Space exploration in northern Sweden often gains meaning in relation to mining. In this blog post, I ask: how does mining serve as a “speculative device” (McCormack 2018) for envisaging a future beyond Earth? I was drawn to the topic of outer space infrastructures by the Swedish Space Corporation’s ongoing expansion of its rocket launch site, located outside the subarctic city of Kiruna. This expansion aims to turn what has thus far been a sounding rocket range into a full-fledged launch site for small satellites, undertaken in anticipation of a dramatic increase in the demand for launch services over the forthcoming decades. The land occupied by the spaceport and its impact area, twice the size of Luxembourg, interferes with the reindeer herding lands of four Sámi villages. In early 2022, I traveled to Kiruna to begin inquiring into the politics of space exploration in Sweden, focusing in part on the relation between the launch site and the reindeer herders. Yet, eluding my questions about space and instead shifting the conversation to mining, several of the herders I spoke with urged me to consider how outer space was often shot through the region’s long-running history of underground resource extraction.
In his book Space in the Tropics, Peter Redfield (2000) investigates the relation between two seemingly separate phenomena in French Guiana: an old penal colony that operated between 1852 and 1943, on the one hand, and the contemporary spaceport from where the European consortium rocket Ariane is launched, on the other hand. Redfield (2000: xiv) asks, “what might it reveal that [these] different things happen in the same place?” The same question can be posed about mining and space in Kiruna, where the city’s surrounding landscapes have long been presented by the Swedish state as resourceful and available for exploitation. Inspired by Redfield’s question, here I attend to a series of negative, positive, historical, and “speculative relations” (Ojani 2022) between mining and space as invoked by reindeer pastoralists, local residents, politicians, and space actors in subarctic Sweden.
Mining and Space
For reindeer herders working within the launch site’s impact area, space sometimes held a oppositional relation to mining in that the spaceport helped keep new mining initiatives at bay. In a context long characterized by resource extraction, discrimination, and marginalization, one exploiter prevents herders’ ever-shrinking grazing areas from further destruction by other exploiters. While often critical of its placement on their lands and the various forms of disturbance created by its surrounding infrastructure, the herders occasionally emphasized the launch site’s utility. For example, only a few years ago, it became the reason for halting mineral prospecting in the area. Hence, while some of the herders expressed deep anxiety about falling rockets near their animals, others were quick to point out that they were in fact fortunate to have a relatively good collaboration with the Swedish Space Corporation. In response to my queries about space, the herders switched to other, more pressing concerns: mining initiatives located outside the spaceport’s impact area, tourism and the increasing use of snowmobiles on their herding lands, and hunters who were lobbying against a state initiative to increase herders’ influence over hunting licenses, among several other issues.
In contrast, local space actors and politicians saw a potentially allied relation between mining and the space industry, calling for stronger synergies between the two. These actors frequently underscored that both industries are not only “hi-tech” but also operate in “extreme environments,” above the atmosphere and below the ground. For them, the connection between mining and space seemed almost self-evident, and there had already been several collaborations between the two industries. For instance, local scientists conducted an experiment using a sealed-off mining area for the detonation of dynamite, the vibrations of which were then measured with infrasound microphones attached onto stratospheric balloons. And as it turns out, the analogy often drawn by my interlocutors between space and the underground is not in any way unique to this particular setting. It also predicates space analogues undertaken in cave-environments elsewhere in the world (see Park 2016).
But the relation between space exploration and mining in this region is also historical. The establishment of the Swedish launch site in the 1960s drew on an already-existing scientific infrastructure whose purpose was atmospheric research and space physics. The development of this scientific infrastructure, in turn, was enabled by an earlier infrastructure that was built for underground resource extraction. This mining infrastructure has a history that stretches back to 17th-century copper and silver mines but most significantly to the late-19th-century establishment of the Kiruna mine, one of the world’s largest underground iron ore mines. It was to a great extent that the existence of what is essentially the mine’s surrounding infrastructure motivated the placement of the rocket base in this particular region.
While local politicians and space actors have long attempted to brand Kiruna as a “space town” (Backman 2015), this history reveals the processes that have made such branding and associated space activities possible to begin with.
By the same token, the vertical territorial understanding (Braun 2000) reflected by ongoing developments around space exploration relies on assumptions about “emptiness” conjured up by the mining industry. Today, such understandings are invoked to render resourceful not only horizontal space and the underground, but likewise vertical space as it extends upwards. Alongside tropes about empty landscapes, the branding of Kiruna as a globally attractive space hub is frequently made with reference to its vast and supposedly unpopulated surroundings as well as its relatively unoccupied airspace.
Mining in Space
In the 1959 Swedish-American science fiction film Space Invasion of Lapland (Rymdinvasion i Lappland), two scientists travel to northern Sweden upon hearing about the landing of a mysterious extraterrestrial object. As viewers, we have already had a glimpse of the latter: the film opens with Sámi reindeer herders awing at the glowing round object as it glides over the subarctic landscape, before finally crashing into a snow-covered mountain. The movement of the presumed meteorite strikes us as eerie and not at all in accordance with the way an actual space rock would behave upon entering into the atmosphere. As the story continues, we gradually come to learn that the puzzle that the travelers have been called upon to unravel ultimately exceeds the grasp of modern science, as the object turns out to be an alien spaceship.
A conversation unfolds between the two scientists onboard a plane bound for Kiruna. Nodding at a boat visible from the plane’s window, the famous geologist, Dr. Wilson, asks his fellow traveler, Dr. Engström, whether he knows what it is. “Ore boats from the Kiruna ore mines, the richest iron deposit in the world,” Dr. Engström replies, upon which Dr. Wilson speculates: “[D]o you think that the magnetic attraction of the mines could have any bearing on the meteor falling there?” His colleague is skeptical, replying, “Come on doctor, like making the meteor skid across the snow for miles?” A brief moment of deliberation follows, before Dr. Wilson finally asks: “Who said it had to be a meteor?”
The speculative relation drawn by Dr. Wilson between the extraterrestrial and the Kiruna mine compels me to also attend to another set of connections drawn by some of my interlocutors. While Redfield’s question about the coincidence of seemingly unrelated phenomena in French Guiana has oriented my attention to infrastructural history, here I would like to return to the relations that my interlocutors themselves drew between things.
A PhD student at the local space campus offered a captivating analogy. Sitting in his office, we were chatting away about everything from aurora borealis and housing in Kiruna to the navigation and control of small satellites for deep space exploration, which was the subject of his doctoral studies. As the conversation went on, he told me that he did not really believe in space colonization in the way this is usually imagined. He did not think that space settlements would emerge as ends in themselves but rather as consequences of off-Earth mining. He brought home this point by way of comparison, suggesting that this is not very different from the way Kiruna did not exist prior to the establishment of the local mine. According to him, there could be no significant reason to settle down in the region prior to the emergence of a mining infrastructure.
Akin to Dr. Wilson’s speculation about the connection between the extraplanetary and the local iron ore mine, my interlocutors, too, made connections, contrasts, and analogies between mining and outer space. At times, the Kiruna mine served as a “technology of the imagination” (Sneath, Holbraad, and Pedersen 2009) or speculative device for envisaging the specific unfoldings of a future beyond Earth.
Scholars have argued that remote sensing technology has served to create and reconfigure environments on Earth, often unintentionally (Sörlin and Wormbs 2018). By affording a view from above and without, satellites have participated in the modification of our ways of conceptualizing and relating to our earthly and atmospheric surrounds. In this blog post, I have tried to highlight a somewhat different matter – namely, how grounded, planetary milieus become infrastructures for envisioning space. These are “the terrestrial localit[ies] of outer space” (Messeri 2016: 163); places and relations – in this case the infrastructural history of a mining town – that reshape landscapes in an immediately material way and occasionally come to inform situated, extraplanetary imaginaries.
 The regional designation in the title of this film draws on the discriminatory expression “lapp,” a Swedish term that has been used historically to label the Sámi. This term does not exist in the Sámi languages. In Northern Sámi, this region is known as Sápmi.
I would like to thank Platypus’s contributing editors Kim Fernandes and Yakup Deniz Kahraman for their thoughtful suggestions and comments. This research received funding from the National Science Center, Poland, project number 2020/38/E/HS3/00241.
Backman, Fredrick. 2015. Making place for space: A history of “space town” Kiruna 1943-2000. Umeå: Umeå University.
Braun, Bruce. 2000. “Producing vertical territory: Geology and governmentality in late Victorian Canada.” Cultural Geographies 7 (1): 7-46.
McCormack, Derek P. 2018. Atmospheric things: On the allure of elemental envelopment. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Messeri, Lisa. 2016. Placing outer space: An earthly ethnography of other worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Ojani, Chakad. 2022. “Speculative relations in Lima: Encounters with the limits of fog capture and ethnography.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 12 (2): 468-481.
Park, William. 2016. “Why caves are the best place to train astronauts”. BBC, November 30. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20161130-why-caves-are-the-best-place-to-train-astronauts (accessed 5/11/2022).
Redfield, Peter. 2000. Space in the tropics: From convicts to rockets in French Guiana. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sneath, David, Martin Holbraad, and Morten Axel Pedersen. 2009. “Technologies of the imagination: An introduction.” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 74 (1): 5-30.
Sörlin, Sverker, and Nina Wormbs. 2018. “Environing technologies: A theory of making environment.” History and Technology 34 (2): 101-125.