Saturday, April 11, 2015

Cold War, colonialism, and the meaning of space hardware.

Spacecraft are more than utilitarian objects that further industrial, environmental or military objectives. They can also be regarded as artefacts, the material record of a particular phase in human social and technological development. On Earth, the preservation of material culture is considered important at a number of different levels: because it tells a story that is different to that presented in written documents, because it supplements written history, because material culture is the repository of people’s memories, ideas, and attachments. Material culture both shapes the world and is shaped by it:
....the things which constitute our world, which direct its functions, in turn influence our most basic cultural assumptions. A society which has access to jet engines, fast cars, and an international mass media based on television, fax machines and the information super-highway views the world entirely differently from a society dependent on the bullock dray and sea mail. (Anderson 1997).
That people see the material culture of space exploration as important is demonstrated by the popularity of museums such as the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. More people visit NASM than any other Smithsonian Institution. They don't go to see photographs of space, or to read interpretations of space history on storyboards. Words are not unique, and they are cheap. So why are visitors drawn in such staggering numbers to this museum?
Because the NASM has on display a Gemini capsule, a section of Skylab, and an astronaut's complete moon-walking's the artifacts, stupid. (Smith 2004)

Skylab module in NASM.
Image courtesy of

At the Tidbinbilla Deep Space Communication Complex near Canberra, around 70 000 people each year come to the Visitor Centre to see a piece of the Moon and items of flown space hardware. The material culture of space exploration captures something that no written word can convey, and an object that has flown in space is perceived as more charged with meaning than a model, prototype or unflown spacecraft.

The material culture of space exploration is clearly seen as significant. However, its significance is often assumed to be self-evident. A well-used aphorism in the space community maintains that space exploration is the outcome of an innate human urge to explore. Thus, space objects are perceived to have a globally understood meaning that appeals to our common human nature (Gorman 2005). Just as the great navigators and explorers ventured out into unknown seas to discover the New World, so we have now left the cradle of Earth to satisfy a fundamental curiosity about our universe. This curiosity is one of the most commonly cited rationales for pursuing space exploration, far more palatable than the realpolitik of military and commercial dominance.

Another implicit and popular model for understanding the significance of space material culture is what I have called the Space Race model (Gorman 2005). In this formulation, objects and places have significance for their contribution to the Cold War confrontation between the USA and the USSR. This model focuses on these two states, ignoring the achievements of other countries like France, Britain, China, Japan and Australia in the development of space technology. It emphasises competitiveness rather than cooperation in space, and overlooks the contributions of and impacts on non-spacefaring countries, such as the colonial territories where potentially dangerous space installations were located. The relationship of space exploration to inequalities between the developed and developing world is unexplored, and indeed unproblematic, in the Space Race scenario, where US hegemony in space is assumed to benefit all.

The significance space artefacts might hold, therefore, is far from obvious.

Note: This is an excerpt from Gorman, A.C. 2005 The Archaeology of Orbital Space.
In Australian Space Science Conference 2005; pages: [338-357]. Melbourne: RMIT University


Anderson, M. 1997 Material culture and the cultural environment: Objects and places. Australia: State of the Environment Technical Paper Series (Natural and Cultural Heritage), Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, Canberra

Gorman, A.C. 2005 The cultural landscape of interplanetary space.  Journal of Social Archaeology 5(1):85-107

Smith, Bill 2004 It’s the artifacts, stupid! Guest Editorial. The Mineralogical Record 35(2):106-107


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