Cosmic Cosmopolitanism: Willy Ley, UFOs, and the Epistemology of Outer Space, 1926–57

Saturday, January 3, 2009: 10:10 AM
Gibson Suite (Hilton New York)
Alexander C. T. Geppert , Freie Universitšt Berlin, D-14195 Berlin, Germany
For much of the twentieth century, outer space constituted a major site of utopian thinking. Yet how exactly did European Astrofuturism develop into a central element of the project of Western modernity? Who were the key protagonists who formed the spaceflight movement in interwar Europe and the USA? How did they build their authority vis-à-vis the general public and established scientific communities? These questions of agency need to be addressed directly when historicizing the societal impact of outer space. For at the core of the internationalization of the early spaceflight movement lay a particular type of cosmopolitan persona who would eventually give rise to the familiar figure of the ‘rocket scientist,’ itself emblematic of 1950-60s techno-scientific modernity.
    This paper focuses on space travel expert Willy Ley. Born in 1906, Ley was involved in a plethora of transnational media activities after the publication of his first book, Die Fahrt ins Weltall, in 1926. As the cause's main popularizer, he made Berlin a hub of the international spaceflight movement and became its unofficial historiographer. Emigrating to New York in 1935, he built a similar career in the USA, establishing himself as a public authority on space travel and cooperating with engineer Wernher von Braun – another space flight celebrity – despite diametrically opposed experiences during WWII. The paper analyzes Ley's wide-ranging publicity activities to illuminate his pivotal role in forming an international spaceflight movement and his consequent rise to fame, as well as his involvement in popularizing outer space propaganda and in the severe epistemological challenge posed by the first wave of UFO sightings in the decade after 1947 and before Sputnik. By examining the roots of Ley’s success and celebrity, the paper sheds light on how ideas about space, travel and invasion fulfilled cultural needs in Europe and the USA.
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