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Dreaming in Space

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In 1958, year two of the Space Age, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote an extraordinary book.[1] It was called The Poetics of Space, and yet in it he did not once mention the momentous events which had taken place over the two preceding years: the International Geophysical Year, which aimed for the first time to study the entirety of Earth as a single system, and the launch of the first actual human-made objects into space. By the time this book hit the shops, Sputnik 1 had already broken the symmetry of the sky forever and self-immolated in the atmosphere three months later as its orbit decayed. Vanguard 1 and Sputnik 2, with its living cargo of Laika the dog, had leapt off Earth into the blackness of space. Sputnik 2 fell back to Earth, but Vanguard 1 is still up there, now the oldest piece of space junk in orbit.

The Poetics of Space was a book about dreaming; and in particular, dreaming within the most Earth-bound of human objects, the house. The more I’ve reflected on it, I’ve realised that Bachelard didn’t need to specifically identify outer space as it was already so entangled in every other space he discussed. Bachelard argued that it is through the corridors, rooms, and spaces of the house that we come to understand the Cosmos. The house is like a shell inside which we can safely dream of the immense. The infinite is hidden in the depths of the cellar, and in the corners, drawers, and shadows of the house. The distinction between the inner space of Earth and outer space is really one of gravity, not distance.

Life cycle of the stars. by NASA

I feel, though, that I’ve given insufficient thought to dreaming of space. I don’t mean dreaming in the aspirational sense, as in some future that you’re looking forward to, or an ideal desired situation; I mean how outer space manifests itself in the visual and sensual world of the night dream.

I have never dreamed of being in space, much to my regret. I know some people do. Every now and then, however, I fly in my dreams. It is always joyous. Like a cartoon drawing, I swoop around with my feet together and my arms outstretched. Generally, the landscape below me is a picture postcard house on green rolling lawns. The sun is bright and the colours clear and primary. It is exactly the domestic dream setting which Bachelard described. Even in flight, I’m rooted in the house, looking down rather than up. Once I was flying inside the corridors of the house, swooping and twisting like an eel. If I wake after such a dream, I still feel light. Setting foot on the floor is a moment of stark reality where flight flees from my body and leaves me in the treacly clutch of gravity.

There are very few dreams which are truly cross-cultural, but flying dreams are one of them. Often when I give talks about space, I ask who among the audience has had a flying dream. There is always a smattering of hands raised; I’d say no more than a quarter of any audience remembers these dreams. (What we don’t remember is, of course, a different matter).

Freud was one of first scientists to analyse the characteristics of dreams—at least those of his Viennese clients at the turn of the nineteenth century. In his book On the Interpretation of Dreams, he expounded the theory that dreams were about the fulfilment of wishes driven into the unconscious, expressed in symbols which could be interpreted once you understood the rules.[2] To say that Freud thought everything was a sexual symbol is a caricature of his work, but in this case he certainly did. Flying dreams were about the erect penis, while the house over which the flyer flew symbolised the female. To explain the conundrum that women also had flying dreams, Freud proposed penis envy.

To me flying doesn’t seem to be a symbol of anything. It is an end in itself. It is wish fulfillment perhaps—a wish that we see manifested in witches on their brooms, circuses, amusement parks, parachuting and hang gliding, parkours and diving—to be weightless and free of gravity. It made me wonder what space travellers dream about. It is hard to find much definitive information. Four cosmonauts who had spent more than two hundred days on the Mir space station reported that their dreams did not change before, during or after spaceflight and contained no specific references to the space environment. However, the auditory component of their dreams was more strongly associated with sounds they missed from Earth: “wind blowing over trees and leaves, the rain, or birds singing.”[3] Some odd clues and statements suggest that astronauts dream of being in space while they are grounded and dream of being back on Earth while they are in space. Further digging might reveal whether the space dreams take place within the safe shell of the International Space Station or outside in open space, exposed to the stars.

Surely the dreams of every age reflect the technology and politics that surrounds the dreaming person. Surely a sleeping Neanderthal had different dreams than a sleeping cosmonaut or astronaut. In the 1930s, Charlotte Beradt charted the dreams of people in Germany after Hitler came to power.[4] The dreams reflected paranoia, surveillance, fear, and the repression of the self under a totalitarian regime. Is there a Cold War equivalent? Perhaps there is: a recurring dream of my childhood in the 1970s, when nuclear holocaust was an ever-present threat, was the end of the world. There was always a roaring sound, and in the sky, flying debris or black crows that would gradually blot out the Sun. I would wake before the end came, or the dream shifted focus away from the threat to a different narrative.

Now our world is expanded, with the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft outside the solar system still sending us reedy signals along cosmic songlines. Space telescopes are developing to the point where we can almost map a landscape on an exoplanet circling a faraway sun in our galaxy. Still, I do not dream of being on the surface of another planet. I do not, as the poet Christine Rueter has written, dream of sailing paper boats on Titan.[5] I have not left Earth behind.

by Christine Rueter (Tychogirl)

Indigenous people didn’t have to wait for the Space Age to dream of space. There’s an oft-repeated story of a North American First Nations elder telling an anthropologist that the Apollo lunar landing program was unnecessary. They had already been to the Moon in dream travels and knew it was a grey, dusty rock. This story is intended humorously on many levels, but it also speaks to how the lines are drawn between this world and others, whether planetary or metaphysical. While dreams take place on one side of the lines, it’s not always clear or universally acknowledged where these lines are.

Are space dreams tied to a particular conception of the universe? Carolyn Merchant has written about how, in fifteenth-century Europe, the Cosmos slowly became dead.[6] The Scientific Revolution rejected the Cosmos as organism and replaced it with the Cosmos as machine. In Alexandre Koyré’s account of the same period, the universe became infinite rather than intimate.[7] This view came to dominate the Western, industrial world. Perhaps this was the moment when we ceased to dream of other planets and spaces. The dead Cosmos gives us moons defined by mineral composition rather than the quality of their light, or stars defined by temperature rather than their god-like magnificence.

While I haven’t dreamt of myself higher than a kilometre above the surface of Earth, I have thought about what a cosmic dream might feel like. In this dream I imagine the absence of gravity and a body resistant to the savage effects of the space environment, immune to the lack of breathable oxygen. Dreams do not have to follow the laws of physics or physiology. It seems important somehow to be embodied and experience this with my own senses, not inside a robot.

In orbit, there is always a portion of space on the other side of Earth hidden from view by the immensity of the planet. Usually this is not remarked upon as it’s the view of Earth seen from space which entrances people. There’s a whole module of the International Space Station, a seven-sided window called the Cupola, whose main function is to allow the crew to watch Earth passing beneath. The crew don’t look “upwards” towards open space. Gazing “downwards” at the blue waters and white clouds of Earth keeps them connected to home.

In my hypothetical dream there is no planet or moon to block the view. I’m far from Earth, light decades away, farther than I could ever travel in human time frames. I’m floating rather than flying and I am alone. It feels like I’m in the heart of the galaxy. Time does not pass, or rather time is compressed into an endless moment. There is a roaring sound, the unmediated sound of the Cosmos, like the end of the world. It is not black and lifeless but ablaze with the light of a billion stars. It is ascension.

Bachelard says, “when we reach the very end of the labyrinths of sleep, when we attain to the regions of deep slumber, we may perhaps experience a type of repose that is pre-human; pre-human, in this case, approaching the immemorial.”[8] He implies that dreaming is a portal through which we can enter other qualities of time and space unmoored to Earth.

Somewhere, someone is dreaming this dream.

[1] Bachelard, G., & Jolas, M. (1994). The poetics of space: The classic look at how we experience intimate places. Boston: Beacon Press.

[2] Freud, S., & Strachey, J. (1965). The interpretation of dreams. New York: Avon Books.

[3] Stampi, C. (1994). Sleep and Circadian Rhythms in Space. The Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 34(5), 518-534. doi:10.1002/j.1552-4604.1994.tb04996.x

[4] Juchau, M. (2019, November 7). How Dreams Change Under Authoritarianism. The New Yorker. Retrieved April 22, 2021, from https://www.newyorker.com/books/second-read/how-dreams-change-under-authoritarianism

[5] On Titan [Web log post]. (2016, April 28). Retrieved April 22, 2021, from https://tychogirl.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/on-titan/

[6] Merchant, C. (1989). The death of nature: Women, ecology, and the scientific revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row. 

[7] Koyré, A. (1975). From the closed world to the infinite universe. New York: Harper.

[8] Bachelard, G., & Jolas, M. (1994). The poetics of space: The classic look at how we experience intimate places. Boston: Beacon Press.


Image credit: 

Life cycle of the stars, by NASA

Image and poem, by Christine Rueter (Tychogirl)

  • Alice Gorman

    Dr Alice Gorman is an internationally recognised leader in the field of space archaeology and author of the award-winning book Dr Space Junk vs the Universe: Archaeology and the Future (MIT Press, 2019). Her research focuses on the archaeology and heritage of space exploration, including space junk, planetary landing sites, off-earth mining, and space habitats.
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