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.
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.