Alexander Geppert on the post-war production of outer space

Our theme of ‘space’ has led to a wide range of contributions to this year’s seminar series, encompassing topics as broad as building materials in 1970s Tanzania, the postcolonial spaces of offshore capitalism, and French colonial borderlands in India. This week, Alexander C. T. Geppert (New York University) provided an even more expansive interpretation of our theme by moving the focus beyond Planet Earth entirely in his examination of cultural responses to the exploration of outer space. Mathew Nicolson sends this report.

A poster for a space exhibition in Berlin in 1956.

Drawing from his recent work editing the ‘Astroculture Trilogy’ – Imagining Outer Space (2012), Limiting Outer Space (2016) and the forthcoming Militarizing Outer Space (2019) – Alexander offered multiple insights into cultural representations and understandings of outer space, with a particular emphasis on postwar Western Europe. He began by clearly defining the term astroculture as ‘[comprising] a heterogeneous array of images and artifacts, media and practices that all aim to ascribe meaning to outer space while stirring both the individual and collective imagination.’

Cultural representations, therefore, lay at the core of popular conceptions of outer space during the postwar period.  This can be witnessed in the vast array of space-themed films, books, albums and artwork produced during this period, including the 1956 ‘Unbegrenzter Raum [The Unlimited Space]’ exhibition in Berlin and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey released in 1968.

Space stations, Alexander suggested, served as the main focal point for imagining space exploration until they were supplanted in the 1960s by a growing interest in the possibility of a Moon landing.  Until then, space stations were conceived as ‘outposts’ or ‘springboards’ for further travel into outer space and prompted a number of competing proposals.  Most iconic among these was the rotating wheel space station, a design advanced by NASA engineer and former Nazi rocket designer Wernher von Braun with the aim of artificially creating Earth-like gravity on the station through the wheel’s rotation.

The rotating wheel space station underpinned the ‘von Braun paradigm’ of space travel in which the station would act as a staging post for transit between permanent colonies on the Moon, then Mars and then beyond the Solar System itself. Although emerging as a cultural icon in the 1950s and regularly featuring in representations of space travel, NASA ultimately rejected both this paradigm and the wheel station design, opting instead to orientate the Apollo program towards direct journeys to the Moon.

Alexander then turned his attention towards efforts to characterise the ‘Space Age’ as a distinct historical period. The Space Age is sometimes used to refer to the period between the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the end of the Apollo programme in 1972, characterised by intense public interest in space exploration and growing technological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, falling away as this ‘space race’ gave way to apathy in the 1970s.

However, the Space Age was also conceived as a period yet to arrive, in which space exploration and travel would become the defining feature of the near future. Once again, several competing frameworks were advanced, ranging from NASA’s model of ‘linear infinite progress’ to projections of exponential rates of expansion into outer space.  It became possible to look forward to a period when humanity would attain total control over space and time.  This optimistic zeitgeist lasted until the late 1960s before declining alongside reduced public and governmental interest in space exploration during the following decade.

Alexander discusses contactee narratives.

Contact narratives with extra-terrestrial species were identified by Alexander as the third major manifestation of popular conceptions of outer space.  Images of UFOs and ‘flying saucers’ gained a prominent position in the public imagination and shaped representations of such encounters.  This new concern towards threats from the sky highlighted growing fears relating to continuing developments in rocketry and nuclear weapons.

Two accounts by George Adamski and Cedric Allingham (later revealed to be a hoax orchestrated by prominent astronomer Patrick Moore) gained particular attention, in which extra-terrestrial beings were portrayed as Christ-like entities offering humanity salvation from the threat of nuclear war. Outer space can thereby be interpreted as a canvas upon which earthly concerns were projected and reflected.

Alexander concluded by tracing declining interest and enthusiasm towards space exploration in the 1970s.  The Apollo program ended after its sixth Moon landing in 1972 and the role of outer space in the popular imagination diminished. Yet, in a trend Alexander terms the ‘post-Apollo paradox,’ such apathy developed alongside the continuing advancement of space technology as the development of satellites gave outer space greater relevance in peoples’ daily lives.

In his commentary, Matjaz Vidmar (University of Edinburgh) responded to multiple aspects of Geppert’s talk.  He emphasised differences between the Soviet and American roadmaps for entering outer space, the former retaining aspects of the von Braun paradigm and the latter adopting an increasingly direct approach for reaching targets. He also noted the transformative impact of Sputnik’s launch in 1957, which he analysed in the wider context of the militarisation of space exploration. Regarding the ‘post-Apollo paradox,’ Matjaz highlighted the economic crises of the 1970s and post-Vietnam disillusionment as possible explanations for the phenomenon.

The subsequent discussion proved to be equally wide-ranging.  The collapse in optimism towards space exploration was linked back to cinematic representations as the dangers implied in 2001: A Space Odyssey gave way to outright horror in Alien (1979) merely a decade later, while other questions focused on the origins of the flat Earth conspiracy, conceptions of interstellar colonisation and imperialism and whether a gendered analysis can be applied to different staging models of space flight.

Mathew Nicolson is a PhD student in Scottish History.  His research interests focus on the politics and culture of postwar Scotland with particular emphases on its ‘peripheral’ island groups and imperial connections.  His thesis explores the politics of culture, identity and constitutional change in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles from 1969 to 1999. He is a CSMCH steering committee member.