In February 2014, Chris Woebken and I found ourselves on the way to M.I.T.’s Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about an hour’s travel away from the town of Auburn where Robert H. Goddard had launched his first rocket in 1926.
On a whim, we stopped at a Toys-R-Us and bought a couple of Estes scale model rockets and motors with the intention of playfully re-enacting the launch. Upon arriving we found the historic site, now a golf course, completely covered in snow. We barely managed and were struck by how much it visually resembled the Moon.
One month after, we held the inaugural meeting of the Society for Speculative Rocketry – named in honor of the Berlin Society for Spaceflight – at Eyebeam Art & Technology Center in Chelsea, New York City. The aim of this ongoing artistic research project is to explore the practicalities of model rocketry in an artistic context, in part through building on the work of The Extrapolation Factory, a joint project by Chris Woebken and Elliott P. Montgomery, which provides a framework for speculative thinking.
Eyebeam’s main space was transformed into “the basement of a think-tank”, borrowing widely such as the windows of RAND Corporation, with a view on a virtual Santa Monica beach. Large tables were divided into sections such as ‘speculation’, ‘manufacturing’, ‘vehicle assembly’ and ‘vehicle display’.
After spending half of the day being taught how to build a functional model rocket by a volunteer from the Long Island chapter of the NAR, participants were provided with an array of inspirational material – historical photographs, Tsiolkovsky’s drawings, NASA’s visions of space colonies and more.
Those materials served as triggers for a guided speculation process in which the participants would build a symbolic ‘payload’, an object to go into the tip of the model rocket, a scale model, nested within another scale model.
False memories, alternate presents, visions of the future or of the past. In addition to providing on-site 3D printing we also created a ‘Tsiolkovsky Kit’, a collection of items from the previously mentioned sketches, already in the shape of plastic models, thus short-cutting Tsiolkovsky’s visions and their later miniaturization as a scale model.
Day two, March 16 2014, saw a return to Auburn, MA in order to stage a performative re-enactment of Robert H. Goddard’s launch that had happened on the same day, 88 years ago.
One of the final models we launched was carrying a little camera. Although the camera was extremely light, it considerably altered the flight path of the rocket, making it ascend just a couple dozen feet before the motor burned out and the parachute deployed.
Upon viewing the video, a local expert in rocketry remarked that this flight must have almost perfectly traced Goddard’s first flight, producing the equivalent of a visual record for what wasn’t documented in 1926.
The Society for Speculative Rocketry is in a sense magical thinking through scale models. However, it is also an exploration of the dynamic flows between the wildly different ontologies that all happened within a single discipline of science and technology – roughly 150 years after Jules Verne had first published ‘De la Terre à la Lune’, a fiction which both Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and The Berlin Rocket Society cited as key inspiration.