What if outer space is not outside the human environment but, rather, defines it? This is the unusual starting point of Valerie Olson’s Into the Extreme: U.S. Environmental Systems and Politics Beyond Earth
(U Minnesota Press, 2018), revealing how outer space contributes to making what counts as the scope and scale of today’s natural and social environments. With unprecedented access to spaceflight worksites ranging from astronaut training programs to life science labs and architecture studios, Olson examines how U.S. experts work within the solar system as the container of life and as a vast site for new forms of technical and political environmental control.
Olson’s book shifts our attention from space’s political geography to its political ecology, showing how scientists, physicians, and engineers across North America collaborate to build the conceptual and nuts-and-bolts systems that connect Earth to a specifically ecosystemic cosmos. This cosmos is being redefined as a competitive space for potential economic resources, social relations, and political strategies.
Showing how contemporary U.S. environmental power is bound up with the production of national technical and scientific access to outer space, Into the Extreme
brings important new insights to our understanding of modern environmental history and politics. At a time when the boundaries of global ecologies and economies extend far below and above Earth’s surface, Olson’s new analytic frameworks help us understand how varieties of outlying spaces are known, made, and organized as kinds of environments—whether terrestrial or beyond.
John W. Traphagan is a professor in Department of Religious Studies and Program in Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas at Austin.