Today is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's trip into space, the first human to leave the planet's atmosphere - and the first to sing in space (let's not forget either Valentina Tereshkova who followed him a couple of years later and may have sung the first song written in space) .
Once again this has got me thinking about my Disconaut days with the Association of Autonomous Astronauts (1995-2000 - explained here for the unitiated). The following text looks back on that period. I wrote it for 'See you in Space: the Fifth Annual Report of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts' (London, 2000).
Mission accomplished but the beat goes on: the Fantastic Voyage of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts
- Neil Disconaut
"Why the blue silence, unfathomable space?
Why the golden stars, teeming like sands?
If one ascended forever, what would one see up there?"
(Arthur Rimbaud, Soleil et Chair/Sun and Flesh, 1870)
What would it be like to step into space? Beyond earth's gravity, its economy, its laws, what wonders would we discover? What unknown pleasures would we stumble across on our trip to the stars? The mission of the AAA has been to attempt some tentative answers to these questions.
Our criticism of state and commercial space agencies has been precisely that they have been closed to the new possibilities of space. Instead of relishing the eruption of the marvellous they have attempted to smother it with all the baggage they have dragged behind them from earth - money, power, heroism. The Space Industry is like Michael Moorcock's 'Singularity... forever seeking to impose its simplified and sterile laws upon multiversal variety', against whom are ranged the 'Chaos Engineers who delight in all forms of experience' (2).
With a tiny fraction of their resources the Chaos Engineers of the AAA have travelled much further in the past 5 years than NASA & co. have done in almost 50 years of space exploration. Despite this a common reaction to the AAA has been that we were creating some kind of grand metaphor. Of course what we were doing did pose broader questions about the use of technology, the struggle over space with a small 's', and so on. But we have also seriously engaged with Space - experiencing zero gravity, talking to interesting members of the British Interplanetary Society and dissident space researchers like Millennium Twain and directly confronting the militarisation of outer space.
Yes we were serious, and have demonstrated that community-based space exploration is really possible. But we have never let the present social and political barriers to its full development stand in the way of experiencing some of its wonders in the here and now. This is why the AAA has put so much effort into creating situations where people have been able to step outside of their usual roles and try things they have never done before. Sometimes we have referred to these as training sessions, but really they have been less about preparation for some future task than about prefiguring the actual experience of being in space. Put simply the AAA has created its own space where interesting things have happened.
In many ways the AAA mode of operation has in itself been an experiment in collective elaboration of ideas. From somewhere in South London a notion spread and a network developed. Each new connection added its own ingredients to the mix so that what emerged was an unpredictable and constantly shifting creation that refused to be confined to art, science, music, politics, magic or any other specialist category, and that crossed the arbitrary borders dividing our home planet. Of course there are examples in literature of disparate writers creating a shared world (the Cthulhu mythos developed by HP Lovecraft and others springs to mind), but the AAA has never been confined to the realms of fiction. A closer parallel might be the Church of All Worlds in the US which started out from the pages of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and became an actually existing and influential eco-pagan group moving (in several directions) away from the author's dubious vision.
The AAA assembled its own tool box of techniques, dreams and ideas between which numerous unexpected connections arose. Disconaut AAA undertook our own survey of possibilities with our 'Means of flight: an alphabet for autonomous astronauts' from Alchemy to Zebedee. But the ground covered in this was scarcely more fantastic than some of the real combinations of people and places that emerged. Children building their own full size model of a spaceship in Vienna... grown-ups playing on swings and roundabouts... passers-by getting to grips with the intricacies of 3-sided football in Hyde Park and Honor Oak... walking into the office of Lockheed death corporation wearing a space suit.... raves in space in Bologna and elsewhere... a motley crew of marxists, musicians and the curious being put through their astral aerobics by a ritual magician on Hampstead Heath.... balloons, airplanes, Space 1999 costumes, vinyl, video, endless e-mail rants about communism, art and Zoe Ball...
So why stop now? Well even the wildest of adventures can become routine, startling ideas cliches and the most radical gestures a source of light entertainment. Space imagery has become increasingly banal and retro, featuring in numerous adverts and pop videos. We don't want to be the space industry's court jesters when capitalism itself is being openly contested, as seen in Seattle and the City of London in the last year.
The AAA has been a radical movement from the future operating in the present - now the present is catching up with us. Already we are seeing mass opposition developing to the militarisation of space (see the recent action at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire) in and before long space will become a major arena for all kinds of social struggle (3). As the first space mutineers jettison their bosses and head out into the galaxy to create new autonomous communities they will tell stories to their children about those who saw it all coming, way back in the 1990s. Or perhaps, like in the film Terminator, they will send help back into the past - to 1995 to be precise - to form a network dedicated to community-based space exploration, thus setting in motion a chain of events leading to their eventual success.
"But look at the sky! - It's too small for us,
If we feared dying of heat, we'd stay on our knees"
(Arthur Rimbaud, Le Forgeron/The Blacksmith, 1870).
(1) Mission Accomplished... but the Beat Goes On is the title of the Rezillos LP recorded live at their 1978 farewell gig in Glasgow. The Rezillos were responsible for such Disconaut faves as Destination Venus and Flying Saucer Attack.
(2) Michael Moorcock, Blood: a Southern Fantasy (1995).
(3) For information on this check the website of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.
Destination Venus more than darkness lies between us
Twenty million miles of bleakness - human weakness
Holding my receiver I can feel you coming nearer
Probing through the airwaves clearer - clearer clearer
Destination Venus - My heart was never slow
Destination Venus - Where you are I'll always go
I hear your voice on the radio
Further modulation of the frequency rotation
Triggered waveband activation - near elation
Somewhere in the distance I could hear a voice one instance
Then it faded from existence - no persistence
(Rezillos, Destination Venus, 1978)