Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Embattled Heavens: A Conference Report

Outer space is seen by many as a new arena for human endeavour, a place for a fresh start for humanity. Others who are less hopeful have looked to space for its military potential, and indeed the first human-made vehicles to fly through space were military in origin.

This duality has not often been explored head on by academics, but such a discussion was opened April 10 to 12 at a conference at the Freie Universität in Berlin entitled Embattled Heavens: the militarization of space in science, fiction and politics

My own historical research has focused on the intersection between military weapons and space exploration. So I was pleased to go to Berlin and take part in this discussion of what its organizers called "the military dimensions of astroculture in the period from 1942 to 1990," the period starting with the launch of the first human-made object beyond Earth's atmosphere, a German V-2 ballistic missile, and ending with the conclusion of the Cold War that drove the early exploration of space.

Here I will feature some of the many insights raised at this conference that caught my attention. There were many other ideas that I don't have room to discuss here, and I will explain my own presentation in a future blog entry.

The first day's keynote presentation was delivered by Alex Roland, an American historian who has gone from the NASA History Office to become one of the foremost critics of America's thrust into space. He noted that the 1960s space race that culminated in the first human steps on the Moon was a competition for prestige that substituted in some respects for an arms race during the Cold War.

Roland compared the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union to a Potlatch featuring conspicuous consumption of property to showcase the power and prestige of its superpower participants. 

The militarization of space during the Cold War was itself cold and passive in that spacecraft were launched that supported military operations, including weather, reconnaissance and global positioning satellites, he said. But at the same time no shots have ever been fired in anger in space during the nearly seventy years of the 'long peace' between the superpowers that included the Cold War and the quarter century since it came to an end. 

Smithsonian Institution historian Michael Neufeld noted the contrast between the reality of routinized military operations in space and the chaotic nature of space wars depicted in the science fiction that helped inspire space exploration.

German political scientist Bernd Greiner explained that the Cold War shaped the first steps into space in many ways, notably the Cold War's emphasis on permanent military preparedness that encouraged the routine nature of military operations in space. The space race was fostered in part by the Cold War's emphasis on fighting for the hearts and minds of civilian populations.

The conference took place in Europe, which was not involved in the early superpower space race but joined the ranks of space powers  during the latter years of the Cold War. In contrast to the superpower competition in space, Europe's role in space has featured cooperation between states in the European Space Agency and earlier efforts to develop a European space launch vehicle, according to Michael Sheehan, a professor of international relations at Swansea in Wales.

Sheehan explored a major conference theme - the influence of science fiction on space exploration and military operations - with his statement that the boundary between government policy and science fiction as it affects space exploration is not clearly delineated. The influence of science fiction has been apparent in many U.S. military documents, he said, notably those related to the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs of the 1990s. Social unease related to the Cold War, on the other hand, permeated U.S. science fiction movies in the 1950s, he added. 

In spite of differences between Europe and the United States, for instance in the more dystopic flavour of European science fiction, the differences between Europe and America are not as great as is sometimes believed. Europe's space program, for example, has taken an increasingly military orientation over the years, similar to the American emphasis on military space, Sheehan said.

One area where Europe has followed the United States is in navigation satellites, where Europe's Galileo satellite network is following the U.S. Global Positioning System. Smithsonian historian Paul Ceruzzi explained how European concerns arising from American control of GPS during the 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo caused European officials to create their own navigation system in spite of its great expense. Today military-operated navigation systems have become an integral part of civilian infrastructure and economies.

Several presenters raised new research tying space research to military origins, including Jordan Bimm of York University in Toronto, who told how the "Mars Jar" simulations of the martian atmosphere originated with U.S. military experts rather than astrobiological researchers, and Isabell Schrickel's work relating space mirror proposals to science fiction, military applications, energy needs, and possible use to combat climate change.

Many other ideas and perspectives, including controversies over unidentified flying objects, and literary criticism of space efforts, were offered as part of Embattled Heavens, although one participant criticized the lack of feminist perspectives at the conference. 

The history of space exploration is being looked at in new and more critical ways. Embattled Heavens has broken new ground in this new critical examination of humanity's first push beyond Earth's atmosphere.

Early historical accounts of the Cold War space race emphasized interest in exploration for its own sake, an idea that has come under increasing question in recent years. I came away from Embattled Heavens with the belief that the military role in the early history of space exploration is greater than is generally acknowledged, for better or for worse.

1 comment:

  1. The official report on the conference is posted here: