When talking about the history of space exploration, people are often quick to reference the Soviet and U.S. victories of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Sputnik and the Apollo program. However, these memorable advances are only a slice of a broader global history that includes significant contributions from dozens of nations, including many within the developing world. To science historian Asif Siddiqi—who specializes in the history of space exploration—these lesser-known stories of the global space race are just as interesting.
"For a long time, historians have said, 'Science is global!' but their claims were largely theoretical," Siddiqi says. "I'm interested in empirical examples of the global circulation of scientific knowledge and expertise, and one way I wanted to track this was through examples of leftover infrastructure from space exploration."
A professor of history at Fordham University, Siddiqi is this year's Eleanor Searle Visiting Professor of History at Caltech and The Huntington Library. The Searle visiting professorship is offered every year to a historian who wishes to conduct research in the Huntington's collections and teach courses in the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Caltech.
"This professorship is a very wonderful opportunity for people in the middle of their careers to take a year off to start some new projects," he says.
Siddiqi has used this time, which continues until the end of the academic year, to focus his work on the history and impact of India's space program. "I'm interested in how developing nations allocated resources for very high-technology projects, despite their apparent social and economic problems. I wanted to look at India because it is a country with some obvious societal inequalities, but at the same time, they also prioritized this very modern technology. So I'm looking at the Indian space program through that lens," he says.
Siddiqi believes that one reason the Indian government initially became interested in space exploration was an urge to modernize after becoming independent from Great Britain in 1947. "Things like space exploration and nuclear energy were markers of the modern world, and they didn't want to have to spend 200 years trying to play catch up with the Western countries," he says. "That urge to 'leapfrog' over the West, often framed in terms of the modernization theory of the 1960s, gets manifested in a kind of fixation on certain things, and space was the most cutting-edge thing at the time."
The Indian government was also motivated by the introduction of technologies, developed by NASA, that the American government gave to other countries—such as India—in an effort to gain allies during the Cold War, Siddiqi says. The countries could keep these millions of dollars of scientific equipment and materials at no cost, allowing them to build an infrastructure for space exploration, with one unspoken but implicit caveat: they had to agree that, politically speaking, they would side with the U.S. against the Soviet Union.
Siddiqi also wanted to investigate how India's commitment to space exploration had an impact on those people not involved with science or politics. For instance, the Searle professorship allowed Siddiqi to travel to a small fishing village on the southern tip of India, to see how the space race impacted the local community.
"It turns out that this village's location intersects with a particular cosmic ray phenomenon that only happens around the magnetic equator," he says. The phenomenon, called the equatorial electrojet, results when solar winds cause an intensification of the Earth's magnetic field in a small patch directly above equatorial regions, including the Indian Ocean.
Because of this phenomenon, top scientists from around the world wanted to build an observatory in the village to study it. The Indian government got behind the plan, insisting that the international scientists leave behind all of their expensive equipment when they left, infrastructure which was later used for their space program. However, making room for the observatory also meant that the entire local fishing village would have to be packed up and relocated.
"One of my goals in this project was to recover the history of the Catholic fishing community that lived there for centuries, but had to be moved," Siddiqi says.
He was also interested in what it was like for the international community of scientists that was created on the former site of the fishing village. "It was 1963—the height of the Cold War—and there were scientists from the U.K., America, Russia, Germany, Japan, and all over the world working in this remote village," he notes, pointing out how unusual such a collaboration was during the Cold War.
The observatory only lasted a few decades, as expanding capabilities of satellites eventually made the ground-based technologies obsolete for these types of studies. But it had a lasting impact.
"The cosmic phenomenon above this Indian fishing village was a total accident of geography, and that's what was interesting about that story," Siddiqi says. "However, there are many more stories like that across the global landscape. Our narrative of the space race is mostly about astronauts and the moon, and maybe a little bit of deep-space exploration, such as Mars. But in my work, I hope to shed some light on some of these other types of contributions on the earth that are largely forgotten."
Siddiqi recently presented a summary of this work in a lecture at The Huntington Library titled, "A Different Space: NASA in the Postcolonial World."