HIS 400 S05 Space History

Fall 2021 Junior Seminar

Instructor: Michael D. Gordin
W 1:30-4:20

“Space: the final frontier.”
Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek (1966)

“Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.”
Dr. “Bones” McCoy, Star Trek (2009)

Almost everyone has thoughts about outer space and humanity’s engagement with it. For most of us, that engagement has been mediated through popular culture, primarily movies, television shows, and video games. This seminar takes a different path, into the long history of space exploration (much longer than you might have thought). This proves to be a rather different domain than that of Skywalkers or the Alien. All too often, the history of space is often approached through a series of triumphant or tragic incantations: Sputnik, Von Braun, Gemini, Apollo, Challenger, Mir, Musk. Although most spaceflight is uncrewed, human spaceflight occupies a privileged position in the public imagination — and one particular episode in human spaceflight above all: the Apollo 11 Moon landing on 20 July 1969. This Junior Seminar will move beyond the mythologies of Apollo, taking a multifaceted approach to the subject of humanity’s entanglement with space, looking at it from both the heavens and Earth, both in the United States as well as in the Soviet Union and other nations with extraterrestrial ambitions, with particular emphasis on the geopolitics and micropolitics, the infrastructures and ruins, the people and machines that have made space exploration (and exploitation) possible.

Like all Junior Seminars, this course has two goals: both to introduce the a particular topic of historical investigation, and to build your skills to craft a 25-30-page original scholarly research paper based on primary sources. That latter can sound like a tall order, but we will develop the components step by step: how to ask a question, how to locate primary sources, how to interpret those sources in multiple contexts, how to articulate a historical argument, how to situate that argument in the scholarly literature, and how to design and write a persuasive paper. The challenges of space history are multiple — its global scope, the massive pull of the very recent over the historical past, the sometimes daunting technical details — but the subject is also so rich that there is something for everyone.