NASA Exoplanet Travel Bureau | poster excerpt

Is There a June Cleaver on Mars?

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 plausible cybercrime futures with the 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 neo-mercantilist) 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 pastoralism 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, 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.

Can we expect social progress from today’s creative futurists?

“…this special and by no means numerous class of matrons, the mothers of the moon-world, large and stately beings beautifully fitted to bear the larval Selenite… they are absolutely incapable of cherishing the young they bring into the moon; periods of foolish indulgence alternate with moods of aggressive violence, and as soon as possible the little creatures, who are quite soft and flabby and pale coloured, are transferred to the charge of celibate females, women ‘workers’ as it were, who in some cases possess brains of almost masculine dimensions.”

H. G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon

Can we expect a more distant social progress from our present creative futurists in 2016? The beautiful art deco and constructivist Exoplanet Travel Bureau posters seem to offer us not only a Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era nostalgia in their retro style, but in traditional ’30s-era gender norms as well. The poster series, with all the visual trappings of a mid-20th century, white, middle class, heteronormative, and pastorially-inflected suburbia, includes passive women in relation to their leading spacemen. These men hold the women’s hands while weightily pointing off into the Great Frontier, wrap an arm around their waists while watching a Space Sunset, or lead their coquettish, gossamer-gowned bodies to a Black and White Gala… IN OUTERSPACE!

While the scientific ideas and technical aspirations behind such posters might hold water, the inability of the series to infuse contemporary demographics or social commentary into what need be only an aesthetically retro choice is disappointing at best. A product of institutional culture probably not unrelated to more serious diversity and pay problems across STEM fields and innovation, the NASA posters somehow manage to make the popular culture video game Bioshock (set in the same time period, and featuring a cautionary biopunk tale on human eugenics and gene modification) appear a great deal more ethically minded towards the social impact and purposes of scientific ‘progress’. What kind of world-building is NASA’s white, suburban, nuclear family propaganda of exoplanet travel establishing exactly? You mean I get to be June Cleaver… ON MARS? No, thank you, NASA. You keep that.

“Librarians were stunned to find that science-fiction books were not only being borrowed in the tens of thousands, but stolen and never returned! ‘Where have we been”’ the librarians and teachers asked each other, as the Prince kissed them awake.”

Ray Bradbury, “On the Shoulders of Giants”

Perhaps more troubling, this socially uncritical nostalgia for the Golden Age of science fiction offered up by The Exoplanet Travel Bureau posters recalls the original ’30s diversity problems (and institutional racism, sexism, and xenophobia) inherent in government-sanctioned speculative futures of mass culture. For example, the 1939 World’s Fair in New York — the first with an exclusively futurist focus on building “the world of tomorrow” — highlighted the theme of technologized middle-class growth through a fictional publicity family named The Middleton Family.

Almost two decades before Leave it to Beaver, The Middleton Family featured a similarly wholesome white, middle-class, nuclear family — give or take the 19th-century vestiges of the extended family live-in granny and, yes, a black Mamie maidservant. The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair became a meta film both shot and screened at the 1939 fair, a propaganda piece for white (only) America at the cusp of the technocratic-minded national corporation’s arrival to save United States labor from the ubiquity of “staked out” small-town businesses under the Great Depression.

“Was there not a young woman out there who might enjoy sitting up late over cups of coffee, talking about dreams of space?”

William Forstchen, Pillar to the Sky

Using the futurist 1939 fair as a film set for a didactic overarching plot of the ample jobs, leisure, and safety to be provided by technologized corporate capitalism, The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair played America’s speculative stock market troubles to a matter of contracted R&D and middle-class American values at a time when the Rural Electrification Act (REA) was still working to unify national electrification against anti-socialist resistance. The film waged its propagandistic battle between ignorant anti-capitalist ideals and industrious economic facts through the characters of an optimistic, pro-American engineer for Westinghouse and a cynical, individualist (and very anti-semitically Jewish) painter-Communist (an ironic choice for its mocking of the ignored abstract art that adorned the 1939 fairgrounds under the auspices of the WPA).

This ideological tussle, of course, was waged on the battleground of who would get to marry the Middleton’s only daughter, a “pretty” young woman who naively thinks her husband won’t want her to cook and clean (sure, winks grandmother, as the nuclear ’50s already starts to gel). Poor daughter Middleton is not much for science and spends most of her time in a lovers’ quarrel, while the multi-generational “boys” club tours the harder scientific exhibits of the fair. The family matriarchs attend dishwasher demonstrations, of course.

“…read a paper while her dishes are being washed! She’ll look young when she’s 100!”

Grandma Middleton

The heternormative gender roles and class and racial obscurities of The Middleton Family film were equally matched at the 1939 World’s Fair by a “Typical American Family” competition and a robot named the Elektro the Westinghouse Moto-Man, who scripted hard-boiled and mildly sexist jokes during public demonstrations (which make more sense when you discover that the pretty young woman who showroomed him in photos was replaced by a male presenter for The Middleton Family film). Then there was the popular display of reproductive health models — a collaboration between gynecologist R. L. Dickenson and sculptor Abram Belskie — that reinforced Americanness in the healthy, white, childbearing heterosexual couple (Anna G. Creadick, Perfectly Average: The Pursuit of Normality in Postwar America).

The eugenic futures inherent in such health spectacles would tour the country after the fair under the institutional auspices of the Cleveland Health Museum, the Dickenson-Belskie models under their care now including two nude sculptures titled “The Average American Boy and Girl” and affectionately called “Norman” and “Norma” by the press (Julian B. Carter, The Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880-1940). The statues of clearly Caucasian origin were claimed to be based on the measurements of thousands of young Americans and reflect scientific advancements in average health and nutrition. Today they might look eerily similar to the Aryan ideals of Third Reich figural sculpture.

Scholar Julian B. Carter noted that Norman and Norma, as a couple, reflected interwar discussions of “normality” as a naturalized and invisible way of talking about “the ideal of specifically heterosexual whiteness.” In this way, concepts of the normal became part of powerful “‘race-evasive’ codes… during the 1920s and 30s” that masked the creation and instruction of white racial difference. Carter’s research also shows us how concepts policing heterosexual gender roles can be bound up in norms of race and middle-class standards of living just ripe for economically frustrated cultural fascisms.

Consider the cultural pedestal reserved for elective middle-class housewives in comparison to the general ‘welfare queen’ disdain for poor women, who wish to be with young and vulnerable children at home, often without the added choice of affordable healthcare. As Futurists continue to prophesize the technological obsolescence of entire industries of viable employment and non-contingent labor, as well as layers of technological innovation and environmental quality of life available only to the paying elite, we should at least be using history to remind ourselves to ask what happens when scientific advancement (anywhere) is not also social progress. Retro is cool, but uncritical retro can be… history repeating itself.

“It is not through the physical exhibits alone that this gesture has manifested itself. The magic of modern communications makes possible a continuing participation by word of mouth itself.”

F. D. R., opening ceremony of the 1939 World’s Fair

If NASA’s Exoplanet Travel Bureau posters operate from the nostalgic pretense that gender roles and the invisibilities of institutional racism never change(d), we should at least take comfort in the fact that creative futurists have been wrong before, making predictive imaginaries based on social hierarchies that soon became outmoded as well. Long before Wired was writing about “The Future of Wearable Tech”, a 1930s Pathetone Weekly newsreel on speculative fashion design of the future was embedding communications technology in couture clothing.

Despite the title, Eve, A.D. 2000, it is the lone man in the black and white newsreel who is outfitted (awkwardly) with a rotary dial desk telephone on his chest, a curious thing considering that by the ’40s the telephone had become a feminized technology so dominated by housewives, secretaries, and Ma Bell telephone operators as to inspire a famous film noir in which the overbearing wife who uses it to spy on her downtown husband is punitively murdered.

Making the impossible growth of the city skyscraper, the distance of the domestic suburb practically and physically possible, the “unseen link” of the telephone in Sorry Wrong Number (1948) was brought under a gendered industry of cheap, male-dominated female labor and increased homework outsourced to ‘chatty’ housewives by their husbands (Lana F. Rakow, Gender on the Line: Women, the Telephone, and Community Life). As the film suggests, telephone communications also shadowed a network of socializing suburban women learning to use it to transgress under pretenses of chatter, breaching illusory modern boundaries between public and private, commercial and residential, male and female roles, inner and outer life, gossip and agency against male control.

As you can imagine, NASA’s exoplanet future is not my future, but perhaps a cultural product of male-dominated institutions that envisions me inevitably frosting cupcakes full time for PTA meetings in outer space (or maybe just as double-duty after my lesser paying job), oblivious to the fact that my invisible black neighbors have crappier space-schools. It’s time to remember that male executives sunk Hugo Gernsback’s technological imaginary of interactive television into a shopping network to stoke impulse shopping in homebound women. As communications scholar Lana Rakow points out, it is institutionalized constructions of “social order” that limit the ability of “space-adjusting” technological advancements to transcend them. Let us instead imagine improving our connections between each other in space, not just our means to it. We can get started right here on Earth.