Examining photos of Earth taken from Space – Leeds Beckett academic launches new study from Washington, DC
Dr Katherine Harrison, Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett University, will spend three months as a visiting scholar at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, DC, in the USA, starting in April 2022 – based in the museum’s archives and specialist space library.
The new study is entitled ‘Leaving Earth Behind: Imag(in)ing the Planet Earth from Space’ and is a visual cultural study of photographs and imagery of the Earth taken from an ‘outside’ perspective.
Dr Harrison explained: “While past space exploration was generally conducted by nation-states or international collaborations between states, the new 21st century Space Age is dominated by private corporations owned by billionaire space entrepreneurs who hope to profit from commercial Moon missions and space tourism.
“These private spaceflight operators are already running missions for NASA to the International Space Station and developing space tourism for people who can afford their astronomical prices (at least $250,000 per seat). One result of this so-called ‘opening up of space for all’ is that future perspectives back on the Earth and out into the cosmos are likely to be reserved for the super-rich and intended to generate publicity for space capitalism.
“In my research, I’m interested in how these new space operators will begin to shape a powerful visual culture that provokes new public understandings of the Planet Earth, the Moon and Mars, which may not visualise these entities as open to everyone.”
To fund her scholarship, Dr Harrison has been selected for a Fulbright Scholar Award 2021-22. The Fulbright Program of awards is considered amongst the most prestigious scholarship awards globally, with 60 Nobel Laureates and 39 Heads of State/Government within its 390,000 global alumni.
It’s incredible to have been selected for such a prestigious award and to have the opportunity to conduct research in the USA with world-leading space historians and curators based at the National Air and Space Museum. I can’t wait to get started.
Dr Harrison said: “What I’m most looking forward to is seeing astronauts’ photographs taken during NASA’s Apollo missions to the Moon in the 1960s-70s. I’m hoping to find lesser-known images that haven’t been made generally available to the public and which might show different perspectives back on Earth.
“I hope this experience will enable me to develop ideas about how influential public understandings of the ‘home planet’ were shaped by the striking power of space photography in the 20th century.”
At the end of her visit to Washington, Dr Harrison will give a lecture at the Smithsonian and plans to write a book on the emerging visual culture of the new 21st century Space Age, as well as a brand new Space Media module for Media students at Leeds Beckett University.
Dr Harrison explained: “The new module will analyse astronauts’ photos taken from space during the 1960s-70s, and will also engage with brand new space media including glossy corporate websites advertising space tourism, astronauts’ recent selfies and live-stream broadcasts from space. We will even examine the Mars Perseverance Rover’s Twitter feed and Google Mars to understand how space and other planets are being represented for we Earthlings and to ask questions about who and what space is for in the 21st century.”
The new research project builds on Dr Harrison’s wider research, which began with her PhD studies.
Dr Harrison said: “My PhD research was about iconic 20th century photographs published in newspapers and photo-magazines that shaped public understandings of powerful universal ideas like life, freedom and home. In 2007, I was awarded funding by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to be a Visiting Research Fellow at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, working in the historical newspapers and periodicals collections.
“As a Media scholar, this was one of the most interesting periods of my life and I’m really grateful to Fulbright for enabling me to go back to DC, this time to the National Air and Space Museum, to build on this archival research for my new project.”
Speaking about the 2021-22 Fulbright Scholar Awards, Maria Balinska, Executive Director of the US-UK Fulbright Commission, said: “Our vision is a world where there are no obstacles to learning, understanding and collaboration. Today there are many global challenges to overcome, and the world needs compassionate leaders to tackle them. This cohort of awardees will be placing cultural engagement at the heart of their experiences as they undertake ambitious study and research programmes in the US: I am filled with hope for the wonderful collaborations that will ensue.”