seal  Purdue News

January 1998

New history course to explore the space age

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The symbol of tomorrow has become a subject of yesterday.

A few universities have started teaching space exploration as history. At Purdue University, often called the "mother of astronauts," this history is taught with a global perspective.

"Certainly we'll be dealing with some of the science and technology that was developed through space exploration," says Michael Smith, the assistant professor of history who designed the course. "But our greatest concentration will be on the politics and culture of space travel; how governments use it and how people appreciate it as a feat of modern science."

Twenty-one Purdue graduates have been selected for space flight, including the first and last men to walk on the moon, and two of the six American astronauts who have served on board Mir, the Russian space station. Smith's research in developing the curriculum put him in contact with historians at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who say the course is one of only a couple dozen of its kind in the nation.

The Purdue class makes it debut during the spring semester, which begins Monday (1/12). Smith says he expects the subject matter to draw students from a variety of disciplines.

"Naturally, we're going to get a lot of history majors, but I think it also could be an attractive option for engineering students as well as liberal arts majors with a general interest in space," he says.

Smith says the course fits into the recent trend to create history courses that defy national boundaries. "Historians tend to teach the history of a single country, but this course offers a much more global perspective," Smith explains. "We're starting to see more and more of this type of instruction at the college level."

Smith's interest in the topic developed out of his studies of 20th century Russian and Soviet history.

"Space exploration is a very good topic for comparative Soviet and American historical studies," Smith says. "The two space programs have been very much the same in terms of achievement and technology, but their institutional frameworks are very different."

The course will cover such topics as the interaction between human values and space exploration; the implications of satellite technology for international relations, the global economy and ecology; and the "cold war" in space between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

"The cultural values, scientific institutions, military imperatives and public policies of these two countries are very different, and it's all reflected in their space programs," Smith explains.

CONTACT: Smith, (765) 494-4122;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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