Synthesising outer space: The British Interplanetary Society

The writings and readings of H G Wells and Olaf Stapledon were part of a broader upsurge in imaginative conceptions of spaceflight in the early decades of the twentieth century, as speculative thinkers in science fiction, and also popular science, considered the innumerable implications of leaving the Earth’s physical boundaries. Indeed, ideas of cosmic transcendence had been circulating in Western culture since classical antiquity, including the imaginative possibilities of visiting other worlds.1 While speculative narrations have continued to frame modern understandings of outer space, the early twentieth century also witnessed the development of new technologies that ultimately would turn the dream of cosmic ascent into the reality of spaceflight. The rocket itself has a long history in human society, from the Chinese ‘fire arrows’ of the middle ages, through its adoption as a ballistic missile in the Anglo-Mysore Wars of the late eighteenth century, and its subsequent deployment in the Napoleonic Wars by Sir William Congreve, to name just a few examples. However, the concept of using the rocket as the foundational technology of spaceflight was conceived independently in the early twentieth century by Robert Goddard (1882-1945) in America, Robert Esnault-Pelterie (1881-1957) in France, and Konstantin Tsiolkovskii (1857-1935) in Russia. They all published detailed works on spaceflight theory, understanding Newton’s Third Law, which meant that a rocket would operate as a chemical form of propulsion in the vacuum of space. Other international figures, such as Hermann Oberth (1894-1989), Theodore von Karman (1881-1963) and Frank Malina (1912-1981), took the rocketry principle a stage further with co-ordinated research programmes in Germany and the United States before the Second World War. As such, the age-old dream of transcendence became aligned conceptually with the technological potential of rocketry, a synthesis that was pursued by nascent spaceflight societies during the 1920s and 1930s, and which is the focus of this chapter with respect to the British Interplanetary Society.

The first of these societies was the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (Society for Spaceflight), established in 1927 by engineer Johannes Winkler in Breslau, Germany. This was followed by the American Interplanetary Society in 1930, set up in New York by the writer George Edward Pendray and science

Synthesising outer space 37 fiction editor David Lasser? The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) was established in Liverpool in 1933 by Philip Ellaby Cleator, an amateur engineer and popular science writer. Other regional groups in the UK were known to have emerged around this time, including the Manchester Interplanetary Society and the Paisley Rocketeers’ Society, which were merged into the BIS either side of the Second World War.’ The BIS remains the longest-running spaceflight society in the world and while its pre-war years are the primary focus of this chapter, this book returns to the BIS in the post-war period, considering its substantial, ongoing role in the cultures and politics of outer space in Britain (see Chapters 4, 5 and 6). This chapter, however, deals with the ways in which the new science of ‘astronautics’ was established in Britain. This term originated in the works of the French science-fiction writer J-H Rosny aine in the late 1920s to denote the science of space travel, and the Active manner of the term's origins belies the reciprocity that occurred between science and the imagination in astronautics, especially, as this chapter argues, in the United Kingdom. More than just telling speculative stories about space travel, the BIS set out to demonstrate the concept of spaceflight as a tangible possibility within reach of human endeavour, while also taking the first practical steps necessary to make it a reality. In doing this across a variety of spaces in Liverpool and. later, London, the BIS enrolled a range of actors, materials and concepts, in a unique synthesis of interplanetary science and culture.

Historical geographies of outer space: synthesising technology and culture

Over recent decades, historical geographers have helped to demonstrate how scientific knowledge has been contingent on the vicissitudes of place, site, region and circulation. It is acknowledged that science ‘takes place in highly specific venues; it shapes and is shaped by regional personality; it circles the globe in minds, on paper, as digitized data’.4 Such contingencies have been found in examples ranging from ambitious programmes of international scientific co-operation, to the expeditionary practices of astronomical observation, and the intimate spaces of speech and conversation, in which scientific concepts have been formulated, tested and received.5 Similarly, researchers in the history of science increasingly have focussed on understanding knowledge-creation in context, for example, in contrasting historiographies of iconic individual scientists, the importance of social relations among groups of scientific practitioners, or the significance of particular objects in the construction of scientific knowledge networks.6 Drawing from work in social and critical theory, such accounts have questioned past perceptions of truth in science and society, while also attesting to the significance of contextual meaning and the subjectivity of knowledge.7 Cognisant of such perspectives, a recent call for scholarly engagement with ‘geographies of outer space’ has highlighted the role of historical geography and the particular relevance of geographies of knowledge, geographical imaginations, and nature-society geographies, to explaining past understandings of outer space. As such, some of the historical aspects of space science, including the tracing of early maps of planetary bodies, the perceived composition of planetary environments, or ‘the production of outer space knowledge claims’ can be opened up to further geographical interpretations.8

Existing research in this area has interpreted understandings of outer space since the early modern era, demonstrating how geographers, critical of their own institutional histories of territorial mapping and enclosure, are well-equipped to critically appraise past representations of outer-space phenomena. As part of such enquiries, the representational and performative practices associated with the creation of nineteenth-century maps of Mars have been brought into question, problematising claims about the nature of planetary surfaces and highlighting the ways in which such 'truths’ circulated among knowledge communities.9 For example, astronomers who were seen to attain the best viewing positions of the night skies, often embarking on expeditions to remote sites in mountainous regions, were accorded a degree of legitimacy and prestige among their peers that stemmed from a sense of scientific masculinity, thereby qualifying processes of scientific observation with gendered notions of identity and mobility.10 Historical geographies of the Space Age have further highlighted the situated significance of imagery, technology and perspective to the production of outerspace knowledges. Here, photographs of the Earth from space, taken by Apollo astronauts on the way to the Moon and in lunar orbit between 1968 and 1972, have been acknowledged for their iconic status in the history of environmentalism, while also being seen as emblematic of imperialism and global power by knowledge communities in different social and political contexts.11 By contrast, the far lengthier perspective offered by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990 facilitated a more elusive photograph of the Earth as a tiny speck in the vastness of space. This was Earth famously described as a ‘pale blue dot’ by the astronomer Carl Sagan, noting the paucity of human significance in grand cosmic narratives.12 Such examples demonstrate how issues of power and representation have become central to understanding the ways in which outer-space knowledges have been produced, mediated and consumed across different spaces and contexts.

Further studies in historical geography and allied disciplines have recognised rocket technology as an essential aspect to the geopolitics of space science, including research that has highlighted the trans-Atlantic and post-colonial development of rocketry in the late modern era.” Pertinent to such understandings are the cultural and political foundations of rocketry in the early twentieth century, a time in which the concept of spaceflight was contingent on a more precarious mix of scientific cultures and untested technologies. In the United States, for example, the work of rocketry pioneer Frank Malina in setting up the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1930s

California has been recognised, as well as his subsequent replacement in hegemonic narratives of space exploration by the Nazi rocketeers who were naturalised as US citizens after the Second World War.14 Here, actors in Cold War geopolitics, such as the infamous ‘Un-American Activities’ committee of the United States House of Representatives, played a prominent role in defining narratives of scientific achievement in outer space, and in the process conspired to obscure important earlier contributions. A similar story of historic achievement in space science that went unacknowledged for decades in official narratives is that of the Russian spaceflight theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovskii. Ignored by the state until the final years of his life, Tsiolkovskii fostered an active network of outer-space thinkers in early-twentieth-century Russia, exchanging correspondence with figures across Europe while teaching aeronautical theory in the district of Kaluga, near Moscow.15 In such ways, research into the pre-history of spaceflight has highlighted the disconnect between official narratives of space exploration, such as American exceptionalism in space, or Soviet state leadership in spaceflight theory, and alternative accounts of individual and collective achievement. In both cases, the geographical specificities of place, on scales that were both local and global, played a significant role in the development and reception of scientific knowledge.

As well as illuminating the geographically situated foundations of space science, researching the origins of spaceflight can help to break down perceived divisions between amateur and professional scientists, as well as between popular and established science, concepts that have been challenged in recent years by scholars in the history of science.16 Indeed, a limited number of studies have highlighted the significance of amateur societies, science-fiction fandom, correspondence networks and popular science writers in the early development of space science, not only in America and Russia, but also in Western European countries, such as Germany and the UK. For example, networks of outer-space enthusiasm have been identified in Weimar Germany, through which a combination of spectacular stunts involving rocket-powered cars, and media productions, such as Fritz Lang’s science-fiction film Frau ini Mond (1929), contributed to ‘Germany’s prominence in the early space travel movement’.17 The emergence of the British Interplanetary Society in Liverpool around this time has also been conceptualised as a reflection of existing networks of science-fiction fandom and narration.18 Looking at the broader European context, ‘cosmopolitan networks of peripheral knowledge' have been associated with groups such as the VfR and the BIS in the mid twentieth century.19 Here, the status of certain individuals as charismatic promoters of space science, located often at the fringes of mainstream science, is seen to be important in tying together emergent networks of knowledge, as is the international reach of such networks. Here is a sense in which space science emerged together with science-fictional and popular understandings of spaceflight in particular societal contexts, rather than through the institutions of traditional scientific practice. Such studies have also pointed the way in terms of a diversity of source materials in the historical geography of space science that go beyond iconic imagery and official documentation, towards recognising the social and cultural aspects of scientific practice and the interplay between imaginative and technological thinking in the making of new scientific territories beyond the Earth’s surface.

The studies outlined in this section provide a context for considering the emergence of space science, or astronautics, in Britain before the Second World War. This work emphasises the importance of not just the social explanations of technology, nor simply the effects of technological development on society, but signify a hybrid approach that accounts for assemblages ‘between diverse people, non-humans and places’, while recognising such configurations as ‘socio-technical imaginaries’.20 Accordingly, this chapter builds on the previous chapter’s research into the relationships between the fictive imagination, place and landscape, by focussing on the interplay between cultural, social and technological factors in the development of astronautics, factors which can be seen as uniquely important in the UK context. As such, the following sections explore the ways in which the British Interplanetary Society in its formative years embedded cultures of collaboration and internationalism within the emergent field of astronautics, while synthesising imaginative and practical approaches to space science. The emphasis turns firstly to the individual personalities and spaces of science that were central to the establishment of the BIS, then to the ways in which the Society forged international connections and the significance of this, and finally considering its work on conceptualising space exploration through the design of a lunar spaceship.

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