Falling Cosmos: Nuclear reentry and the environmental history of earth orbit

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Abstract

What goes up must come down-the adage about gravity applies to baseballs and spacecraft alike. Since the launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957, thousands of space artifacts have fallen to Earth in an event known as “reentry.” Although most disappear from view, dissipating in the atmosphere or falling into the sea, on occasion a piece of so-called “space junk” will survive the fall and land on terra firma, typically far from its nation of origin. During the long 1970s, a confluence of natural and anthropogenic forces pushed large pieces of hardware out of orbit and back to Earth. These events collapsed geographical boundaries and brought far-flung states, communities, and environments on either side of the Iron Curtain into dangerous proximity. When space junk fell where it should not, cultural and linguistic translation and the influence of a truly global natural environment subject to its own arcane geophysical laws complicated untested international liability and governance regimes. The history of space junk reentries-particularly the 1978 “nuclear reentry” of the Cosmos 954 satellite-demonstrates how the nearest regions of outer space became an uncooperative geopolitical actor in a new form of envirotechnical emergency during the Cold War. Like other extreme environments such as polar regions and oceans, I argue that outer space merits scholarly attention as a significant natural force in human history. Contrary to triumphal spaceflight narratives, I also argue that the Space Age became truly global not solely through acts of innovation but also in moments of decay.

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Rand, L. R. (2019). Falling Cosmos: Nuclear reentry and the environmental history of earth orbit. Environmental History, 24(1), 78–103. https://doi.org/10.1093/envhis/emy125

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