Curiousity touchdown on Mars, 5th August 2012

As a chronicler of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s early origins, it seems churlish to entirely ignore its contemporary work. Future historians will certainly have much to say about the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) better known as Curiousity – the latest Martian rover which is due to land on the 5th August.

In the early 20th century, the quest for controlled jet propulsion was all about ascending to extreme altitudes. In the early 21st century, however, the triumph of ascent – and even of interplanetary travel – is nothing compared to the technics of managed descent. Landing Curiousity is something to behold. If you can put up with the portentous music and movie trailer scripting, this JPL video has a useful animation.



The Earth from the International Space Station

I couldn’t resist this classic piece of HD time-lapse planet porn, as shot from the International Space Station.

What really strikes me is how close Earth appears from Low Earth Orbit. The ISS has a similar orbital altitude to that achieved by JPL/Frank Malina’s WAC Corporal when it was part of the BUMPER WAC. That flight in 1949 has been hailed, rightly in my view, as a landmark achievement – the first human object in extraterrestrial space.

And yet from this perspective, it doesn’t exactly seem like slipping the surly bonds of Earth. One thing is clear, though – no-one can escape the reach of The XX, probably not even on the ISS.

Rodney White and Mental Maps

I was sad to learn that Professor Rodney White, a geographer of great range and depth, died last week after a short illness. His many accomplishments included books on carbon finance, urban planning and climate change; he also conducted fieldwork all over the world.

White is arguably best known for Mental Maps which he wrote with the late Peter Gould in 1974 – one of the few books to successfully communicate human geography research (in this case, spatial science of the late 1960s) to a wider audience. It was published within the Pelican imprint.

There are not many geographers these days who translate their theoretical work for a lay audience, at least not with the clarity of Gould and White. And few contemporary academic geographers would consider writing for a trade publisher (Jared Diamond doesn’t count, sorry).

A friend once took me to lunch with Rodney White in 1996. When I asked him about the success of Mental Maps he admitted that it still sold well enough, even after twenty years, that he and his family had one night of very fine dining every year on the royalties. This image remained with me, though it also left me oddly curious about what Peter Gould did with his share.

Mental Maps is always worth picking up second-hand, not least for its wonderful cartographic cover. It prompts a number of navigational questions, not least: how best to safely ascend a nose?


On playing with rockets

Last week Edinburgh hosted the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society – Institute of British Geographers, at which I was co-organising a session on ‘Ludic Geographies’ with Tara Woodyer.

My own paper on rocket toys is something I dusted down from two previous presentations some years ago.  It will comprise only a page or two of my rocket book, but the material is interesting because – as with some of the academic literature on popular geopolitics – it re-orientates geopolitical agency from statecraft to everyday life.

Rocket toys, I argue, were part of the means by which weapons of mass destruction were rendered intelligible in, and transposable to, domestic contexts.

Moreover, certain aspects of play – technical improvisation, making, collecting, ordering, strategizing – are seen to be at work in both playroom and stateroom, toybox and silo.

My interest, unsurprisingly, lies in those toys which replicate JPL’s Corporal missile, the weaponised version of Frank Malina’s WAC Corporal. You can see some of the adverts for these here.


The indistinction between military hardware and its analogue plaything is nicely illustrated in these two sets of instructions, one from the Corgi’s Corporal missile and the other from preliminary operating procedures from now declassified British Army files.

One is formal, earnest and technical; the other is … well … a bit rubbish.

The academic argument of my paper – no need to thank me – goes something like this:

  • That play is constitutive of the Cold War.
  • That we can think of sovereign nation states, like all subjects, as the ontological effects of practices that are performatively enacted – in this case, through object play.
  • That play is not something that happens on the surface of geopolitics, far less as a response to it; geopolitics is itself, in part, a ludic enterprise.
  • That there is no meaningful distinction between missiles and their toy correlates: the rocket is entrained in the ludic activities of both children and adults.

All I need to do now is buff up these bullet points into 8000 words of persuasive argument in academic prose with appropriate citations. Oh dear.