Introduction: Geographies of outer space in Britain
In my time, I’ve been very fortunate to see many of my dreams come true. Growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, I never expected to see so much happen in the span of a few decades. We 'space cadets' of the British Interplanetary Society spent all our spare time discussing space travel-but we didn't imagine that it lay in our own near future.
- Arthur C Clarke, in his 90th birthday reflections
Cosmos is a thing of formal order and beauty.
- Denis Cosgrove, describing the work of Alexander von Humboldt
This is a book about outer space, its relation to British culture and politics since the start of the twentieth century, and to geographical enquiry. It originated from a long-standing fascination with spaces of the imagination, science and technology, provoked by many of the iconic images of space exploration that proliferated Western culture throughout the twentieth century. This is a fascination that has by no means been restricted to any one time or place, as dreams of outer space are likely to be as old as humanity itself. Yet such imaginations, no matter how expansive, are inflected by a sense of place and associated cultures and politics, and this book aims to understand how outer space has been understood in the specific context of the United Kingdom, from the start of the twentieth century to the present day, using contemporary geographical approaches.
As the writer Arthur C Clarke pointed out in his 90th birthday reflections, uploaded to the internet in the early years of online video-sharing, the twentieth century was a period that witnessed rapid technological change, and in no area was this more apparent than in space exploration.1 Clarke had a significant influence on British understandings of outer space, perhaps more than any other individual, and his life-long role as someone who engaged with both the realm of the imagination and the world of science and technology reflects the outlook of this book, which is to say that, in order to fully understand the meanings of space exploration, it is essential to seek out the cultural and political roots of its scientific and technological discourses. As such. Clarke’s involvement with the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), his early science-fiction novels, as well as some of his technical concepts of space exploration, are featured in a number of the forthcoming chapters, as prime examples of the cross-fertilisation of science and culture in understandings of outer space in Britain. In terms of organisations, the BIS was the most influential group in conceptualising outer space in Britain, whose significance stemmed from its straddling of technological and imaginative themes, and its continued longevity as the oldest space advocacy group in the world. While this book by no means offers a comprehensive account of this organisation, various episodes in its history are examined in several chapters, including its establishment in 1930s’ Liverpool, its post-war plans for configuring space exploration, and its expansive designs for interstellar flight. As such, the BIS encapsulates the dual nature of space exploration, as being part imagination, part techno-science, and in focussing on the cultural and political roots of space exploration in Britain, this book aims to broaden the scope of historical studies of outer space to take account of this hybrid quality. Indeed, when considering states such as the United Kingdom, in contrast to the principal space powers of the USA and Russia, acknowledgement of the imaginative as well as the technical becomes all the more important in appreciating the fundamental meanings of human spaceflight, space exploration and space science, and our complex relation to outer space here on Earth.
In such ways, this book argues that Britain became a home to rich discourses of outer space, both feeding from and contributing to iconic achievements in space exploration, while also embracing the cosmos in imaginative and philosophical ways.2 Cognisant of this spatial context, a central aim is to demonstrate how contemporary geographical enquiry can provide specific and valuable perspectives from which to understand outer space. This is an argument that was initiated by Denis Cosgrove, and his critique of Alexander von Humboldt’s seminal work Cosmos helped to demonstrate geography’s special relevance to thinking about outer space.3 The key thematic areas which provide the interface for this book’s research, therefore, are the cultural, political and scientific understandings of outer space; the context of the United Kingdom since the start of the last century; and the geographical underpinnings of their relationship.