On Wednesday, 56 years to the day after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, a Phoenix-based collective called the Autonomous Space Agency Network launched a weather balloon to about 90,000 feet. The balloon, Aphrodite 1, weighed a little over a pound and was inflated with 120 cubic feet of helium. Aphrodite 1's payload consisted of a GPS sensor, a camera and a message for President Trump. It was a printout of a tweet that read, “@realDonaldTrump: Look at that, you son of a bitch.”
“To our knowledge, the Aphrodite 1 launch was the first political protest in near space,” a member of the group wrote to The Washington Post in an email. (Members of the Autonomous Space Agency Network, or ASAN, are anonymous as “a way to discourage the use of the group for the ego or vanity of individual members,” the person said.)
The tweet was quoting Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth person to walk on the moon. He famously said of viewing Earth from space: “You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, 'Look at that, you son of a bitch.’ ” This quote has been cited as an example of the overview effect, a perspective shift toward global unity and conservation reported by astronauts struck by the planet's fragility.
“Everyone at ASAN is a pretty big fan of Dr. Mitchell, who was one of the more … colorful characters to have ever set foot on another celestial body,” the ASAN member said. “We sought to send a message of protest to President Trump against his proposed budget cuts for NASA’s Earth science program, which is invaluable to understanding climate change and making informed, data-driven policy decisions.”
Although 90,000 feet is certainly quite high, this was not the political act farthest from the ground — astronauts, for instance, may cast their ballots from aboard the International Space Station. Although ASAN's YouTube video described the act as the “first protest in space,” what counts as space can be a bit mushy. There is no abrupt boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space. The balloon ascended to about a fourth of the way to the Karman line, the point adopted as a shorthand for space more or less because 100 kilometers up has a nice ring to it.
The launch was planned to coordinate not only with Yuri's Night but in solidarity with the upcoming March for Science, the ASAN member said. The group lamented White House budget cuts to four of NASA's Earth science missions: CLARREO, the solar wind monitoring system DSCOVR, the ocean and atmosphere monitoring program PACE, and the orbiting carbon observatory OCO-3.
“We are not only missing out on incredible opportunities to learn more about our planet,” the person said, “but Trump is also endangering the lives of millions of people outside the United States who are most at risk of climate change-related disasters.”
Aphrodite 1 marked the first of several planned projects from ASAN, an open-source, DIY space program composed of artists, scientists, engineers, students and even one “IRL rocket-scientist.”
“We believe that we can't say that we've truly entered the 'space age' until outer space is demilitarized, democratic and accessible to all autonauts,” the ASAN member told The Post, using the term the group prefers for astronauts. “We're here to show the world that space is not just for generals, autocrats and boy billionaires.”