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Astronauts and Astrobiology: Military Space Science Before Apollo

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Linda Hall Library

5109 Cherry Street

Kansas City, MO 64110

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The lecture

Seventy years ago, in February 1949—nearly a decade before Sputnik and the creation of NASA—the United States Air Force tasked a small group of doctors and psychologists with solving the biological problems of spaceflight. Under the banner of “space medicine” they conducted medical studies, simulations, and far-flung expeditions. This research resulted in early visions of both the American astronaut, and the places they might go. This talk explores this nearly-forgotten period of military space science in the 1950s and how it set the stage NASA’s Space Race in the 1960s. First, we will examine some of the earliest astronaut tests, which utilized a diverse range of subjects beyond the iconic white, male, military test-pilot, including regular soldiers, high-altitude Indigenous people, women pilots, mountaineers—even monkeys.

Beyond the task of keeping humans alive in space, Air Force space medicine experts also wondered about the places their military astronauts might travel to, primarily Mars. What kinds extraterrestrial life might they encounter there? Could it be used to establish a base? To answer this, they constructed tiny simulations of the Mars environment—called “Mars Jars”—and sealed different Earth microbes inside. These experiments kickstarted the scientific field now called “astrobiology,” but they also encapsulated the military’s Cold War approach to space and science. Remembering the military origins of both astronauts and life-on-Mars studies sheds critical new light on the triumph of Apollo, and the current shift toward private space ventures.

The speaker

Jordan Bimm is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Post-Doctoral Fellow at Princeton University. During his Fellowship at the Linda Hall Library, he will research his current project, “Putting Mars in a Jar,” a history of early American astrobiology focusing on military life-on-Mars studies conducted in the early-to-mid-1950s.

Jordan grew up in Toronto, Canada, and received his PhD in Science & Technology Studies (STS) from York University in 2018. His dissertation, Anticipating the Astronaut, (awarded the 2014-2015 HSS/NASA Fellowship in the History of Space Science) explores the construction of the American astronaut in the military field of space medicine during the first decade of the Cold War. He is also the recipient of the 2013 Sacknoff Prize for Space History, and the 2016 Adams Center Prize for Cold War Military History. His research has been featured in The Los Angeles Times, Fast Company, Slate, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, El Mundo, The Toronto Star, and The Life Sciences Podcast.

Parking

Parking is free in Library parking lots and along the west side of Holmes Street between 51st and 52nd streets. The main entrance to the Library grounds is on Cherry Street. The Linda Hall Library is not affiliated with UMKC. Parking in all UMKC lots is by permit or meter.

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Linda Hall Library

5109 Cherry Street

Kansas City, MO 64110

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