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Understanding the Air Age: Extracting a Culture of Aviation (June 2013): Space Travel: How Widespread or How Far Up to Go?

By Guillaume de Syon

Space Travel: How Widespread or How Far Up to Go?

Realizing the Dream of Flight (discussed above) includes a biography of Willy Ley, a publicist who did much to popularize the notion of space travel in 1950s America.  While indeed the culture of space travel would suggest a separate realm, what has mattered is the perception of said travel from the ground perspective.  Much of people’s understanding of space “flight” is skewed by one’s notions of ground and air travel.  In that respect, recent works that dovetail space and culture deserve mention, starting with Howard McCurdy’s Space and the American Imagination.  Across the globe, in The Red Rockets’ Glare: Spaceflight and the Soviet Imagination, 1857-1957, Asif Siddiqi delves into the cultural history of Russian and Soviet science and shows how imagination and engineering are not mutually exclusive.  Similarly, Andrew Jenks’s biography of Gagarin, The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling, details Russian society as much as it does the life of the first human in space.  In a nod to his earlier work on airports, Building for Air Travel (discussed above), John Zukowsky offers a beautifully woven edited volume on the notion of spaceports, 2001: Building for Space Travel.  Finally, Space Travel and Culture: From Apollo to Space Tourism, edited by David Bell and Martin Parker, and Alexander C. T. Geppert’s Imagining Outer Space: European Astroculture in the Twentieth Century offer a great overview of the new work being done on society’s perception of space travel.


The survey of the literature of aviation and its sociocultural ramifications shows substantial growth in the past twenty years.  This expansion is affecting society’s understanding of aeronautics in the wider realm.  Many gaps remain, filled by dissertations, articles, and foreign-language publications.  Still, the dynamism of the field is worth noting: what matters is how the public has understood aviation and incorporated it into everyday life.  The challenge is for investigators to explain such relevance to their readers without repeating the common mistake of popular literature, namely, determinism.  Hopefully, this essay provides a broader, clearer picture of key works within the wide range of aviation literature available today.