Author Archives: irven

Space Age Philosophy: Wonder in the Archives

When we think of philosophy, if we think about it at all, it is very unlikely that we associate philosophy with archival research. Maybe we think of the problems of freedom, or personal identity, abstract metaphysical issues, or ethics. But philosophy and the archives seem an odd couple.

As a graduate student in philosophy and literature, I suffered from the same prejudice when I arrived in the Barron Hilton Archives for Flight and Space Exploration. Although the Flight Archives are unique for their emphasis on science and engineering, and of course for the incredible historical significance of items housed in collections such as the Neil A. Armstrong Papers and the Eugene A. Cernan Papers, I didn’t see the philosophic potential of the archives at first.

Michel Foucault, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Michel Foucault, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

For much of Anglo-American philosophy, the archives are a foreign place. The most well-known use of the archives in philosophy is probably by Michel Foucault (1926-1984), a French thinker famous for his genealogical arguments based on extensive archival research. His writings on madness and the modern prison system are hallmarks of structuralist and postmodern philosophy.

Foucault himself is often studied as a “Continental” philosopher, a representative of postmodernism in the 20th century, but his particular method of archival research is rarely discussed, and never taught as a methodology available to students of philosophy. Given philosophy’s centuries old love-affair with science, we should all be pleased to learn that the archives are a place rich with materials teeming with philosophic potential.

In this post, I want to focus on one collection in particular that displays the potential for philosophical investigation. The Archives for Flight and Space Exploration houses tremendous philosophical resources when we begin to appreciate archival spaces as a place where philosophy can thrive.


Dramatic photo of Bruce McCandless’ untethered spacewalk courtesy of NASA

Philosopher Shaun Gallagher has recently accomplished a remarkable research program looking at the relationship of astronaut experiences of awe during spaceflight to similar accounts of spiritual or religious experiences. Collections like the Neil A. Armstrong Papers, the Eugene A. Cernan Papers, and the Jerry L. Ross Papers – all house in the Flight Archives – could be used to further research in the direction first indicated by Gallagher and his team. Early accounts and rare personal reports of historic events in the history of space flight open new interpretative doors to philosophers wishing to understand human cognition when it is pushed to its limits – both in the sense of the need to perform demanding technical labors, and in the struggle to makes sense of radically new and unprecedented experiences of space.

armstrong x15 cockpit_0001

Armstrong in the X-15, circa 1960. NASA photo. Part of the Neil A. Armstrong Papers at Purdue Archives and Special Collections

Philosophers of mind and science will find much of value. In one of over 450 individual speeches contained in the Neil A. Armstrong Papers, Armstrong elaborates on the role of the X-15 as a “theoretical aircraft.” That is, the X-15 had, from Armstrong’s perspective, no practical purpose. It was designed and flown with only the idea that it could and would push the boundaries of what was humanly and technologically possible in the realm of high-speed, high-altitude flight. It was a plane built for theory, not practice. Of course, many groundbreaking advances in flight science and technology resulted from the X-15 project, though when the aircraft was conceived these advances were in no way predicted or even predicable! They were the result of chances and great risks taken by the men and women of NASA and the experimental test pilots who flew these challenging new jets.

Every stage of the X-15’s development is covered in the archives. From early documentation of its design, to the simulator training that prepared pilots for the X-15’s demanding environment at extreme altitudes, to the reports that document the pilot’s experience of sub-orbital flight in a flying machine that had no precedent in human history.

Armstrong strapped into a flight simulator during the X-15 program, circa 1960

Armstrong strapped into a flight simulator during the X-15 program, circa 1960

The photo to the left, part of the Neil A. Armstrong Papers at Purdue’s Archives and Special Collections, gives a sense of the experimental nature of the X-15 flights. Here we see Armstrong in a simulator, hoping to be as prepared as possible to face relatively unknown flight conditions, and to test the predictive capabilities of science and engineering. Philosophers have pondered over the predictive powers of science since at least the 1600s, and here in the Flight Archives, we see how strong those powers are. Using available mathematical models, together with mountains of data gathered via weather balloons and other high-altitude aircraft, experimental pilots like Armstrong dared to fly under dangerous conditions with only the confidence that the numbers were correct – to a point – and that these pre-flight results were sound enough to risk life and limb to confirm in experience. Subsequent first hand analysis of in-flight experiences reveal the intricate feed-back loops of hypothesis formation, experimental confirmation or refutation, and hypothetical conjecture that lead to ground-breaking advancements in space age technologies that we now take for granted as commonplace.

Thus, not only are philosophers offered a previously unknown level of behind-the-scenes access to the historic US space program, they are also now able to observe the process by which scientists and engineers worked together across many disciplines in order to accomplish some of humanity’s greatest feats of technical know-how: like landing the first people on the moon and returning them safely to Earth.

Armstrong prepares experimental equipment on the lunar surface during his historic moonwalk in 1969, photo courtesy of the Flight Archives

Armstrong prepares experimental equipment on the lunar surface during his historic moonwalk in 1969. NASA photo. Neil A. Armstrong Papers at Purdue Archives and Special Collections


The confrontation between human beings, their environment, and the technologies that enable us to explore this environment and adapt to its most extreme conditions raise deep philosophical questions about the exploratory nature of humanity and our quest for knowledge. This quest has led us far from home, and continues to prod us toward unknown worlds.

These invaluable resources provide a glimpse at science in action at a time when new discoveries in physics and engineering were routinely put to the test in do-or-die circumstances. The huge volume of professional communications and scientific reports contained in the Neil A. Armstrong Papers would themselves keep philosophers occupied for years to come.

Since my time in the archives, and particularly my work processing the Neil A. Armstrong Papers, I have grown accustomed to the idea of the archives as a place for philosophy. Only a brief review of some of the collections housed at Purdue’s Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections would be enough to convince many skeptics that, indeed, philosophers could benefit from exposure to just a fraction of these materials.

I know I will be incorporating archival resources into my own philosophical projects in the future – hopefully expanding work I’ve already conducted on the philosophy of mind. I invite my fellow philosophers to join me as we all search out new and exciting opportunities for the simple awe and wonder with which all true philosophy begins.

More information on the work of Shaun Gallagher can be found here:

More information on the Neil A. Armstrong papers can be found here:

Editor’s note: Essayist Donovan Irven is a doctoral candidate in the interdisciplinary program for Philosophy and Literature at Purdue University.  He is also the graduate assistant for the Barron Hilton Flight And Space Exploration Archives within Purdue University Archives and Special Collections.