Methods and sources

This book takes a selective sample of case studies to illustrate some of the predominant British cultures and politics of outer space since the start of the twentieth century. Examples were selected to cover the book’s temporal range, and chapters are arranged accordingly in a chronological manner, starting with the early twentieth century and continuing to the present day. The onset of the last century provides not only a convenient starting-point, but it also was a time when certain understandings in the biological and physical sciences had started to provoke profound reflections on the existence of life on other worlds, or the possibility of interplanetary travel. Such considerations found expression in the works of the ‘fathers of science fiction’, H G Wells and, in France, Jules Verne, beginning in earnest the anticipation of space exploration in Western culture. Although this is primarily a historical book, it seemed futile to foreclose any analysis of contemporary events, particularly as the late twentieth and early twenty-first century witnessed the first Britons to go into outer space, amid other developments. Indeed, as British engagement with outer space is likely to continue in interesting ways, looking towards the future is an important part of this book’s final chapter, connecting again with the theme of anticipation that runs through this book. Given this timespan, a range of source materials have been interpreted, some archival in the traditional sense of being held materially in an institutional space, others readily available through online searches. Interviews have been an important source of more personal accounts, including one conducted by the author with Patrick Moore, as part of prior scholarly investigations. A multitude of interviews with key actors from secondary sources has also been invaluable in ascertaining individual outlooks and in triangulating certain events and programmes of work. Published sources, including science-fictional texts, specialist journals, and newspaper reports, have formed a substantial part of the source materials. Furthermore, parts of this book have been abridged from two articles published previously by the author, specifically sections of Chapters 3, 4 and 5.12

As a result of this selective sourcing, a number of possible case studies have been overlooked. For example, fictional representations of space exploration, such as C S Lewis’ ‘cosmic trilogy’ of novels, and the Dan Dare comic series have been left out, partly because they are the subject of existing works by this and many other researchers, but also because the themes they raised are represented by other examples in the chapters that follow.13 The primary focus on cultures of space exploration has also tended to result in the omission of some aspects of astronomy from the analysis, such as the advent of radio astronomy, or the ongoing influence of historic observatories, although certain chapters do testify to some of the enduring influence astronomical observation has had in British culture, while there does exist a substantive literature on these topics.14 In respect to issues of gender, class and ethnicity, the case studies in this book are broadly representative of the cultures and politics of outer space in the UK since the start of the twentieth century. However, this is not to say that they are representative of British society more generally. Indeed, until the penultimate chapter, all the individuals of interest that appear in this book are male, an imbalance that is addressed through discussions of gender in space exploration in Chapter 7. Issues of social class are raised in several chapters, and are seen to have an effect on particular cultural and political engagements with outer space. The question of ethnicity and race presents a stark picture throughout, with the majority of case studies highlighting cultures of outer space in Britain as almost entirely white. This is not to say, however, that issues of race are not discussed at all - parts of Chapter 4 acknowledge the racial tensions that occurred in post-war Britain and their relevance to certain cultures of outer space, while Chapter 5 questions the racial and colonial undertones of outer-space discourse in geopolitical frameworks of space exploration. Such matters of representation raise questions about which parts of society have been able to engage with the cultures and politics of outer space, and while this book does attempt to deal with this question in the ways highlighted above, there remains much work to be done in this area.

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