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15 mins read 21 May 2024

Only The Astronauts - Interview with Ceridwen Dovey

Embark on an interstellar adventure with humanity’s iconic—and sometimes contentious — inanimate objects in Ceridwen Dovey’s captivating new book, Only The Astronauts. Discover their unique stories as they journey beyond Earth’s boundaries. We spoke with Dovey about her innovative blend of fiction, humanities, and the history of space exploration in this remarkable work.

Credit: Penguin Books Australia.

When we think about human space exploration, our minds often turn to monumental achievements like the space programs of the USA, Russia, and more recently, China. We envision the Moon landing, the International Space Station, and the Space Shuttle program. However, humanity's reach into the cosmos extends far beyond these iconic events. We've sent signals light years into the void, launched probes that have traversed our Solar System, and witnessed the rapid growth of the commercial space sector, achieving feats once reserved for major space agencies.

Among these endeavours, various iconic—and sometimes controversial—objects have hitched rides into space. These objects stand out because they reflect our personalities, emotions, and the visions of the privileged few who decided their shapes and missions.

In her latest book, Only The Astronauts, Australian author Ceridwen Dovey gives voice to these inanimate objects, offering their perspectives as they leave Earth behind. Dovey, an Australian Museum Eureka Award winner for her science writing and a Research Fellow at Macquarie University, imagines the thoughts of objects like Elon Musk’s Starman, the International Space Station, and the Voyager spacecraft as they journey through the darkness. We spoke with Dovey about her fascinating new book, which provides a unique perspective on humanity’s reach into the stars. Through the voices of these beloved objects, she holds up a mirror to our own emotions—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Your latest book offers a captivating and unique exploration of human space exploration, narrated through the perspectives of inanimate objects that have journeyed to the planets and stars since humanity first escaped Earth's gravitational pull. Could you share with us the primary inspiration behind choosing to tell these stories from such a unique viewpoint?

As a fiction writer, I'm intrigued by questions of voice and narratorial perspective. I've tried to move away from realism, and towards fables that give voice to non-human perspectives in ways that are both playful and profound. Italo Calvino has been an inspiration for a long time, especially in works like The Nonexistent Knight (told from the point of view of an empty suit of armour). He managed to find a way to create fables for adult readers that feel a bit like philosophy and a lot like magic. Ten years ago, I published a series of interlinked stories narrated by animals who had died in human conflicts in the past century (Only the Animals). It was a way of experimenting with readerly empathy: how much can I ask humans to feel for animal narrators? 

So this new book of stories is a weird sort of sequel to those stories. I take the experiment one step further: can I make humans feel something for inanimate space objects as they narrate the stories of their lives and their relationships with the humans who made them? Space objects are special and enchanted, as anybody who is interested in outer space already knows, so it was wonderful to use them as narrators to get an entirely new perspective on humans. I've been spending a lot of my time as a writer wearing different hats (science writer, essayist, creative non-fiction filmmaker) thinking and writing about ethics and emotions in outer space, and what environmental justice in outer space might look like. In those essays and articles, I often critique the status quo when it comes to what humans are doing in space as space activities have become privatised. Yet in these stories, I'm not asking anybody to take sides, or forcing my opinion on readers - that's the beauty of experimental fiction. It's all about, as the poet Lavinia Greenlaw says, 'travelling the question,' rather than providing any answers.   

In your book, you delve into the story of Starman, the mannequin astronaut launched aboard a SpaceX rocket—a move that sparked both awe and controversy. How do you believe future space-faring generations will view such actions by influential figures on Earth, which suggest a portrayal of space as a new frontier akin to the Wild West, where the rules are yet to be defined? 

Starman is simply one of many mannequins who have been sent into space as our proxies - or envoys. In the story, he encounters earlier incarnations, like Ivan Ivanovich, who was the first mannequin sent into space before Yuri Gagarin was allowed to make his first spaceflight, and SuitSat-1, who was ejected from the International Space Station many decades later. Mannequins are spooky and uncanny in being human-ish, and I think they often evoke terror for being like us but still falling into that uncanny valley of not being alive enough.

SpaceX’s Starman - an image captured by the camera installed on the Roadstar as it progressed along its orbit, with a crescent Earth in the background. Credit: SpaceX.

But I've always had a soft spot for Starman, and wanted to see if I could 'humanise' him rather than make him a figure of Gothic horror in the cosmos. He has so much personality! He was shot into space in a midnight-cherry Roadster, with two different David Bowie songs playing in his ear-pieces, and in-jokes and trinkets all over the dashboard (including a sign saying DON'T PANIC - which any The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fans will chuckle at). It feels like he launched with so much optimism about his mission, but it was also a little heartbreaking that his mission was basically to never return to Earth - to be banished. 

So I've imagined that Starman is gradually having his heart broken out there, as the truth of the matter dawns on him - that the human he adores on Earth might not have loved him back. Future generations will probably understand Starman as a symbol of a more playful time, before space was utterly congested and militarised and privatised, as we were on the cusp of the next phase of 'using' space - but while we still had a sense of humour about ourselves and our ambitions, and the stakes still felt low enough that sending Starman into space in a convertible was just for shits and giggles. 

In the evocative chapter 'Requiem,' where readers are transported aboard the International Space Station as silent observers, you provide deeply personal accounts from astronauts and cosmonauts. Could you describe the research process that enabled you to capture such candid insights? Were you able to conduct interviews with current or former ISS crew members to achieve this level of detail?  

This story is a companion to a short film that I made with director Rowena Potts and our co-founded Archival Futures Collective. Also called "Requiem," the film uses some of those same sonnets that I wrote for the story to anticipate farewelling the International Space Station before it is deorbited. We asked real-life astronauts who had been onboard the International Space Station to voice the sonnets for the film in their own languages - even though they were 'playing' imagined future astronauts who were saying goodbye to the ISS before its imminent deorbit - and we were so amazed and grateful that they said yes. Many of them said that they felt very emotional reading the sonnets and that they would feel real grief when the ISS comes down (which may be sometime within the next 5-10 years). 

The short story ends with this sonnet cycle, but the story itself is told from the perspective of the ISS, giving one final tour of itself, describing scraps of memories and scenes and glimpses of the humans who have called it home for almost 30 years. Most of these are entirely invented by me. Sometimes I used a real detail that caught my eye in my wide reading about the ISS, and then expanded that out into a fictional scene (using much poetic licence!). But in fact, it's very hard to find much material about the *real* living that has happened within the ISS's modules - the petty fights and small moments of kindness; the private humiliations of failing to maintain good hygiene, or the frustrations of always losing things; the truth of the intimate relationships between astronauts, and between astronauts and their loved ones on the ground. This story is the opposite of an 'official transcript' of what has happened on the ISS - it's an attempt to try to use my imagination to describe the smallest, most insignificant encounters between astronauts, as well as some of the more meaningful interactions.  

The International Space Station (ISS) in orbit. Credit: NASA.

Staying with 'Requiem,' your use of the astronauts sonnets to bid farewell to the International Space Station adds a melancholic layer to the narrative, anticipating a future event—the decommissioning of the ISS. In your view, has the ISS served as a successful experiment in enabling humans to live outside Earth, fostering peace and collaboration? Additionally, what emotions do you anticipate experiencing when the ISS ultimately makes its return to Earth?

I think that there may be an unprecedented outpouring of grief from people when the ISS is deorbited, burns up in part in our atmosphere, and then perhaps (though it's not a perfect science!) lands in pieces beneath the ocean at the spacecraft cemetery at Point Nemo, in the remote South Pacific. What might surprise us is that much of that grief will be felt and expressed by scientists, not just by us ordinary mortals. I've been tracking for a while now the ways in which space objects seem to give scientists permission to express their emotions in ways that other kinds of objects of study do not. Space scientists mourned openly when Rosetta and Cassini's missions ended, and when each Mars rover stopped communicating. They speak of these space objects lovingly, anthropomorphise them without apology or shame, and grieve when they go quiet or 'die.' 

The ISS is - by most accounts - the most expensive infrastructure project ever undertaken by humans, but I don't think that's why we will mourn its death. It has held human bodies within it, kept them safe, been formed in this slow, modular way through an extraordinary international process of agreement and negotiation and collaboration. What comes after the ISS will probably not be as inclusive and welcoming to people from so many different nations. So we will mourn its loss both as a home for humans and as a symbol of cooperation in space.

Your essay on the Overview Effect remains a seminal piece, offering a vision of space exploration as a solution to Earth's challenges—a perspective underscored by the tangible benefits of technologies like remote sensing. However, this viewpoint also reflects a certain privilege and carries inherent biases. Considering the rich diversity of human experiences and the complex psychological and sociocultural dimensions involved, what preparatory work do you believe humanity needs to undertake in psychology, social sciences, equity, and diversity before embarking on ambitious endeavours like space colonisation?  

My essay on the overview effect is a critique of the concept/belief/faith that humans become 'better' in space - like it washes us free of our sins and makes us magically nicer and kinder and more moral. It's an ancient and venerable idea, of course, linked to religious frameworks of the heavens, but I think right now we need to be real about the fact that we will be just as human in space as we are on Earth. This means that we will be just as capable of the whole range of human behaviours - from good to evil - on the Moon as we are in the Antarctic or Arctic. 

What we need to be focusing on right now is ways of holding ourselves accountable for our actions in space: how do we know exactly what is being done in space; how do we have checks and balances and oversight on what's happening; how do we hold bad actors accountable; how do we prevent harm from being done? We need to learn from how we have failed to safeguard other global commons on Earth (the ocean, for instance), and also from the instances where we have bought ourselves time to try to let the ethical/moral frameworks catch up to the technological innovations (like the ban on commercial mining in the Antarctic, for a specified period of time). All of the knowledge and wisdom already exists in all those fields you mention in your question - but the problem is that the people with the power to go to space, or make things happen in space, are not usually very interested in including those other ways of knowing or being or doing.

Artistic rendition of what the future-proposed Lunar Gateway station, in orbit around the Moon, might look like. Credit: NASA.

Projecting forward imaginatively to 500 years from now, it's conceivable that humanity might have established a lunar science outpost, though perhaps not a large permanent society on the Moon. Envisioning a future with perhaps only a few lunar gateway-like stations focused on research rather than settlement, how crucial will it be for those future generations to understand our current era through the narratives in your book? How important is it to integrate the humanities with the sciences in your writing to remind us all that this era had the opportunity to set the right—or wrong—precedents for space exploration?  

I am sure my stories will disappear very quickly into the void! If one of them miraculously survives into the future, I hope it is "The Fallen Astronaut," where I try to find a new language (through the ghost of Neil Armstrong) to describe the Moon. I tried to imagine what a nature writer like Annie Dillard would make of the Moon if she had set foot on it first, rather than someone like Armstrong - and how the language that we use about the Moon alters what we can imagine doing to it, or on it. Scientists use their imaginations just as much as writers or humanities scholars. Vivian Gornick's profiles of 100 women scientists showed this: that scientists and writers actually work and think in remarkably similar ways, and spend much more of their time in the realm of the imagination than anywhere else. My interest in merging the 'hard' sciences and social sciences (and humanities) acknowledges that we have been making voyages into the cosmos using our imaginations since time began - so actually I would say that it's the writers, poets and artists who have the most to teach us about space exploration. They are the ones we have been 'going there' in their minds forever - and there are lessons (both cautionary and inspirational) that we can learn from them.

In your book, the dialogue between Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 not only underscores the historical significance of these missions as humanity's furthest-reaching probes into the cosmos but also their role as bearers of messages from Earth to the stars. However, the scenario where these messages are interpreted by extraterrestrial beings in a context different from their intended one offers a profound moment of reflection. This narrative reveals how a select few have historically assumed the role of Earth's ambassadors. How would you propose that we approach the task of representing humanity to extraterrestrial civilizations from a more inclusive, global perspective?  

The story of the curation of the Golden Record - the precious cargo that Voyager 1 & 2 have carried on their bodies since they were launched in 1977 - has been told many times, but what I hope I've contributed in this story is more about the context within which those decisions were made, about what to include as a 'message' to intelligent life. The debates about whether to represent both the positive and the negative sides to humanity, for instance. As I think Starman says in the story (yes, he makes a return performance!), rather send an imperfect message than nothing at all. I don't have any of the answers to your questions - I just thought it would be interesting to imagine the aliens interpreting the Golden Record in a way that Carl Sagan and Annie Druyan never intended, and to follow that through dramatically. 

The Golden Records, sent out into space, aboard the Voyager Spacecrafts. They contain the sounds of Earth, as well as information about where we are, and who we are. Credit: Smithsonian Magazine.

In this recent work, you explore multifaceted themes that bridge space, science, and human experience. Could you highlight some of the key concepts or insights that you hope readers will take away after turning the final page?

I hope that these stories make humans - humanity as a whole - seem more loveable to readers. We are so flawed, and we know that we are so flawed, and we are daily living with the outcomes of being so flawed - and yet I still believe so fully in the human project. We make mistakes all the time, yes, but we also do so much that is good and right. I don't think I could be this earnest about my love for humans in a book with human narrators (it would feel sentimental or icky), but somehow, through my object narrators, I get to express these feelings without fear of seeming too earnest.

Purchase a copy of the book from Roaring Stories, or other book distributors