Review: Into the Extreme

Into the Extreme: U.S. Environmental Systems and Politics beyond Earth
by Valerie Olson
Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2018
paperback, 304 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-5179-0255-1

NASA, and its cadre of engineers and scientists, typically focus little on the sociological implications of their work. Their attention is on development and testing spacecraft and using data from them, and not thinking about, say, how they’re reshaping the concept of environmental systems and their interactions. Social scientists, though, can provide those insights as observers of the agency’s work.

That’s what Valerie Olson, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California Irvine, attempts to do in Into the Extreme. The book discusses how NASA and its workforce shapes the perceptions of, and interactions with, the environment through various projects intended to support humans living and working in space. It’s an intriguing book, but one that may be a challenge for many outside of academia to appreciate.

Olson spent several years embedded in NASA in various projects, which she recounts in the book. That included the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) project that sent astronauts and others to a habitat on the ocean floor, work at the Johnson Space Center on spacesuits and habitat modules, and even those interested in human missions to near Earth objects.

While there is some focus on the technology that is being developed and used, principally to allow humans to effectively work in space, Olson takes a broader focus. The International Space Station, she writes in the introduction, “is a form of national expansionism that is as much environmental as it is geopolitical. How do disparate things become technically associated as ‘systems’—and to what ends? How has the extreme otherness of outer space played a role in conjoining ‘systems’ and ‘environments’ across spatial scopes and scales?”

For the casual reader, answers to those questions may be difficult to come by. This is an academic book written for those in specific social science disciplines, and filled with the specialized jargon of those fields. An example from the book’s introduction: “Rather than precisely continuous arrangements of scalar relations, these affective and speculative jumps can represent what Timothy Clark describes as a scalar ‘derangement’ of political, scientific, and experiential elements that nonetheless becomes perceivable and legible.”

There’s nothing wrong with such language, which makes perfect sense for practitioners, but it does exclude those outside the field. (This is, of course, not a problem unique in the social sciences: other scientists and engineers are just as guilty of this.) It does make it more difficult for others, including those working on spaceflight programs she interviewed for the book, understand and appreciate the conclusions she reaches.

Many of those people will likely have the same reactions as a spacesuit engineer at JSC identified as Sara. Olson, visiting her office, noticed a couple of new “cultural histories” of spacesuits on her bookshelf. Had Sara read them? “The look kind of interesting, but not really technically relevant,” Sara responded. “Plus I really don’t have the time to read them.” For people like Sara, Into the Extreme may also look kind of interesting, but not technically relevant, even as it explores the sociological issues of spaceflight.