Where do all the satellites go when their utility ends? No, they don’t all just burn up on reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere as their orbits decay. Many are too large for that, and they must be escorted to a remote and desolate Spacecraft Cemetery.
While a great deal of debris and smaller satellites burn up upon re-entry, larger items—including entire space stations—need to be disposed of in a way that keeps the hazardous materials out of public circulation. And what better place than the dark depths of the ocean? Among the craft that have been scuttled at the spot are unmanned satellites . . . and, possibly most remarkably, the entire decommissioned Russian space station, Mir.
The isolated location of this unique graveyard is near the “oceanic pole of inaccessibility,” which marks the location on earth which lies the farthest from any land. The cemetery, which is already the final resting place for more than 260 spacecraft from Russia, Europe, Japan and the United States, lies on the deep seabed approximately 1,500 miles between Pitcairn Island, Easter Island, and Antarctica.
This remote locate is truly mysterious. Members of my critique group expressed concern that residual extraterrestrial elements aboard the satellites might birth some variation of ゴジラ [Godzilla]. Another member, steeped in the Lovecraftian lore of the Cthulhu mythos, pointed out that this “oceanic pole of inaccessibility” is virtually identical with the location of R’lyeh, the subterranean cavern wherein Cthulhu awaits his terrible awakening. In response to these observations, I reminded my colleagues that I happen to be writing nonfiction.
The international space race formally launched in 1957 when the Soviet Union placed Sputnik in orbit. The United States scrambled to catch up, and in 1959, the USSR placed the first human in space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was preceded by a precious little dog, the first living being to reach out for the stars. Her name was Laika, and we will consider Laika’s sad tale in a moment.
C.S. Lewis & the Space Race
The realm of space was not unfamiliar to Lewis. From 1938 to 1945 he authored three volumes of science fiction that would come to be known as the Space Trilogy (or Cosmic Trilogy).
In one book he describes the danger posed to spacecraft by interstellar debris. Presumably similar dangers led to the early demise of some of the residents of the Space Cemetery. In the first volume, Lewis describes the protagonist’s initial exposure to the “undimensioned, enigmatic blackness.”
The period spent in the spaceship ought to have been one of terror and anxiety for Ransom. He was separated by an astronomical distance from every member of the human race except two whom he had excellent reasons for distrusting. He was heading for an unknown destination, and was being brought thither for a purpose which his captors steadily refused to disclose.
All was silence but for the irregular tinkling noises. He knew now that these were made by meteorites, small, drifting particles of the world-stuff that smote continually on their hollow drum of steel; and he guessed that at any moment they might meet something large enough to make meteorites of ship and all. But he could not fear. He now felt that Weston had justly called him little-minded in the moment of his first panic. The adventure was too high, its circumstance too solemn, for any emotion save a severe delight. (Out of the Silent Planet)
Lewis’ initial foray into space was influenced by H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon. In The War of the Worlds, the second chapter is entitled “The Falling-Star.” It describes the terrible dangers that can fall from space. Earth’s “greatest authority on meteorites, stated that the height of its first appearance was about ninety or one hundred miles.” So common are meteorites that “no one seems to have troubled to look for the fallen mass that night.” However, the next morning they discovered,
An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away. The heather was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke rose against the dawn.
It is precisely due to the destruction that would be caused by a crash-landing catastrophe such as this, that the nations of the world have identified an unpopulated spacecraft cemetery.
This international competition, one of the most publicized elements of the Cold War, unfolded as C.S. Lewis was at the height of his professional influence. Unlike many, who regarded sputnik’s orbit as alarming, Lewis offered a measured, yet realistic, assessment of the advance.
I don’t feel that ‘Sputnik’ in itself is anything very dangerous, but one doesn’t like the underlying implication, i.e. that its existence proves that Russia is far ahead of your country in inter-continental missiles. (Letter to Vera Gebbert, 12 November 1957)
Lewis understood that the race to control the thermosphere and exosphere would not be won in a day. His insight was affirmed as the United States overtook the Soviets’ early advantage and planted a flag on the moon.
In his preface to a theological book, Lewis refers to Sputnik in passing, using its fame as a counterpoint to what is truly lasting and of profound significance.
Dr. Farrer is far too wise and workmanlike in his pastoral office to waste any time on being topical. You will find nothing here about the [nuclear] Bombs or Sputniks. What is usually called ‘the contemporary’ is in fact a composite picture of the recent past, based on secondary sources (chiefly newspapers) and touched up with guesses about the future.
Dr. Farrer . . . has no leisure to spare for such a phantom. He deals with what is really and knowably contemporary–with the august and terrible coincidence of the present moment and the eternal, in which each one of us lives. He is never speaking to the abstraction ‘modern man,’ always to you and me. (Preface to Austin Farrer’s A Faith of Our Own)
C.S. Lewis recognized well how the flash of “the contemporary” served to outshine what was of lasting import. He recognized Sputnik’s scientific breakthrough for what it was. And then he turned his attention to more significant concerns.
The space race, however, never ended. Today we see another shift in the transnational race for space with many nations vying for a role in exploration of the solar system. Likewise, after a period of rewarding international cooperation, the three superpowers are now all actively pursuing the militarization of space. Where it will end only our descendants will witness.
Still, like C.S. Lewis, we have personally witnessed much progress when it comes to humanity’s desire to touch space. And many of the most powerful memories have involved tragedy.
Soyuz 1 (1967) and Soyuz 11 (1971) cost four lives. In the West, entire crews were lost in three disasters: Apollo 1 (1967) and Space Shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003). Humans, though, were not the only ones to sacrifice their lives in the exploration of space. In our next post, we’ll reflect on the price paid by animals in beginning this extraplanetary journey.