Thought piece: The sociological story of space travel

Professor John Goodwin, Professor of Sociology and Sociological Practice, of our School of Media, Communication and Sociology, provides a sociological perspective on space exploration:

The Cosmos and the exploration of space are inherently interesting to sociologists and raise some fascinating sociological questions. For example, the Soviet rocket scientist Sergei Korolev (1907-1966) points us to the linkage between our past, present and futures when he suggested - I believe in the future. It is wonderful because it stands on what has been achieved. This idea is evocative of fundamental sociological, relational and historical comparative questions. Questions such as how can we understand the interactions between past human societies and the Cosmos? In what ways have these past interconnections informed our current relationship to space? What were social conditions led to two superpowers competing for the dominance of space? What have been the long-term impacts of space exploration for human societies? Yet, despite these questions, space, space exploration and the universe remain under-explored areas in terms of sociological enquiry. Indeed, there has only been one substantive text on the 'cosmic society' that reflects on space as a sociological issue (seeThe Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space, James S. Ormrod and Peter Dickens (Eds.) (2016). London Palgrave).

However, if we consider our past, it is clear that from our very earliest times that we as humans have looked to the skies for inspiration and to derive meaning. Those early societies, the builders of Stonehenge, the designers of the pyramids of ancient Egypt through to the Norman conquest and the Bayeux tapestry and on to early explorers navigating by the stars all reveal a relationship between humans and space shown through the development of old technologies or artistic representations. So, through a sociological lens, we can view Stonehenge and the pyramids as early technological interfaces designed to track the night sky in a way that has a direct lineage to the 20th century desire to escape the Earth's atmosphere. Without those early questions about the celestial bodies and the worlds beyond our world, we would not have arrived at the events of July 1969.

The sociological story of space is also a contested and complex one, not a simple linear path of discovery. Our current view of the Cosmos is born out of the conflict of the Second World War – the American naturalisation of former Nazi rocket scientists, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the attendant desire to dominate science and technology. All of which provided the nascent social conditions for the 'race for space'. The discourse of 'us' and 'them', the othering and demonising of Soviet society by the West and the language of freedom versus tyranny accelerated the desire for space colonisation. Evidence of this remains. For example, we can contrast John F. Kennedy's 'banner of freedom' and versus a 'hostile flag of conquest' analogy with a current space race driven by China's rapid industrialisation. Via the rhetoric of progress, we now have an East-West competition to see space as a weaponised place despite any previous treaties or diplomacy.

The impact of Sputnik, of Apollo and the Space Shuttle programme, have been enormous and have moved civilisation forward technologically without question. In addition, just like in ancient times, the Cosmos has become a key motif in our creative worlds of literature, film and images. As we move from science fiction to science fact, there are many questions that will continue to stimulate the sociological imagination.

  • Professor Goodwin teaches the module, 'Cosmic Sociology: Sociological Interpretations of Space Exploration', which problematises space and space exploration via a sociological lens to enable detailed critical analysis and interpretations of this specific area of science and technology.