Organized Session

We, the (Spacefaring) People: Vernacular Participation in Space Science & Exploration

Organizers

Peter A. Kleeman

Space Age Museum

Emily A. Margolis

American Philosophical Society

Chair

Michael Neufeld

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Metadata

Session Abstract

Inspired by the myriad commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in summer 2019, this panel contextualizes the production of celebratory cultures around space science and exploration in the United States from 1958 to the present. Together, the papers highlight commemorative sites and activities on individual, regional, and national scales. Each paper presents a distinct but complementary narrative of public engagement--from snapshot photography of people engaging in Space Age culture, to efforts of Houston civic leaders to build a space hall of fame, to plans for a national planetarium that were ultimately included in the development of a national museum of spaceflight and aviation history in Washington, DC. By addressing vernacular participation in and engagement with spaceflight and space science, the panel works toward producing a more inclusive space history.
In considering how and where Americans made personal meaning of the nation's activities in outer space and their identity as a spacefaring people, this panel raises questions about the future of the public history of spaceflight. Historical case studies become lessons on the challenges and opportunities for collecting and interpreting stories about the study and exploration of space.

Presenter 1

Snapshots of the Space Age: Vernacular Images of Public Participation in Space Exploration

Peter A. Kleeman

Space Age Museum

Abstract

The cultural history of the Space Age reflects broad fascination by the American public with outer space, space exploration and humanity's future beyond Earth. Curation of the Space Age Museum collection has concentrated on artifacts and images which reveal how everyday people participated in the cultural dimensions of space exploration during the middle part of the 20th Century. While specific objects in the collection indicate that public participation was a widespread, multifaceted cultural phenomenon, visual stories conveyed by period photos add rich context. The availability of inexpensive cameras after the 1930s allowed vernacular photography to flourish. The resulting surge of fuzzy Polaroids and Brownie generated snapshots has inspired an endless search for pictures of children and adults cheering NASA astronauts, idolizing science fiction characters, stargazing through backyard telescopes, launching model rockets, creating science fair displays, and constructing fantasy spacecraft for parades, school projects or playground missions. Such photos show how our predecessors imagined the uncharted regions of space through their choices of astronaut Halloween costumes, application of "alien" makeup, assembly of robot companions, and their fanatical enthusiasm for sci-fi conventions. Furthermore, while white men feature prominently in space history, amateur photography provides evidence that women, children, and people of color were equally eager to participate in the adventure of space exploration. Views into citizens' experiences of the Space Age can illuminate the larger story of human space exploration and what it means to be a participant in that great adventure.

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Presenter 2

Houston Honors the Space Age: The National Space Hall of Fame, 1965-1969

Emily A. Margolis

American Philosophical Society

Abstract

In September 1969, the city of Houston, Texas inducted the first--and last--cohort of space pioneers into the National Space Hall of Fame. Marvin Hurley, Executive Director of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, conceived of this commemorative site as a tourist attraction with a higher purpose. An admirer of NASA, Hurley found the ultimate significance of space exploration not in the conquest itself, but in its demonstration of the limitless possibilities of humankind. He hoped the example of America's space heroes--scientists, engineers, and astronauts risking their lives in service of their country--would inspire visitors to a "willingness to accept citizenship responsibilities." This paper explores the origins and demise of Houston's National Space Hall of Fame within a landscape of shifting civic priorities and national attitudes towards spaceflight.

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Presenter 3

Nostalgic Monument to Education Center: The History of Planetarium in Washington, D.C.

Jieun Shin

Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology

Abstract

The recurring proposals to establish a national planetarium in Washington, D.C. between the
1920s and the 1960s reflect the changing perception of the public about space exploration. As the
national capital, Washington, D.C. has symbolized the nation's treasury of history and politics.
In the 1920s, Zeiss contacted the Smithsonian Institution to install its innovative projector on the
National Mall. While the Smithsonian was reluctant to accept the proposal due to budgetary
issues, some politicians initiated the campaign to build a planetarium as a Jefferson Memorial to
commemorate his legacy in science. These movements in the 1920s and 1930s indicated
ambivalent attitudes towards modern technology: nostalgia for premodern night sky without
pollution and optimism about technology as a solution for social problems. Later, the activities of
the Board of Washington Planetarium and Space Center (WPSC) in the 1960s to build the
world's largest planetarium in Washington, D.C. was the outcome of Cold War competition. As
public enthusiasm for the space programs after Sputnik drew the government interest in the
educational potential of planetaria, the WPSC project had the support of the wider public. By
incorporating the WPSC plan in 1971, the proposed National Air and Space Museum (NASM)
could secure positive attention from the Congress, resulting in the appropriation for the
construction of a new building in the next year. In sum, the dynamics between the symbolism of
Washington, D.C. and the public perception of space exploration generate the unique history of
planetarium projects, which embodies the American understanding of technology in the
twentieth century.

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Presenter 4

Celebrating a Permanent Human Presence in Space

Jennifer K. Levasseur

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Abstract

Since July 1976, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has served as the primary
national location for celebration and commemoration of space achievements, and in moments
of crisis, a place of mourning. A multi-year project to reimagine the entire Museum, including a
$650m building modernization, will allow curators to reconsider the role of the public as both
audience of and participants in spaceflight itself. The Moving Beyond Earth exhibition, originally
opened in 2009 and completed in 2013, will reorient itself to engage more with the
International Space Station as the nation's primary human spaceflight activity for over two
decades, and looking towards the Artemis missions yet to come.
This paper will describe how the exhibition will reflect the diverse set of contributors and
participation in spaceflight activities, both personal and corporate, and examine how the ISS
has made spaceflight more accessible to different cultures, ages, genders, and professional
interests. Conveniently, plans are underway for celebrations at the Museum for the 20th
anniversary of the ISS in November 2020, which will also be discussed as part of the ongoing
ways in which the Museum works on an educational level, with partners like NASA and the ISS
National Lab, to show the public how spaceflight is more connected to daily life than ever
before.

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