In the Realm of the Gods

In conversation with space historian and lifelong science fiction fan Kerrie Dougherty

Australian Kerrie Dougherty might have the most amazing job in the world. A leading space historian, curator and writer, she also lectures in the Space Humanities Department of the International Space University based in Strasbourg, France. We had a chance to speak with her about space and faith ahead of her appearances at the World Science Festival Brisbane in March.

The first human exploration of space was driven by many political and technological motivations. Tell us something about the cultural motivations for space exploration…

We have this ancient idea that goes back to the very dawn of humanity, that there is a world around us, and a sky above us full of amazing phenomena. Our ancestors had no conception of what the sun, the moon and the stars actually were, but they dominated the sky day and the night. The stars were things we saw at night. There were mysterious, beautiful, cosmic phenomena like comets or meteors. Ancient humans didn’t know what they were, but they were incredibly awe-inspiring. This sparked the idea of the cosmos as being the home of the gods, because a lot of the things that affect us on Earth, like rain and thunder, lightning, day and night, these things all appear to come from the heavens. They are associated with the sky and it allowed us to imagine that the gods or the controllers of all these forces must be somewhere up there.

There are very few early cultures that we know of that didn’t have mystical or religious belief in the gods in the sky.

There’s a very ancient conception tied into religious belief that knowledge and power and wisdom are found in the cosmos, that the gods are in the sky.

An extension of that became an idea that if we could get to the sky, then we could be like gods. You get a lot of early myths about heroes or demigods, half humans, wanting to reach the heavens. Sometimes they flew on the back of a giant bird or on magical flying horses or other magical animals. The main idea is one of trying to reach the heavens. That’s something which is deeply embedded in our psyche – that somewhere beyond the sky is a place that we should aspire to get to.

There was a period of 18 months between 1957 and the end of 1958 called the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The idea was not just to focus on scientific research about the Earth and its relationship to the space environment, but to also try and cut through the tension of the Cold War and engage countries around the world. It succeeded to a certain extent. China was one of the countries that did not participate, but the Soviet Union certainly did. That was quite an important aspect of international relations at that time.

Part of the proposal for the IGY were suggestions that since rocketry had developed to a point where it was just about possible to get a satellite into orbit, somebody might try to launch during the IGY. In 1955 both the US and the USSR said that that’s what they would try to do. The West really considered that the Soviet Union didn’t have the technology to do it. Everybody expected that the United States would get the first satellite into orbit.

There was enormous surprise in the West when the Soviet Union got Sputnik 1 into orbit first in October 1957. It was a political and cultural shock, certainly to the United States, the idea that they could be beaten to this technological achievement by the Soviet Union. The launch of Sputnik 1 started the space age. A few months later the United States got its first satellite into orbit, but the Soviet Union had one-upped the West. The USSR claimed that this showed the world that the Soviet Union was a better country than the US, and that communism was better than democracy because it allowed for the development of better technology. The space race became this propaganda war between America and Russia.

Part of the rhetoric that developed from both sides was this idea of presenting space as a challenge. Space exploration was framed as the greatest adventure, part of the pioneering spirit. We are an exploring species and we’re a very curious species. Curiosity is a driving force of exploration… ‘What’s over the next hill?’ Going into space is another aspect of what’s over the next hill. What will we find when we get to the moon? What will we learn by doing that?

Certainly, the US positioned space exploration and particularly the Apollo lunar program, as an extension of the pioneering spirit that had conquered the American West. I think this idea of exploring and pioneering resonated with people from both the Western and communist worlds.

Illustrated by Deena Lynch

Illustration: Deena Lynch

And then of course in the 20th century humans did get to space. Many astronauts recounted spiritual experiences. Can you tell us about ‘the overview effect’?

Frank White the American philosopher described it “as a cognitive shift in awareness resulting from the experience of viewing the Earth from orbit or from the moon”. He found that whether the space travellers were American or Russian or from other countries, they generally experienced this same effect. Their perceptions shifted in relation to their relationship to the Earth, and the Earth’s relationship to the greater universe, so that they saw the Earth as what it is: a fragile spaceship floating in the blackness.

One of my favourite quotes is from Alexey Leonov, a Russian and the first person to walk in space. He said:

“The Earth was small and light and blue and so touchingly alone, a home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word ‘round’ meant until I saw the Earth from space.”

Your interest in space crosses science and popular culture. How did that come about?

I became hooked on space at the tender age of two and a half. I can remember that moment of epiphany. I was sitting in my high chair listening to the radio, because back in 1959 there wasn’t any breakfast television. It was in the morning while my dad was getting ready to go to work. The news announcer said that the Soviet Union had sent a probe that had reached the moon and sent back the first pictures from its far side. He actually described them as being television pictures, because they were using a radio system to transmit the images. We had a television at home, so I knew what television was, and I’d had my first astronomy lesson from my father, so I knew that the moon was in the sky and that it was a long way away. When you’re little you don’t know how far ‘a long way away’ really is, but the idea of getting television from the moon a long way away up in the sky was just something that hooked my baby brain. That is the point where I became interested in space.

My dad was a ship’s plumber, and my mum was a housewife who left school at 14 and worked as a machinist in a factory until she got married. Neither of them had any advanced education but they were both people who were really interested in the world around them and they instilled that interest in all the family. My dad was interested in all sorts of technology. He was interested in space, but he wasn’t a fanatic like me. I discovered science fiction when I was four, watching Forbidden Planet at the drive-in. I was one of the founders of the Australian Doctor Who Fan Club, which is the oldest continually-operating Doctor Who Fan Club in the world. I always try to maintain the two sides of my love of space: one is what I think of as the visionary view, the science fiction view, and the other is the realist view.

In 2017 the Federal Government announced the establishment of the Australian Space Agency. What will it do?

What the Australian Space Agency wants to do is provide a front door for international agencies or countries wanting to work with Australia on different space-related projects, while also helping Australian startups with really good ideas about how to use space, and connect their technologies or intellectual property with partners overseas.

What the government hopes to see is opportunities for the Australian space industry to develop niche areas where we have skills and technology that can be brought into the global space economy, thereby bringing money into Australia. The agency is looking at leveraging the talent we have in Australia to develop space industries that can operate on the world stage.

What Australia is looking to become involved with through the Space Agency is the area that’s known as ‘new space’. It is a very entrepreneurial aspect of space applications looking to utilise the real revolutions in digital technologies we’ve seen in the last decade or so, like miniaturisation. You can put a computer on a chip and make low cost small satellites that can be configured to do specific tasks. Because they’re light and small and cheap to make, you can make lots of them. You can launch them more cheaply and program them to do something very specific as a constellation; that is, as a group of satellites, perhaps following one another in orbit so that there’s always one in view as they orbit around the Earth over Australia. There’s a big push in Australia to take advantage of this through entrepreneurial companies.


Kerrie Dougherty is an independent space historian, curator and educator. Formerly Curator of Space Technology at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, she has 35 years’ experience in communicating space to the public through museum exhibitions, outreach programs and writing for both popular and scholarly audiences. An elected Member of the International Academy of Astronautics, Kerrie serves on both its History of Astronautics Committee and the Space Education and Outreach Committee of the International Astronautical Federation. She is an acknowledged expert on the history of Australian space activities and the author of Australia in Space, a comprehensive overview of Australia’s space history.