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From the Red Desert to the Red Planet: Military engineers, granular materials, and how we know what we know about extreme environments with Gretchen Heefner

March 28, 2023 | 4:00PM - 6:00PM
Centre for the Study of the United States, Climate change, energy & environment, Technology & society

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This event is taking place at the Munk School, 1 Devonshire Place, Seminar Room 208, North House, Toronto, Ontario.

installations in some of the world’s most extreme and inhospitable environments. This talk charted the work of the engineers as they moved from sand dunes in the Sahara, to the ice on top of Greenland, and then to plans for building a base on the Moon. All the while, the engineers were acutely aware of the materials in question: the sand, the snow, the stardust. By exploring such materials -- at field stations around the world and in laboratories closer to home – military engineers created new ways of understanding such environments. What they learned, over time, is that places such as the desert and Arctic are not discrete landscapes; they are tied to our everyday in surprising and intimate ways.

This talk drew from Heefner’s current manuscript, Sand, Snow, and Stardust, the history of how we know what we know about extreme environments. Places such as the desert, the Arctic, and outer space that exist out there somewhere, on the edges of our maps. These are places that have long and generally been written off – wastelands, useless, remote, lifeless. Heefner traced the relationship between U.S. military engineers and their construction projects in the extremes beginning in the 1940s, when the U.S. government realized it knew nothing about such places, through a Cold War near-obsession with mastering them, to the present day, when we find ourselves in the uncomfortable predicament that the U.S. military might be the one organization that can best help navigate a world in which more and more of our environments are becoming extreme.

Sponsored by the Centre for the Study of the United States and co-sponsored by the  Department of Geography & Planning, University of Toronto and the  Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology
Centre for the Study of the United States, Climate change, energy & environment, Technology & society
For more information, please contact Sophie Bourret-Klein at


Headshot of Gretchen Heefner
Gretchen Heefner

Associate Professor of History, Northeastern University