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  • Spacefarers: Images of Astronauts and Cosmonauts in the Heroic Era of Spaceflight ed. by Michael J. Neufeld
  • De Witt Douglas Kilgore (bio)
Spacefarers: Images of Astronauts and Cosmonauts in the Heroic Era of Spaceflight. Edited by Michael J. Neufeld. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2013. Pp. 260. $29.95.

The history of technology is interested in how machines and the systems on which they rely are made. It is also a field concerned with their role as socially embedded instruments of our culture. Spacefarers takes on the latter research agenda and applies it to one of the most visible technoscientific inventions of the space age: the astronaut. It is through this character that the space powers of the twentieth century sought a celestial renewal of national identity as well as narrative control over the powerful technologies that made spaceflight possible. The astronaut romanticized astronautic technology, making it conform to Earth-bound presuppositions about the qualities that make a hero: a stolid masculinity confirmed by investments of race, gender, family values, and national identity. But within this new man we also find the seeds of social change and, perhaps, the lesson that any successfully socialized technology will slip beyond its initial beneficiaries. This volume presents a story of hesitant social progress, as modeled by the heroes of space age technology.

Spacefarers’s nine chapters extend and complicate the relatively new historical field of “astroculture.” Historian Alexander C. T. Geppert coined the term in Imagining Outer Space: European Astroculture in the Twentieth Century (2012). As defined by Michael Neufeld in this volume, it is “the whole complex of ideas and images related to space travel, astronomy, aliens, etc., that have now penetrated transnational popular and elite cultures” (p. 6). This collection’s remit is to recover the role that astronauts and cosmonauts played in astroculture, reestablishing its human dimension and thereby making sense of why humankind’s trespass into outer space either changed or, as importantly, did not change familiar social roles and political investments.

The three sections of Spacefarers cover a tremendous amount of ground in a small space. The first three chapters provide a useful historical frame that takes us from the white, male, and Protestant archetype of Project Mercury to the race, gender, and professional diversity that characterized the space shuttle program. We are also given details of how television and motion pictures cast the astronaut in stories that valorized combat-tested pilots and denied active roles to women and professional scientists. In these stories the astronaut emerges as a romantic character whose dominant characteristic is cool control over spaceflight technology, which enables the transformation of outer space into an American frontier.

The second three chapters recount the Soviet and French contribution to making cosmonauts into national heroes. We encounter Yuri Gagarin, [End Page 288] who becomes the ideal of a particular Soviet space future as well as an exemplar of the simple Russian peasant values valorized as fundamental to national identity. Also notable is how magazine coverage in France transformed American and Soviet spacemen into “spationauts” who adhered to conservative French domestic virtues. This section is rounded out with an interesting take on how American and Soviet magazines both presented astronauts as a new kind of human being because of their attachment to space technology and their conquest of space. These new men, however, also represent old national narratives as stabilized by race, gender, and ideology. The new is acceptable when it is also familiar.

The final section brings us into the space shuttle era. Here “right stuff” heroism built around first-generation astronauts is recast by the inclusion of women, non-whites, and non-military professionals in the corps. This change is by turns promoted, celebrated, normalized, and resisted. We see how the image of the astronaut changes when women are inducted into the astronaut corps, through both the media response and the films created by NASA’s collaboration with the IMAX Corporation. The story changes when professional women are seen as an unremarkable part of the tight technological spaces of the space shuttle and its missions. The volume’s final essay, however, gives us a novel in which an astronaut’s space flight obsession...


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pp. 288-289
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