Contextualising geographies of outer space in Britain

Outer space has long provoked fascination in the human mind, examples of which can be traced back to Classical antiquity with whimsical stories of transcendence into the heavenly realm, such as Lucian’s Icaro-Menippus of the second century, to the early ages of the Enlightenment in Western culture, in the revolutionary observations of Galileo and the imagined cosmic perspectives of Johannes Kepler, and later in the emergence of astrophysics, as the mysteries of the Universe have become deeper and more complex than had ever before been imagined. Yet the twentieth century was a time in which a profound shift in humanity’s relation to the cosmos took place - the advent of spaceflight with the satellite Sputnik in 1957 and the human transcendence from Earth’s gravity that was represented by the first cosmonauts and astronauts of the early 1960s. These, of course, were far from isolated events, and the cultural and political contexts of the 'space race’ between the world superpowers of the twentieth century have been well-documented.4 Recently, these contexts have been shown to extend far beyond the immediate events of the Cold War or even the rocketry programmes of the Second World War that accelerated the onset of spaceflight. Indeed, researchers have shown how the roots of spaceflight can be traced to earlier origins, including early-twentieth-century scientific networks in Imperial Russia or the 1930s’ experiments of rocketry pioneers in California.5 The importance of cultures and politics of outer space outside of the bipolar Cold War nexus has also been recognised, with ‘European astroculture’ being shown to have had rich and diverse meanings that have often been overlooked in studies of outer space, while the colonial roots of European space exploration have also been acknowledged.6 What sets twentieth-century studies of outer space apart from studies in earlier periods is, therefore, the prospect of spaceflight and the associated cultures and politics of space exploration. While themes of astronomical observation or heavenly transcendence still come into play in this period, what tie together this book’s focus on the twentieth century are the enduring possibilities of spaceflight, including its anticipation as well as its ongoing legacy. Studying fully the cultural and political contexts of spaceflight, then, involves considering a wide range of scientific, technological and imaginative sources that reach beyond the immediate environs of contemporary space agencies and individual heroes of the Space Age, to incorporate places whose connections to narratives of space exploration have been left relatively unstudied.

The United Kingdom has been understood as a relatively minor player in space exploration, with a paucity of human spaceflight experience in comparison to European and other international states, partly compensated by an established profile of private-sector space manufacturing and service companies. Yet there is a more complex story to tell about the UK’s past and continuing role in outer space that considers the Cold-War-era efforts to produce a British-made satellite, the establishment of a British space-rocket to be launched from an anticipated spaceport in Australia, and the promotion of British private companies’ involvement in the emerging space sector. There was, indeed, a period following the Second World War, amid an international nuclear arms race, in which the UK was briefly a world leader in outer-space research and rocket technologies.7 Looking back further into the pre-war period, when workable concepts of space exploration started to emerge for the first time, British groups were among the first to realise the technological potential of rocketry for reaching outer space, as evidenced by the recollections of Arthur C Clarke and his associates in the British Interplanetary Society. Furthermore, when considering the science and technology of outer space together with the broader cultures and politics of space exploration, including such registers as science fiction, astronomy and folklore, deeper connections can be identified. In this way, an approach that looks beyond national programmes and frontline geopolitical rivalries has a lot to offer in studies of outer space. Furthermore, such accounts help to understand the changing fortunes of British society from the start of the twentieth century, including the ways in which British geopolitical outlooks altered from a position of global dominance to becoming increasingly reliant on a range of international alliances, as well as the shifting status of British science and technology and the effects these changes had on the lives of people in the UK. Taken together, considerations of British scientific and technological achievement in outer space, couched in their own cultural and political contexts, alongside the legacy of imaginative representations of outer space, makes possible a rich narrative of engagement with outer space in the modern era. Indeed, a key argument of this book is that the UK had an active outer-space culture during and beyond the twentieth century, as much as any other nation of the world.

Considering outer space in the UK context from the start of the twentieth century raises questions about how British cultures and politics of outer space have differed from those elsewhere. Indeed, this becomes one aspect of the ‘geographies of outer space" that this book deals with, thinking about the ways in which particular spatial contexts, places and landscapes have influenced understandings of outer space, both official and popular. It is further argued that the diversity of approaches within the broad discipline of geography offers the potential for multiple analytical perspectives from cultural, political, historical and environmental geographies, across a wide range of possible case studies.8 Over and above such approaches, however, there is a more fundamental reason why geographical enquiry offers particular advantages and proclivities to studying outer space, as iterated by Denis Cosgrove and others.9 When Cosgrove wrote about Humboldt’s nineteenth-century treatise Cosmos, that incorporated sections on the stars and planets as well as the features of the Earth, he was highlighting a long-standing tradition in geographical scholarship in which the spheres of the Heavens and the Earth were regarded in unison, as part of a divine creation, whereby one could not properly be understood without the other. Often represented in the twin production of terrestrial and celestial globes, this theme can be traced throughout Western culture, from the thinkers of the Classical period through to the Renaissance, including figures such as Aristotle, Ptolemy and Abraham Ortelius. and is a duality that, while diminished, can still be recognised today in some common atlases.10 Yet for Cosgrove, Humboldt’s work, in its structure, tone, and modes of representation, signalled a shift in geographical thinking away from this historic tradition of cosmography, towards understanding the Earth as a two-dimensional realm of surfaces and territories, jettisoning the cosmic entirely from the professionalised discipline of geography. This was a move that was caught up in the imperatives of European colonialism, mapping, and the advent of geopolitics, the vestiges of which endured well into the twentieth century in a range of sub-disciplinary traditions. However, human geography’s subsequent embracing of post-modernist philosophies, including the cultural turn in geography and a geographical turn in the social sciences, for Cosgrove, offers interesting opportunities for re-connecting with the cosmic spheres of old. The onset of space exploration has further provided an opportunity for this re-appraisal of humanity’s connection to the spaces beyond the Earth’s surface, supported thematically by new geographies of aerial, subterranean and other three-dimensional spaces.11 In looking above and beyond the Earth’s surfaces, while considering the representation and experience of outer space as intimately connected to Earthly spaces, this book aims to re-kindle these deeper traditions of geographical enquiry, fostering a new geography of outer space that holds the cosmic and the terrestrial together in alignment.

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