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Glory Trip 197

Glory Trip 197

Glory Trip 197, photographed by Simon Norfolk. An unarmed Minuteman III nuclear missile with a National Nuclear Security Administration experiment on board is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, May 22, 2008. This image is from Norfolk’s project Full Spectrum Dominance: missiles, rockets, satellites in America. Norfolk’s statement about the project is below.

Full Spectrum Dominance: missiles, rockets, satellites in America

For several years now, my work has been an exploration of the Sublime in the landscape; those sights whose boundless beauty is countervailed by feelings of fearfulness and powerlessness. If one spends time in the shadowy, military end of the Internet; (semi-public discussions of doctrine and tactics; PR announcements of fresh technologies and equipment; soldier-made videos from the battle-zones; dry, scientific discussions of new lethalities and capabilities) one cannot be left with anything but conflicted feelings. The bewildering beauty of what human ingenuity can achieve when given endless resources collides with the appalling disposal of those assets on new and more brilliant ways to kill people. Nowhere is this clearer than what I call the Military Sublime—for example the nuclear missiles and satellite launches pictured here.

This dialectic runs throughout the world of modern rocketry. Their launch vehicles are massive cans of metal and tons of industrial fuels; yet the satellites and missiles themselves are infinitely delicate packages of microchips and sensors. A world of the practical limits of rocket science is conjoined to a world of weightlessness and omniscience. Satellites and missiles are born in worlds of utter secrecy—in skunkworks and shady research facilities. They are launched from closed military bases—and live out their lives in the soundless dark of deep space, silently listening and processing. (Who would have thought that a place so totally empty would make such a wonderful place to hide?) But there is one moment in their lives when they advertise their existence with a ground-trembling exuberant din that lights the night skies like a second sunset: the 45 seconds or so it takes for them to lift from their launch pads and disappear thousands of miles downrange, way up high. This leaping into the void is what I’ve chosen to concentrate on; this tiny (photographable) crack in a world of secrets. It is inspired in part by Barnett Newman’s ‘zip’ paintings; by my recent discovery that in the language of chemistry, ‘sublimation’ is the transition from a solid to a gas phase with no intermediate liquid phase (e.g. CO2 as ‘dry ice’); and by a geeky interest in the archaeology of words—etymologically, ‘sublime’ is derived from the Latin for ‘limen‘ meaning ‘threshold.’

The launch moment represents a threshold between two realms in the passing from one to the next, the earthly and the heavenly; and the missiles leaping across them. They may have feet of clay, but their heads are in the stars. The everyday, the man-made and the industrial is transformed by roaring fire into the Sublime and the God-like.

The word ‘missile’ has a Latin root from ‘missus,’ ‘to send,’ and the earliest known uses of ‘satellite‘ in the 16th century meant ‘follower’ or ‘bodyguard’ from the Latin ‘satellites’ meaning ‘attendant.’ The sense of it as ‘a subservient planet revolving around a larger one’ was first used in 1665 by Johannes Keppler in reference to the moons of Jupiter. The first fictional depiction of a man-made satellite being launched into orbit is in a short story from 1869 by Edward Everett Hale, The Brick Moon and popularised by Jules Verne’s The Begum’s Millions ten years later. So the word began its orbital journey meaning a sort of kindly handmaiden, then lost its subservient status in the middle of its life coming to mean something autonomous and machine-like; and has finally returned to a meaning of attendance, something to watch over us. But the kindness has all gone. Now the watching over us is entirely cruel and sinister; the potentialities of these missiles and rockets is best characterised (and caricatured) by Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. The satellites and missiles at America’s disposal are a crucial projection of it’s global power: an invisible, iron fist that allows America to intercept all our communications, photograph our every movement and, using envisaged space-based weapons, eliminate America’s opponents at the flick of a switch. It is not for nothing that the motto of the USAF’s 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral is “Control Of The Battlefield Begins Here.”

Behind all these pretty, lofty words, one can never forget that the purpose of all this sublime technology (down here in the sub-luminary world) is to sharpen the knife: to finesse America’s ability to find, follow and kill its enemies. (And who knows how they define ‘enemy’ these days?)

—Simon Norfolk, October 2008

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  1. You really make it seem so simple with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something that I think I would by no means understand. It seems too complicated and also incredibly broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will certainly try to get the hang of it!

  2. Pingback: Glory Trip 197 | Jempolr

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