Intimacies with(in) the Space Station
Observing ends. We leave the shift to go to watch the stars ourselves, Koko and I. Down the concrete stairs at the rural observatory, holding onto the cold bannister. Out the door into the balmy darkness. We cross the complex on the well-worn paths, down the lane to the field. We take the footpath, holding hands, one in front of the other. Warm together, our fingers interlock to make sure we don’t lose each other in the inky openness. There are roots and branches on the ground that we used hushed tones to warn each other about; as if we must keep our presence a secret from the night itself. My other hand skims the air beside me – where the tops of the plants in the field reach up and tickle my fingers, brushing themselves into my experience of the night. The lights from our cabins illuminate the end of our journey greeting us home as we grab jumpers and beers; and deposit books, notes, and worries from the day. Then onwards, to the stars. Our path runs between the cabins, and into the woods. Slowly, slowly, down the steps. Gently, gently, around the trees. We grab each other for support – hands, arms, bodies used to stabilise our journey down to the lake. The very last stretch is wooden steps. A slick wooden rail, clammy with dew and mosses, runs down the side. Koko goes first down the steps, arm bent up at the elbow across his chest, fingers outstretched and joined to mine at his shoulder. Our hands have cooled; plunged into the depths of the night they’ve taken on the quiet coldness of the early hours of the morning. Our fingers entwined together to share their remaining warmth.
We reach the pontoon, stretching out into the lake, which opens to the night sky. The stars fill the expanse – as far as I can see in all directions above they glow. The flat, still surface reflects them back to us – stars all the way down from the horizon to where I place my now shoeless feet on the water. We sit, curled one into another on the edge of the wooden boards, alone, far from everyone in the cabins. Perhaps the most perfectly isolated I’ve ever felt. I run my fingers across the boards tracing the rings and lines of the wooden slats, experiencing their rough grooves and channels, little bumps and growths while we talk. My feet pat the water. The lake is still warm, balmy in the cool night. I swing my legs, caressing the top of the water with my toes; or tapping it with the balls of my feet. I generate gentle ripples as we share secrets and embrace, movements through the resistance of the liquid that I feel to make sure this is not a dream. The ripples warp the stars reflected back to the sky – their wobbling and waving is sharply different to the stoic slow turning of the constellations through the unending rotation of the Earth. It’s 4am. We’ve watched the milky wash of our galaxy rotate through the sky, when there’s a movement across the lake – a rapidly moving light. I think it’s something I’ve made in my skimming of the water but looking up it’s there as well. We’ve seen the space station, passing overhead in orbit, their remote isolation far away from other people’s – echoing ours as we sit out, sleepily, on the lake.
What is ‘remoteness’? People physically apart through the pandemic. Engagement from a distance. Separation. Alone Together. Being remote, isolated, apart has been an experience that our global society – ironically collectively – has had in the pandemic. As a prompt in Touchy-Feely Tech’s sex tech hackathon that we (the authors, Akvilė and Eleanor), participated in earlier in the year, ‘remoteness’ initiated thinking about partnered intimacies at a distance: sex toys that could be remotely controlled or collectively operated; ways to mitigate the physical absence of touch from others that characterised many people’s experience during the pandemic; repurposing the things are already in one’s immediate surroundings for these needs.
We were already interested in thinking about sex in space. Taking people who are isolated extensively – astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) – our intervention in the hackathon saw us think about subverting the conventional uses of materials already part of the ISS to foreground intimacies and pleasure in this remote environment. We were stimulated by touch points that ranged from illustrations of tentacle-aliens in Ruby Rare’s Sex Ed: A guide for Adults, to cyborgian space-embraces in Kate Devlin’s Turned On, to the call in Sara Hendren’s What Can a Body Do? to reimagine and repurpose everyday items and to build from non-specialist materials that we already have access to. We responded to Douglas Adams’ sighing doors in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and sensual hybridity between technology and humans in Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer: Emotion Picture.
Stimulated by a selection of ‘everyday’ images taken on the ISS in 2020 by the collaboration of Paolo Nespoli and Roland Miller, we looked at the materials onboard and thought about how these might be reimagined in service of intimacy and pleasure of the astronauts onboard. A rounded head of a moveable arm above the cupola was reimagined as a vibrator toy, for stimulation while watching the Earth pass by underneath – a kind of exhibitionist fantasy of anyone on the ground looking up and seeing (but not knowingly) astronauts orgasming in space. The ties that hold items in storage so they don’t float around the cabin produce a neat grid system of ordered packing. We retooled these ropes as a kink-inspired tie-down for holding partners in place during sex; helping astronauts to navigate the fact that in space where there is no friction to hold people together one might drift off without tethering. Thinking about non-sexual intimacies of cuddling, we identified a tube that ran through many of the frames, and repurposed it as a toy that would embrace the individual, squeezing tightly to mimic the caress that was so missed during isolation, fantasising that this might be a tele-toy operated through remote connections with a loved-one on Earth. Together, these interventions explore the ISS as an UFO – an Unidentified Fucking Object – a series of speculative prompts that empower us to think through intimacies, removal from collective work, and outer space.
Remoteness – and by this we mean removing small groups of people from collective societies – has been a function of human space science projects for a significant period of time. Even before actually going into space, projects such as desert-based Biosphere 2 in Arizona or the underwater pod NEMO isolated individuals or groups to understand what isolation is like, how people cope, and what is needed to sustain human life. Science experiments, often in service of the state-led research agendas, have long intertwined with artistic interventions that explore the same. ANT Farm’s ballooning Space Egg (1968) coincided with the growing popularity of space exploration in the US at the time; as did Graham Stevens’ Desert Cloud (1972), ‘blurring,’ as Katarzyna Balug argues ‘the boundary between subject and environment’ in the construction of isolated living places.
Thick clear glass runs along one wall of the corridor that we’re in. It’s from the floor to the ceiling and there is a thick rail that runs along the middle of it, as if to remind us that the glass is there in the first instance, that we can’t just step through into the space on the other side. The group is in a small corridor high up on the side of a large warehouse room. Most of the room is in shades of grey. The colours are echoed in the colour of the rail, floor, ceiling here on our side. But there are some departures: bright yellow runners span the enormous space; easily the largest stars and stripes banner I’ve seen hangs red, white, and blue on the other wall. And then there are the gleaming white and matt-silver modules of mocked up space vehicles and modules that are scattered across the floor, modelling the plan of the space station. We look down on the model. We can’t see anyone moving around or working in there – so we’re looking in on static, grounded version of something that is free falling in space, looking down on us as we stand there looking down on its sister.
The air conditioner rattles on in our corridor, blowing overly cold air against one of my shoulders and arms, making the fine hairs all down one side of my body stand up to try to trap some warm air close to my skin. I can’t step sideways without relinquishing my view of the space station to another, and I’m too short to see over the heads of the adults on my tour. So I endure the freezing jets of air that trickle down my body, making me aware of how at odds my body is with the environment of the warehouse. It’s hard to connect with the idea that these dense, metallic structures echo something that seems like it is floating up in space. The modules seem both too big and too small. How are they so large – so voluminous to get up to space, so weighed down by their materiality, so solid, so fixed? How are they so small – so fragile to protect real people against the harsh and unforgiving nature of the vacuum of space? The nothingness that exists beyond this simultaneously thick-and-thin space station in orbit is incomprehensible. It’s not like the nothingness of the air around me, as I look through the window into the warehouse. The touch of these little atoms against my body are so every day, I don’t normally feel them. But the wind, the air blowing around me, the jet from a fan, the rush as I fall on a rollercoaster, the swoosh as I jump down – I notice these changes in the air around me; making me notice the experience of the air itself.
Since 2001, ISS has continuously hosted people in space. It’s not the first and is unlikely to be the last habitat to do so. Preceded by space stations like Mir and Skylab and (at the time of writing in 2021) accompanied by the Tiangong space station (天宫空间站) the ISS is somewhere for people to live beyond the habitat that humans are best sustained by – Earth. The 20 years of continuous habitation have seen astronauts come and go through its modular construction, sections, parts, materials and bits that are brought in, taken out, attached, removed, used and stowed away over time. While discursive emphasis is often on the humans who are sustained by the space stations, the two – human subject and environment – are enmeshed inextricably.
Addressing the development of boundaries between space science research sites and the locations that they are situated in, Valerie Olson, in Into the Extreme traces the construction of the ‘system’ inside the research site that is supposedly well understood against the ecosystem, conceived of as all other things outside the mechanised, describable system. Outer space was itself constructed as an environment outside of the environment of Earth, deliberately limited by political horizons to exclude it from being within the system. Conceptual layering isolates the human from the environment beyond and within the space station. This boundary creation between the subject and the environment could have been even more uncertain. In Of Astronauts and Algae Leah Aronowsky follows an alternative history of space station development which could have relied on interdependent intimacies between the oft-prioritised, isolated human and biological organisms like algae in the space station. This might have led to radically different ideas about the relationship between somewhat unruly ecological environments in space and the human subject than those that did emerge, where a deep reliance on technoscientific system solutions extracted the astronaut subject from the ecological environment of the station.
Making the human subject in a systematised environment that is/ was aesthetically in the service of technological components also did not have to be the case. Early sketches by architect Galina Balashova for the Soviet space programme, for instance, saw the creation of habitats that echoed the places where people lived on Earth. Bedrooms, living rooms, and spaces for sitting were designed to be furnished with wooden finishes, checked fabrics, and paintings of landscapes; creating a very different subject-environment relationship. Balashova’s plans appear tactile – the soft furnishings, fabrics, books, and metallic and wooden elements connect these otherworldly round rooms with our lived experiences here on Earth. This is in contrast to the textures of Paolo Nespoli and Roland Miller’s photographs that informed our UFO project, where we had to guess what the touch of plastics and metals that we were unfamiliar with would be like. In re-imagining tactility in our UFO project, we attempted to transgress the physically contactless environment of the space station in their photographs through a focus on one of the most intimate types of touch.
Elsewhere, science fiction had made the tangible, touchable aspects of space more real. Douglas Adams’ call for always knowing where your towel is, for example, is a call to the tactile elements of space. I, Eleanor, think of my towel as the thing I reach out and grab on the way out of the shower or bath. Naked, damp, but warmed and cleaned by the water, the towel touches my skin. It’s routine – I use it the same way every day. Grabbed from the rail in my right hand, I dry my left arm and hand, my face and neck, then my right arm, my torso, my legs each in turn, my feet, my back. The towels I use smell different – like fabric conditioner, like the swimming pool, the beach. They are sometimes rough; air dried in the sunshine or coated in coarse sand. They’re sometimes a fluffy, deep texture that envelops my hands; sometimes they’re thin and threadbare, but efficient at drying. Sometimes they are small, perfunctory rectangles; sometimes they are decadent engulfing sheets. I sometimes think about the touch of the intergalactic towels I would have, for lying out on exoplanetary beaches; for drying off after hydrocarbon showers; for wiping my hands on after cleaning them following an otherworldly hike in my spacesuit.
The messy, dirtiness of life; the need for aesthetic surroundings over a long period of time living somewhere; the places where the human meets the built environment of the space station are the productive moments of speculation, of imagination, of creation. They are interactions that can be used to think about how the engagement could be otherwise; a moment to step through to the otherworldly, to hold these new meanings, possibilities, and relations.
On the ISS astronauts experience the sun rise every 92 minutes, unlike the singular event that we get here on Earth each day. For astronauts, the sun rises through the blackness of space, suddenly appearing and occupying their view. On a beach I’m lying on, the sunrise creeps through a gap between clouds in the sky and the sea on the horizon, and it’s light is beginning to sparkle across the shallow waves, and gleam on the sand that has been newly exposed as the tide begins its withdrawal for the day. Our towels overlap on the fine sand. We’ve borrowed them from the place we’re staying so they’re not beach towels, but soft for indoor use. It’s very early – we’ve come for sunrise to have sex on the beach like we’re in a movie. Being young, I think this is what real adults do, and (perhaps mistakenly) feel grown up. We kiss. My nose brushes their cheek; and I feel their lips push against mine. I’m self-conscious of the roughness of my lips: in my nervousness, I pulled at the skin the day before and now it is cracked. I can smell the sea, the kelpy sands, the pine-scent that fills the air after the rain that has passed in the night, intermixed with their body – pulling gently on handfuls of their curls, the scent of their hair wafts and mixes with their skin. We roll across the towels, the pressure of the sand on my back slowly eases as the small grains are deformed by our weight. I feel their body on top of mine, and touch my hand low on their back, in a dip that is collecting small droplets of sweat. I tilt my head back, looking out towards the sea, and happen to catch the moment the whole sun appears above the sunrise and am filled with the warmth of being there together.
I wished we were on the ISS. The moment is beautiful, replicable. The sand has crept across our rumpled towels and clothes, and we are coated with the salty sea spray carried to us by a gentle breeze. In 24 hours, we’d be gone – far away from the beach, from each other’s arms, from the sunrise. But in 92 minutes, we’d still be here, still be the only people on the beach, and we’d be seeing the sunrise again. Perhaps it’s a good thing we can’t.
The motivation of cosmos as radical otherworldliness surfaces across a wide range of experiences and ideas – taking it, challenging it, developing it. Facing up to the entanglement of the subject and environment gives us, Akvilė and Eleanor, worldly guidance on how to think in radical, cosmic, and otherworldly ways. Animals as the primary space subject arises in the Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency where Fred Scharmen engages space-faring manatees as the ones the spacecraft are designed for, creating a watery world interior of a space station for inhabitants to swim around in beyond Earth. Aquatic animals, entangled with the construction of rocket launch sites in Florida, motivated Julie Klinger’s exploration of ‘reclaiming Cape Canaveral for the turtles’. These engagements develop a sense of the otherworldly priorities that might be possible – but still hold the non-human animal at arms-length from the human, rather fundamentally intertwined. Aronowsky’s exploration of a biologically-supported space station rejects what she calls ‘extractive intimacies’. Instead, the mutuality of keepingalive, the possibility of a total environment that encompasses the subject and environment whether in an algae-mouse or algae-human is tackled. Who is being looked after in a multi-species system is unclear: a ‘verdant wilderness spaceship’ requires imagining the human relationally with many other species, rather than in the position of the only or ultimate subject.
Across places and spaces the value of decentring the human that happens in multi-species storytelling has been imperative. Looking at how other animals, minerals, vegetables, and microorganisms live and interact directs us to investigate differently. Humans are no longer the only important subject-being, the one that must be preserved at all costs; instead humans are intimately entangled with many others. Culture no longer sits outside, or beyond, nature. This idea of a separation of nature and cultures is itself an artifice: there are probably no ecosystems on Earth that are untouched by humans, all can be thought of as intertwined Harawavain naturecultures. Moreover, we intimately construct our ideas about nature through our cultural approaches to the world: Lisa Messeri’s theorising of making a cultural ‘place’ in a natural ‘outer space’ captures some dimensions of these entanglements in humanity’s thinking of the contexts beyond Earth. These symbiotic engagements help us as designers and thinkers to place ourselves within a larger system. The Mushroom at the End of the World. The Trees at the Edge of the Star-filled Lake. The Oyster at the End of the Space Station.
Intimacies can subvert the subject-environment dichotomy in other ways too. Rejecting the militarised, extractive conception of the environment-in-service-of-the-subject that has underpinned research gives us access to new cosmic possibilities. Here, the long use of environments to develop control of the space or to test weapons demonstrates how the human is prioritised. Control facilitates domination of the environment; a domination that can be instrumentalised to sustain life in outer space. Using environments in this way depicts them as disposable – spaces that can be sacrificed in the service of a larger project. In the same way, narratives of ‘exploration’ of space, or ‘moving to Mars’ prioritise making anew, rather than fixing or repairing in existing environments, such as Earth. Positioning the creation of the new as being superior to the repair, care, and maintenance of that which already exists is part of a lineage of rhetoric that favours militarised, masculine ‘creation’ over feminised labours of ‘reproduction’ and ‘care’. Subversively, however, Reka Gal explores in the context of the space station how the space station represents a site that requires extensive ‘care and maintenance’ challenging the militarised narratives that underpin its existence, making the space station an ‘opposition to a techno-utopian escape’ replete with ‘notions of natural insufficiency and machine invulnerability.’ Intimacies require reciprocities. The give and take, the exchange between and within, the circulations of things that are required sit at odds with the total environment that sees itself isolated from the world. Care is this connection, often seen through unpaid reproductive labours and through careful and caring maintenance work done by human-subjects on the space station.
At the foundation of our orientation away from sights and sounds, and towards touch, smell, and taste is a rejection of the senses that are most commonly instrumentalised in militarised work. The UFO takes formalised parts of the space station that serve a particular purpose, and re-engages them through intimate touch; using them to care for the self or a partner, and invoking the smell, touch, and taste that accompanies this. A leap into the cosmic imagination is to think about these other sensory experiences as an essential part being human, even cosmically. It is in touch, smell, and taste we find many elements of care, and pleasure that develop interpersonal, interspecies, even inter-environmental intimacies.
As Julijonas Urbonas implores, the ‘only way to access the cosmic is through our capacity to imagine cosmically, employing techniques of pretence, make-believe and simulation.’ There is always a tension with thinking about the cosmic from our position on the Earth. We’ve not been to space and statistically, reader, neither have you (congratulations if you have!). We’ve not experienced the weightlessness, and isolation of being in freefall around space. We’ve not touched the cords and ropes; the glass that surrounds the cupola; the tubes that pipe the ISS. We must use the techniques of pretence, of play, of re-making our memories to make-believe. Through this text and narrative images, we have brought together intimacies and isolations in memories and imaginings as speculative points of departure, that bring into sharp relief the touchless, individualist nature of space stations as we experience them today. Individualism underpins using space in the service of capitalist exploitation. We reject the cosmos as a resource of exploitation and centre the cosmos as a space for care and intimacies, starting with our space stations.
We do this every summer – every summer we’ve been to this house, that is. My father will look up the weather in the newspapers, and we’ll watch the skies in the daytime to work out which night will be clear enough for us to see the stars. It’s a game: normally we’ll get one really clear night over the week, one perfectly clear and easy night to look at the stars and we play to work out which one of us can guess the weather earliest in the day. One year there were no clear nights, and I insisted that we stayed out on the last night anyway – looking at the wispy grey clouds smother pinpricks of starlight and the moonshine. One year the clear night was the full moon – a moon so bright that it seemed like daylight and obscured many of the dimmer, more delightful stars in the sky with its overwhelming brilliance. This year, however, this year we are lucky. Three nights in a row it’s been cloudy and wet. But tonight everything has dried in the harsh sun of the August day, and the sun sets on a clear sky. Red, the orb dips below the horizon and the blanket of stars is pulled across the sky – covering the pinks, oranges, blues, and purples with a deep blackness peppered with twinkling silver points. These nights are special to me – the sun sets late in the heady dog days of summer – and I am allowed to stay up until many hours after the drawn out dimming of the sky until it gets really, properly, deeply dark. Sometimes I find the darkness of my bedroom scary – the closed door and closed curtains make for uncertain nights. But this darkness is magical. I’m scooped up by my father, and we take with us the scratchy blankets that live in this house. He walks across the gravel, a familiar crunch and the wobble of his stride sinking into the mass of small stones letting me know that we’re on the way to our spot. Up the steps, onto the grass, his stride now even and firm. I’m wrapped in his arms, and they gently move up and down with his gait. My feet reach down, toes hitting the dried earth first, and then my whole sole rolling onto the ground with the short, rough grass poking up between my toes, around my ankles, in the arch of my feet. It’s different to the grass at home. I always think it’s terrible for playing games on, running through during the day. But when I’m standing surrounded by it at night, its prickliness is part of the spell that is cast over our evening. A blanket is laid out, we get on it, and lie down. My father swaddles me in another softer woolly cover, and then both of us in a third. I lie, neck over his arm, and we close our eyes and count to 30 together. As I open my eyes, the brightest stars are there first. We stare, as we always do, into a spot that looks like it doesn’t have any stars until small, dim, dots populate it in our vision as our eyes adjust to the darkness. This year is special as we might see the space station, newly added to the things out there in the night sky. We look at the constellations, drawing links, telling each other the stories we know well. We wait for the fast moving constant light to pass across the sky, tentatively, alone together to see this new craft.
EXO-MOAN Studio, led by Akvilė Terminatė and Eleanor S. Armstrong, uses design thinking to imagine interplanetary sex tech futures and informal sex education.
Playful curiosity is the catalyst for Akvilė Terminatė’s research-led design practice that draws from social and cognitive sciences and maker culture. Her work invites the audience to rediscover their own childlike wonder and natural ability to create rich alternative narratives and new ways of seeing and knowing. Her background in museum education provides a rich foundation for a collaborative approach that negotiates the intersection between product interface and interaction design. Akvilė is interested in the topics of relationships, intimacy and care in speculative futures.
Dr Eleanor S. Armstrong is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Delaware, where she researches the terrestrial geographies of outer space. Her work focuses critical queer, feminist approaches to space sciences; including their representation in cultural institutions; their interaction with local communities and environments proximate to research sites; and ideas of intimacy, care, pleasure, and consent in space.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Pan Books, London, 1979.
Leah V. Aronowsky, ‘Of Astronauts and Algae: NASA and the Dream of Multispecies spaceflight’, Environmental Humanities vol.9, no. 2, 2017, pp. 359–377.
Katarzyna Balug, ‘Postlunar Imaginary through Inflatable Architecture’, New Geographies 11: Extraterrestrial, 2020, pp. 89–94.
Kate Devlin, Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots, Bloomsbury, London, 2018.
Donna J. Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003.
Reka Gal, Climate Change, COVID-19, and the Space Cabin: A Politics of Care in the Shadow of Space Colonization, October 2020, http://mezosfera.org/climate-change-covid-19-and-the-space-cabin-a-politicsof-care-in-the-shadow-of-space-colonization/, accessed 31 August 2021.
Sara Hendren, What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World, Penguin Random House, New York, 2020.
Julie M. Klinger, Terrestrial Environments of Outer Space II, American Association of Geographers 2021, online panel discussion, 2021.
Lisa Messeri, Placing Outer Space, Duke University Press, Durham CA, 2016.
Philipp Meuser, Galina Balashova: Architect of the Soviet Space Programme, DOM Publishers, Berlin, 2015.
Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer: Emotion Picture, 7 May 2018, https://vimeo.com/268498567, accessed 31 August 2021.
Paolo Nespoli and Roland Miller, Interior Space: A Visual Exploration of the International Space Station, Damiani, Bologna/New York, 2020.
Valerie Olson, Into the Extreme, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2018.
Ruby Rare, Sex Ed: A Guide for Adults, Bloomsbury, London, 2020.
Fred Scharmen, Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency, 2015, https://cargocollective.com/nonhumanagency/, accessed 31 August 2021.
TouchyFeely Tech (2021) Rainbow’s End Hackathon, January 2021, https://hack.touchyfeely.tech/, accessed 31 August 2021.
Julijonas Urbonas, Lithuanian Space Agency 1st Annual Report, Six Chairs Books, Vilnius, 2021.