Space junk has been in the news this week, and one of my tweeps asked if a space garbage truck might be the solution … this put me in mind of some space garbage moments from television and cinema, so I thought I’d do a quick post about them.

Several shows have used the perceived lowly and degrading role of garbage collector to satirize glamorous and exciting portrayals of space exploration. Others use it to depict the dangers of space travel, or the mundane (so to speak) careers that one might pursue in a realistic future.

Some just use it because it’s a cool setting, for example:

Star Wars
The trash compactor scene from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) was one of the most memorable parts for me. It’s arguably an implausible system, but the idea of being crushed and/or eaten by a lurking monster is pretty frightening.

You wouldn’t find one of these on a Starfleet vessel, with their replicator technology.

As cool as the Death Star garbage compactor is, the most well-known and problematic form of space junk is orbital debris.

Quark

Poking fun at space adventures such as Star Trek and Star Wars, this 1977 show told the adventures of Captain Adam Quark and the crew of the United Galaxies Sanitation Patrol Cruiser. In the show garbage conveniently comes in “space baggies”.

Planetes
In my opinion, one of the best anime you’ll ever see. A very hard-science-fictional portrayal of life in space in the not-too-distant future (scientists from JAXA were technical consultants). The method used to collect space junk in the show is to rendezvous with it and capture it, which is dramatic but unrealistic – highly wasteful of energy for small returns in debris gathered.

UFO
See the clip below for the opening credits of this groovy 1970 British show set in futuristic 1980. One episode features the removal of space debris. Here’s a link to the first part of ‘Conflict’, in which a pair of space debris removalists track and explode the equipment module of a Soviet Vostok relic but bypass the third stage of Apollo 8‘s Saturn V. The use of limpet mines to destroy space debris is problematic, of course, as exploding unwanted spacecraft simply creates more space junk.

Salvage 1

“I want to build a ship, fly to the moon, salvage all the NASA stuff up there, bring it back to the earth and sell it.”

I only discovered this show while googling around this evening. A 1979 Andy Griffith vehicle that apparently had Isaac Asimov as a science advisor. Only the first episode seems to have revolved around the looting of space artefacts from the moon. Salvage 1 was cancelled after 16 of the 20 episodes filmed were aired.

Note: the consensus among space heritage experts would be to leave artefacts in situ (on the moon especially!).

Futurama
In the episode A Big Piece of Garbage, the Planet Express team are charged with exploding a giant ball of garbage that was shot into space from Old New York. It’s a satire of the movie Armageddon in which the garbage is (again, conveniently) conglomerated into a single sphere.

Red Dwarf
In the tradition of Quark, this British comedy punctures the pretensions of heroic science fiction by being told from the perspective of two technicians (2nd and 3rd class). In the episode Waiting for God, the Red Dwarf intercepts what could be an alien pod, but turns out to be a garbage canister. Here’s the show’s wonderful opening sequence, a reference to famous shots from 2001 and The Empire Strikes Back:

If you can think of any more examples, post a comment!