New Elizabethanisin and a Commonwealth space programme

From the mid-1950s onwards, the concept of a British space programme slowly began to take shape in popular and institutional discourse, but was always bound by geopolitical contingencies. While the IAF did not actually have the power to conduct serious collaborative research, the BIS was well aware that the British government was not willing to act alone, having ‘neither the practical will nor the resources to become involved in a space race’.38 So, maintaining the spirit of scientific internationalism, the BIS in this period chose to promote collaboration between Commonwealth nations as the desired means of achieving spaceflight. This shift not only came about because of the need to share research and development costs, but also because of the perceived geographical advantages held by the Commonwealth as a whole. A 1961 article in Spaceflight by E D G Andrews highlighted these benefits:

The British Commonwealth has one asset for a space programme possessed by no other single community in the world: its scatter. Moreover, member nations control territories at nearly every latitude between 50° south and the North Pole, with an area of Antarctica thrown in for good measure [...] The top of Mount Kenya [...] seems to be the ideal launching site for interplanetary probes.39

Here the Commonwealth is conceptually enrolled from pole to pole for the benefit of British spaceflight, connecting the past exploits of Empire to the future exploration of outer space. One of the most vocal proponents of this ‘Commonwealth Space Project’ was the aforementioned Gordon Thompson, one of the Society’s most active post-war members. Thompson declared on behalf of the Society that ‘the British Commonwealth should launch satellites and undertake space research’, attempts which ‘must not be mere imitations of American and Russian feats’.40 With this in mind, the BIS organised a Commonwealth Spaceflight Symposium in London in August 1959. One presentation suggested ‘the use of Antarctic territory as the Commonwealth satellite launching site for a pole-to-pole orbit’, tacitly approving of the UK's claim to territory in this region.41 This would ultimately pave the way for ‘the ultimate objective of making astronautics a truly world enterprise’.42 Here, the enduring idea of a globally-connected outer space project was presented against a background of historic British achievement in global exploration:

Surely it is unthinkable that Britons will not participate in this new exploration or are the New Elizabethans much inferior to the old? Drake, Raleigh, Hudson, Cook, Park. Franklin, Eyre. Burke and Wills, Burton, Baker, Speke, Grant, Darwin, Livingstone, Stanley, Shackleton and Scott - do these names mean nothing anymore? Are Hunt and Hillary to be the last of the line?43

In naming a list of pioneering explorers starting with ‘old Elizabethans’ Drake and Raleigh and ending with Hunt and Hillary, the leaders of the 1953 Mount Everest expedition, Thompson calls upon a lineage of British imperialism in a similar way to which the European Space Agency drew inspiration from their own genealogy of Classical and Enlightenment thinkers half a century later, helping to legitimise space exploration by association with earlier icons of Western civilization.44 As well as this prevailing imperialist sensibility, Thompson’s list alludes to the small but significant cultural movement of New Elizabethanism, which invoked the reign of Elizabeth I as a ‘golden age’ to ‘inspire a similar renaissance in the twentieth century’ under Elizabeth II.45 As such, the ascent of Mount Everest is presented as an iconic British achievement connected to ideas of modernity, monarchy and internationalism that were key traits of New Elizabethanism, in a potent agglomeration of identities that became a defining characteristic of British spaceflight discourse at this time.46

The jewel in the crown of the proposed British Commonwealth space project was the Woomera rocket range in South Australia. Described as ‘a most impressive asset to Commonwealth research’, the desert facility was used initially as a weapons testing ground by the British government in the late 1940s, and during the 1950s also witnessed a series of nuclear weapons tests in the vicinity.47 Activity at these proving grounds contributed to what has been called ‘British defence futurism’ in this period of post-war re-arma-ment amid new Cold War tensions that extended into the territories of the British Commonwealth.48 One advantage of Woomera was that its fallout range lay ‘across empty wilderness to the shores of the Indian Ocean’ and beyond, a set of conditions that could not be matched in the home territory of Britain.49 In this way, Woomera was seen as an expansive reserve of otherwise unused land, enrolled into British plans for space exploration through association with a new, modern Commonwealth of Nations. Part of this claim that the Woomera range productively put to use empty land was the necessary discounting of Aboriginal occupation, a legacy of a broader process of agricultural enclosure and ‘improvement of the colony’ in Australia from the nineteenth century onwards.50

While the perceived geographical advantages of using Woomera as a launch-pad to space were never fully put to use, the imaginative landscape of ‘Spaceport Woomera’ captured the attention of popular and sciencefiction writers in the 1950s and 1960s, as ‘a remote and exotic location where intrigue, adventure and the inspiration of spaceflight might be found’.51 One example of Woomera being presented in fiction as a future spaceport was Arthur C Clarke’s first science-fiction novel, Prelude to Space, which preceded a substantial proliferation of comics, novels, radio plays and television programmes that made use of this scenario. The notion that Clarke’s outer-space fiction was anchored to more familiar Earthly geographies of adventure and exploration has been established in Chapter 4 and with Prelude to Space being set entirely on Earth in anticipation of the world’s first manned space launch, it is even more overtly connected to such discourses. Indeed, this novel was typical of Clarke’s early narratives of ‘optimistic scientific propaganda’ and was dedicated to his ‘friends in the BIS’, who seem to have inspired some of the fictional characters.52 The first half establishes London as the administrative centre of an international spaceflight community and repeats the mantra of New Elizabethanism by invoking ‘the line that stretched back to Drake and Raleigh’ in its exhortation

The British space programme 99 of British spaceflight.53 The narrative then leads on to a future version of Woomera. where the first manned space launch is taking place:

Luna City was built by the British government around 1950 as a rocket research base. Originally it had an aborigine name - something to do with spears or arrows.54

Here Clarke alludes to the meaning of ‘Woomera’, the accepted English term for an Aboriginal spear-throwing device, but dismisses this association as an irrelevant myth, preferring instead the Latin derivative ‘Luna City’.55 While indigenous cultures are overwritten. Commonwealth symbolism abounds within the novel, as Clarke places British icons such as the Union Flag and a letter from 10 Downing Street in the heart of the Australian desert. Moreover, in the final pages, the sound of Big Ben chiming out through loudspeakers is described as the space ship ‘Prometheus’ is finally launched. These somewhat cliched portrayals of‘Britishness’ help to advance this conception of an interplanetary project that is at the same time British and international, towards a framework that exploits the British Commonwealth as the backdrop for interplanetary scientific internationalism. De Witt Douglas Kilgore further notes the significance of this passage in his account of Astrofuturism, noting that, in Clarke’s foregrounding of these racial and nationalist tropes, ‘space itself becomes a frontier with Greenwich and Westminster at its heart'.56

One non-fiction publication. Rockets in the Desert by children’s writer Ivan Southall, presents Woomera in a similar way, using the framework of a British-led Commonwealth space project. ‘Woomera’, states Southall, who visited the facility by special permission in the early 1960s, ‘began in 1945 in England' and was now ‘the most advanced space research station of its type on earth’.57 Southall encourages his young readers to ‘join in our great adventure of exploring the heavens’, presenting this kind of work as wholesome, healthy and energetic, but also highly dangerous.58 This presentation of Woomera as a site of Western modernity and adventure sits uncomfortably alongside the fact that Aboriginal lands formed part of the active testing range. Although Southall’s book somewhat glosses over such aspects, a more comprehensive account by historian Peter Morton some years later explains the controversy surrounding the construction of the rocket range, whose central line was mapped ‘slicing through the Central Aboriginal Reserves’ in 1946 (Fig. 5.3).59

In these narrations by Clarke, Southall and others, the representation of Woomera as a site of adventure and exploration dominates the significant narratives of resistance and protest that occurred there in the late 1940s. That such narratives took place in the modern context of Cold War rocketry reminds us that geographies of adventure and exploration form an enduring part of contemporary geopolitical discourses and were not just limited to the more traditional Victorian-era colonial narratives.60 Progress in British

Map of Australia showing the Woomera Rocket Range

Figure 5.3 Map of Australia showing the Woomera Rocket Range

Source Credit: Commonwealth of Australia Department of Defence

space exploration was not just limited to fiction, however, as scientific and technological research into rocketry became simultaneously caught up in further geopolitical discourse during this period.

 
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