British internationalism in outer-space research

In 1946. members of the British Interplanetary Society were able to re-group and take stock of wartime developments in rocketry and their likely effect on the advancement of spaceflight. With the help of this post-war rocketrystimulus, the Society started to broaden its horizons once more, with the internationalist outlook that was promoted in the 1930s retaining a significant role. However, the changing international context of this period tended to temper the outright optimism of the Society’s pre-war outlook, towards a version of internationalism that would be contingent on British leadership and shaped by new geopolitical concerns.

At a meeting in October 1947, Arthur ‘Vai’ Cleaver, a key player in the post-war BIS who later went on to become Chief Rocket Propulsion Engineer at Rolls-Royce, presented a paper to the BIS entitled 'The Interplanetary Project’, in which he set out two possibilities for the future of spaceflight.20 The first he called 'the utopian view’, whereby a post-warfare global society would come together with the advent of new technologies to explore interplanetary space for the good of all humankind, a vision that drew heavily from the Society’s pre-war idealist internationalism (see Chapter 3). Cleaver’s second possibility, however, was that militaristic and nationalistic motives would spur the development of spaceflight, a vision borne out of the calamities of the Second World War and the rising tensions of the Cold War, and a warning to BIS members on the likely cost of failure of internationalism in spaceflight research. BIS members Gordon Thompson and Les Shepherd later suggested that this anxiety was the principal reason for the setting up of further links between spaceflight societies in this period, which culminated with the establishment of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) in 1951.21

Now labelled 'the world's leading space advocacy body’, the IAF was first conceived in correspondence between the BIS, the Groupement Astronautique Français and the Gesselschaft fiir Weltraumforschung (GfW).22 BIS members were said to have been 'strongly in favour of the new international federation of astronautical societies, providing that the autonomy of the existing national groups was preserved’.23 Immediately apparent is a sense of the tensions between the promise of internationalism and the paradoxical need for autonomy from any overriding authority that such an organisation might threaten. Nonetheless, a preliminary meeting was organised in Paris on the 30th September 1950, at the Grand Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne, with a reported turnout of over one thousand delegates, while a smaller business meeting between the representatives of eight societies took place the next day at the French Aero Club, chaired by Vai Cleaver.24 At the latter it was decided that the IAF should be formally inaugurated at a 1951 Congress in London, which would be organised by the BIS. It was also reported that the American Rocket Society was not able to attend the Paris Congress and that;

the non-participation of the Americans at Paris had been due to a feeling on their part that they were so far ahead of the rest of the world in rocket development that they had little to receive, only to give, from any project for international collaboration.25

It appears that the delegates at the Paris Congress were only vaguely aware of developments in American spaceflight and this commentary perhaps also hints at the influence of US authorities in protecting state secrets in rocketry, which at this time included the results of testing of captured V-2 rockets.26 In any case, the American non-participation in this initial meeting represents the limits of internationalism in discourses of spaceflight research at this time and foreshadows the rivalries and consternation that became more typical in later Cold War discourse.

In a retrospective article, Paris BIS delegate Les Shepherd recounted the process of establishing the IAF. In his view,

the proposed international body was envisaged as being a much more conservative federation of the various national societies, [although] many of the representatives hoped that it might eventually become more than this.27

Shepherd’s is a realistic account of the role that the IAF would adopt, however, he also hints at a more ambitious view of the future role of the Federation, which for many BIS members involved its incorporation into the United Nations. Founded in 1945, the UN sought to promote international co-operation in a way that would have seemed promising to the BIS and it was deemed the natural home for global collaborative projects such as the International Map of the World.28 Writing in the BIS Journal, Guenter Loeser addresses this prospect directly:

As evolution can neither be stopped nor kept back, some day the United Nations, a world parliament or some other international institution will take up the problem, working for peaceful space travel as a common aim of civilisation.29

The contributions by Shepherd and Loeser hint at a sense of disappointment with what the IAF would be able to offer, as delegates looked forward to the possibility of‘loyal and unselfish international collaboration' under the auspices of the United Nations.30 Nonetheless, the new Federation was largely seen as a success and in May 1951, ‘the BIS was able to circulate a full draft Constitution for the IAF’.31 This Constitution was approved at the London Congress, with the BIS presiding over four days of working sessions, alongside social occasions and a public meeting, with press attendance throughout.

The working sessions consisted of papers being delivered at Caxton Hall in Westminster, in English, French and German (with translated summaries), centred on the theme of‘The Earth-Satellite Vehicle’, which was seen as ‘the first and essential task in the conquest of space’.32 Perhaps of equal significance as part of the ‘sites [of] performance’ at the Congress were the scheduled social events, which were said to have ‘played a pleasant and important part in helping to forge international bonds of goodwill between the various delegates’.33 As part of such activities, ‘the BIS presented all delegates with tickets to the South Bank (Festival of Britain) exhibition and several BIS Council Members accompanied them on a visit there’.34 This exhibition had opened in the summer of 1951 and the delegates would no doubt have gravitated towards the rocket-like Skyion tower and the Dome of Discovery with its Outer Space exhibit. In the Dome of Discovery, ‘the body and outer space were constituted as the appropriate frontiers for discovery, rather than foreign lands’ and such exhibits, alongside new architectural forms in the International Modernist style, may have encouraged the IAF delegates to see themselves as the new explorers of a modern age.35

Images from the German GJ'W (Society for Space Research) brochure of the London Congress demonstrate pictorially the key thematic elements of this event. The images from this brochure, whose authorship is somewhat unclear, can be seen alongside other sources such as the BIS Journal and the Congress programme of events, as emblematic of the broader ‘mission statement’ of the Congress, while its very existence echoes the earlier acts of translation that characterised the international dimensions of spaceflight research in this period. The first image from the brochure (Fig. 5.1) shows the whole Earth as seen from a point in space, an image whose transcendental qualities have endured for centuries in the Western imagination.36 With Europe’s hemisphere prominent, a UK flag is thrust into the blankness of outer space from a point in Northern Europe, from which, in turn, emanates a group of national flags. These are overlaid by a ‘Dove of Peace’ by Pablo Picasso, initially commissioned as an emblem of the First International Peace Conference in Paris in 1949. Another image from the last page of the brochure (Fig. 5.2) is similar, but more peculiar, incorporating a photomontage of the heads of the major characters in European spaceflight research, including Eugene Sanger. Hermann Oberth and Wernher Von Braun, being led towards the Moon under a giant hat belonging to ‘London’ by Vai Cleaver, pictured sitting at a desk, ringing a bell. Two characters seem to be turned away by the anthropomorphic Moon, one of whom appears to be carrying an American flag and can be identified as the then US President Harry Truman. The other caricature, sitting astride a rocket, is likely to be Robert Goddard, the lone American rocketry pioneer. With their striking use of photomontage and collage techniques, these images bear the influence of the Berlin Dada art movement of the 1920s, whose avant-garde works were often intensely satirical and political, arising partly as a reaction to the horrors of the Frist World War and its associated national rivalries.37 However, rather than acting as images of overt protest, the symbolic message implied by these two montages is that joint European co-operation, with British leadership, is the favoured means by which humankind should colonise outer space, as opposed to unilateral American or individualistic progress towards this goal. The prominence of Britain reflects London’s status as the host city of the 1951 IAC, but this in turn is a result of the




g..... -


Figure 5.1 Front cover of Society for Space Research (GfW} pamphlet for the 1951 International Astronautical Congress

Source Credit: British Interplanetary Society

instrumental role that the British organisers played in setting the agenda for the first few years of the IAF.

Following subsequent Congresses at Stuttgart (1952), Zurich (1953) and Innsbruck (1954), the IAF introduced its journal, Astronautica Acta, which remains one of the leading journals in spaceflight research, while the IAC still meets regularly to this day. As such, the establishment of the IAF in the early 1950s, including its two opening Congresses, are important events to consider, not only in the history of spaceflight research and the significant role British representatives had in its development, but also in relation to the ways in which the BIS formulated and articulated its geopolitical discourse of spaceflight in the early-post-war period. This form of internationalism was moulded by a sense of British leadership and the primacy of European voices in the anticipated conquest of space, moving on from the more purely internationalist agenda of the pre-war BIS. The significance of the cultures

Vergessen fallen ..." So geschrieben im Jahr 1951 und gedruckt in einer großen westdeutschen Wochenzeitschrift. Hoffentlich fällt der kuriose Beitrag ebenfalls recht bald dem ewigen Vergessen anheim.

„Ob sie alle unter einen Hui kommen ?"

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Zum Londoner Kongreß


Figure 5.2 Last page of Society for Space Research (GfW) pamphlet for the 1951 International Astronautical Congress. The captions translate as ‘The London Congress’/'will they all come under one hat?’

Source Credit: British Interplanetary Society

of geopolitics has also been foregrounded in defining such notions of spaceflight, including social relations at international symposia, key characters as icons in narratives of spaceflight research and the artistic representations that helped shape such narratives.

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