Space Travel and Culture: From Apollo to Space Tourism

October 15, 2009

Many books have been written about the manned exploration of space across its 50-year history and from all manner of perspectives: autobiographical, political, technological. In this 40th anniversary year of the Apollo 11 landing, it may seem that there is very little left to say on the matter.

This volume of illuminating essays begs to differ. The editors immediately and correctly identify the curious phenomenon of the dearth of academic social science studies of space travel, in spite of regularly produced and transmitted documentaries on the space age and the iconic status of many of the images associated with the missions (including the breathtaking shots of Earth seen from space, Earthrise and The Blue Marble, and pictures of Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the lunar surface). And yet, in the modern age, spaceflight has come to be seen as an obscene waste of taxpayers' money.

The articles in this volume are generally not written from the position of the dewy-eyed space fan either. Many are critical of aspects of America's endeavours in space, especially the perceived fall from greatness signalled in the shift from Apollo to Shuttle. The latter comes out of the book particularly badly, as a poorly worked-through compromise that squandered both the real potential and the mythical dimensions of preceding space programmes.

Others are less critical. The focus is largely not on the big stories but on the associated ones, the backroom ones and the simply unknown. In one article, for example, the seldom (if ever) acknowledged Apollo checklist, in both its massive engineer's manual and miniature spacesuit "cuff" versions, gets a historical context and an acknowledgement of its indispensable importance in an age of overwhelmingly complex technology. Another examines the legal and political significance of geostationary orbit - that height above Earth when a satellite can travel at the same speed as the planet rotates, thereby staying in the same position; important for reaching the maximum area of the Earth's surface for communication and monitoring purposes.

Two articles consider the relationship between space travel and capitalism: of how the huge funds granted to Nasa supported the growth of the major US aerospace companies; of outer space being the new "outside" of non-capitalism that capitalism needs in order for its economic model to continue to work; and, of course, currently the fledgeling projects to develop space tourism as a viable commercial entity.

Gender and space is also looked at, both in terms of Nasa's poor attitude to women (from sexually harassed secretaries and administrators through to a female astronaut programme brutally cancelled by Nasa after it showed that women, in many ways, made better astronauts than men) and the homosocial bonding of the all-male crews. In the first instance, the argument is perhaps a little unfair, making Nasa seem almost uniquely misogynist at a time when society as a whole limited the professional possibilities open to women.

Other articles examine even less considered areas of space exploration - for example, how its history can be reconstructed creatively by looking at forgotten sites associated with space travel: the launch complexes in remote parts of Algeria and Australia; the sheds of amateur radio hams who listened in on downlinks from the missions as they flew overhead.

Such quirky and yet methodologically sound investigations offer a fresh look at the well-rehearsed history of space exploration, and give the volume a pleasurably offbeat quality that suits it well. Of course, the articles weren't all equally interesting. Edited collections seldom, if ever, are; aiming to please, at best, most of the people most of the time. And although the geostationary orbit of satellites is considered in one article, all the others focus firmly on manned spaceflight, which gives the volume an unbalanced feel. Also, the discipline-specific terminology of some of the articles - the complex legal and economic language in the capitalism articles, for example - could be off-putting for the general reader.

But while, on the one hand, this indicates that this volume will be bought and read for its parts rather than its whole, on the other, it suggests that drawing on a broad range of disciplines means that it will appeal to a wider readership than if it had adopted a single perspective. All in all, it is a book to be recommended.

Space Travel and Culture: From Apollo to Space Tourism

Edited by David Bell and Martin Parker. Wiley-Blackwell, 232pp, £17.99. ISBN 9781405193320. Published 29 May 2009

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