Distraction Free Reading

Diary of a Space Zucchini: Ventriloquizing the Future in Outer Space

This post is written by Debbora Battaglia, a professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke.  Currently, Dr. Battaglia is working on a book project to be titled Seriously at Home in ‘0-Gravity’.

Photograph of a plant growing out of a plastic bag floating.

Space Zucchini

Photo Credit: Don Pettit/NASA

Not long ago, New Hampshire Public Radio broadcast Diary of a Space Zucchini – an adaptation of astronaut and chemical engineer Don Pettit’s blog from aboard the International Space Station, in 2012. The piece is a gem of expressive cross-species anthropomorphism. So tenderly did producer Sean Hurley enact the voice of the little aeroponic sprout that one listener was moved to “smiles and tears.” Indeed, the words of the self-conscious squash, floating above a sound mix of ethereal music, electronic beeps, humming computer atmospherics, and static-rich Ground Control “we have lift off” moments; the zucchininaut’s refined observations of living on orbit, in a baggie; its near-death experience and its sadness as fellow crew-member Sunflower browns and, after a struggle, returns to the Great Compost; its last philosophical reflections and anxieties as it describes how Gardener prepares to return to Earth, and turns out its light, can only be described as inspired public radio – courtesy of NASA’s “Word of Mouth” initiative.

Special moments from other posts in Pettit’s blog include:

I have new leaves! I am no longer naked to the cosmos. They are not as big as before however they are just as green. Broccoli and Sunflower have leaves as well and are vibrant. We all have happy roots. This is a hard (sic) to explain to a non-plant, but I am feeling very zucchini now.

Great news; I have a baby brother sprout! Gardener just showed me baby Zuc. He is strong and healthy and ready to move from the sprouter into his own aeroponic bag.

Excitement is in the air. Gardener said we will soon be returning to Earth. Our part of the mission is nearly complete and the new crew will take over for us. I am a bit worried about Broccoli, Sunflower, and me. If Gardener leaves, who will take care of us?

Beyond the community-making media effort, the backstory of this particular experiment is an ambitious life science program of considerable historical depth and international range, for devising human life support in a worst-case scenario of planetary disaster. As put by Jesse Hersch in “Space Farming: The Final Frontier” (modernfarmer.com):

That little plant could be the key to our future. If – as some doomsday scientists predict – we eventually exhaust the Earth’s livability, space farming will prove vital to the survival of our species. Around the world, governments and private companies are doing research on how we are going to grow food on space stations, in spaceships, even on Mars.

So, a classic frontier narrative. Or is it? Here is Anna Tsing, in her masterwork Friction:

A distinctive feature of this frontier regionality is its magical vision; it asks participants to see a landscape that doesn’t exist, at least not yet. It must continually erase old residents’ rights to create its wild and empty spaces where discovering resources, not stealing them, is possible. To do so, too, it must cover up the conditions of its own production. […] Why does the frontier story have any power at all, considering what it erases? (p.68-69)

Tsing goes on to describe the colonizing project of nation states as “trompe l’oeil futures” – a deceit that offers food for further thought as related to Don Pettit’s blog. For the frontier vision performed by Zucchini-Gardener as the greening of the cosmos – ironically, stemming from cold war experiments to measure the effects of nuclear radiation on plants – need not concern itself with prior inhabitants, at least not as we know them. So long as its focus is the cultivation of life-forms already familiar to human beings as food, and on another level, focused on knowledge production and flourishing over extraction and consumption, respectively, its project faces, on the face of it, no ethical snags along the lines drawn by Tsing’s passage for colonizing regimes on Earth.

But even accepting the limited reach of frontier narratives into space science, issues concerning what might be termed “trompe l’oeil affect” are not unimportant to consider – here, as linked to the effect that might be termed false contact: the sense of participating in future-making as if the future were already known, and already here. Indeed, this subjunctive mood is, I would argue, the armature of any engineering ontology, which is to say, one in which designs other than its own are repurposed to its own terms of reference, and either resisted, or dismissed out of hand. And as marketing strategists who utilize pets and children in their ad spots – and anthropological theorists, too – appreciate as a powerful form of contagious magic, this ontology may have no better handmaiden than analogic affect.

From the start, this particular directional plant biology experiment, which spanned Expeditions 29 and 30, was conceived as a comparative project. The plan was to engage thousands of schoolchildren in “analog” zucchini growth experiments in classrooms, and to compare their projects to growth within the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus Science Insert – 05, and in free-range baggies, in microgravity. Of course, being placed into a kind of parallel future play with off-planet biofarming on an intimate caretaking scale, children seeking what the plant itself might have to tell them in its own terms, would be reaching beyond the parameters of the experimental design.

The radio dramatization amplified these risks even as it may have drawn budding scientists to new horizons of exploration. A transparent move preparing earthlings for a warm and fuzzy cosmos, it furthermore naturalized them to a specifically anthropocenic frontier. Beyond mutual caring, such a place would require submission to a rigorously vertical social hierarchy: in one post, Zucchini notes the discovery that Gardener in fact has his own gardener, who speaks from Ground through a machine and has the power to scramble the crew to rescue vehicles as a piece of space junk threatens to collide with the station. To put this otherwise than by the mechanism of psychological transference, facilitating affect resonant with a sensibility for plants in a future offworld, could not but displace the value of the plant’s own resonance to conditions of its being in the space station’s artificial environment. The futuristic could come to stand in for the future, as figured in programs engineered on the ground, but experienced as perilous in situ – and not only to the “green crew” (as an early long-duration cosmonaut described them).

If one imagines further the very real possibility of the blog reaching indigenous children who already work subsistence gardens across the globe, or for that matter anyone else ascribing some degree of sentience and/or spirituality to growing things, the disruptive effects of false contact are all the more apparent. Meanwhile, from another angle and on another level, the destabilizing effects on those subordinated to authoritative narratives and knowledge perceived to be the domain of a powerful, all-encompassing few, and inaccessible to most humans, sends a message of selective salvation wherein only the strong have any future, on Earth or off.

Of course, both experiment and blog have done something very important in carrying a commitment to cross-species difference into outer space. And in service of this significant move, the blog as literary device and radio as dramatization are stars of their genres. One could also argue that the poetics which conjure in humankind feelings for anything like a scientific experiment, corrects antiquated images of a callous, self-absorbed plant biology science driven by territorial state interests and militaristic biopolitics alone, and categorically the enemy of ecological consciousness – or anything but science for its own sake. Even taking Astronaut Pettit’s blog as parodic (self-parodic, perhaps, since fieldworking astronauts and cosmonauts are known to form healthy attachments to living things on orbit with them), here is hard evidence of one chemical engineer’s awareness of science practice as anything but purely objective work (Zucchini notices a tear in Gardener’s eye as the experiments are failing).

By reference to which there is no resisting one further turn.

Digital rendering of the rover on Mars.

Curiosity Rover

Photo Credit: NASA

It so happens that as Zucchini’s Diary was gathering the attention of its publics, the Mars rover Curiosity was “speaking” to its own avid fans on Twitter and elsewhere – delivering, in addition to a scientific journal of its findings on the Red Planet, geek humor messages like “Hole-y moley! See the mark left by my most recent “mini-drill” on Mars!

As voiced, the similarities of the two planetary science projects are far less telling than their differences. While no less descriptive of its life’s work in service of science than Zucchini, and no less dedicated to eliciting attachment to this by interested publics, the signature sensitivity of life science caretaking becomes in Curiosity’s voice the ring of robotic discovery – the one turning for its effect on a sensibility of vulnerability, the other to the accomplishment of data extraction. In other words, displacements of Zucchini into physical extremes of outer space have their counterpart in displacements by Curiosity of outer space materials. One makes a home for science, the other claims it – in the case of Curiosity, by appropriating for its purposes the warming effect of the heritage trope: Curiosity exclaims at one point that it has “cooked science” on Mars as Americans have “cooked turkeys” for the holidays. Spinning such opportunistic tethers to tradition and flagging its link to U.S. dominant culture, the more consequential fact of having for the first time achieved circular migration of a recorded human voice from Earth to Mars, misses a narrative opportunity to craft cosmos as commons – an event site of diverse human and nonhuman co-actants operating where relative vulnerability, and not technological triumphalism, are the creative armature of the space science.

False contact, it would appear, has in these terms its place. And no one understands this place better than its human (co)producers.

Work Cited

Anna L. Tsing, Friction:  An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press, 2004).

1 Comment


    Corrections to this piece are in order, which demonstrate the difference that a conversation with the author/s can make to how published texts are read and interpreted, and how knowledge emerges.

    Recently, Don Pettit granted me a long conversation about his personal zucchini experiment, and about the project of creating Diary of a Space Zucchini as part of his Letters to Earth, during “personal time” between scripted tasks on Expedition 30/31.

    For him, space exploration is something akin to the discovery of an uninhabited New World. It is not, as approached by Jesse Hersch, motivated by a doomsday scenario of exiting an uninhabitable Earth.

    Further, the Letters to Earth which contain the Diary were meant to spark the interest of college-age students, and for his family and friends on Earth. It was not in the first instance produced as a K-12 science project, as it would later be taken up. This simple fact shifts the site of the critique: naturalizing a post-industrial scenario by deploying the device of false affect was not what Don Pettit himself had in mind (although of course, as Bakhtin writes, meaning is made at the point of reception, and is always open).

    Neither are robotics seen by Don Pettit as an evil Other vis-a-vis human exploration. For him, both have their uses in outer space living and knowledge production.

    Finally, the plant biology experiment was entirely Pettit’s own idea: he carried the seeds with him into space with other (approved) personal items. His “passive aeroponic” growth experiment is to be understood by contrast to programmatic experiments in growth chambers. There were no programmatic plant growth chambers on Expedition 30/31.

    While my textual interpretation of Diary of a Space Zucchini, or anyone’s, has a right to co-exist alongside the author’s own understanding of his project, I am happy to stand corrected when this is called for, and grateful for the opportunity to dialog with the author about our differences, as well as about our shared interest in and commitment to peaceful uses of outer space.


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