It was launched into the night sky on December 3, 2018, the first purely artistic satellite, a Mylar balloon pushed into a cinder-block-sized cell, collapsed upon itself in silent prayer or despair, detained, waiting for release.
On December 3, 1800, electors cast equal votes for Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, forcing Congress to choose who would awake each morning in an unfinished White House to gaze upon the mud of construction, burdened wooden carts, bowed black men sweating in lace-edged coats.
Trevor Paglen called his sculptured satellite Orbital Reflector (OR), a diamond-shaped tube man coated in titanium oxide, poised to emerge and wink from low-Earth orbit at a president waking to Fox & Friends, empty bed strewn with Burger King bags.
Houston banned tube man in 2010, ruling such spectacles mar the aesthetic environment for communities and citizens, a legal distinction, a wall shielding Mexican migrants and soccer moms from strung tinsel, whirligigs, Make America Great signs.
SpaceX Falcon 9 released OR amidst a swarm of satellites, the CubeSat drifting, bouncing off machines set to surveil cyclists racing across Australia, Iranian scientists scratching in bed, the spoon of a Mexican child criminally eating Fruit Loops in El Paso.
Paglen waited weeks for OR to clear the debris before seeking deployment clearance from the federal government, his synthetic star set to reflect the sun and provoke people into squinting at a shared space stolen by Amazon and US Armed Forces, the heavens fenced, walled.
At midnight on December 22, 2018, President Trump closed the federal government, demanding funds for a border wall to deter Mexican “rapists and criminals,” a holdup caught on cable news, a looting of the register, bills grabbed, gun waving with each word.
Pony House Tavern owner James Ritty invented the first cash register in 1879, a machine designed to snare pilfering bartenders, underpaid, pocketing coins while wiping beneath empty steins with stained rags and concealed grins.
When Paglen dialed the FCC’s Satellite Division in late December, nobody answered, the tiny staff among 800,000 furloughed federal workers, hostages stuck at home scrubbing pans and playing solitaire as Trump threatened to close the government for years, OR circling above.
Solitaire emerged in Scandinavia as street-corner augurs flipped cards and whispered fates, the inspired game called cabale, its Latin name echoing Kabbalah (קַבָּלָה), which also contains a game, Chassidim computing Hebrew numeric values to interpret the Torah.
Camped along the Jordan River, near death, Moses banned divination, the biblical Hebrew m’naḥesh (מְנָחֵש) a hapax legomenon, leaving rabbis to theorize. Sorcery? Witchcraft? They settled on omen reading: the way bread crumbs fall, the direction a curved stick lands, how starbursts streak across the night sky.
In modern Hebrew, m’naḥesh means guess.
Spy satellite hunters use stopwatches, stars and software to chart a constellation of machines launched by the Defense Department’s National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), humans tracking robots hiding in space behind mirrors and Vantablack paint, each orbit a revelation. Or a guess.
Government scientists create mission patches resembling Boy Scout merit badges for each secret NRO launch, avatars offering clues: Dragons. Scorpions. Wizards. The logo for NROL-39 is an octopus devouring the globe above an inscription: NOTHING IS BEYOND OUR REACH.
A week into the government shutdown, on January 1, 2019, the Boy Scouts of America revised its Law merit badge requirements as OR rotated overhead. Removed from the approved topics to study: “Space travel and satellites orbiting the earth.” Added in its place: “Immigration.”
JeanCarlo Jimenez-Joseph tied a bedsheet to a ceiling sprinkler after 19 days of solitary at Lumpkin, Georgia’s immigrant prison. Guards called him Julius Caesar, a young Panamanian claiming to be the Roman ruler reincarnated, hearing voices, crying on an ICE hotline before they tortured Brutus out of him.
Paglen kept dialing, the Satellite Division’s phones singing among office shadows, blinds drawn, monitors asleep. He needed someone from the US government to say, Yes, we approve of your existence before inflating his jack-in-the-box as large as the White House.
Jack in the Box rebranded in 1993 after an E. coli outbreak killed four children. In an early spot the new mascot, a balloon-headed clown, blows up the company board room. “Intimidating is part of Jack’s persona – a Trump-ian kind of thing,” said creator Rick Sittig.
Trump turned to Chuck Schumer and threatened the first Jewish Senate leader on live television, a raised finger punctuating each word – If I don’t get what I want – his clenched fists gripping border wall blueprints and the bigotry of his father.
Initial government shutdown polls showed Americans against the border wall when a Guatemalan boy, Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, died from influenza while detained by CBP agents, his father watching the child vomit blood after being given Tylenol.
There are 2,062 active satellites, space overrun by corporations and nations. The United States operates almost half: 523 commercial, 176 military, 164 governmental, 38 civil. They measure cloud patterns, monitor migrant cellphone signals, guide missiles, steal secrets.
It was dying, the CubeSat’s embryonic pings growing weaker as Paglen plugged one ear and strained, OR pulsating in a metal box moving from sun to shade, sun to shade, sun to shade, circuits degrading, indefinitely detained.
Prevention through Deterrence is the federal policy of funneling immigrants along barbed-wire fences through unforgiving terrain, outsourcing border enforcement to the sun, the Sonoran Desert a killing field, political violence completed by turkey vultures and coyotes, skeletonized migrants stretching for miles.
Barbed wire was patented in 1874 and sold to homesteaders promised 160 acres if they could hold the land, farmers fencing in oceans of undulating prairie against waves of cattlemen and American Indians, the devil’s rope closing western lands, then Western Front trenches, then Warsaw and Auschwitz.
Journalist Alexia Fernández Campbell asked protesting federal workers – slipping on mortgage payments, diabetes prescriptions, groceries – if Trump should get funds for a border wall. They said no. “Even if it means you’d get a paycheck?” They said no. And then so did Congress.
When the longest government shutdown in US history ended on January 25, 2019, when workers returned to the FCC’s Satellite Division, it was too late – OR was unresponsive.
I search “unresponsive” on July 25, 2019 and click news. These are results for the previous 10 days:
“Wyoming County inmate dies after being found unresponsive” (July 24)
“Marion County (IN) inmate found unresponsive” (July 22)
“Marion County (MO) inmate found unresponsive” (July 19)
“Inmate with mental illness found unresponsive in Sonoma County cell” (July 18)
“Lehigh County inmate dies after being found unresponsive” (July 17)
“Orange Country inmate found unresponsive” (July 15)
“Inmate dies after being found unresponsive in Fairfax County jail” (July 14)
The known universe has 100 trillion galaxies, each with 100 billion stars, which looks like this: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Or this: there are more stars than grains of sand on Earth. Or this: the closest star to our Sun is Proxima Centauri, 25 trillion miles away, with a planet in its habitable zone, possibly holding life. And death.
Or conversely, this: 10 drops of water hold the same number of molecules as there are stars in the cosmos, hydrogen and oxygen forming untold universes in rain puddles, baptismal fonts, a mother’s mourning wails, a migrant’s last sip.
Paglen turned to Trump and mouthed murderer, his unseen star suffocated by the politics of drone strikes, surveillance satellites, military occupations, border walls.
At the First Battle of Bull Run, Southern soldiers struggled to distinguish the US flag from their Stars and Bars, its blue field a circle of seceded states, historical asterisks. So General Pierre GT Beauregard designed the Confederate battle flag, its St. Andrew’s Cross filled with stars and the whoops of slave owners.
Confederate flags and Trump signs line our approach to Ohiopyle State Park, where we stop and remove the Star of David magnet from our Subaru. I see a Latino boy eating vanilla ice cream on the General Store steps. It’s dripping as his mom points and smiles, Spanish spilling fast as the Youghiogheny rapids behind us where George Washington bailed in 1754.
The boy bites into a sugar cone as my girls watch. The sky seems empty. A white couple wearing Harley Davidson cutoffs stop and stare, the man flaring predatory sniffs. I flex my fingers.
Nobody says a word.
Houston banned tube man – Houston’s ban on “attention-getting devices,” which remains in effect, includes items such as smoke-producing machines, spotlights and balloons. However, there are notable exceptions: namely governmental flags and holiday items. Which is why massive Texas flags flying above car dealerships, inflatable Christmas trees in strip malls and sequined stockings hung from telephone poles are allowed.
Paglen waited weeks – The December 3 payload included government-funded imaging satellites which can take pictures of the earth’s surface at resolutions of within a few feet. It did not, however, contain a classified NRO satellite.
Pony House Tavern – James Ritty was on a steamer returning from Europe when he noticed a counter tracking propeller revolutions. Standing on the bridge, the horizon stretching like taught fishing line, the idea for a register came to him. I imagine he smirked the way businessmen who underpay their workers smirk. An everlasting smirk.
Camped along the Jordan – The prohibition against divination appears beside soothsaying and sorcery in Deuteronomy 18:10. The medieval commentator Rashi, consulting rabbinic texts, offers that m’naḥesh means the interpretation of omens.
Boy Scout merit badges – There are 137 Boy Scout merit badges, among them: Space Exploration, Citizenship in the World, Citizenship in the Nation, Fingerprinting. While the merit badge program is expansive, it does not appear there is – as of yet – a badge for being raped by a scout master and surviving.
A week into – Yes, this is real. I know.
JeanCarlo Jimenez-Joseph – Jimenez-Joseph complained to guards about an internal voice demanding he take his life, a voice which drove him to call an ICE hotline weeks before a nameless, faceless person in a uniform found him hanging, alone. Inmates often compare solitary confinement to being buried alive, thoughts of suicide surfacing after a few days for those who have never contemplated such a fate. Jimenez-Joseph, already suicidal, was thrown into his certain grave by guards. Buried alive.
Jack in the Box – Sittig’s ad agency is called Secret Weapon Marketing. Its Santa Monica office, which has a retro CIA vibe, shows a false front which reads: Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co. The agency only has three clients: Ikea, Activision, and Jack in the Box. “I’m really happy here in my own little orbit,” says Sittig.
Trump threatened – Trump made his ultimatum while seated in the White House before Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Initial government shutdown polls – These surveys, as with most political polls, were conducted in English. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are seven other languages each spoken by over one million people in the United States: Spanish is spoken by 40 million people, Chinese (including Mandarin and Cantonese) by 3.3 million people, Tagalog (including Filipino) by 1.7 million people, Vietnamese by 1.5 million people, French by 1.2 million people, Arabic by 1.1 million people, and Korean by 1.1 million people. That’s 50 million people, or 15 percent of the U.S. population, many of whom struggle with English, or as the Census Bureau eloquently puts it, they speak English “less than very well.” Among the common languages listed by the Census Bureau, Navajo is spoken at home by the least number of people: 163,419.
There are 2,062 active satellites – The United States dwarfs other countries when it comes to controlling space. The next two largest countries, China and Russia, have 299 and 153 satellites respectively.
Barbed wire was patented – Joseph Glidden produced 32 miles of barbed wire the year he secured a patent. Six years later, his De Kalb plant produced 263,000 miles of fencing, enough to encircle the Earth 10.
I search “unresponsive” –
- Timothy C. Pabone, age 46, found in his cell.
- Kerrington Tompkins, age 28, found in his cell.
- Larry Baker, age 51, found in his cell.
- Nino Bosco, age 30, found in his padded cell.
- Dawson Thomas, age 20, found in his cell.
- Name withheld, age 44, found in cell.
- Sha-Kez Amir Green, age 18, found in his cell.
His unseen star – Paglen was not shy about blaming Trump.
David Harris Gershon’s previous work has appeared in Colorado Review, Passages North, the Forward and elsewhere. His memoir — What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? — was published by Oneworld (London).