Anthropology of Outer Space: Why Now?

Anthropologists have always been interested in space exploration. Soon after the launch of Sputnik, on October 4, 1957, Margaret Mead headed a workshop with American anthropologists to discuss the cultural significance of the human presence beyond Earth (Mead and Métraux 1957). In the years that followed the anthropologists theorized about the cultural significance of space exploration as an emerging opportunity for humanity, much like the best science-fiction writers (Maruyama, Hawkins, 1975; Battaglia 2005). During that period, both the US and the USSR were competing space superpowers, working on large programs for sending humans into space, and which engaged thousands of people and hundreds of scientific, engineering, and medical organizations. Because of the secrecy and other reasons, however, there were practically no anthropologists studying these activities.

The last several decades have brought a new perspective to the Anthropology of Outer Space. Increasing international cooperation made possible the International Space Station: the first permanent human outpost in space. New technological developments and, most of all, the efforts of New Space entrepreneurs in US and other countries have brought us closer to the realization of Gerald O'Neal dreams of space colonization. We can now think about outer space not only in terms of research and exploration, but also in terms of doing business there, and in terms of specific ‘way of life' build on resource exploitation and human settlements in space. Outer space is gradually becoming an ‘ordinary' field of research and business, much more open to social scientists than before. As the organizers of the session on ‘Science, Technology and Society in Outer Space' at coming 4S conference (New Orleans, 2019) have pointed out, social sciences could provide "… critical accounts on ideas, practices and infrastructures of outer space; analyses of the ways in which venture capitalism mobilizes understandings of space exploration and reshapes space as an expanded environment that can be calculated and valued; ethnographies that illuminate what a cosmopolitics of outer space might look like by paying attention to how things, organisms, devices, discourses, practices provide a sense of what's knowable about outer space" (Salazar, Castano at https://www.4s2019.org/accepted-open-panels/ ).

The breakthroughs made by a few American anthropologists over the last two decades has demonstrated this trend. Thanks to the works of Lisa Messeri, David Valentine, Janet Vertesi, Sean T. Mitchell, Valerie Olson, and some others, outer space is now part of the very core of anthropology as fieldwork. Yet the anthropology of outer space remains a predominantly American enterprise, with fewer researchers in Europe, and practically no one in Russia and Eastern Europe. We believe that it is worth bringing the experience and inspiration of our American colleagues to ‘Old World' anthropology, especially to the young generation anthropologists and social scientists. This summer school is only a small step in that direction. Irina Popravko, Ivan Tchalakov January 2019