The British space programme: Geopolitics and empire

This chapter broadens perspectives in the post-war period by considering the ways in which geopolitical discourse became integral to the formulation of a complex and multi-faceted British culture of outer space. The geopolitics of outer space in the post-war period is usually associated with narratives involving the legacies of German wartime rocketry, the capture of iconic military hardware and talismanic scientific experts by American and Soviet forces at the end of the Second World War, and the subsequent ‘space race’ between the two world superpowers, as they vied for supremacy in the heavens.1 Such accounts act as a template for dominant narratives of space exploration, often in terms associated with a bi-polar understanding of the Cold War and written from the perspectives of hegemonic cultural and political authority. Looking at the British context, however, allows an alternative story to emerge, involving an equally significant set of changes in world power dynamics. These include the complex and contingent shifts from colonialism to postcolonialism, implicating a changing set of dynamics between cultures of nationalism and internationalism. That these narratives and cultural histories have remained, for the most part, untold, can perhaps be traced to the perceived failure of a British national space programme. That is not to say, however, that geopolitical cultures of outer space in Britain did not exist or had no broader impact. Indeed, the British Interplanetary Society remained central to geopolitical cultures of outer space in Britain, fostering utopian visions of spaceflight, promoting international collaborations in outer space technology, and speculating about imagined future launch sites of a British space programme. This provides a compelling insight into aspects of British cultural and political identity on the world stage in the post-war period, while also helping to understand the cultural underpinning of the limited British space programme of the 1960s. Following a discussion of the ways in which researchers have theorised the geopolitics of outer space, this chapter turns to the geopolitical narratives associated with British outer-space activities in the post-war period.

Outer space and critical astropolitics

Scholars of geopolitics both within and outside the discipline of geography have become increasingly aware of the need to consider outer space as a key analytical realm. Indeed, despite the widespread adoption of the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty, that decreed outer space as a non-sovereign, shared international space, there has been a general acceptance that Earthorbital spaces have become militarised, alongside an acknowledgement that spaceflight is inherently linked to the inter-continental ballistic missile technologies of the Cold War.2 Such understandings have led some geopolitical thinkers to adopt neo-classical models in explaining and promoting state involvement in spaceflight. As such, ‘spacepower theorist' Everett C Dolman has advocated an aggressive US policy in outer space, drawing heavily on classical theorists Halford Mackinder (1861-1947) and Alfred T Mahan (1840-1914). going so far as to urge the United States to ‘seize military control of the Low Earth Orbit’.’ Furthermore, a wide range of studies advocating a neo-classical geopolitics of outer space has recently emerged in specialist space policy journals, with a particular tendency to promote the application of Mahanian sea-power theories from the nineteenth century to the militarised realm of outer space, in interventions typically saturated with nostalgia for a ‘lost age’ of US space dominance.4 Whereas Dolman and others clearly are in favour of taking action to support a neo-liberal agenda of space domination, additional studies have favoured ‘neo-classical astropolitics’ as an explainer of activities in outer space since the mid-twentieth century. One such study, although providing a welcome focus on European space policy, defines geopolitics as ‘a dynamic struggle among strong states who seek to seize new “space” and organise it to fit their own interests’, contending that such state and supra-state organisations frame our understandings of spaceflight in the modern era.5 Interventions along these lines typically examine state programmes, such as US space policy under President George W Bush, or more widespread patterns in the securitisation of outer space, and although occasionally critical of such programmes, tend to be theoretically grounded in mainstream international relations literature or neo-classical approaches to geopolitical thought.6

Running counter to this school of thought in ‘astropolitics’ has emerged a critical geopolitics of outer space, led by authors including historical geographer Fraser MacDonald, who has argued against the proliferation of‘undead’ neo-classical models in thinking about and promoting the neoliberal domination of outer space.7 While acknowledging that outer space plays an integral role in the modern lives of citizens in most developed countries, MacDonald argues that geopolitics and spaceflight are intrinsically linked and that ‘the colonisation of space, rather than being a decisive and transcendent break from the past, is merely an extension of longstanding regimes of power’.8 However, rather than adopting neo-classical theories in explaining the relevance of these ‘extensions of power’, this work looks to the emergence of critical geopolitics. This contends that ‘geopolitics should be re-conceptualised as a discursive practise’, as opposed to a normative set of theories applicable to ‘real-world’ situations through state strategies, as one might characterise the above iterations of‘neo-classical astropolitics’.9 In other words, critical astropolitics, in the same ways as critical geopolitics has successfully argued, can be understood as part of ‘a refusal to accept the abstract logic’ of established classical theory, ‘but instead embody it in historically and culturally specific interests’.10 Fully understanding the geopolitics of outer space therefore involves engaging critically with, firstly, the granular details of representation and practise that form part of such discourses and second, the broader narratives of national, (post-)colonial and international identity formation, as co-constitutive elements of astropolitics. In this way, an appreciation of the broader geopolitical cultures of outer space, as opposed to a narrow reading of space policy in relation to particular state interests, offers a more representative and critically rigorous basis for understanding the geopolitics of outer space.

Certain works in this form of critical astropolitics have examined the construction of nationalism and colonialism in outer space discourses, typically focussing on American and European case studies. Here, research into the US space programme has identified how nationalistic cultures of exploration, technological determinism and religiosity were fundamental to American astropolitics in the twentieth century.11 Cultural works such as those of space artist Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986) have been foregrounded, his speculative paintings of colonised Lunar landscapes having drawn influence from the nineteenth-century frontier tradition of sublime landscape painting.12 This cultural-political thread of American Manifest Destiny in outer space has been picked up in the late twentieth century, with media reports of NASA's Mars Pathfinder missions of the late 1990s exhibiting distinctively colonial subtexts. The discourse surrounding these missions; including the progress of science in outer space, the Westernised nomenclature of topographic features on Mars and the use of Earth analogues to understand and know the Martian landscape, has been shown to demonstrate how Mars was ‘constructed [...] as a place to be colonized’ by humans in prospective future missions to the Red Planet.13 Similar examples of colonialism in the language of understanding outer space have been explored in studies on nineteenth-century astronomers of Mars and on the production of nature in Kim Stanley Robinson’s science-fictional ‘Mars trilogy’.14 These examples all demonstrate how colonialism has been used as a metaphor for understanding spaceflight in the twentieth century, particularly in the American context, and provide insights into how such an approach might help to understand geopolitical cultures of outer space in broader contexts.

Further productive lines of enquiry in critical analysis of the geopolitical and cultural aspects of space programmes have taken a postcolonial approach. As such, the Kourou rocket range in French Guiana has been

The British space programme 91 interpreted as a ‘fertile field of representation’, through which layers of meaning around the French and European space programmes can be excavated.15 This site, originally established as the home of a national French space programme in 1968, was later co-opted by the European Space Agency for the successful Ariane space rocket. Here, the selection of the rocket site in French Guiana has been connected not only to the ‘latitudinal boost’ provided to space rockets by equatorial launching sites and the associated attainment of geosynchronous orbital positions in space, but also to deeply-embedded historical networks of colonialism, as the shortlist of French rocket sites reportedly ‘paralleled] the list of potential penal colonies a century earlier’.16 Furthermore, the connected settlement of Kourou has been characterised as ‘a new colony [...] that reproduces an old colonialism in its racial divides reinforced by social class’.17 This tension was of course replicated on a wider symbolic scale in the somewhat incongruous launching of European rockets and satellites from this location in South America. This postcolonial critique has also been applied in broader theoretical terms, with one critic explaining how ‘the notion of a biologically-engrained need of humans to conquer new horizons is appealed to by the European Space Agency’ in its colonialist-inflected public-facing discourse.18 This point of view is supported by further analysis of ESA promotional material for the Centre Spatial Guyanais, which draws on the achievements of classical European civilisation, universal human development and genealogies of scientific progress.19 In offering detailed accounts of geopolitical cultures of outer space, what these more critical studies by MacDonald and others have in common is the understanding of a tension between the implied utopianism of modernity and the messier post-colonial or Cold War contexts in which such ideas evolved.

In the UK, the common themes of nationalism and colonialism in the post-war period became imbricated in the transition from Empire to Commonwealth and a changing relationship between the UK and its wartime allies the United States, the USSR and the nations of Western Europe. The importance of British cultural discourses involving the monarchy of Elizabeth II. post-war technological developments and narratives of exploration, that were embedded in the national psyche, are all relevant to the development of British geopolitical cultures of outer space. The remainder of this chapter considers the international connections that were forged by spaceflight promoters in the post-war period, shows how optimistic visions of internationalism in outer space became compromised by narrations of empire and nationalism, and explores the geopolitical ‘pivots’ associated with the nascent British space programme.

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