Distracted enchantment and public attitudes to space exploration

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Abstract

Space exploration has the characteristics of Big Science when it involves large-scale, long-term and costly research that employs a range of scientists, technicians, engineers and administrators, and is coordinated across a range of institutions including government, industry and the university sector (Lambright 2013). With reference to public attitude studies conducted in Europe and the United States of America, this essay formulates sociological explanations for the broad though unfocused interest and support among the populace for Big Science space programmes. In doing so, I put forward the notion of distracted enchantment. Space exploration can be understood as an example of what the classical social theorist Georg Simmel (2011[1907]) terms objective culture in that it opens up a body of knowledge so vast and expansive that it is deemed largely incomprehensible and inaccessible by most people. This notwithstanding, space programmes appeal to subjective culture in that they open up vistas of enchantment, create a sense of collective endeavour, connect with wider stories that form part of the extensive repertoire of popular culture, and, perhaps most significantly, provide a sense of meaning and future-oriented purpose even if the precise nature of the purpose is elusive. The Big Science of space exploration can thus be understood as a collective endeavour that people are able to feel connected to, albeit in a relatively distracted and unfocused way.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBig Science in the 21st Century: Economic and Societal Impacts
EditorsPanagiotis Charitos, Theodore Arabatzis, Harry Cliff, Günther Dissertori, Juliette Forneris, Jason Li-Ying
PublisherIOP Publishing Ltd.
ISBN (Print)9780750336291
Publication statusAccepted for publication - 5 Jan 2022

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