Pete Conrad having a weightless dental check-up, 1973Pete Conrad having a weightless dental check-up, 1973

Snug in the spaceship, astronauts become weightless. Somersaults, which on earth were both difficult and socially unacceptable for adults, become possible. Weightlessness, to those who experience it, brings nausea and muscle entropy, yet it also allows for larks. Real footage of life in space tends to stress this link between floating and playing. In a NASA video recorded just before the 2014 football World Cup, astronauts from Expedition 40 send good luck messages – not to particular nations but to ‘all the teams’ – and then demonstrate a series of spectacular bicycle kicks and diving saves with the generously floating ball. Peake himself recently released footage of his colleague Scott Kelly chasing him around the space station in a gorilla suit. Childlike playfulness characterised his mission long before lift-off: en route to the launch site in Kazakhstan, he touched fists with local children through the bus window glass and made an explosion gesture. The logo on his uniform was designed by a British child at primary school, and he recently wrote the foreword for a children’s book set in the solar system. In space, playfulness exists alongside and ameliorates drudgery, boredom, loneliness, and unimaginable tension: the spectacular spacewalk with which Gravity (2013) begins depicts life hanging by detachable leads; improbably, and perhaps impossibly, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney keep up continuous badinage.

'Astronauts' Wives', Life Magazine, September 1959‘Astronauts’ Wives’, Life Magazine, September 1959

Tim Peake isn’t the first British astronaut – Helen Sharman went into orbit in 1991 – but most space cowboys have been men or, indeed, boys. The astronauts selected for the pioneering Mercury and Gemini flights of the 1960s were turned into cultural icons of American masculinity. Fifteen years since Japanese surrender, here was a new generation of heroes: upstanding, fearless, Soviet-hating, and (mostly) married with kids. Not all the astronauts fitted the stereotype neatly: Rusty Schweickart, one of 14 astronauts who joined operations in Houston in 1963, hosted a literary discussion group with his wife and had left-leaning views. Yet most astronauts ‘went hunting or worked on cars in their spare time’[2] , and it was this red-blooded manliness, rather than Schweickart’s reflective maturity, that American and Texan society valued. When Pete Conrad and five colleagues routinely drag-raced their Corvettes to work along Interstate 45, their straightforward masculinity was simply bubbling over in youthful exuberance. The sense of contest is important. President Kennedy had inaugurated a geopolitical race against the USSR, but among the American astronauts miniature competitions – at varying degrees of playfulness – were always taking place. The logic of the exuberant race to work found its way into the office: the 14 astronauts were vying for prestigious positions on the Gemini flights, and at one point were asked to conduct a secret peer review. The intertwining of play and contest constructed an atmosphere of sparring camaraderie, a staple and a stereotype of the postwar American representation of boyhood.

It’s appropriate that one of the most enduring figures of millennial pop culture is an astronaut. Buzz Lightyear competes only with Woody for a place in Andy’s heart. Toy Story taps into a longstanding, even hackneyed analogy of the cultural genres of cowboy and astronaut. Buzz, thinks Andy, is Woody’s upgrade. Emerging from his box, Buzz radiates the soaring ambition of the pioneering American space programs. He’s an avatar for the ambitious daydreams of the child – someone they’d like to be ‘when they grow up’. Yet his buttons don’t work and his ‘laser’ is just an LED. ‘You’re a toy’, Woody breaks it to him; only once he accepts this can Buzz be actually heroic, not in a grand delusion of spaceflight but in local loyalty to Andy and defence of his toys. In representing astronauts we turn them into heroes, but our post-modern sensibilities are uneasy with the grand narrative of the pioneer. So we make our astronauts playful and boyish, heroes not in the mould of Buzz the hubristic explorer but Buzz the toy.

114 years before Tim Peake arrived at the ISS, Captain Scott made his first expedition to Antarctica, an extreme frontier of knowledge which was to the Edwardians as space is to us. A quarter of a century had elapsed since the Nares expedition (1875-6), the last British Antarctic foray. In the absence of real journeys, polar exploration had happened on paper: an explosion of adventure stories aimed at boys and set in the Poles captured young hearts and minds, just as Parry’s Polar Voyages had electrified a nine year-old Clements Markham, Scott’s patron. Scott’s last expedition, too, was full of boyish play: at the base camp where they spent the polar winter, Scott and his men ‘have become gloriously junior again’.[3]  On Christmas Day, that winter, Titus Oates received a popgun, and took great delight in running around pretending to shoot the others. This simplicity of play goes alongside the inclination towards cadet-like protocol and ‘form’ that made the natural response to reaching the Pole a team photograph. More than a century later, men suspended in a spaceship 250 miles above the earth muck around in gorilla suits: far from the boundaries and limits of Earth, they briefly become boys again.


[1] Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (London: Vintage, 2003), Ch. 83.

[2] Andrew Chaikin, Man on the Moon: the voyages of the Apollo astronauts (London: Penguin, 1994), 48.

[3] Francis Spufford, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English imagination (London: Faber, 1996), 306.