribbling in their notebooks and holding cameras with massive lenses. It drove past the enormous crawler-transporters that were used to carry the Saturn V moon rockets and Space Shuttles from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launchpads. Sitting behind barbed wire fences amidst piles of trash, these machines looked like sad, lethargic prisoners—colossal dormant monsters that may have made an admirable foe for Don Quixote before their imprisonment.

The LC-39 Observation Gantry with SpaceX advertisement.
Image credit: Taylor R. Genovese

We finally reached the LC-39 Observation Gantry. We disembarked from the bus and were greeted with a large banner hanging down off of the gantry advertising SpaceX—the new gods, the new religion—as we walked into the exclusive area, the shrine we had all waited to get to. Inside, there was a feast for the hungry pilgrims—a spread of fruit, vegetables, hot dogs, hamburgers, sodas, water. I grabbed a bottle of water and skipped the food, opting to fast for this experience—my first time witnessing a rocket launch in person. I climbed the gantry and claimed my space on Level 3 in the stairwell. Straight ahead of me was the launch pad—wisps of water vapor streamed off the rocket like ghostly tendrils trying to cling to the thick air. My heart was racing.

A man set up his camera tripod next to me. He told me he lives nearby and tries to photograph every launch he can. I told him I’m a poor graduate student pilgrim here for my first launch. He didn’t seem to understand me and ordered his wife to fetch him several hot dogs—no ketchup. We cannot all be pious in the illustrative majesty of rocket technoscience.

Suddenly, I heard cries from down below.

“Here we go!”
“Quick! Look!”

The author's view from on top of the observation gantry.
Image credit: Taylor R. Genovese

Across the river, smoke and vapor began to erupt from the base of the rocket. The rocket started to rise from the ground atop a brilliant flame. Television cameras and photographs cannot capture the blinding brilliance of rocket’s fire. It hurt my eyes and I had to avert them from the rocket’s image—looking just the left or right of the tortured missile as it began to pick up speed. The pilgrims began cheering and clapping—the only noise that could be heard—we hadn’t been hit by the sound yet. Then the deafening roar of the rocket slams into us. The sound modulated as it bounced off the river and the buildings. It sounded like waves—deep and ripping, tearing the atmosphere apart. It only took half-a-minute for the rocket to become a point of light in the sky—the sound began to dampen.

Suddenly, I realized that my mouth was hanging open and I had tears in my eyes. I had transitioned beyond the limen; I was different from this experience, this ritual, this rite of passage. I never had a religious or spiritual experience before in my life, but I think that I had just experienced my first. I walked down from the gantry slowly, and watched everyone begin to line up to leave on the buses—the experience was over, now it was time to get back to the “real world.” Like the pilgrims shuffling back to their “real world,” Part 2 will take us away from my reflexive account of an uncrewed rocket launch and into the “real world” of crewed astronautics. In the next post, I will discuss some of the magical and ritualistic behaviors performed by astronauts, cosmonauts, and the scientific community.

Proceed to Part 2

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Martin Pfeiffer and Ryan Anderson for reading drafts of this two-parter and providing vital feedback. I would also like to thank Michael Oman-Reagan, Grant W. Trent, Lisa Messeri, Alice Gorman, Dick Powis and Bree Blakeman for the excellent Twitter brainstorming sessions that led me to some of my conclusions. My thanks also to Fritz Lampe for guiding me through the incredible world of the anthropologies of symbol, myth, and ritual.

Taylor R. Genovese

Taylor R. Genovese is a PhD student in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program at Arizona State University. He has a BA and an MA in Anthropology and is interested in the anthropology of outer space, social imaginaries, human futures, and radical (techno)politics. More at: taylorgenovese.com and on Twitter @trgenovese.

3 thoughts on “Casting into the Cosmos: Magic and Ritual in Human Spaceflight (Part 1)

  1. Taylor, I share your enthusiasm. I am old enough to remember live footage of the Moon landings, and one of my self-indulgences is belonging to the Planetary Society. Your writing about your experience is compelling. That said, I offer an objection to your terminology. You describe that experience as a rite of passage. It wasn’t. You had what you feel as self-transforming. But a true rite of passage is always a social, more precisely performative act. It marks a change in social status that others recognize and enforce. Consider, for example, getting married, then having to get a divorce—or joining the Marine Corps and trying to drop out before your enlistment ends. In the simplest example I know, when you enter a Japanese home, you take off your shoes in the entryway before stepping up into the house. Your status changes to “guest,” which entails other obligations. That rite of passage is easily reversible, but when you step down and put on your shoes to leave you cease to be a guest. Unless you have failed to tell us something, your experience may have changed the way you perceive yourself. I see no permanent change in status, accepted and enforced by others, that entails new rights and obligations. Do you?

  2. John, thanks for the comment! Very interesting point that you have raised here and I see where you are coming from. It is always hard editing one’s writing for a blog format. You never know what to cut, what to leave in, how to make your narrative the most compelling. I agree that a rite of passage is a social, performative act. I believe that sharing the experience of physically watching a rocket lift off—feeling its acoustical energy in your body while others around you are also experiencing the same phenomenon—is (arguably) one of the few technoscientific rites of passages that any member of the public can experience. Perhaps seeing a nuclear bomb test would be another, although atmospheric tests are no longer performed.

    It is true, I was unable to expand upon the social changes in status that self-proclaimed “space nerds” have with each other after witnessing a rocket launch in person. There is an implicit social stratification between those that have seen a rocket launch in person vs those who have not. There is also an entire sub-culture of those that attend NASA sponsored events called “NASA Socials” that one must apply to. If your application is chosen, you are taken on tours not available to the public. I was selected to attend the NASA Social for this event but was unable to rebook my flight in order to attend the first day—thereby invalidating my application—so I was dropped a rung in the implicit social order for space nerds (I use this terminology lovingly, as an insider, by the way—I have been a space nerd my whole life and I too am a fellow member of The Planetary Society). In other words, I was unable to perform that particular rite of passage. After witnessing the launch, I had bragging rights with other space nerds because I was at the exclusive LC-39 Observation Gantry, but I was ranked lower than those at the NASA Social that got to drive up to the launchpad earlier in the day.

    Long story short, I would argue that this stratification is in place due to the rocket launch being a rite of passage. In fact, one of your anecdotes is another example of a space-based rite of passage: those that have watched the moon landing live vs those who have not.

    Granted, all of this was not included in this blog post (you have to draw the line somewhere), but I thought I would lay out my arguments for why I included the line “rite of passage” once in my post.

  3. Taylor, you make a good argument. Still it leaves me uneasy. There is something about equating acquiring “bragging rights” among among space nerds with the legally binding and enforceable changes of status resulting from marriage or joining the Marine Corps that reminds me of chatter about online “communities” whose members will never attend each other’s weddings and funerals. In purely formal, semantic terms I can now understand more clearly what you are talking about, but your claim still feels like a weakening of the original force of “rite of passage.” You have had an amazing experience. You feel transformed. But socially and legally speaking, what has happened to you is far less consequential than, say, getting a driver’s license or turning old enough to drink legally. There is a difference here that needs to be theorized. Perhaps as a student of ritual, you can work that out.

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