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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.