Humans have always looked up. The verticality of our imagination helps us imagine what the worlds out there may be like.
Outer space is not just about NASA, ISRO and the superspecialised scientist. It has mattered from the ancient world to the present, from cosmographers to warmongers, philosophers to Christopher Nolan. Astroculture is science and fiction, imagination and data. It is as old as humanity.
Once the Copernican revolution altered forever the view of the universe, cultural imaginaries grew around it, exemplified in texts like Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos (1849). Telescopes, 20th century expeditions to the farther reaches of the solar system, satellites and the rapidly advancing sciences of astronomy, brought planets and other bodies literally into our ken.
With the sensational exploits of the Mars rover, Perseverance, space reinscribes itself on our minds as a new astroculture emerges which repeats, albeit differently, such a culture from the modern era.
Space of the Mind
How would earth look like from the Moon or outer space? Not until the ‘Blue Marble’ photographs (1972) would we know. But humankind could certainly imagine. All imaginings of outer space emerge from the horror vacui: the fear of vast, sublime, inky emptiness. Humanity, therefore, wished to know what space contained – which led to space explorations – or imagined what it contained. Literature and later popular culture stepped in where ‘no man had gone before’ (as the cult TV series, Star Trek, put it).
Ancient astronomers in various civilisations produced cosmographies, the first texts of astroculture. The earliest recorded observations in Europe date back to 2000 BC, with Egyptian, Indian and Mesopotamian cosmologies dating farther back. The Greeks may well have systematised cosmology. In more modern times, the astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote his Somnium in 1608, about how the earth would look from the moon. Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moon (1638) visualised space travel and is often treated, alongside Somnium and Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) as one of the first exercises in science fiction.
Keats spoke of astronomers rejoicing over a new planet. An entire English nursery rhyme, popular even today, is devoted to stars. Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Percy Shelley, Robert Frost and numerous canonical poets were influenced by and imagined astronomical developments. The moon and stars are ubiquitous in films and songs in Indian languages. UFOs are the stuff of everyday imagining through much of the 20th century, of course.
In the 20th century, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and, of course, Hollywood saw potential in outer space. Aligning current science with considerable imaginative ideas of what outer space was, these popular texts across media altered outer space into an extension of human geography, economics and politics. Space in these discourses was variously imagined: interplanetary space, deep space, interstellar space, the cosmos, and of course, the heavens. This imagining of space has produced major discourses and images: from our fates as determined by astronomical alignments to terraforming in which humanity modifies the atmosphere and conditions on other planets to make them amenable to human life.
It is the place of and for adventure, when there are no longer unexplored places on earth. It houses strange and often threatening creatures, from the Alien and Independence Day films to The Andromeda Strain (Michael Crichton), or creatures more intelligent than us so that when they arrive, they wish to understand us (Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy suggested this).
Space was the habitation of the Other of humanity, exactly how people from Africa and Asia were once the Other in colonial imaginings. Just as maps once marked distant areas of the earth with ‘here lie monsters’ to describe people of other races, the literary-visual imagination of outer space maps it as monstrous. This is where astroculture repeats humanity’s colonial histories. And as the human imagination moves towards the posthuman, cohabitation with alien species (we return to Octavia Butler here) becomes the subject of a new outer-space mythology.
However, as Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) would say, “Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us”.
Visual Iconography of Space
The visual construction of outer space – not least in the form of artists’ rendering of Pioneer or Voyager spacecraft traversing the outer reaches of the solar system – produced a space iconography that is comparable only to the Double Helix and the visuals of the human insides (that is a nice balance: the world within us, and the world out there). Outer space is mainly a visual journey, and an epic.
School textbooks with images of the solar system imprint the very idea of outer space, and its constituents, on growing children, so much so that we can envisage a space-pedagogy at work. Recognisable images of space heroes like Neil Armstrong, Rakesh Sharma or Kalpana Chawla enable such a pedagogy. Photographs of Apollo, Challenger, Chandrayaan produce the popular mythology of space.
Every Space Shuttle mission of NASA has a unique ‘mission patch’ worn by the astronauts – the patches are part of the American space iconography because later they are showcased in museums and enter space lore in popular culture. As Andrew Maclaren has argued in a 2019 essay in the journal Geopolitics, the patches underscore the American domination, and perhaps ownership, of outer space.
Then there is astronomical art, dating back to Neolithic times, with paintings of the night sky, the 14th century manuscript illustrations of the same, Durer’s famous globe, the paintings of astronomer-artist Lucien Rudaux, among others. The work of artists such as Arthur Woods (“Cosmic Dancer”, a sculpture) that have become fixtures on space stations, are a part of this visual iconography of space.
In the recent past, HubbleSite, from NASA, has presented images of the birth of stars in the Eagle Nebula. Evaporating Gaseous Globules (abbreviated appropriately as EGGs) take the form of towers of gases:
“The columns – dubbed “elephant trunks” – protrude from the wall of a vast cloud of molecular hydrogen, like stalagmites rising above the floor of a cavern. Inside the gaseous towers, which are light-years long, the interstellar gas is dense enough to collapse under its own weight, forming young stars that continue to grow…”
With stunning images of supernovae, Neptune Dark Spots, and others, HubbleSite is space iconography taken to new heights. What is also interesting is that many of the images are artists’ reconstructions, based on both theory and data, of astronomical events such as “how the exoplanet HD 106906b may have evolved over time, arriving at its current, widely separated, eccentric and highly misaligned orbit”
Space is Political
Then there were the political imaginings. Nationalism began to extend into outer space at the height of the Cold War, and outer space, like Antarctica, was a domain to be explored, and perhaps owned. The pride in space exploration by any country that has ever sent up a satellite indicates that all nationalism is finally about territory, whether terra firma, the aqueous world or outer space.
Space museums mushrooming in these nations, the exhibition of space shuttles, the biographies of space heroes — all signal an astro-nationalism. Astro-nationalism generates frenzied support for the space programme, and ignores the cost of astro-pride, as Gary Westfahl pointed out in his 1997 essay, ‘The Case Against Space’. Astro-nationalism sees potential in outer space, and the objects out there – whether this was the harnessing of solar energies on earth or possible human colonies on a suitable planet.
Space iconography and the innumerable films about outer space – notably, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity, The Martian, Interstellar, Contact – generate myths and aspirations for the human future. As mankind evolves over/in time, these films propose that the evolution will also be an evolution in space: moving beyond the earth, outward.
Whether terraforming outer space will solve problems on earth is of course a moot point. (Carl Sagan supposedly said that all civilisations must become spacefaring or die)
But how we imagine outer space and its bodies determines how we extend our practices, from the political to the economic, to those regions. Terraforming is a subset of the human need to pantrope (a term coined by the science fiction author James Blish in 2001), which means ‘changing everything’. As the critic Chris Pak argues in his Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction, ‘terraforming and pantropy can also be combined, such as when humans are genetically engineered to cope better with the climate of [alien planets]’.
Colonialism began with the European imagining of the distant parts of the world as available for conquest – today outer space is represented in similar fashion. Hence, Klara Anna Capova in a pithy essay (2016) in the International Journal of Astrobiology observed that we can discern the making of an astro-capitalism in the form of exo-mining (from asteroids), exo-burials and exo-marketing. This too is a result of the imagining of outer space in particular ways, and labelled it the ‘new space age’.
Stars Wars (1977) may have been fiction, but space wars are most definitely not. With the uncanny ability to weaponise and militarise anything and everything, the arms race on earth extended into outer space.
In March 1983, Ronald Reagan underscored the importance of space for the American military-and-war modernisation programme: this Reagan speech came about six years after George Lucas’ extravagant astrodrama. Between these two events in 1978, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released a study titled Outer Space: Battlefield of the Future? The distant world was never to be the same again.
Proceeding as the dark side of aerospace exploration, the militarisation of space occupied the better part of the 20th century. Although as of now no direct battle has ever been staged in space, the fact that satellites could be weaponised, or made to determine the nature of weapons (the premise of Geostorm) on earth ensures that we recognise the militarised nature of space.
There is one specific feature of this militarisation that the historians Alexander Geppert and Tilmann Siebeneichner in their Introduction to the neat volume, Militarizing Outer Space: Astroculture, Dystopia and the Cold War (2021) point to:
“The militarization of outer space was thus notably geocentric, in stark contrast to those space wars of science fiction and science fantasy imagined in unspecified galaxies far, far away.”
Earth, in other words, remains the centre of a militarised outer space.
The anthropologist Klara Anna Capova proposes that space fictions construct humans as ‘extremophiles’ – living in extreme conditions, with whole new challenges (physical, technological and emotional), such as exist on Mars. This itself is a prognostication of sorts: the course of human evolution, and is one more element in astroculture today.
Astroculture is one of the oldest cultural practices on earth. Alternating between the mythic and the fantastic, the improbable (who thought one could hear Mars?) and the triumphant, astroculture is a complex and complicated human practice. While the visual and cinematic fantasies generate hope and aspirations, it is now impossible to disentangle astroculture from its militaristic and political inflections.
All of us are now in the age of space fiction, aware of the possibilities, hopes and dreams that distant astronomical bodies carry. We agree with the novelist Doris Lessing: space or science fiction is the “dialect of our time”.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)
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