Spaceflight in the Shuttle Era and Beyond RedefiningHumanity’sPurpose in Space
A book on spacefl ight began to form in my mind when the space shuttle and my career launched simultaneously; my professional life spans the shuttle era. For thirty-plus years, I have worked in various roles on the periphery
of the ambitious endeavor of human spacefl ight. What has that meant? Th e question is both biographical and cultural. Th is book is my eff ort to discern the cultural meaning of human spacefl ight—its formation and transformations—in this era. I completed graduate school in interdisciplinary American studies in the 1970s under the infl uence of the “myth and symbol” tradition of intellectual and cultural history. Th is approach to American culture through the humanities analyzed the history of ideas and their synthesis in literature and the arts to illuminate broad themes in American experience and thought. From the social sciences and history of science came other intellectually fertile concepts for understanding how meaning is created, understood, codifi ed, and modifi ed; “paradigm shifts,” “social construction,” “framing,” and “imaginaries” entered the scholarly lexicon. Innovative scholarship and analytical trends in humanities and social sciences research continue to invigorate the study of American culture. Conceptual tools and terminology keep changing, but understanding what things mean and how meaning shifts remains a priority. Educated and predisposed to seek connections between ideas and images, and to read icons as their incarnation, I off er this book in the ever renewing and expanding tradition of culture studies. My focus of inquiry here is a particular American enterprise: human spacefl ight in the shuttle era and beyond. In search of its meaning, I explore where answers may be discovered by examining its texts and images and icons, the motives of people and institutions that shaped and spread them, and representations of spacefl ight in the broader community. I study its science, technology, and rhetoric. I trace its ebbs and fl ows and persistence. I approach spacefl ight as a cultural text and iconography to be probed and revealed. Emerging from academics, in the 1980s I worked as a writer-editor under contracts with NASA to support a variety of shuttle missions and science programs.
I spent much of my time and energy with mission managers and scientists, jointly creating publications to explain human spacefl ight and scientifi c activities to the public. My job was essentially translation, crafting language
and imagery to communicate from a specialized technical world to the world at large. Since I joined the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as a space historian and curator in 1989, I have continued such communication with
the public through various channels, notably exhibitions and programs about spacefl ight. Spending three decades working in space history as it happens is certainly a spur to analysis and refl ection. And so, this book has its origins in my professional experiences where personal narrative intersects with a compelling cultural narrative. Conversant in academic traditions and in spacefl ight, I off er here an interdisciplinary perspective on an endeavor that ranges beyond technology, operations, and policy. Human spacefl ight means more than that.