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Review: Imagining Outer Space

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Imagining Outer Space: European Astroculture in the Twentieth Century
By Alexander C. T. Geppert (editor)
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
hardcover, 416 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-230-23172-6

There is little doubt that spaceflight and modern culture have a complex relationship. Human and robotic space activities clearly have had an effect on broader society, from pop culture to more profound insights regarding our planet and our place in the universe. Culture, and its changes over time, has in turn had an effect on spaceflight, including popular interest in space exploration and willingness to support it. Yet “culture,” of course, is not monolithic, with differences among and even within countries.

“Whereas in the 1960s all plans and visions seemed to be realized over a space of 20 to 30 years, in the 1980s the future of space travel was a matter of centuries,” writes Bernd Mütter of West German TV’s treatment of space.

The interaction of culture and spaceflight in Europe is the subject of Imagining Outer Space, a collection of essays edited by Alexander C. T. Geppert, who leads a research group on “astroculture” at the Free University of Berlin (and is organizing a conference taking place in Berlin later this week titled “Envisioning Limits: Outer Space and the End of Utopia” on spaceflight’s transition to the era of “reduced possibilities” of the 1970s.) Astroculture, as Geppert defines the neologism in the book’s opening chapter, focuses on the “cultural significance and societal repercussions of outer space and space exploration,” particularly in the latter half of the 20th century. This approach spans a wide array of topics, from spaceflight itself to science fiction and even the UFO phenomenon.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, there is a particular focus on European astroculture, particularly in Western Europe in the post-war era. One essay examines how West German newspapers and television covered spaceflight, and how that coverage changed over time from the bold visions and optimism of the 1960s to more critical, skeptical coverage in the ’80s. “Whereas in the 1960s all plans and visions seemed to be realized over a space of 20 to 30 years, in the 1980s the future of space travel was a matter of centuries,” writes Bernd Mütter. In another essay, Michael Neufeld, author of a highly regarded biography of Wernher von Braun (see “Review: Von Braun”, the Space Review, November 26, 2007), examines East German attempts in the 1960s to discredit von Braun by bringing up his ties to the Nazis during World War Two, efforts that were largely unsuccessful in the West.

The book, though, goes beyond purely European astroculture, with a diverse collection of essays on broader topics. One essay examines the development of the plaque flown on Pioneer 10. Another examines the themes and topics from the 1970s TV series Space: 1999. Other essays examine the intersections of modern culture with both astrobiology and UFOs.

In the book’s introduction, Geppert examines if there is a distinct European “astroculture” that is different from the perceptions of spaceflight in the United States or Russia and the former Soviet Union. For now, he concludes, it’s not possible to definitively answer that question: space history in Europe has not been treated as seriously or supported as well as in the US. The current state of research, he adds, is “too divergent, uneven, and disconnected to yield conclusive results.” Imagining Outer Space, though, takes a step in the right direction by defining the concept of astroculture and offering some interesting examples of relevant research.