AHA Today

Outer Space Exploration in Divided Germany

Colleen Anderson | Jun 7, 2016

Outer space travel during the Cold War is most often associated with the Space Race, when the United States and the Soviet Union competed to achieve increasingly ambitious milestones in space travel. However, outer space exploration during these years stretched far beyond the borders of the US and USSR. Across the globe, people followed developments in space travel, from the launch of the first satellite Sputnik in 1957 to the Apollo moon landing in 1969. Scientists and engineers from places such as Europe, Japan, China, and India participated in space research and built the technology used on manned and unmanned space missions. Furthermore, a wide array of figures, such as the British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and the Czechoslovak film director Jindřich Polák, used the arts to develop their own thoughts on the meaning of space travel and its future possibilities. Through factual news reports and fantastical imaginations, outer space travel captured public attention in places beyond the US and USSR.

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The Helios-A solar probe launched on Dec. 10, 1974 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The spacecraft was built by West Germany and launched by NASA. Credit: NASA

During the tenure of my 2015 Fellowship in Aerospace History, offered by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the AHA, I considered reactions to and perceptions of outer space travel in a place other than the two Cold War superpowers. In particular, I worked on a project that examines outer space travel in the context of East and West Germany, whose division, like the Space Race, represented a major frontline of the Cold War.

Outer space received significant attention in East and West Germany. East and West Germans closely followed developments in space travel, and milestones of the Space Race filled television and newspaper reports. For both German governments, space successes also provided an example of the relative strength of the socialist and capitalist blocs. Finally, science fiction films and books imagined what life in outer space might one day be like.

Yet East and West Germans did not just watch these major milestones—they also participated in the Space Age. West Germany established numerous professional and amateur institutions for the exploration of the cosmos such as the GfW (Gesellschaft für Weltraumforschung, Society for Space Research) and the DFVLR (Deutsche Forschungs- und Versuchsanstalt für Luft- und Raumfahrt, German Research and Testing Institute for Aviation and Spaceflight). West Germany was also a founding member of the European Space Agency in 1975 and even collaborated on several NASA missions in the 1980s. Likewise, East German scientists participated in the Soviet-sponsored Interkosmos program.

Thanks to the generosity of the AHA and NASA, I had an enormously productive academic year. I primarily used the fellowship to focus full time on writing my dissertation. I completed four chapters and also presented my work in four public presentations. Although my fellowship tenure is nearly over, I am looking forward to the remaining months of the fellowship. After writing, I am especially eager to take a few research trips to complete the research for my dissertation. I will travel to California and Washington, DC. In Washington, I am particularly excited to work in the Smithsonian and in the National Archives, where I will be able to look at sources from NASA that will help me understand West Germany’s transatlantic space connections.

It was a pleasure and an honor to be able to work with the AHA this past academic year. I would not have been able to accomplish nearly as much as I did without the time provided by the Aerospace Fellowship, and I warmly thank the AHA for its generosity.

anderson_colleen_profileColleen Anderson is a PhD candidate in the history department at Harvard University. She studies modern Europe, particularly the history of Germany and the Cold War. Her dissertation is a social and technological history of outer space travel in East and West Germany. She can be contacted at colleenanderson@fas.harvard.edu.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.


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