Science

Is There June Cleaver on Mars?

Jennifer Seaman Cook

What kind of world-building is NASA’s white, suburban, nuclear family propaganda of exoplanet travel establishing exactly?


“Okay, toots... I am a smart fellow, as I have a very fine brain of 48 electrical relays. It works just like a telephone switchboard. If I get a wrong number, I can always blame the operator. And by the way, I see a lot of good numbers out in our audience today... Quiet please, I’m doing the talking.”

-- Elektro the Westinghouse Moto-Man, 1939 World’s Fair

Recently, NASA released nine more futurist travel posters under the science-fictional Exoplanet Travel Bureau series, described by The Drive as “NASA’s faux travel agency”. The space-travel-promoting posters, spawned by in-house designers at the government agency’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), are an illustration of the important role that makers -- cultural producers such as writers, illustrators, and artists -- can play in shaping real-life Futures Planning through imaginative world-building. Released on the JPL website with a ready-made motto of “imagination is our window into the future”, the posters designed for NASA go beyond a public education function and strategize scientific visualizations actually “used in designing space missions”.

The connection between imagination and future realities is not a new phenomenon, although the directness of the imprint can be uncertain; the list of fiction-based futurists whose vision-inspiring descriptions have already been made true by somebody else is numerous, from H.G. Wells’ war machines to Edward Bellamy’s “credit” cards. In terms of NASA’s Exoplanet Travel Bureau, the productive collaboration between creatives and institutional scientists has often been this direct. In 2014, for example, William Forstchen’s novel, Pillar to the Sky, was the result of a publisher collaboration with NASA drawing on detailed calculations for a space elevator. Escaping even the archaic worlds of 1.0 creative expert culture, NPR’s Science Friday recently crowdsourced the public for science fiction newspaper headlines in a discussion on plausibile cybercrime futures with director of the Future of Crimes Institute, Marc Goodman.

Other culturally archaic worlds influencing public imaginaries of scientific progress, however, prove harder to shake. A traditional go-to example of literary imaginary influencing the trajectory of institutionalized science, Jules Verne’s and H.G. Wells’ moon-travel stories inspired a world’s fair amusement ride at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, that helped to shape the American public imagination of technological futures. Echoing a dramatized colonial encounter, the novel-inspired 1901 ride, Voyage to the Moon, could be considered so imperialist in nature (lest we forget, the United States had recently obtained the Philippines) that scholars claim Georges Méliès’ similarly influenced A Trip to the Moon (1902) -- the first science fiction film -- was a tongue-in-cheek anti-imperialist response to it (Keith M. Johnston, Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction). What's not so recognized is that the Moon ride at the 1901 Exposition was also problematic for using people with disabled bodies as the inhabitant “Selenites”, as well as the sexualized bodies of female dancers.

Visitors on the popular amusement ride arrived on the moon in a luxury airship complete with steamer chairs on the deck, traveling through a literal freak show of alien country to the palace of the Moon King. The ride culminated in a performance by the King’s seeming harem of dancers and a culinary sampling of moon cheese, offering fairgoers a white, male, able-bodied (and decidedly Republican and neomercantilist) perspective of future space exploration that was typical of imperialist and Social Darwinist explorer narratives where ‘primitivity’, female dancers, and white heterosexuality were foci (Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern).

In the midst of which Indian dancing–girls, clothed in rose–coloured gauze… danced airily, but with perfect modesty, to the sound of viols and the clanging of tambourines. It is needless to say that Passepartout watched these curious ceremonies with staring eyes and gaping mouth, and that his countenance was that of the greenest booby imaginable.”

-- Jules Verne, Around the World in 80 Days

Socially the 1901 Pan-American Exposition had offered a science-fiction setting for envisioning broader progressive possibility. It boasted high attendance by women, gave Suffragist Susan B. Anthony a public speaking stage in the same pavilion where President McKinley spoke, and offered a world’s fair First in creating a Board of Women Directors that refused to house women’s work in a separate Women’s Building (Jennifer Cook, “Time-Traveling the Pleasurescape: Spectacle, Consumption and Science-Fictionality at the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition”). Building on the earlier protests of non-representation of “Colored” Americans at the World’s Columbian Exposition by Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, African-American community leaders by 1901 had secured the reuse of W.E.B DuBois’ prominent “Negro Exhibit” from the 1900 Paris Exposition, and hosted a visit by Booker T. Washington (Andrew R. Valint, Fighting for Recognition: The Role African Americans Played in World Fairs).

In accounts of the fair, however, race and gender tensions simmered. The marginalization of the Negro Exhibit at the fair and its absence from newspapers coincided with prominent exhibits on Darkest Africa and the old plantation South that romanticized racial stereotypes and the pastorialisms of chattel slavery, selling charming little souvenir cotton bales to audiences. A Women’s Board verbally embattled in defending their co-ed display decisions (amongst broader asexual depictions of college-educated women as spinsters) would disregard African-American requests for Board representation, fueling the argument that white feminists cloaked within their moral importance in the modernizing middle class family were advancing their public equality at the expense of racial equality (Jennifer Cook, “Time-Traveling the Pleasurescape: Spectacle, Consumption and Science-Fictionality at the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition”) .

From this turn-of-the-century backdrop for the infamous 1901 Moon ride that inspired the first science fiction film, the limits of gendered and raced thinking on the cultural imaginaries of Future technologized travel (at least who was to be the discoverer versus the explored) endured. Particularly, white women who now took co-ed trolleys to work, shop, and dine as needed participants in the growing consumer economy (Jessica Ellen Sewell, Women and the Everyday City: Public Space in San Francisco, 1890-1925) could conceivably engage in the co-ed luxuries of colonialist moon travel -- as long as heteronormative and sexualized gender roles came along for the ride.

African-Americans remained more invisible to these conceptions of technologized American life, represented eternally as primitive or as agricultural workers. The influence (or lack thereof) of the government institution on these narratives is notable as well, the 1901 Pan-American being historic for its precedent to contract with entrepreneurs and bring all Midway amusements fully into the official fairground space of censorship, making the smuttier stuff more suitable for family audiences (Robert W. Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916). As the Voyage to the Moon ride shows, co-ed mass visual entertainments of scientific future imaginaries could reinforce traditional race and gender roles (as well as their abnormal Others) in the very act of being a participating public spectator.

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