The future is in the stars

As the German historian Alexander C. T. Geppert writes in the foreword to the book Imagining Outer Space, “Ubiquitous, limitless and ever-expanding as it may be, outer space has a history too." At the Freie Universität Berlin a research team has embarked on a study of the European history of outer space.

The cultural history of outer space

Currently history is, quite literally, being written af the Friedrick Meinecke Institute, Freie Universität Berlin. Here the research programme "The Future in the Stars" has been launched, led by the German historian Alexander C. T. Geppert. The research programme focuses on cultural representations of spaceflight and space research, as well as extraterrestrial life, in Western Europe in the 20th century. Thus, the researchers have set out to write a European cultural and social history of outer space.

As has been the case in the history of technology in general, the historisation of outer space has to some extent been marked by an "insider perspective". Typically, it is people who have been involved in space activities themselves, who have also written their history. This has at times led to a form of historiography that has focused narrowly on technological space projects’ internal, chronological history, while ignoring social and cultural aspects that most of all have been seen as something impeding techno-scientific achievements.

The American historisation of outer space

In the U.S., the American historian Steven J. Dick, – former NASA chief historian, – has been a forerunner of a historiography of outer space that also includes cultural history aspects. Also for example Walter McDougall, Roger D. Launius and Howard E. McCurdy, all Americans, have dealt extensively with the cultural and political aspects of American spaceflight and space research.

Rather than concentrating narrowly on scientific and technological aspects of, say, the Saturn V rocket, this relatively new cultural and social history perspective also focuses on the mutual exchange taking place between techno-scientific space projects and the surrounding society.

A recent example is the American literary historian De Witt Douglas Kilgore’s Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space (2003). Among other things, it describes the types of utopian notions of a future in space that for instance were expressed through science fiction and was linked to large technological projects such as the Apollo programme. This phenomenon Kilgore has labelled “astrofuturism”.

European conceptions of outer space

The research programme in Berlin makes use of the term "astrofuturism,” though as a subcategory of the broader concept "astroculture", which Geppert has introduced. The thing is that this recent trend in outer space history is still in its infancy in terms of the cultural history of European notions of outer space. This is something Alexander C. T. Geppert and his team is going to do something about.

Under his guidance, William Ray Macauley is working on the postdoctoral project Crafting Space: Design and Aesthetics of Space Exploration in Post-War Europe and Daniel Brandau on the PhD project Visions of Feasibility: Rocketry and Space Flight Enthusiasm in Britain and Germany, 1920s-1960s. Geppert himself is writing a comprehensive European cultural history of outer space, Outer Space and the European Imagination, 1927-1975.

Conferences and further information

As a precursor to The Future in the Stars program, the conference "Imagining Outer Space, 1900-2000" was held in Bielefeld in 2008. It brought together a group of experienced, as well as less experienced, researchers who in different ways shed light on a number of topics related to the European cultural history of outer space.

Some of the papers presented at this conference have been published this year in the book Imagining Outer Space: European Astroculture in the Twentieth Century (in which this blogger also has an article). The first conference of The Future in the Stars programme, "Envisioning Limits: Outer Space and the End of Utopia,” focusing on the European history of outer space during the 1970s, is held 19-21 April 2012.

For anyone with an interest in the development of the historiography of outer space, focusing of cultural aspects and within an European horizon, ”Imagining Outer Space” is a good place to start.

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Though dated Mack’s article on space history is still relevant for the the writing of European space history:
Pamela E. Mack (1989). “Space History” in Technology and Culture, Vol. 30, No. 3, July: 657-665.

This blog entry was first published 9 February 2012 on www.videnskab.dk.