Department of History and Sociology of Science
University of Pennsylvania
2015 to 2016
Orbital Decay: Space Junk and the Environmental History of Earth’s Borderlands, 1957-1985
What is space junk, and who or what defines pollution in an environment seemingly devoid of the trappings of nature as we know it? This dissertation constitutes one of the first scholarly forays into the environmental history of outer space. Convergent changes in the orbital landscape and in the political landscape below during the Cold War, concurrent with the rise of mainstream environmentalism, reveal the roots of an international understanding of the borderlands between Earth and outer space as a threatened natural environment. A discourse of environmental risk emerged from the first moments of human access to outer space, far earlier than acknowledged by many current space policy experts forecasting the imminent collapse and closure of the final frontier. In examining the interpretive flexibility of space artifacts as they move through and return from the planetary borderlands, “Orbital Decay” explores this extreme environment as a site of contested scientific moral authority, shifting values of consumption and resource use, and Space Age spatial politics.