What Might a Global History of Space Exploration Look Like?

The International Space Station in 2012.

The International Space Station in 2012.

I would like to know the answer to this question. I would also very much like to hear what others think about the answers to this question. I have been contemplating this issue. Here are my thoughts thus far.

By its very nature space exploration has a resonance beyond national borders; at a fundamental level it is an activity that transcends national claims and appeals to global sensibilities. For centuries before Sputnik humanity has engaged in a virtual exploration of space through astronomical observation aided by astounding scientific and technological advances. In the more than fifty years since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, moreover, more than 6,000 functioning satellites have been launched into Earth orbit and beyond—some to the farthest reaches of the Solar System—and more than 540 people have traveled in space.

Space exploration is intrinsically transnational; circumscription by national borders is a meaningless concept when faced with the realities of the longue durée of the endeavor. Regardless, our understanding of space exploration has been largely rooted in the framework of national(ist) narratives and geopolitical prerogatives; this has largely been because nation-states have dominated the historical conceptions of the undertaking. It is time to move past this limited, national historical framework.

For too many individuals the perceived apotheosis of space exploration remains the heady days after Sputnik, when the United States and the Soviet Union competed to trump the other in a series of progressively more complex feats in space. The Cold War space race retains its mystique, either as a benchmark that subsequent accomplishments could never equal or as an anomaly never to be repeated.

It has, in fact, become virtually impossible to think of space exploration without allusion to the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s and equally inconceivable for historians to interpret the exploration of space without regard to this nationalistic emphasis. But if we focus on a longer duration since about 1800—and view space exploration as something greater than a part of geopolitical rivalry—it takes on a more complex trans- and internationalist hue, as well as offers an opportunity to focus on more engaging economic, business, public/private, and international efforts.

I would like to undertake a study of this subject. My goal would be to develop a fully-rounded concept of a global history of space exploration in the longue durée of the last two centuries, offering perspectives on the way in which the relationship between national identity and space exploration has affected understanding of the history of space exploration; in fact, how it has been fundamental to it. This discussion would be intended as a starting point to revisit both the history and the historiography of space exploration and suggest some new avenues of investigation that move beyond formulations rooted in the Cold War space race.

This would require the exploration of various aspects of this theme and could possibly result in a fully developed work that might serve as a catalyst for future studies moving beyond current knowledge to a global history of the subject. In my estimation we would nee to characterize the story in a fundamentally different manner. It requires mastery of several broad subjects: scientific and technological innovation; financing and economics; business, corporations, and broad organizational interactions; cooperative ventures of all types; space exploration as a global phenomenon; and the characteristics and evolution of transnational arrangements. There may also be several other themes explored that are yet to be defined.

So, what would a global history of space exploration look like?

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7 Responses to What Might a Global History of Space Exploration Look Like?

  1. Fred Ledley says:

    I have always been impressed that the duality of nationalistic, geopolitical goals and transnational, scientific discovery parallels the history of the Lewis & Clark expedition. When Jefferson requested funding for the Corps of Discovery from Congress, he described a mission intended “for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States.” He also noted that if “it should incidentally advance the geographical knowledge of our own continent, [it] cannot be but an additional gratification.” To the Spanish, who were concerned about American expansion, he described a mission of scientific discovery, telling them, “In reality it would have no other view than the advancement of the geography.” My sense is that both explanations were true, and that it was the alignment of these interests that made the Lewis & Clark expedition a significant milestone in both the narratives of American History and Natural History. I would be interested in your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is how I would organize it:

    Global History of Space Exploration

    I. Prehistory of Space Exploration

    Ideas about worlds and environments beyond earth and about flight to worlds beyond earth

    a. Icarus and Daedalus
    b. Francis Godwin-Man in the Moone
    c. John Wilkens
    d. Cyrano de Bergerac
    e. Hans Phall
    f. Edward Everett Hale-Brick Moon
    g. Jules Verne

    II. Scientific Understanding of Space
    a. Gaia
    b. Greek, Native American and Other Mythology
    c. Aristotle
    d. Galileo
    e. Kepler
    f. Copernicus
    g. Newton
    h. Role of Lighter than Air Flight
    i. John Jeffries and Understanding of the Earth’s Atmosphere
    j. Rocketry and Spaceflight Understanding of the Space Environment

    III. Technology
    a. Wan Hu
    b. Congreve
    c. Tsiolkovsky
    d. Goddard
    e. Oberth
    f. Potocnik (Noordung)
    g. Rocket Planes (Opel, HE-176, BI, Natter, ME-163, X-1, D-558, X-2, Navajo, X-15, Space Shuttle)
    h. Rockets (V-2, IRBMs [Thor, Redstone [R-7, Atlas, Titan, Saturn, Proton, N-1, Modern Delta, Atlas, Commercial (OSC, Space-X), Shuttle and Derivatives (Ares, SLS)
    i. Satellites (Sputnik, Explorer, Discoverer, Scientific Satellites, Earth Observation Satellites, Weather Satellites, Communications Satellites, Military Satellites)
    j. Space Probes (Pioneer, Solar, Lunar, Planetary, Solar System)
    k. Human Space Flight
    i. Pressure Suits
    ii. Atmospheric testing/physiology (Wiley Post, Piccard, Stapp)
    iii. Vostok/Voskhod/Mercury
    iv. Gemini/Soyuz
    v. Apollo
    vi. Space Stations
    vii. Modern Spacecraft: Shenzhou, Dragon, CST, Orion, DreamChaser
    viii. Vehicles Started that Never Appeared
    ix. Possible Futures (1950s: von Braun, Colliers, Disney, 1960s: Apollo Applications, Large Diameter Stations, Small Spaceplanes, Cis-lunar Utilization, Space Colonies, Lunar Exploration and Utilization, Planetary Exploration, Planetary Terraforming)

    IV. Space For Commerce
    a. Communications Satellites
    b. Earth Observation Satellites (recon, GPS, environment…)
    c. Space Launch and Transportation
    d. Human Spaceflight
    e. Earth-bound analogs
    i. Antarctic
    ii. Railroad
    iii. Aviation
    V. Global Competition and Cooperation

    There are more details pertaining to most of these in my university course website: http://viking.coe.uh.edu/~gkitmacher/ however that course was focused on human space flight and human performance in space so it only incorporated passing information about satellites or space probes and only minor information about the history of knowledge of the planets. .

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Guillaume says:

    A global history would actually dwarf the human presence element, I think. That would actually be useful, and would acknowledge an implicit economic/financial restriction on space exploration. Methinks you would need to make a choice. One could be to emphasize the economic side of things that prompted as well as thwarted national efforts (from the US shuttle redesigns all the way to crazy Mobutu’s wish for a rocket launch in Zaire..). Not very exciting, but in fact very enlightening. More fun (you know my bias as a cultural historian) would be to survey the thought process in a transnational manner. Why were 10/4/57 and 7/21/69 truly transnational moments, but 4/12/81 or 12/24/79 not so? The discussions, mainstream media coverage all would point perhaps to specific “moods.” It would be hard, however, to leave aside the comparative realm. Say you decide to deemphasize space exploration as a whole and go for the human exploration element primarily, such comparative questions become hard to ignore. Why is Claude Nicollier a legend in his homeland as the Swiss astronaut (still,) but Gen. Chrétien is barely remembered in France (or Ulf Merbold in Germany for that matter.) Ah, choices, choices… Or are you planning a multi-volume history? In any case, this is all very intriguing.


  4. launiusr says:

    Great point. Thanks much.


  5. mike shupp says:

    Hmmm. As a species, we’ve a nomadic and migratory tradition. It would take a million chronicles to describe the journeys of individuals and movements of peoples that brought our early ancestors out of Africa and dispersed us in our several ways. It’s not an antique tradition by any means — this very nation has been shaped by restless pioneers and settlers moving Westward for three centuries. Within the memory of living people, we’ve had the spectacle of Sooners rushing into Oklahoma in 1912, a great migration of Blacks from the American South into the North, and in the last half century an ongoing movement of settlers into Alaska.

    Accompanying this sort of thing, a part of it, a necessary predecessor of such doings, we’ve had a “personal style of exploration” let’s call it, in which exploration was an individual thing, unfocused, undirected — I’m thinking of the first Cro-Magnons wandering into Western Europe, Beaker Folk tradesmen traipsing about France and pre-Celtic Britain, Vikings prowling about the edges of Vinland, Breton fishermen who may have been working the Dogger Reaches before Columbus, maybe the Portuguese discovery of the Canary Islands. Japanese moving north into Hokkaido. This goes through the 19th century with French fur trappers in what is now central Canada, over-the-mountain Men roaming the American West, Russians pushing into the Caucasus region and Siberia under the Tsars, Brits traipsing about India and Africa, and the like. The notion is of individuals, going from the edge of civilization into the wilderness and returning and repeating the process, always going a few miles more to see What Comes Next. Think of this as Daniel Boone Exploration.

    Overlapping this, we have a tradition — several traditions — of “state-driven exploration”, of intentionally acting explorers who record their observations for the benefit of, or at the behest of, a state or other entity. Think of the scouts Moses sent into Israel when the Jews had wandered in the Sinai long enough, think of Zheng He’s expeditions into South Asia, think of James Cook, think of Fremont and Powell and all the dozens of researchers and travelers the US employed to map out the West decades before settlers moved in. Maybe call this Lewis & Clark Exploration.

    But on top of this, we have — in some societies — a science-driven strand of exploration, where treks into the wilderness are expected to return more than cartography and anecdotes, where exploration is done, nominally at least, for the sake of mankind Cook again and all those mariners dispersed to record Transits of Venus, Darwin in the Beagle, Cope and Marsh digging up the West for dinosaur bones, Franz Boas and Lewis Morgan and Margaret Mead digging up Indian recipes and Melanesian sexual histories, Peary and Shackleton, and now the several hundred souls each year who survive the Antarctic winters at the Scott-Amundsen South Polar Base.

    And now we have space flight. State-driven exploration so far, since the resources required are so great that only states choose to fund it. Science-driven as well, since astronauts are often scientists, and are expected to serve “for all mankind” rather than for personal profit (this leaves open the possible military role of some astronauts, but there’s not a lot of published history about this kind of thing, is there?).

    So how does this evolve? We’ve had a genre of literature emerge this century which made the assumption that our explorations of space would naturally be followed by colonization of the Moon and planets and Lagrangian points, with an equally natural expansion of population, until the very limits of the solar system were settled, and all the tales of derring-do would eventually be simple adventures rather than mysteries of The Unknown. This hasn’t happened yet, and despite its seeming naturalness it may never happen, for reasons not yet clear.

    It would be costly. It would be difficult. It would be politically controversial, since governments would become involved and and not all citizens are agreed on the desirability of such colonization. It would open up venues for contention and strife, since other nations might harbor similar ambitions for territory and resources. Certainly governments without exception, around the world, have denied interest in expanding their borders into space, and one could argue that they’ve even acted to discourage the very notion of space settlement.

    Or perhaps its not secret reservations of bureaucrats that hold us back but human limits. Maybe people as a whole have lost their interest in exploring (unthinkable!). Maybe large numbers of people have recently been seduced from contemplation of the Outer Void to the Internet, in sufficiently large numbers that their activities swamp whatever might be accomplished elsewhere in the Cosmos by living creatures.

    Or perhaps exploration is still of value, but a living consciousness at the point being explored is no longer necessary. We’ve robots now to explore for us. Rangers and Vikings and Spirts and Messengers and New Horizons… This is a new thing, totally inconceivable before the 1950’s and even later (when was 2001 released?), Government programs are enough for some people, who wouldn’t dream of risking human life or their personal pockets wealth or even much human effort for the sake of mere curiosity. Not quite enough for others, who are exploring (that word again!) what modern sensor and micro-circuitry can be squeezed into 4″ cubes and rocketed into space for science or personal satisfaction or both. Maybe this will be a trend and lead to something more, maybe not. We’ve no standard for comparison. The future, unexplored, stands mute.

    My 2 cents.


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