Reaching for the stars in times of crisis. Western Europe’s entry into manned spaceflight, 1972-1987
Through participation in the United States’ Post-Apollo Program, the European Space Agency (ESA) entered manned spaceflight in the 1970s. Although controversially debated within the Western European space community, ESA’s contribution to the Post-Apollo Program, a re-usable and multi-functional laboratory called Spacelab, was promoted as a “key technology” for the future, especially by the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Analyzing its development, construction and use, this research project asks how and why a project that not only required huge resources but implicated serious financial and technological risks as well was realized in times of grave economic crisis and socio-political challenges.
Focusing on the FRG as the Spacelabs main promoter, but also on other Western European nations belonging to ESA and the US, this research project reconstructs the social and political discourses that accompanied the development and use of the Spacelab. Allowing for a wide range of applications Spacelab illustrates in particular how space technology served as a projection screen for diverse and often conflicting political and economic interests. While Western Europe hoped that participation in manned spaceflight would strengthen its economic competitiveness and revitalize its integration process, Spacelab also gained a significant military impact against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative in the early 1980s.
Thus, this research project combines diverse and often unconnected fields of research: the history of spacefaring and the transition of outer space from a major site of twentieth-century utopian thinking to a zone of conflict and crisis, the significance of big technologies to counter political and economic crises, and the history of European integration and the transatlantic alliance in times of a re-intensifying Cold War. Symbolizing the transition from purely scientific interests to dominantly political interests, Spacelab not only marks an important caesura in Western European space history. It also promises insight on the role and relevance of specific “key technologies” in coping with the political and economic challenges of the 1970s, thereby taking up questions that address the significance of the 1970s as a key period of contemporary history.
Dr. Tilmann Siebeneichner
Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam
Am Neuen Markt 1
Tel.: +49 331 2899-163
Email: siebeneichner [at] zzf-potsdam.de