Lisa Ruth Rand
The Space Age and mainstream environmentalist movement unfolded simultaneously during the 1960s and 1970s. The void of outer space may seem at odds with the verdant landscapes celebrated by ecologists and environmentalists. However, beginning with the first tests of nuclear weapons in the nearest reaches of outer space in 1958, Earth orbit rapidly came to be seen by scientists, state actors, and mainstream communities around the world as a threatened natural environment. As a small club of spacefaring nations tested new forms of satellite technology—and produced a novel kind of refuse popularly known as “space junk”—the ages old ambiguity between value and waste extended beyond the boundaries of the biosphere. An American military plan to put a copper ring around the planet instigated the first open international debates over the proper management of a strange, alien, yet truly global environment, and inspired controversy over the difference between valuable spacecraft and dangerous space junk. These early debates set the stage for half a century of environmental thinking about outer space, and reverberate in current policy prophecies of an orbital debris crisis that could threaten the satellite infrastructure supporting modern globalism.
Lisa Ruth Rand is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds joint appointments with the Department of History and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and is a community associate with the Center for Culture, History, and Environment. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Department of History and Sociology of Science in 2016 after completing a B.A. in English literature and astronomy at Barnard College. She is an adjunct science policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and a Research Associate at the Department of Space History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.