Decentering National Narratives and Historicizing the Shuttle

Our Scuttle the Shuttle series continues with a fortuitous offering from Asif Siddiqi, whose wide-ranging, thoughtful historiographic essay in the most recent Technology and Culture speaks to a debate we’ve already witnessed on this blog: can and should historians write histories of space exploration that do not privilege national narratives or boundaries (here, and in the comments)?

It’s fascinating to see historians of science innovating in the growing field of transnational history (especially in justifying such an approach in thinking about the last century and a half, where the great and growing power of the nation-state encourages nation-bound histories). This essay provides a fine example of such historiographical innovations.

The question remains, though: how would this advice give us a new way of thinking about the decision to scuttle the shuttle?
I include a few highlights from Siddiqi’s piece in the extended entry.

In his essay, Siddiqi considers the dominant approaches to the history of space exploration and notes their national variations:

Both the United States and the Soviet Union, then, the two earliest spacefaring nations, produced narratives on space exploration that were deeply grounded in domestic cultural discourses that simultaneously couched their achievements as if they had universal import. This dichotomy runs through most of the historiography on both the Soviet and American space programs. The grand narratives of each nation—frequently utopian in nature—rely on the assumption that each is the normative history of space exploration.

Drawing on the historiographical problems posed by writing the history of space exploration in India, Siddiqi argues for a postcolonial approach to space history:

This new postcolonial vision of space exploration is as much part of the fabric of space history as the more well-known American and Soviet models grounded in the cold war. These multiple perspectives on space travel suggest that our view of the long history of spaceflight may benefit from a standpoint that no longer privileges borders—demarcations that create rigid analytical categories such as ownership, indigeneity, and proliferation. The Indian space program was at the intersection of multiple flows of knowledge from a variety of sources, including, of course, local expertise. Likewise, the history of spaceflight has been part of a consistent flow of knowledge and technology across (geographical) space and time—among Germans, Soviets, Americans, British, French, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Israelis, Brazilians, and so on. By rethinking the relationship between modernity and the postcolonial state, postcolonial thought challenges us to rethink the connection between modernity and spaceflight, and, ultimately, to replace the “national” with the “global” when thinking of space exploration, an exercise that has become doubly important as dozens of developing countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are now spending money on space exploration.

Heading off critics who will rightly point out how crucial nations have been and still are to these histories, Siddiqi makes his case for maintaining national narratives, but only alongside a host of other equally important considerations:

I am not suggesting that we should ignore nations, national identity, or vital indigenous innovation. But I believe that nation-centered approaches, useful and instructive as they were, occlude from view important phenomena in the history of space exploration. My hope is that by deemphasizing ownership and national borders, the invisible connections and transitions of technology transfer and knowledge production will be become clear in an abundantly new way. Such an approach would inform a project encompassing the entire history of modern rocketry and space exploration, from the late nineteenth century to the present, focusing on Europe, America, Russia, and Asia.


7 thoughts on “Decentering National Narratives and Historicizing the Shuttle

  1. mike

    Some possibly disquieting thoughts:

    (1) As of 2009, the US government was reported to be spending about 40-45 billion dollars per year on military and intelligence gathering space programs, about 4 billion on weather satellites, about 18 billion on NASA. I.e., the US civilian space program is but a small portion of the US space industry. I expect that the open and visible portions of the Russian space program and perhaps other nations is also smaller than their classified programs. These “hidden” programs have ramifications — they consume tax dollars, they employ engineers and scientists who might be in other enterprises, they develop technology which may eventually have civilian use (GPS!), they interact with civilian programs (think of NASA's redesign of the space shuttle back in the early 1970's to win support from the USAF). Writing space history which neglects these classified programs is at best misleading, at worst dishonest.

    (2) Back in the 1960's, middling ober analysts expected a high degree of military rivalry between the USA and the USSR extending to and beyond the end of the 20th century. As part of that rivalry, they expected $150 B/yr space programs which would have produced lunar and Martian bases, nuclear rockets, asteroid mining, and humans spread virtually from Mercury to Pluto.

    Pretty obviously that didn't happen, and in retrospect one can wonder just how much of it could have happened, even with very large budgets. Still, there's a point — what we have achieved in space is very far from what we might have achieved in space. I have considerable doubt that future space historians are going to present that viewpoint in their work — I think we're going to see works which assume the US and USSR pushed space programs along from 1970 to the present as earnestly as they did during the 1960's, and describe the last 40 years of slow progress as the best that was economically and technologically possible. Again: this would be misleading or dishonest.

    (3) I presume space historians spend some quantum of time on the internet observing “the history of spaceflight” as viewed by American space buffs. Try reading the comment strings at SPACE POLITICS, NASA WATCH, SELENIAN BOONDOCKS, TRANTERRESTRIAL MUSINGS, THE SPACE REVIEW, etc. Let me suggest, gently, that a sort of nationalist-cum-libertarian reading of space history is becoming widespread on the internet; that this “pop history” doesn't seem to have much in common with NASA's official history, and that NASA's continued fall into insignificance is likely to ensure that the “pop history” is going to be the history of spaceflight our descendents take for granted. I hate to say that Roger Launius and Howard McCurdy and John Logsden and Asif Siddiqi and others are irrevelent, but …


  2. Dan

    Mike: thanks for stopping by and thanks for offering up a cogent answer to my question. I see you arguing that one important way that we can historicize the shuttle debate is by showing how the shuttle was and is only on the edge of the space program. It was—as others have mentioned—a small token offered to NASA by the Nixon administration and far from the dreams you allude to. Moreover, NASA itself accounts for only a portion of US space activity—perhaps the best way to historicize the shuttle would be to talk more about satellites.

    Yet clearly, the shuttle program has served a powerful purpose as the face of the space program, even if it has actually existed on the margins.


  3. mike

    Hooboy, you shouldn't have provoked me!

    I'll dodge the issue of WHY people might favor ambitious manned space flight programs, which seems to me grounded in complex mixtures of individual psychology and social history dating back to the 19th century. [America — The West. Russia — Siberia. Germany — denial of a real colonial empire. Go read Frederick Turner.] What matters now is that space flight continues to push powerful emotional buttons within people — thus the public entrancement by Star Wars and Star Trek and Avatar and pictures from Hubble, etc. [William Sims Bainbridge, THE SPACEFLIGHT REVOLUTION, will do as a starter.]

    Simultaneously, non-manned space programs — coupled with modern computers and communication systems — have become major elements in contemporary National Security States; they gave rise to Vengeance weapons and ICBMS, they enable intelligence gathering, they facilitate military C3 systems, missile and aircraft guidance, weather forecasting, etc.

    Similarly, non-manned space systems underpin a vast array of “civilian” communications, from bank transfers to web browsing, from pirated file downloads to satellite TV transmission. There is considerable overlap between these functions, as when the NSA examines international phone calls to sniff for terrorist mesages, and when the FBI traces bank deposits over state borders.

    These functions, which consume perhaps 200-300 billion dollars of funding around the world each year, are almost universally ignored except by satellite providers and other related firms.
    No irate humanitarian has ever demanded that DirectTV be closed down to increase funding from the hungry and public schools!

    Meanwhile, satellites and spacecraft akin to these are used for a variety of semi-public scientific purposes, from imaging other planets in our solar system to measuring temperatures of sea water around the earth, to examining the earliest traces of the Big Bang. World wide, this sort of inquiry costs on the order of 10 billion dollars per year, and with a few exceptions it is generally viewed as affordable and legitimate.

    The purely technocratic side of space programs is — politically, anyhow — in good shape.


  4. mike


    However in modern democratic states, economically and technologically capable of manned space flight, but where citizens's voices are heard, the size and purpose of MSF is a continual cause for debate. Almost always when one encounters debates or polling figures on “space program” it is exactly these manned programs which are considered — Apollo but not ComSat, the Space Shuttle but not Extended Expendible Launch Vehicles.
    Oddly enough, the sums we're dealing with here are comparatively trivial — under 20 billion per year, worldwide, perhaps under 15 billion, two thirds of it spent by the US government, mostly on space shuttle and the international space station.

    There are people who would like to see much more ambitious programs which would spread human colonies across the solar system, there are people who view such goals as adolescent silliness, there are people who regard even the thought of such goals as the next thing to Devil Worship. [Comparisons of public attitudes in say the USA, the ex-USSR, Europe, China, etc. would surely be of more than academic interest!]

    Historically in the USA, there's been a balance of sorts — since the termination of Apollo, roughly as many people have thought manned space was “sort of worth doing” as those who find manned space programs as obnoxious wastes of money. A somewhat greater group of people have basically found manned space programs acceptable as long as the cost is ignorable or invisible. [Are the proportions finally changing, as rivalries between nations subside, and as the internet becomes the New Frontier which seizes our attention? Arguably so, but there's a shortage of good data.]

    So. My gut feeling is that the shuttle has functioned basically as a balancing mechanism between these political sentiments for the past 30-40 years. On the one hand, it's a manned program, for those who like manned programs, continually holding open the posssiblity of something greater. It's good for prestige and showing off the admirable qualities of American technology and ingenuity and our forward looking spirit! (It's yummy for propaganda purposes, or as we say in this enlightened age Soft Power.) And we've managed to keep it cheap!

    On the other hand, shuttle has kept manned space flight small and limited and Under Control. Despite rhetoric, there have been no Satan-invoking flights to Evial outer planets by human beings, no more God-denying talk of lunar colonies and interstellar flights!
    There IS money from the federal government for food and health care and voter registration. (And NASA spinoff benefits hospital patients every single day across our great nation! AND helps monitor the safety of our food supply and the purity of our vital bodily fluids! And inspires the many school children who will become the scientists and engineers of Tomorrow — subject to adult supervision by lawyers, bankers, businessmen, and politicians who managed to escape that space-driver inspiration.)
    And I have mentioned that we've managed to keep it cheap?

    So the shuttle is going away. There's talk of “commercial” programs which will fill the shuttle's role of provisioning the space station. And absolutely the best of all, the new forward-looking US manned space program will continue the vital purpose of promising exciting adventures someday in the future, and Free Enterprise is finally going to take command, so nobody will be able to blame the federal government, if this happens or especially if this doesn't happen. Have I mentioned this is going to be cheap?



  5. mike

    Bottom line: manned space flight is potentially significant, but at present progress does not come cheaply or easily. Opting for stability [stasis], since Apollo days, the US has used shuttle and ISS to balance pro- and anti-space sentiment among voters.

    The demise of the shuttle eliminates this balance, with — I think — a clear victory for the anti-MSF side. I.e., shuttle is going away, shuttle-related jobs are going away, the Constellation program will be eliminated, rhetoric will be substituted, and by and large voters will neither notice the lack nor care.

    Come 2060 or 2070, it's conceivable that India or China or some international alliance might become wealthy and powerful enough to drive forward manned space programs which eclipse American accompishments. We will then be in a new ball game, no doubt inspiring a new generation of academics….


  6. rmacgreg

    I think this is an interesting question and one that I think is right in the middle of the arguments about the sustainability of technological progress. Space transport hasn't really gotten cheaper or easier in the last half-century, and it doesn't appear that will change (by much) in the near future. Even Virgin Galactic's sub-orbital flights will be at least $200,000 a pop (and that's not even close to orbital flights to a space station).

    The simple reality is that you're limited in cost by the already near-perfect-efficiency of the thermodynamic cycle efficiencies of rocket engines, and the high cost of labor for the support personnel. I don't see that changing in the near-future, or the far-future for that matter. For instance, it will always be cheaper to fly across the globe on a plane than on a rocket, since a plane can use free and abundant propellants in the form of atmospheric oxygen.

    Of course anything is possible, but I'm confident in saying that the average man in space will go the way of the dodo, just as has the average man owning a flying car.



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