Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Imagining Outer Space, 1900 - 2000

Date: February 6 - 9, 2008

Organizer: Alexander C.T. Geppert (Cambridge, MA)

How has the idea of spaceflight developed into a central element of European modernity? 'Where' and 'what' was outer space at which point in time? How was it represented and communicated, imagined and perceived? And in what way have European conceptions of the cosmos and extraterrestrial life been affected by the continuous exploration of outer space? These were the pivotal questions discussed at 'Imagining Outer Space, 1900 - 2000', the first international conference on the cultural history of outer space in twentieth-century Europe, held at the ZiF. For four days, almost 70 scholars from more than a dozen countries convened to historicize outer space and to analyze its significance in the European cultural imagination of the twentieth century. The symposium was generously sponsored by the ZiF and Fritz Thyssen Stiftung.
Representatives of more than 15 different disciplines were present. Speakers included numerous distinguished scholars, in particular Steven J. Dick (NASA), Debbora Battaglia (Mount Holyoke College), Rainer Eisfeld (Universität Osnabrück), Pierre Lagrange (Centre national de la recherche scientifique), Michael J. Neufeld (National Air and Space Museum), Claudia Schmölders (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Kai-Uwe Schrogl (European Space Policy Institute), James Schwoch (Northwestern University) and Helmuth Trischler (Deutsches Museum). Also among the participants were many younger scholars, graduate students, national and international media representatives, and members and delegates of several international organizations including the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), the European Space Agency (ESA) and the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA). Without any doubt, the most remarkable features of this conference were its cooperative spirit and creative dynamic. Participants discussed the most controversial issues across all disciplinary, national and generational boundaries with great enthusiasm.
The geographical focus was on Europe, in particular Western Europe, yet without neglecting transatlantic references and transnational interdependencies. Despite their different disciplinary provenances, all presentations approached their respective subject matter from the perspective of cultural history or cultural studies, broadly defined. Neither did this conference concentrate on the institutional or technological history of the European space effort, nor was it centered on classical astropolitics or present-day policy analyses. By focusing on prominent activists and specific sites, contact points between science and fiction, and single historical episodes and various case studies, contributions to the conference rather examined the cultural and societal impact of space exploration and space travel on European culture and society at large. As a conceptual counterpart to the more familiar term 'astropolitics', it was suggested to analyze the cultural significance and imaginative repercussions of outer space, space travel and space exploration under the new label 'astroculture.'
The symposium pursued a threefold objective. First, by bringing together members of different disciplines and inviting them to enter a dialogue on the opportunities and problems of historicizing outer space, it sought to contribute to the development of a field of research hitherto unexplored. Moreover, the symposium was based on the assumption that changing images of outer space and conceptions of extraterrestrial cultures must also in a European context be read as expressions of historically specific ideas of the beyond and expectations for the future. In addition to a general structuring and transdisciplinary stock-taking of a nascent field of research, the conference aimed, second, at identifying a distinctly European version of a discursive formation sometimes labeled 'Astrofuturism'. Is space exploration-since Apollo 8 delivered the first images of the entire globe-so crucial to and inextricably intertwined with the process of globalization that the introduction of an additional, specifically European level of analysis would only prove of limited heuristic value? Third, the conference aimed to explore the relation between science and fiction in this particular field of research. According to the standard argument, in October 1957 the 'visionary' or 'pioneering' era of spaceflight was superseded by 'real' spaceflight, and 'science fiction' was subsequently substituted by 'science fact'. However, assuming such a teleological line is naive. A rectilinear development from 'fiction' to 'science' does not exist. 'Science fiction' and 'science fact' overlap and continue to affect each other; yet, one has never been fully absorbed by the other. Thus, contributions to the conference were anxious to balance carefully both perspectives when analyzing the contexts of production and the sociocultural effects of these 'scientific fictions' in various configurations.
Additional characteristics of a field of historical research still in statu nascendi became apparent during these four days. 'Astrofuturism' proved indeed a suitable umbrella concept to thematize interactions between representations of outer space and changing conceptions of the future, and to analyze their strong, yet all too often hidden, connection to religion, transcendental beliefs, and the spiritual beyond. Given the overall state of research at present, it proved a much more challenging task to identify and characterize the specifically European element within twentieth-century astroculture, and to draw a clear dividing line to American or Russian conceptions of the cosmos. Assuming, however, that these were exclusively discussed among the social elites is simply incorrect and not confirmed by the source material. Quite to contrary, the presence of extraterrestrials in the cultural life of our times has long been undisputed and is anything but an epiphenomenon of postmodernity. Aliens as cultural artifacts have always been subject to sociocultural fluctuations that can at least be traced back to Giovanni Schiaparelli's discovery of 'canals' on Mars in the fall of 1877. Furthermore, it became clear that fields of historical research usually treated separately, such as the history of extraterrestrial life and science fiction on the one hand, the history of spaceflight, rocketry and satellite technology on the other, must necessarily be taken together if the aim is to produce a history of non-scientific forms of knowledge. Visual aspects played a central role in the imagination of outer space, in terms of both supply and demand. Hardly a single presentation could do without a careful analysis of the enormously rich visual material, be it drawings, photographs and films or postcards, comic books and video clips. Also from a historiographical perspective, the conference offered abundant points of contact to other sub-branches of historical research going far beyond the history of science and technology. These included not only the history of philosophy, the history of literature and military history, but also the history of consumption, of media and communication, and of colonialism.
For a long time after 1945, Europe's active contribution to the physical exploration of outer space was at best secondary. Nonetheless, as the fascinating contributions to this conference testified in a variety of ways, the sociocultural impact of outer space has been tremendous, and it remains so. Quite obviously, it will require enormous efforts until this 'European paradox' of comprehensive space enthusiasm concomitant with a decades-long abstinence from actual spaceflight is adequately explained and the cultural history of European outer space properly integrated into mainstream historiography. It is also obvious that such a challenge can only be met by choosing a combined transdisciplinary and transnational approach. However, in what way an integration could be accomplished, and to what extent this would at all be desirable, are two of the few questions that remained undiscussed in Bielefeld.

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