History is rocket science to Amy Shira Teitel
Spaceflight’s past is exceedingly cool – at least when explored by the woman behind YouTube channel Vintage Space, who was born the year Challenger exploded. Andrew Masterson asks her for her secrets.
In the public mind, at least, spaceflight is something that happens in the present, and will happen even more in the future.
We cheer as Juno reaches Jupiter, and look forward (perhaps dubiously) to seeing Mars colonised by means of a reality television show.
Increasingly, however, spaceflight of the past fades from view.
In the 21st century, the work of nascent private companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic barely rate media mentions, even when something blows up.
So it is not surprising, perhaps, that the orbiting heroes of the '60s, such as Neil Armstrong, Yuri Gagarin and Laika the dog, are disappearing as rapidly as the launchpad at Cape Canaveral in the rearview mirror of an Orion capsule heading straight up.
Given the inevitability of untended memories slipping from common grasp, it is hardly surprising that a historian might want to collate the material before the witnesses die and the punch-cards rot.
What is surprising, though, is that the historian in question – Amy Shira Teitel – has succeeded in making spaceflight’s past exceedingly cool.
The retro space aesthetic, it transpires, is a very modern thing – and all thanks to a woman who was born the same year that the space shuttle Challenger exploded on live television, setting NASA’s agenda back at least a decade.
“I’m personally very interested in NASA and spaceflight and specifically, how and why we went to the moon,” she says.
“That’s a long-standing fascination with me.
“The more you read about something and go beyond what the movies and books say, when you look academically at it, you realise just how much more there is. And the pre-NASA part of the story is always left out.”
It was an omission Teitel was determined to correct, and which became the subject of her first book, Breaking the Chains of Gravity, published by Bloomsbury this year.
The book essentially tracks the development of rocket technology until the foundation of NASA.
'YOU WOULDN’T THINK THAT A ROCKET WOULD BE AS POLITICALLY COMPLEX AS IT IS TECHNOLOGICALLY COMPLEX – BUT THAT TURNS OUT TO BE ONE OF THE MOST FASCINATING THINGS.'
History, though, is so much more than chronology. Teitel found herself faced with a challenge that was both personal and cultural, to wit: how does a historian deal with the inconvenient fact that one of the fathers of American spaceflight was also a prominent Nazi who relied on slave labour to conduct his early experiments?
The man in question was Werner von Braun, who the young Teitel grew up revering as the chief designer of the Saturn V rocket. It was only later that she discovered his pioneering role in developing the V2 missile, the German “retribution weapon” that devastated swathes of London, killing thousands.
This might seem odd, given that her family is Jewish. On the other hand, she says, it is quite understandable because they are also Canadian, and therefore not keen on discussing such matters. It wasn’t like they sat around the dinner table and had weekly Nazi lessons, she adds.
These days Teitel no longer lives in Canada. She shifted south to Los Angeles, specifically to Pasadena, “because that’s where all the engineers live”.
As her research continues, she has discovered that although there has been great technological progress since von Braun’s Saturn V first took off, some aspects of the space business haven’t changed at all.
Whether the subject is Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon, China’s recent unveiling of a new launch vessel called Long March 7, or North Korea’s boasts about its ballistic missiles, rocket science has always been inextricably bound up with politics and national identity.
“I think that's the fun bit,” she says. “It prevents you from just stating ‘this rocket happened then’. It makes you dig in and see where the roots came from and what its initial uses were. Whether the subject is Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon, China’s recent unveiling of a new launch vessel called Long March 7, or North Korea’s boasts about its ballistic missiles, rocket science has always been inextricably bound up with politics and national identity.
“We see only the visible part of spaceflight, but behind all that, if you dig a bit more, you see how complicated all these big technologies are – not just in, you know, developing a gimbaled engine or something, but also in the matter of who pays for it, who funds it.
“You wouldn’t think that a rocket would be as politically complex as it is technologically complex – but that turns out to be one of the most fascinating things.”
The tone of Breaking the Chains of Gravity, it has to be said, is careful, controlled and calm. This will surprise many who read it because it is notably different to the hip, snappy and excitable impact of Teitel’s principal claim to fame – a YouTube channel called Vintage Space.
The channel is crammed with dozens of mostly sub-five-minute videos in which the telegenic host mixes up animations and interviews on topics that range from how the Apollo command module separated from the rest of the vehicle, to what happens if you start to menstruate in zero gravity.
Throw in some of the others, such as explanations of why the US Air Force once tested the ability of cats to handle micro-grav, and a nine-minute romp through Teitel’s space-themed toy collection, and you begin to realise why it has attracted more than 60,000 subscribers.
Vintage Space began in 2012. In what is becoming an increasingly common career path, the success of the YouTube material led to appearances on mainstream television shows, festival gigs – and book contracts.
Next month she is appearing as a guest in Australia’s National Science Week, taking part in events in Melbourne and Ulverstone in Tasmania.
When she returns to Pasadena, she explains, she will have to knuckle down and fill two new book commissions. What happens after that, though, she doesn’t know.
“I never ever set out to do this as a career,” she laughs. “I didn’t even know this could be a career, so it’s all been taking on every project as I find out that I want to do it.
“That’s not necessarily the best way to do things. But it’s been pretty fun. I’m open to finding out how far I can take this whole professional space history nerd thing.”