Jacques Arnould

UniversitÚ Paris-Sud, in external collaboration with CNES/DS


Human'life is one of pulling and putting down roots : the " hairless ape " (Desmond Morris) not only has a gift for exploration, he also wonders more and more about the matrix that makes biological existence possible. What is the space activity for ? Exploring the solar system and observing outer space ? Or studying and surveying Earth's great ecological systems ? Such a question is unusual in space field. Perhaps one of the reasons is that environmental knowledge remains outside the sphere of space institutions. Only recently has Earth observation been perceived as something other than a tool for making the exploitation and management of Earth resources easier. Another reason might lie in the difficulty of reflecting on the purpose of the space industry in a new context. Like other areas of technoscience, space industry is called upon, not to say obliged, to take into consideration a reflection that goes beyond that of technical " how to do " capacities; it discovers a " why to do " reflection.

Humankind whose head is in the stars must keep his feet on the ground for a few more decades and be responsible for his planet. Therein lies his grandeur.


The view which are developped in this communication bind only their author and not the organisms on which he depends.



Humans's life is one of pulling and putting down roots. From the belly of his mother to the belly of the Earth; from his nostalgia for the Garden of Eden to his concerns about the Amazon, from the African rifts to interplanetary frontiers; now a nomad, now a sedentary, this " hailess ape " (Desmond Morris) not only has a gift for exploration, he also wonders more and more about the matrix that makes biological existence possible. The space enterprise, with its own characteristics, is probably one example (among many) of this contrasted situation. We probably forget too easily that the space programmes and techniques depend on a double dynamics, which Jean-Daniel LÚvi, former director general of the CNES, describes in the following way : " Beyond its mythical character, from Icarus to Jules Verne, the conquest of space allows us to observe the Earth and at the same time explore the universe. The stakes are symbolical, political and economical ". Henceforth, the future of the space industry cannot shy away from this dilemma: what is it for ? Exploring the solar system and observing outer space ? Or studying and surveying Earth's great ecological systems ? At first sight, this dilemma could appear harmless. But experience teaches that, if it is proposed in the context of a public organism like the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (France), it offers the occasion to examine the finality of this sort of institution, facing the challenges that Western societies meet today.

Anthropocentrism on trial

" Observing the Earth "/ " exploring the universe ": are these two perspectives intertwined as easily as the discourses of space agencies would have it? It is really harmless to give a programme of Earth observation the name : Mission to Planet Earth (as Nasa did) ? The exploration of the universe finds roots in the spirit of the New World and the New Frontiers ( a spirit for which the TV-series Star Trek is one of the last avatars) : nobody can deny this assertion. But is it possible to refer to the same symbolism concerning Earth observation ?

The pioneer spirit (which belongs not only to the American agency) is a worthy heir to the modern form of Western anthropocentrism. For a part, the roots of this anthropocentrism are Judeo-Christian, based on the well-known Biblical idea : humanity has been set by the Creator at the summit of the hierarchy of living things, to have dominion over them and to ensure its own demographical expansion. During the sixteenth and the seventeeth centuries, Copernicus, Bruno and Galileo had already begun to break into fragments geocentric convictions inherited from this tradition (combined with Greek philosophy). But anthropocentrims did not totally disappear : at the same time that it destroyed religious beliefs, modern science developped and offered capacities to become masters and possessors of Nature (Descartes). Antrhopocentrism had no religious roots, only humanist and materialist ideology.

Professor Jacques Blamont, when he tries to define the space myth, does not say otherwise : " To harness the power, the nobility and beneficience of science for serving humankind in order to control Nature's laws ". To control Nature's laws offers indeed the capacity to control the Earth. Roger M. Bonnet, director of science at the European Space Agency, speaks in the same way about the history of satellites : " Artificial satellites obviously represented the ultimate means, of which the military and researchers could dream. The Palliase and Sword settled gradually into a narrow symbiosis : the Sword leaned on the Palliasse to justify its ambitions, and the latter, which did not mind being leaned on, took means which would have been difficult to develop and to finance otherwise. " The symbols of the Sword and the Palliasse, which this specialist of space affairs uses, have the merit of being unequivocal : satellites are for a large part instruments which have been developed by and put into the service of the will, to know more and then to master the terrestrial environment and the biosphere, with increased efficiency.

Must we conclude that the techniques of Earth observation from space, because they are the product of space conquest, are definitively subject to a positivist and anthropocentric spirit, whose goal is the domination of Nature by the Palliasse, with the help of the Sword and at the service of human society ?

Another Earth, anothers questions

During the autumn of 1995, an exhibition entitled Earth's Images, Moon's Images was shown in Paris. It is really noteworthy that the images of the French satellite SPOT (coming from the collection Spot'Art ) were accompanied by a video recalling the launch of Ariane which put into orbit the satellite SPOT 3 : the conquering (and symbolically male) dimension of space upstaged the aesthetical and environmentalist (more female) dimension given by the views of our planet. These two dimensions, one of technique which is at the service of the will to conquer, and one of aesthetics, are not frequently seen together, in the same presentation of pictures produced by Earth observation. Usually, the stress is laid on one of them; the preference is often given to the technical dimension. Nevertheless, the choice made by the organizers of this exhibition is specific : each of these two dimensions is devoted to a precise stage of the " process " of Earth observation by satellite : the technical dimension to the launcher ( Ariane), the aesthetical dimension to the pictures. In other words, the two dimensions are not missing, but they do not have a link between themselves.

Denis Cosgrove, a British geographer, has studied the meaning, by using photographs of the Earth offered by the Apollo misions . He proposes to distinguish two main approaches to our planet :

- One-World designates a geopolitical conception based on the conquest, the keeping of control over ever more extended territories. It is possible to refer to the Judeo-Christian tradition, to the Roman imperium or to the European colonizing ideology or to the American pioneer spirit : it does not matter. What is essential is are humanity's claims to dominate an always increasing part of reality.

- Whole-Earth designates an environmentalistic approach of the Earth, more careful about its singularity and organicity, and even its spiritual character. This form of vision of our planet is rooted not only in the works of the modern ecology; it subsits also in vitalist traditions, old or new. All the testimonies of astronauts, during their circum - and extra-terrestrial missions, share the same aesthetical sensation ant this invitation to worry about the ecological future of the Earth and our own furture. Claude Nicollier, one of the astronauts of the ESA, describes in these words the sensation shared by all who have been able to observe our planet from space : " Beautiful is the Earth, but threatened. There is no better way to establish this fact than observe it from a low orbit. To see the Earth from space is a unique experience. Between the traveller of the sky and our planet, so near, a deep relation establishes itself, which allows us to appreciate better its richness, to understand it better, and which would help us to preserve it more efficiently in the future. "

Realizing the fragility of the planet Earth, the link which exists between its own future and the future of humanity, is not historically reduced to the contemporary period. But it becomes certainly now more dramatical. Public reactions towards this situation are multiple : some people remain unaffected by environmentalist arguments and keep on defending and promoting the techniques which could solve all the current difficulties (pollution, overpopulation, agriculture, etc.); other people, of an opposite opinion, militate for a total disengagement of humanity : at the extreme position, populations have to be reduced to a drastic level (perhaps ten million), so that they have no more influence on surrounding nature. Obviously, these two types of solution are extremist. The challenge, which humanity cannot escape, does not consist in reinforcing the knot which links it to Earth or, on the other hand, in untying it, but in tying it again, in a new way.

A practical anthropocentrism

Space activity seems to be profoundly influenced by the double motivation of the thirst for conquest which assures domination, and the aesthetical sensation which leads to a better concern for environment. In fact, it is not really surprising. This double dynamics exists for a lot of contemporary human activities. Dominique Bourg calls it practical anthropocentrism : however hard I try it, I can never separate myself from my position at the moment I pronounce it : this simple observation should also cover humanity's position at the heart of earthly reality. One can always dream and try to set up a sort of " natural contract " (Michel Serres) calling for a greater respect of one's natural environment, but one cannot escape the simple fact that our species continues to occupy the current number one position : " The biosphere has partially given up its place to a technosphere. The great equilibria of the ecosphere, without which the living forms we know, beginning with our own, would be condemned, depend henceforth on the doings of six billion human beings. Nature has effectively influxed back around us ".

In other words, the Earth can no longer be considered as one of the worlds which have been discovered (or will be discovered in the future) by the space adventure. Every time an interplanetary ship reaches a new destination and provides new information to the terrestrian scientists, it offers the occasion and the means to build a " new world "; this one rejoins the old ones and enriches human knowledge. The overflights of the planet Mars, made possible with images furnished by the missions to the Red Planet (which delight TV Programmes on scientific education) offer an extraordinary aesthetical experience and, at the same time, the possibility to prepare hypothetical missions for the working of the planet (American scientists propose more : the terraforming of the Red Planet). The same holds for the Moon, at least for a while. Nothing prevents the contractor, the businessman or the environmentalist from dreaming of these worlds, each in his own context. With the Earth, it is impossible to have the same attitude : Earth is not just another planet, it constitutes our environment, the place which has been built by humanity during its socio-economical, industrial, cultural history. Observing the Earth is not independent from looking at ourselves, our origin and our future, and cannot be done without taking some precautions, and without asking some fundamental questions.

Homo faber, Homo sapiens

Today, in the space field, one of the most essential questions could be the following, as formulated by a French weekly two years ago : " Space - can the myth be born again ? " Space is in crisis and depression. The reasons for this crisis, according to the experts, are numerous : the economical argument is well-known, but political or even technical and scientific constraints abound also. The first fifty years of the space adventure have taught us that all sorts of constraints can be overcome with a voluntarist and finalized attitude : V1 and V2 rockets were conceived amid the strains of war; Gemini then Apollo missions were the American response to the space challenge by the Soviet Union (in the context of the Cold War and Vietnam conflict); interplanetary missions have been provoked and sustained by audacious scientific communities. Have we to deduce that the current projects (orbital station, exploration and landing on planets of the solar system, Earth observation) are not able to maintain the same " sacred fire " ? The space adventure certainly has to be " faster, cheaper, better ", particularly in a period characterized by real economical difficulties. But at the same time and more than it has done so until now, it has to question itself about its finality. In other words, one wonders if space agencies have mostly been concerned about " doing " and " providing ", about trying to satisfy the yearning for dreams and utilitarian needs, which were expressed, consciously or not, by Western societies. These dreams and needs probably existed during the sixties and up to the eighties; but now, conditions have changed. All the activities which offer a commercial use have been gradually introduced in the sphere of the offer and the demand (private or not). One of the consequences is that public organizations, as the CNES, have lost a part of legitimacy and are obliged to find justifications of their own activities not only outside (in the Sword or in the Palliasse) but also in themselves.

Environment in the service of space ?

My intention is not to offer the definitive answer to the question of finality of space activities. In the introduction, I evoked one of the features of human nature : its capacity for and need of exploration. Some authors have used this idea to demonstrate how " the world view of Earth-bound humanity will have been replaced by a truly cosmic view " (Ben Finney) . For them, the colonization of other planets than Earth is the blueprint of human evolution characterized by the process of migration. The other idea, that space could offer a refuge to a humanity which would have no place and no enough resources on its planet of origin, is not without ties to the first anthropological justification.

One must not forget that the space technology can henceforth offer the means to construct this " global village ", this human community, which is the dream of so many thinkers of the past. But that vision is now an element of " utilitarian space " and therfore, I believe, should be handled with caution.

Nor would it do to ignore the good that might come from considering things from an artist's point of view precisely because an artist never gives dogmatic, rational or intellectual justification for its activity. Why paint, why dance, why sculpt ? The only adequate reply is the oeuvre itself. To a certain extent, the question of finality is part of the creative process itself : both force one to seek the answer in the very roots of the human nature. It could therefore be interesting to interrogate the space art.

Similarly, environment could come to space's rescue. An example of role reversal since, as a matter of habit, space agencies are the ones that like to say that they work in the service of Earth and its environment. They could in fact do worse than imitate environment's way of doing things, i.e. participate more actively in the large and open debate on our planet's state of health and future. Space agencies would then discover that there are no set answers (the ecological debate is far from closed), and would have to leave their " castles in air ", in which they have been allowed to dwell for decades. Several areas of envrionmental examination are of direct concern to the space adventure. Allow me to mention some of them here.

One area of interest is that of expertising. Space activities, particularly Earth observation techniques, are often presented as efficient aids to expertising, for landscaping as much as for the study of climatic global change and its consequences . These activities do provide specific data, especially of a world-vision character, obtained rapidly and at regular intervals. The role of space could end there; however, I believe it would be useful to carry this interrogation on expertising further? Which has priority, the procedure or the end product ? Does expertising become part of a decision-making process or does it simply replace it ? How is expertising in fact very pluridisciplinary ?

A second area of interest, quite naturally related to the first one, corresponds with an ethical concern. Until now, questions of ethics have scarcely been present in space affairs. Some have just now barely begun to consider the ethics of using animals in space station experiments, it being taken for granted that the subjects' consent sufficed when it came to performing such experiments on teams sent into space? But ethics aren't limited to the domain of experimentation. Another case, somewhat more delicate but particularly exemplary, is that of the polluting of the forests of the French Guyana as a result of the launching of Ariane, especially Ariane 5. A large part of the tension that has arisen between administrators and public offices on the one hand, and ecologists on the other had, seems to me to take roots in the difficulty of launching a discussion on the ethics of what is taking place at Kourou. In other words, an understanding cannot be reached for as long as sides are content with merely opposing the billion-dollar space market to the preservation of species indigent to the forests of French Guyana. Even if there is no miracle solution, considering the true foundations of one and the other's demands, their limits and their constraints, is a necessary step towards establishing authentic dialogue.

A last word on the subjects of ethics : it appears we have not yet fully considered the morals at stake in using satellite pictures and SIG's. More than just the question of satellite voyeurism (of which European farmers are so afraid), the ethical consequences of the electronic age need to be scrutinized : " If the modernizing impulse of electronic technology is interpreted by some as liberating - as creation of new opportunities for civil society to forge communities of correspondence, such as through the emergence of computerized e-mail networks and bulletin boards within universities and large corporations - others are more sanguine about the rationalizing effects of such modernizing technologies. The new systems of knowledge engineering raise many questions about freedom, civil society, and democratic practice " (John Pickles ).

Lastly, there is a third area, having an aspect common to both space and the environment : the area of myth. Space and the environment must both continue to furnish humanity with its needed dose of dream, and more importantly, meaning. Without dwelling on the differences that exist between science and myth, allow me to call to mind that the two can cooperate in bringing forth terrae incognitae , those unknown worlds, so necessary to us " hairless apes ". We should not forget what role these mysterious regions left blank or drawn with astonishing imagination played : that of preserving and stimulating the imagination, the creative and constructive aptitudes of humanity. We should encourage " primary emotions, the appeal of the exotic and the wonderful one finds in far-off horizons, the shock of natural or cultural differences; being awed, dreaming, being captivated by a geography that one discovers like a tale of adventure, like an exploration trip during which one regularly bumps into danger ". I realize it's not easy to detect terrae incognitae among the Earth observation data. Perhaps then we ought to seek help from those other architects of space : I mean artists. I'm not talking about Spot satellites (Spot'Art collections show a handicraft aspect much more than an artistic one), I'm talking about artists in the strict sense. Satellite photographs don't replace artists' work, they offer it new perspectives. For example, the painter Mary Edna Fraser discovers " the endless horizon of design " and draws tissues with an aerial motif, together with help and inspiration from Asiatic methods. What she comes back with is a call to detect new facets and figures of our planet; for example, the convoluted North Edisto River, outside Charleston, becomes a flaming dragon in Curling River (1988).

Myth is not unknown to science (cf. the Icarus myth), but hasn't yet fully accomplished its mission : that of putting the space adventure into the history of humankind by showing what it really means, that its meaning concerns not only the here and now but the yesterday and tomorrow, the elsewhere : in short, those invisible things, not necessarily angels or heavenly bodies, but these " ideal realities, myths or concepts, generalities or universalities, immaterial things or symbols that could never be translated visually, not even virtually in some cyberspace " (Regis Debray).


Providing instruments to collect information concerning the planet Earth is the job of space agencies as providers of means. But can they ignore the fact that this information has a direct influence on the manner in which our fellow terrestrians understand their environment ? Can they ignore that they raise up or participate in the emergence of radical questions, which are no more linked with the traditional " How ", but also with the " Why " interrogation ? At the end of the twentieth century, sciences and techniques can no longer take refuge in any ivory tower, leaving to the society the task of examining the merits of their research and development programmes; they have to take part in the debates provoked by today's stakes : ecological crisis, global change, sustainable development are probably the most important of them. It remains to define the methods and the limits of such a contribution, particularly since space agencies are not familiar with this sort of exercise. But is it not simply a new frontier to cross, an unknown world to discover ?


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