How astronauts and IKEA hackers get scrappy and reject passive consumerism.
On April 13, 1970 the United States’ third manned mission to the moon was thrown into a tailspin when an oxygen tank exploded, crippling key life support systems in the spacecraft and imperiling the lives of the three-man crew. Among the challenges the crew faced were loss of cabin heat and a shortage of potable water, but most dire was the steadily rising level of carbon dioxide in their finite and precious air space. In an ultimately life-saving feat of ingenuity, ground support radioed in instructions on how to jury-rig a CO2 removal system using the craft’s lithium hydroxide canisters, duct tape, cardboard, and a spacesuit hose—an improvised apparatus the astronauts referred to as “the mailbox.”
The mailbox ultimately enabled a safe return for the crew of Apollo 13, a triumph in object repurposing which The New York Times attributed to “Yankee ingenuity,” while NASA’s Mission Control described it as “shade tree engineering,” and which Raymond Malewitz, author of The Practice of Misuse, regards as an intriguing case study in the realm of Thing theory.
Thing theory is an emerging field of critical inquiry that probes the social contexts of commodities. Just as Queer Theory maintains that human identities are construed not so much by biological origin, but rather by contingent social and cultural interactions, thing theorists contend that material culture is similarly constructed and reconstructed by shifting social meanings and the use-value that is conferred on objects. “What is newly compelling about this sociological analogy,” writes Malewtiz, “is the notion that objects, like people, are subject to the contingencies of a continuing history, rather than to the determinist logic of origin.”
Manipulating the original purpose, changing an object’s function, produces an interesting array of symbolic social implications—in certain instances it has the capacity to destabilize dichotomies that partition valuable materials from rubbish; it can also serve as a site of resistance—politically, environmentally, and economically.
In the Hollywood incarnation of the Apollo 13 mission, for instance, the project of creating “the mailbox” became a site of critique for government bureaucracy and unimaginative engineers who had failed to integrate flexibility into the design of their mechanisms, thus forcing the beleaguered astronauts and ground support to adapt on the fly, and under high stress conditions. In that film, when engineers notify the lead flight director, Gene Krantz (portrayed by Ed Harris) that the CO2 removal apparatus from the main module of the spacecraft is incompatible with the lunar module (where the astronauts had taken refuge), Krantz rubs his eyes and exclaims, “Tell me this isn’t a government operation!”
That lament is underscored in the following scene when ground support is relaying instructions to the Apollo 13 crew, the first of which is to “rip the cover off of the flight plan.” “With pleasure,” replies astronaut Jack Swigert (played by Kevin Bacon) before eagerly tearing and tossing aside the face of the prepackaged flight protocol manual. This act, says Malewitz, “symbolically break[s] the astronauts free from the stifling procedures of the uncreative engineers and transform[s] the pilots from ‘Spam in a can’ to rugged consumers.”
And apparently such an understanding of the events of Apollo 13—as a triumph of ingenuity and a portal to critically reassess American production and consumption habits—was not unique to Director Ron Howard. The American press, at the time of the mission, viewed these events through the lens of John F. Kennedy’s famous frontier analogy and, according to Malewitz, used this example of reinvention under pressure to critique the nation’s expanding consumer culture. Days after the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts, a New York Times Earth Day editorial opined
Even now, hundreds of millions of men and women still naively think that earth has what Kenneth Boulding has called a “cowboy economy,” with resources as infinite and unending as the great plains must have seemed to those who herded cattle in the West a century ago. Every person understood last week that the scarce supplies on Apollo 13 had to be husbanded carefully, consumed economically, and recycled for reuse whenever possible. Earth Day . . . aims above all to convince the American people that similar prudence is required on Spaceship Earth.
Malewitz contends that the above editorial, and certainly Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 film, evidence the emergence of an unlikely hero in late twentieth-century American culture—“the creative, improvisational, but restrained thinker—who replaces the older prodigal cowboy heroes of American mythology and provides the country a better, more frugal example of an appropriate ‘husband.’”
That adaptable, tinkering figure features prominently in American culture today; from IKEA Hackers, to the scrappy characters of Lost fame, to Margaret Atwood’s eco-cult gardeners from The Year of the Flood. These misusers who turn table legs into lamps, make lean-tos with 747 scrap metal, and fashion curtains out of plastic bags and duct tape all manipulate material culture to suit their purposes, regardless of the object’s original intended use. In all these instances, such recycling of commodities constitutes an act of resistance: resisting the passivity of consumer culture, sometimes as a rebuttal against the vicissitudes of planned obsolescence, sometimes simply as an expression of creativity. In so doing, they—like the Apollo 13 astronauts—assume greater authorship over their material circumstances; they become determined and inventive shapers of their environment; they become rugged consumers.