Space exploration, science and nationalism

Concepts of progress in outer space had, towards the end of the twentieth century, become more complex and multi-faceted than in the preceding era of giant leaps and iconic first achievements. Increased international cooperation in space, the heightened role of private finance in supporting space endeavours, and the emerging potential of robotic probes to explore the planets of the Solar System had all challenged and changed the complexion of space exploration. Collaborative ventures were encouraged by the Apollo-Soyuz test project in 1975, while the same year saw the formation of the European Space Agency, which began to emerge as a major player in space exploration. Towards the end of the 1980s, the changing geopolitical situation carried further implications for outer-space activities.1 Most significant was the end of the Cold War in 1991, which preceded a relaxation of national rivalries in outer space.2 Thereafter, plans for an American space station named ‘Freedom’ to rival the Soviets’ Mir morphed into designs for an international space station, with Russian, American, European and Japanese involvement. Similarly, the emergence of private companies as increasingly powerful actors in space following the success of a range of commercial satellites in the 1960s can be seen as a further riposte to the supremacy of national agency in space. Following a discussion on theories of nationalism and the ways in which they have been applied to activities in outer space, this chapter focusses on three British space missions in the 1990s and 2000s: Helen Sharman’s spaceflight experience on board Mir in 1991. the ‘Beagle 2’ Mars lander project in 2003, and Tim Peake’s mission to the International Space Station in 2015-16. While each of these missions involved British collaboration with other national and international space agencies, this chapter suggests that concepts of nationalism and national identity retained a key role in space exploration in the years either side of the new millennium.

Nationalism and cultures of outer space

Concepts of nationalism have formed an active component of critical political geographies for at least the past forty years, and many scholars now agree that nationalism remains a powerful ideological force in today’s world.

This growing consensus has emerged contrary to schools of thought that have downplayed the role of nations in a postmodern, globalised world. Indeed, researchers have been encouraged to consider nationalism on an equal footing to its ‘ideological competitors’ socialism and liberalism, in recognising the widespread effects it has on individuals and societies at large.3 Accordingly, scholarly work in human geography and allied disciplines has started to configure new approaches to understanding nationalism’s continued allure, in some cases looking towards outer space for examples of the ways in which nationalism has been expressed and understood.

While some scholars have considered nations as ‘imagined communities’ drawing from deep cultural roots and limited by geographical boundaries, others have pointed towards the material, tangible aspects of nationhood to which individuals often see themselves as tied.4 Concepts of everyday or banal nationalism run counter to the expectation that nationalism occupies only fringe or extreme social movements in areas peripheral to Western developed nations. Nationalistic sentiments have also been accounted for outside the boundaries of a given nation-state, with diasporic and remote associations recognised alongside home-grown iterations. Such debates have progressed by taking account of the daily, often unnoticed expressions of nationhood that have been seen as ‘endemic’ in contemporary societies, with the unwaved flag becoming the ubiquitous symbol of banal nationalism.5 Drawing from this work, geographers have increasingly focussed on popular culture and the ordinary, shared experiences of members of nations, bringing to bear a multitude of new sources and methodologies in understanding nationalism.6

That the exploration of outer space has been connected to concepts of nationalism should come as no surprise to those familiar with the photographs of the Apollo moon landings featuring the American flag, or the equally propagandistic promotion of the Soviet space programme as a symbol of national achievement at the height of the Cold War. The United States space programme has been associated with the foundational myths of the American nation, while sources including science-fictional landscape paintings have been understood as central to the promotion of technologically deterministic ambitions for national space leadership in the post-war period. In this way, America is imagined through space exploration as a ‘transcendental state’, embodying the value-laden concepts of American exceptionalism, frontier expansionism and manifest destiny.7 A range of detailed studies have connected American nationalism to its space programme, including understandings of outer space as one of the ‘frontiers for the American Century’, and investigations into the connections between popular culture, spaceflight and American national identity.8 While there is an established literature on the cultural and political significance of American space exploration, new space programmes in developing countries offer further opportunities for researching nationalist agendas. In the past few years, for example, states such as China, India and Israel

Space exploration, science and nationalism 137 have sought to showcase their national technological capacities through achievements in space exploration, supporting a broader set of geopolitical ambitions and drawing from a corresponding set of cultural agendas and political imperatives.

Offering a renewed conceptual focus on nationalism, geographical researchers drawing from non-representational theory have explored the ways in which encounters between places, bodies and objects have helped to generate feelings of nationhood, such that 'national belonging’ becomes 'a felt force in the moment a body’s experience encounters foreshadowing, memories, imagined practices’.9 As such, nationalism can be thought of not just through visual symbols or artefacts of material culture, but as a set of emotions that are personal and relational. Through such approaches, a diverse set of engagements with nationalism has emerged in cultural and political geography, incorporating both material objects as well as affective atmospheres.10 Approaching nationalism in this way has allowed researchers to investigate the interplay between space artefacts and the general public, particularly in national museum spaces such as those of the Smithsonian Institution in the United States, whether in terms of the lasting iconography of spaceflight mission insignia, or through embodied experiences at Space Shuttle display exhibitions.11 In this way, the fleet of retired Space Shuttles takes on a new life as a ‘body within a constructed assemblage of remembering human spaceflight’ as part of a wider ‘national affective atmosphere’ in the United States.12 Here is a sense in which the afterlife of space hardware still resonates in the popular consciousness of nationalism, re-enforcing earlier cultural and political discourses associated with the US space programme at the peak of its powers.

Further exploring the embodied aspects of nationalism, feminist scholars have acknowledged that ‘the nation cannot be discussed in genderneutral terms’, moving to the scale of the body to examine notions including reproductive citizenship, pageantry in national beauty contests, and other gendered performances.13 In doing this, a variety of uneven power relations are brought to light in the study of nationalism, exposed through the ways in which gender is enrolled in the public sphere, sometimes through acts of violence. While studies in political geography have mostly focussed on the female body as a contested space of nationalism, the male body has also been associated with nationalist discourse in a variety of different ways. With the advent of human spaceflight in 1961 came a renewed public focus on space exploration amid heightened geopolitical tensions, as the first men in space came to embody the wider geopolitical ambitions of competing Cold War nations. Researchers have shown how the Soviet space programme in the early 1960s was shaped around Yuri Gagarin as a ‘massive propaganda juggernaut’, while the Communist Party’s stipulation that the first cosmonaut would necessarily be from ‘a completely Russian and working class background' became an important part of Gagarin’s public image.14 Subsequent to his pioneering journey into space, Gagarin came to embody the idealsof the archetypal Soviet citizen, becoming one of the select ‘mythologized] cosmonauts’ who were presented as icons of the national contest with the West for scientific and technological superiority.15 In the American context, similar tropes have been identified in the discourse that surrounded the ‘Mercury Seven’ astronauts in the pre-Apollo era. These men were put forward by NASA into the public sphere to be ‘eulogized as beacons of the bodily regime required to organize America’s exceptional destiny’ in outer space.16 Along with a core group of post-war test pilots in the US Air Force, they were seen as embodying characteristics such as tolerance of risk, and stoicism in the face of physical hardship, later being categorised as enigmatically having ‘The Right StufF of American legend.17 Along with this sense of embodied nationalism in male astronauts, the astronauts’ wives were reciprocally constructed in their domestic roles as passive, supportive, heteronormative bodies, through their profiling in various media outlets. Through these examples, it is apparent that embodied nationalism takes on a particular resonance in outer-space cultures, and that gender has played an important role in these processes.

Looking at British outer-space endeavours since the mid-twentieth century promises a different and possibly more nuanced set of readings into the ways in which national identity and nationalism may be connected to the extraordinary, or perhaps routine, activities associated with space exploration. For example, the British acquisition of the American 'Corporal' missile in the 1950s has been understood in the context of the UK's desire to hold a stake in the central geopolitical affairs of the post-war period, adding a vertical dimension to projections of national prestige.18 As such, the Corporal propagated notions of national defence and military power, not only in the eyes and minds of military and political personnel that witnessed the rocket’s test-launch from Uist in the Outer Hebrides, but also in the ludic experiences of a generation of youngsters who collected Corporal toys and trading-cards, as well as through the spectacle of the rocket’s display in prominent public locations such as Glasgow’s George Square.19 Further studies into the nascent British space programme have associated national prestige with ballistic missile technologies, nuclear power and outer-space research, and Chapter 5 of this book has explored the ways in which nationalistic sentiment played a role in the geopolitical cultures that permeated programmes such as the Ariel satellite system. Looking at the more recent past, and the era of human spaceflight, it becomes possible to examine the ambitious plans for space exploration that have since been carried out. The remainder of this chapter synthesises questions of nationalism with British programmes of space exploration since the early 1990s, specifically the space missions of Helen Sharman. Beagle 2 and Tim Peake. It argues that the interrelated concepts of embodied nationalism, affective nationalism and banal nationalism are woven through each of these case studies, and thereby positions nationalism as one of the key components of the geographies of outer space in Britain.

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