Lucianne Walkowicz: Thank you, every­one, so much for being here today. I have some brief open­ing remarks before we get to our first won­der­ful pan­el. I want­ed to begin with a ter­ri­to­r­i­al acknowl­edg­ment. Which I will read from because I can­not mem­o­rize any­thing.

We acknowl­edge the Piscataway and Pamunke peo­ples, whose tra­di­tion­al and unced­ed ter­ri­to­ry we’re gath­ered upon today. Gathering here, we pay respect to the elders, both past and present. We acknowl­edge the grave harm that colo­nial­ism brought to these lands, and in par­tic­u­lar the era­sure of both indige­nous and African iden­ti­ties under not only slav­ery but racist laws that seg­re­gat­ed all peo­ples into the bina­ry clas­si­fi­ca­tion of white and black.

We hon­or those who have lived and do live now at the inter­sec­tions of iden­ti­ty and expe­ri­ence, which we will be explor­ing today. And we also hon­or and thank Piscataway Indian leader Chief Turkey Tayac, whose lead­er­ship in the indige­nous social jus­tice move­ment of the 20th cen­tu­ry played a piv­otal role in reclaim­ing indige­nous iden­ti­ty not only here but in com­mu­ni­ties allied with the American Indian Movement for self-determination around the world.

Thank you again, Dan, for such a nice intro­duc­tion. It has been just an incred­i­ble year to spend in what I hope you’ll agree is an incred­i­ble space, in addi­tion to the won­der­ful read­ing and the con­ver­sa­tions that I’ve been able to have and events that I’ve been able to orga­nize and par­tic­i­pate in. One of my very favorite things about being here is just won­der­ing around the build­ing, which I hope you’ll take the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do if you have time today.

My work here is focused on, as Dan men­tioned, the ethics of Mars explo­ration. Specifically the ways in which our plans for space inter­sect with our his­to­ries here on Earth. And in par­tic­u­lar, the way in which we employ his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives and use those to dis­cuss space has a way of reshap­ing the way that we inter­pret what hap­pened here on our own plan­et. And so these affect not only our under­stand­ing of the past but of the present and the things that we might do in the future. And so I’ve been spend­ing time here dig­ging into the sto­ries we tell about why we go to space, and who we con­ceive of being an explor­er. And also of course the rapid­ly chang­ing pol­i­cy land­scape that is now shap­ing what we will do in the future.

So you heard a lit­tle bit about the chair’s posi­tion here from Dan. I want­ed to remark also that Barry Blumberg was not him­self an astro­bi­ol­o­gist despite hav­ing been the first head of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. His spe­cial­ty was actu­al­ly in infec­tious dis­ease, and he— I think it’s inter­est­ing that he was the per­son who felt it was so impor­tant for there to be this dia­logue between the sci­ences and the human­i­ties, because he him­self was a per­son who was just inter­est­ed in a wide vari­ety of things. He won the Nobel Prize, actu­al­ly, for iden­ti­fy­ing Hepatitis B. And so in some of their read­ing that I got to do about him, he was laud­ed as hav­ing pre­vent­ed more cas­es of can­cer than any­one in his­to­ry. So if any­one is look­ing for some­thing to put in their memorial…no pres­sure. But he was, it sounds like, an incred­i­ble guy. And so it’s been a real hon­or to spend time in such a unique posi­tion, where one has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to deal with both issues in the human­i­ties and in sci­ence as well. Because very few places or posi­tions like this exist, I think.

So as I men­tioned, one of the things I’ve real­ly enjoyed doing is wan­der­ing around the library. Aside from our many incred­i­ble col­lec­tions, we also have a won­der­ful col­lec­tion of Ethernet cables that are retro­fit­ted in the base­ment. But the thing that I specif­i­cal­ly want­ed to touch on— Is that somebody’s…alarm, I think it’s going off. So, one of the things that I hap­pened across while walk­ing around here was Thomas Jefferson’s library, just down across the way there. And what was most strik­ing to me about it was not nec­es­sar­i­ly the books them­selves but actu­al­ly the explo­ration of the orga­ni­za­tion that he used, which was based on Francis Bacon’s method of orga­niz­ing libraries into mem­o­ry, rea­son, and imag­i­na­tion. And so, Bacon thought of this as mem­o­ry being his­to­ry, rea­son being phi­los­o­phy, and imag­i­na­tion being specif­i­cal­ly poet­ry. But I imme­di­ate­ly saw how these three cat­e­gories could real­ly shape the way that I was think­ing about this sort of mul­ti­fac­eted explo­ration of Mars and the ethics sur­round­ing our going there, of human beings actu­al­ly liv­ing beyond Earth.

So today, we’ll dive into mem­o­ry from the stand­point of these his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives that I men­tioned ear­li­er and how they reshape how we think about our own his­to­ry. And we’ll also talk about rea­son. So not just phi­los­o­phy, as Bacon envi­sioned it, but also some of the new­er things that we’ve dis­cov­ered about Mars and its own his­to­ry and also the pol­i­cy land­scape that we’re now enter­ing into in space. And, we’ll end also with imag­i­na­tion, talk­ing about futurisms from per­spec­tives that are often not cen­tered in the con­ver­sa­tion about our future. And I hope that you’ll stay the entire day if you can. I think it will be real­ly fun. We’ll also have a num­ber of won­der­ful per­for­mances that will speak to each one of the pan­els that we have here. So, thank you all so much for com­ing and thank you tremen­dous­ly to all of the pan­elists who are here today and who have tak­en the time to trav­el and be part of this event. So with­out fur­ther ado, we’ll move on to our first pan­el.

So, the pan­els today are divid­ed into three beats, each aug­ment­ed by a per­for­mance as I men­tioned before. And this first pan­el is called The Right Stuff.” So the overview for this was that Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff was real­ly sem­i­nal in cre­at­ing this arche­type of this sort of fight­er pilot space cow­boy astro­naut. And it real­ly cement­ed that idea of like all astro­nauts being Chuck Yeager in pop­u­lar cul­ture. And, in many ways it also drew on fron­tier themes that have been used to talk about space. And so, in this first pan­el we’ll be talk­ing about how these nar­ra­tives of space explo­ration influ­ence our mod­ern ideas about who can explore space, and what it means to real­ly have the right stuff, and how that mean­ing might evolve, and how we could change it. So with­out fur­ther ado, I will intro­duce our pan­elists.

Our first pan­elist today is Brenda J. Child. Brenda is Northrop Professor and Chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, and for­mer Chair of the Department of American Indian Studies. She is the author of sev­er­al books in American Indian his­to­ry includ­ing Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 19001940, which won the North American Indian Prose Award; Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community; Indian Subjects: Hemispheric Perspectives on the History of Indigenous Education. her 2014 book My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks: Ojibwe Family Life and Labor on the Reservation won the American Indian Book Award and Best Book in the Midwestern History Award. She’s a mem­ber of the Board of Trustees of the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian, and past pres­i­dent of the Native American & Indigenous Studies Association. Child was born on the Red Lake Ojibwe Reservation in north­ern Minnesota, where she’s a mem­ber of a com­mit­tee writ­ing a new con­sti­tu­tion for the 12,000-member nation. Please wel­come Brenda Child. [applause]

Our next pan­elist is Brian Nord. Brian Nord’s cur­rent research is in teach­ing intel­li­gent machines to search for clues of the uni­verse’s ori­gin and des­tiny. In par­tic­u­lar, he uses arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence to study the cos­mos, includ­ing dark ener­gy, dark mat­ter, and the ear­ly uni­verse. Nord also com­mu­ni­cates with the pub­lic regard­ing sci­ence, sci­ence pol­i­cy, diver­si­ty, and inclu­sion. He trains sci­en­tists in pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tion, advo­cates for sci­ence fund­ing, and works with high school stu­dents in the class­room and in research envi­ron­ments. Nord is a Visiting Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and a Senior Member of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics (KICP) at the University of Chicago. He leads a team of researchers who apply AI to ques­tions in cos­mol­o­gy. Nord is co-leader of edu­ca­tion and pub­lic engage­ment at KICP, where he orga­nizes a year-long insti­tute that pro­vides oppor­tu­ni­ties for high school stu­dents to inno­vate in hands-on physics expe­ri­ences out­side the class­room. Nord is also cocre­ator of ThisIsBlackLight​.com, an online cur­ricu­lum to teach the Black expe­ri­ence in America. [applause]

Our next pan­elist is Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. She’s a post­doc­tor­al Research Associate in the­o­ret­i­cal physics at the University of Washington, Seattle, and lead axion wran­gler and social media team mem­ber for the NASA STROBE‑X Probe Concept Study. In 2019, she will be an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of New Hampshire. Her dri­ving impulse is to under­stand the ori­gin of space­time and the par­ti­cles that pop­u­late it, as well as how every­thing got to be the way it is. Recognized as one of 15 Black Women Who Are Paving the Way in STEM and Breaking Barriers” by Essence mag­a­zine, Prescod-Weinstein stud­ies par­ti­cle astro­physics and cos­mol­o­gy, and her research spans from large scale (cos­mic accel­er­a­tion) to the very small (dark mat­ter par­ti­cles). She also has a strong inter­est in fem­i­nist philoso­phies of sci­ence, and Science, Technology, and Society Technology Studies. And she was the recip­i­ent of the 2017 LGBT+ Plus Physicists Acknowledgement of Excellence Award. Her work was fea­tured in Huffington Post, Gizmodo, Nylon and the African-American Intellectual History Society. Please wel­come Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. [applause]

Our next pan­elist is Ashley Shew. Ashley Shew is Assistant Professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech, and works in the phi­los­o­phy of tech­nol­o­gy at its inter­sec­tion with dis­abil­i­ty stud­ies, emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy, and ani­mal stud­ies. She is author of Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge, and coed­i­tor of Spaces for the Future: A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology. Shew was a recent awardee of a National Science Foundation CAREER Grant, run­ning from 2018 to 2023, to study nar­ra­tives about tech­nol­o­gy from the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty that often stand in con­trast to dom­i­nant media and engi­neer­ing nar­ra­tives about dis­abil­i­ty. Please wel­come Ashley Shew.

So each of the pan­els will have a slight­ly dif­fer­ent pan­el for­mat. And for this morn­ing, our pan­elists have elect­ed to give an open­ing state­ment. So we’ll just begin from left to right with Dr. Child.

Brenda J. Child: Great, thank you. Is this on? Can you hear? OKay, great. So I spend most of my time, my schol­ar­ly life, think­ing about American Indian lives in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. And so when Lucianne first invit­ed me, I thought she must have the wrong per­son in mind, as some­one who’s trained in American Indian his­to­ry. But, I real­ly appre­ci­ate being invit­ed, and for the work that you’re doing, and how broad­ly you’re think­ing about inter­dis­ci­pli­nar­i­ty. It’s real­ly excit­ing to be part of this con­ver­sa­tion and to read the work of these—to me—young schol­ars and the work that they’re doing. It’s very excit­ing.

American Indians often use the word sur­vival” to describe the last 500 years of European set­tler colo­nial­ism. In fact just ear­li­er this week I was read­ing a dis­ser­ta­tion by a young schol­ar from Canada who went a step fur­ther and used the term surthri­vance”, and I thought well that’s an inter­est­ing idea. As sur­vivors, many of us are thriv­ing today, and that’s real­ly excit­ing to see, espe­cial­ly from the van­tage point of the uni­ver­si­ty, the things that are going on in Indian coun­try today and with our stu­dents. Of course, not all of us are thriv­ing, but it’s excit­ing to be part of some of the work that’s tak­ing place in Indian coun­try today.

As indige­nous peo­ple, I just want to say, think­ing about that term surthri­vance,” we want to be around in the future, and we of course have been in this coun­try and in North America and the Americas for a very long time. So per­haps in the future, we would like to trav­el to Mars. I’ll leave that open; that sounds like sort of an excit­ing thing.

Of course, this con­ver­sa­tion and the ideas that Lucianne has pre­sent­ed made me think about how, as American Indian peo­ple, we were very big play­ers in the explo­rations that took place 500 years ago. So why not par­tic­i­pate in inter­plan­e­tary explo­ration as well. And I guess it got me think­ing just a lit­tle bit about what indige­nous peo­ple have to offer in think­ing about inter­plan­e­tary explo­ration. Of course as I men­tioned, we helped out a lot in the set­tle­ment of North and South America, teach­ing set­tlers to do things, famous­ly, like grow corn and learn how to sur­vive in this new envi­ron­ment. So we have that expe­ri­ence to offer. Perhaps less well-known, or maybe we don’t think of this as often, because of the way that American Indian peo­ple have set­tled in more recent cen­turies.

And so, since the reser­va­tion era, peo­ple tend to think about American Indians as liv­ing with­in a kind of geographically-bounded space, but that’s not the way that we’ve always lived. We were in fact big set­tlers. We moved around through the Americas. I’m from the Great Lakes from Minnesota, and in our part of the world we trav­eled by canoe. And we know from new schol­ar­ship that’s tak­ing place in the Pacific that indige­nous Hawaiians and peo­ple from the Pacific were amaz­ing trav­el­ers. And in fact, we have a new schol­ar who’s joined us at the University of Minnesota who is teach­ing— He’s from Guam and knows a lot about Pacific tra­di­tions of canoe­ing. And he’s teach­ing a class on com­par­a­tive canoes at the University of Minnesota and actu­al­ly has a double-hulled canoe that he stores in the University boathouse.

So, native peo­ple have been trav­el­ers for quite a long time, and we have had of course some famous native peo­ple who’ve been trav­el­ers. You prob­a­bly know, think­ing about this part of the world, that Pocahontas trav­eled from the Chesapeake to London. She’s prob­a­bly one of the most famous of native trav­el­ers. And there’s…if you head over to the NMAI and you see the Americans exhib­it, there is a large sto­ry about Pocahontas and how she’s kind of played into American his­to­ry and even American imag­in­ings of native peo­ple.

There’s anoth­er famous trav­el­er that I often think about, a man named Black Elk who was a Lakota, who trav­eled to Europe to per­form in the Wild West shows. And this was a fair­ly com­mon expe­ri­ence. I have a friend who’s just writ­ten a book about indige­nous London, about the ear­ly Inuit and oth­er trav­el­ers from the Americas who came—sometimes invol­un­tar­i­ly, some­times at their own will—to parts of Europe.

At the University of Minnesota I feel real­ly for­tu­nate because I have a— You know, I always have won­der­ful col­leagues to rely on, and I just want to men­tion the work of David Chang who’s writ­ten a recent book about Native Hawaiian glob­al geo­gra­phies. And what he has asked us to do is to kind of shift the par­a­digm. And he has a cou­ple of ques­tions that I’m just going to kind of pose to you.

So he says in his new book, What if we were to under­stand indige­nous peo­ple as active agents of glob­al explo­ration, rather than the pas­sive objects of that explo­ration?” Which is I think what most of us have learned in study­ing American or European or world his­to­ry. So he also says, What if, instead of con­ceiv­ing of glob­al explo­ration as an activ­i­ty just of European men,” and we know the names, right, even if we’re not experts: Columbus, Magellan, Cook, we thought of it instead as an activ­i­ty of the peo­ple they dis­cov­ered?” And this is the shift that he tries to make. And so, Chang also says, What could such a new per­spec­tive on the project of glob­al explo­ration reveal about the mean­ing of geo­graph­i­cal under­stand­ing and its place in strug­gles over pow­er in the con­text of colo­nial­ism?”

So, I high­ly rec­om­mend his book. When I read a book like this that is full of provoca­tive ideas and also beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten I’m always real­ly jeal­ous. So I wish I could say these were all my ideas, but I want to leave you with some of those points that he makes and high­ly rec­om­mend his new book which is called The World and All the Things upon It.

Walkowicz: Thank you.


Brian Nord: Good morn­ing. Thank you to Lucianne and the Kluge Center for hav­ing us and hav­ing this dis­cus­sion. And it’s a priv­i­lege to be sit­ting here with you folks to talk about this.

The idea of con­tin­u­ing to go out there. That as if it’s a neces­si­ty, as if it’s our…as if it’s our des­tiny is a clear ques­tion. I used to be on the side of oh we have to go because it’s what’s next.” And in the last decade that whole per­spec­tive has been chang­ing for me. And, in the last cou­ple of years as I’ve begun to work on the inter­sec­tion of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and astro­physics, it has also pro­vid­ed a new lens to think about what work means to us an indi­vid­u­als and what work means to soci­ety. If we are going to go out there, if we’re going to go fur­ther, it is very like­ly that it is going to be high­ly auto­mat­ed. It is very like­ly that soft­ware and advanced algo­rithms are going to be a key part of that. And if we think about the huge com­plex machines that dri­ve our society—governments, corporations—those were already sort of like advanced algo­rithms in a way. They’re these com­plex things that we can’t inter­pret, that we don’t know how they work. And they have com­mod­i­fied human beings. That is how those sys­tems have sur­vived. And so when we accel­er­ate that machin­ery with arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, what will that mean for work as we’re in space? What will that mean for how human bod­ies are con­tin­ued to be treat­ed?

So I think if we’re going to con­sid­er how—if we’re going to think care­ful­ly about how we’re going to go out there, if we’re going to refo­cus who we cen­ter, we need to ask how we’ve been doing it here and if we’re ready for that change. And if we’re ready for…if we’re ready to say we’re going to go out there and try to be some­thing dif­fer­ent out there, what makes us think we can do that if we weren’t ready to be some­thing dif­fer­ent here? I think we’re here—right now on Earth with these new tech­nolo­gies, we’re at an inflec­tion point. And, we have a deci­sion to make about whether we are going to con­tin­ue to allow pow­er to accu­mu­late through these tech­nolo­gies, or if we’re going to find a way to shift that pow­er to folks who haven’t had it before. So that’s one lens through which I view this chal­lenge.

With my role at University of Chicago as Lucianne men­tioned, I’m the fac­ul­ty leader for the Space Explorers Program. This is a thing that’s being going on for twenty-five years—I recent­ly joined it. And we’re try­ing to shift it, in a way, to pre­pare a new gen­er­a­tion of thinkers and feel­ers and humans for approach­ing work and research in a dif­fer­ent way. So the nuts and bolts of this pro­gram are that we have essen­tial­ly thir­ty stu­dents per year; they’re in high school. And this year that’s com­ing up they’re ris­ing sopho­mores. And we engage with them in… They’re in labs inside the University of Chicago, but it’s meant to be a non-classroom envi­ron­ment so that they can more expe­ri­ence sci­ence as an every­day thing. So they can more expe­ri­ence sci­ence and tech­nolo­gies and build a habit…like what many of my col­leagues are as researchers and scholars—there’s a habit of think­ing, at least in our cur­rent aca­d­e­m­ic con­text. And so we want those stu­dents to devel­op those skills so that they’re ready for the next set of chal­lenges which…it’s not about mem­o­riz­ing things, it’s about know­ing how to think. It’s about know­ing how to approach prob­lems.

So this last year, to put a fin­er point on this, the idea was that— How do we have you learn how to do research that’s not try­ing to think about things from the back of a book, try­ing to fig­ure out what’s in the back of a book? It’s how do you think about a prob­lem that mat­ters to you and how do you apply sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy to it? And so this year, the thir­ty stu­dents went into three dif­fer­ent teams, ten stu­dents each, and we asked them, how would you devel­op a civ­i­liza­tion on a for­eign ter­res­tri­al body, on anoth­er ter­res­tri­al body…extraterrestrial body, for a hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple. With the main con­sid­er­a­tions being ener­gy gen­er­a­tion and ener­gy dis­tri­b­u­tion. And, in a way more crit­i­cal­ly, how do you engage with those ques­tions from an eth­i­cal point of view? And so they were charged to answer ques­tions about, how do you help peo­ple sur­vive and how do you think about how human bod­ies and humans are treat­ed in that kind of envi­ron­ment?

And…somewhat to my amaze­ment, but then again not, because these stu­dents are amaz­ing, they came back with amaz­ing answers. They only had a week to think about this. And they blew us away. It was amaz­ing.

And so, I think about, when we think about work from the con­text of AI and automa­tion, we think about work from the per­spec­tive of research and how do we build skills for oth­er gen­er­a­tion, I’m ask­ing myself how do we rethink how we train our­selves, how do we rethink how…not only, you know, what the right stuff is, but how do we think ahead to be ready for what the next impor­tant kind of right stuff is? Thank you.


Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: So, you guys are amaz­ing to fol­low. In the worst kind of way. So Spanish artist Santiago Sierra recent­ly told The Guardian UK news­pa­per— This was actu­al­ly in the news­pa­per I think yes­ter­day or the day before, Planting a nation­al flag in a hith­er­to unvis­it­ed place has nev­er been an inno­cent ges­ture. This is how colo­nial process­es always begin.”

So because I am a Black and Caribbean American descend­ed from slaves, I’m more famil­iar with the great law of the Iroquois than I am with any moral rules that my African ances­tors lived by, because I’m actu­al­ly not sure who my African ances­tors were. And my basic under­stand­ing of this law is that it teach­es that we must con­sid­er the impact of our actions on those who will live sev­en gen­er­a­tions from now. And I know that when colo­nial process­es begin, no one is real­ly think­ing of the next sev­en gen­er­a­tions. It’s just not how colo­nial­ism works.

And so because of this, the list of anx­i­eties that I expe­ri­ence when think­ing about the right stuff is real­ly about whether we have the right stuff. When I think about humans arriv­ing on anoth­er plan­et like Mars…you know, ques­tions I’m ask­ing myself, could— And when we go to the moon, which is actu­al­ly one of the first des­ti­na­tions, I think, is could min­ing on the moon for­ev­er alter how a future gen­er­a­tion see[s] this majes­tic, and nat­ur­al, satel­lite of Earth? Who will prof­it? Who will per­ish in the expe­di­tion? Will such mis­sions ulti­mate­ly exac­er­bate inequal­i­ties that already exist on Earth? And in fact, will mis­sions to Mars make life on Earth worse?

How can we have these con­ver­sa­tions with a lan­guage that refus­es to untwine itself with the lin­gua fran­ca of set­tler colo­nial­ism? So dis­cov­ery, explo­ration, set­tle­ment, col­o­niz­ing. You dig a lit­tle bit deep and these words come back to set­tler colo­nial­ism.

And then, what are pos­si­ble future gen­er­a­tions on Mars? So by this I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean human or even Earth-orig­i­nat­ing life, but who and what do we eclipse by choos­ing to lay claim to land else­where.

So I think about this as a Star Trek fan. And I mean I’m an annu­al Star Trek convention…gold ticket-holding…seen every episode of every series fan. Anyone who fol­lows me on social media has seen the many many pic­tures to prove it. And while I think the show has its prob­lems on the whole, I’ve loved its expan­sive vision not just of human­i­ty but of humanoid­i­ty? Of all of us humanoids learn­ing how to share not just a plan­et but a galaxy.

And so as a physi­cist I spend some time at the con­ven­tions explain­ing to fel­low fans that warp-speed trav­el, trav­el at the speed of light, is prob­a­bly not going to hap­pen. And this means that the key gen­er­a­tive moment for first con­tact with anoth­er species in the Star Trek uni­verse, humans reach­ing warp one and catch­ing the atten­tion of the Vulcans, is prob­a­bly nev­er going to hap­pen. It’s prob­a­bly not pos­si­ble. And it’s like­ly pos­si­ble that even if Vulcans did exist and had bet­ter space trav­el tech­nol­o­gy than we do, they still can’t trav­el at warp either, and more like­ly they fig­ured out how to live multi­gen­er­a­tional­ly on a ship that could take mul­ti­ples of sev­en gen­er­a­tions to get any­where. So, then again physi­cists have often been wrong in the past about what is pos­si­ble. So I always like to include this caveat: so maybe we will be wrong again.

So as I was think­ing about com­ing to this event, I reached out to Connor Trinneer who played the engi­neer Trip Trucker on the penul­ti­mate Star Trek series, Enterprise. I don’t know if any­body else is a Trip fan. I was. And I was espe­cial­ly keen to hear from Connor because Enterprise is the series that deals with Earth’s first for­ays from the solar sys­tem and how humans go on to form the sto­ried Federation of the Vulcans, so this is kind of the ori­gin sto­ry.

So, he had to deal with things like what if a plan­et did­n’t have ani­mals but the air was filled with psy­che­del­ic pollen? That was a great act­ing episode for him. What if hav­ing sex with an alien woman got a human cis man preg­nant? These were just some of the sce­nar­ios that he had to get into char­ac­ter for so that Trip could grap­ple with them.

So, I expect­ed Connor to tell me to men­tion some­thing about the Prime Directive, the Vulcan rule which is adapt­ed by the Federation and teach­es us not to inter­fere with the inter­nal devel­op­ment of oth­er species. But instead he said some­thing to me that per­haps reflects his child­hood in a com­mu­ni­ty that had a strong pres­ence of both native and white peo­ple. He always thought that if we did meet anoth­er species, it would be because they want­ed some­thing from us and that that could get uncom­fort­able pret­ty quick­ly.

So I had­n’t real­ly thought about that going into this, sort of iron­i­cal­ly because I guess it’s the sto­ry­line from pret­ty much every alien film. You can tell I don’t real­ly actu­al­ly watch alien films. They always want some­thing from us and it’s nev­er good. And much has been writ­ten by indige­nous schol­ars both here in the Americas and else­where about how this style of sto­ry­telling reflects the kind of white anx­i­ety that one day they might become the vic­tims of the kind of colo­nial apoc­a­lypse they vis­it­ed on indige­nous peo­ple in Africa, the Americas, the Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand, and Asia, even some­times on their own European penin­su­la of Asia.

But what struck me in think­ing about Connor’s fram­ing of it was in fact how we could be the ones who want some­thing. So it could be us. We could be the ones who want some­thing from Mars and from the moon, per­haps to buy time by extract­ing resources that we refuse to learn how to con­serve here on plan­et Earth. So a ques­tion that I think we should ask our­selves is, in want­i­ng some­thing do we eclipse futures that we are not com­pe­tent to imag­ine? Do we vio­late the Prime Directive before there is a civ­i­liza­tion to even dis­rupt?

So some of you may be aware that I became a bit noto­ri­ous in the astron­o­my com­mu­ni­ty for sup­port­ing Kanaka Maoli, native Hawaiians who oppose the build­ing of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the Mauna Kea vol­cano. I have an under­grad­u­ate degree in physics—astrophysics and astronomy—it’s actu­al­ly gram­mat­i­cal­ly incor­rect on my diplo­ma, and a mas­ter’s in astron­o­my, and a PhD in a field that blends astron­o­my and physics, cos­mol­o­gy. So I got a lot of accu­sa­tions that I just hate sci­ence and that’s why I was doing this. But my sup­port for them was not because I hate sci­ence, not because I don’t like pret­ty pic­tures of galax­ies, or think Kanaka Maoli should­n’t be allowed to par­tic­i­pate in the kind of sci­en­tif­ic work that I do; I actu­al­ly get an exten­sive amount of hate mail with that par­tic­u­lar accu­sa­tion. I was accused of these things by peo­ple who were more inter­est­ed in char­ac­ter assas­si­na­tion than dia­logue, I think.

But the truth is as a descen­dant of slaves and a child of a small trop­i­cal island, Barbados, I under­stood the ter­ri­ble entan­gle­ment between sci­ence and a fail­ure to imag­ine oth­er ways of being and oth­er ways of know­ing. As my research is about curios­i­ty and imag­i­na­tion, my day-to-day real­i­ties as a sci­en­tist are deeply tied to sci­ence as a tool that enhances colo­nial­ism, and that has been one of my strug­gles as a stu­dent and prac­ti­tion­er of sci­ence.

So to give some exam­ples, astronomers were once fund­ed to watch an eclipse from Haiti in order to enhance our abil­i­ty to mea­sure dis­tances. And this was to ensure that slaves and goods would move faster across the Atlantic. Today, they are fund­ed to help devel­op adap­tive optics, and mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy that makes our beau­ti­ful pic­tures clear­er. All of the tele­scopes on Mauna Kea have been fit­ted with adap­tive optics tech­nol­o­gy. But they make our pic­tures clear­er whether they are spy images or galaxy images.

We are only a few years out from an award-winning white woman astronomer, Sandy Faber, refer­ring to Kanaka Maoli pro­tec­tors, as they are known, of Mauna Kea as a horde of natives” attack­ing astron­o­my. Her words were recir­cu­lat­ed uncrit­i­cal­ly by lead­ers in our field, such as the chair of the astron­o­my depart­ment at UC Berkeley, until stu­dents, some of them Native American, sound­ed the alarm to the rest of us.

So it is in this con­text I ask about human trav­el to Mars, or real­ly any­where, even across the Atlantic, why now? Do we have the right stuff to con­nect with oth­er lands, when the most pow­er­ful among us refuse to acknowl­edge our rela­tion­ship to the lands that we know, or the lands that we knew? Do we have the right time in human his­to­ry for this new way of being in the solar sys­tem? What mean­ing does a mis­sion to Mars have for mak­ing black lives mat­ter? For being idle no more. Will it keep our waters safe? The promise of tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment that will improve lives and enhance explo­ration” is tan­ta­liz­ing, but then what of Ferguson? Is a pipeline through Standing Rock progress for the peo­ple of that land? Is the glob­al warm­ing we have achieved through tech­nol­o­gy? And this can be read as an achieve­ment of a kind, that we know how to warm an entire plan­et. Is that progress? And in rela­tion to that, is our rela­tion­ship to progress cat­a­stroph­ic?

So these are the ques­tions that I have when we con­sid­er what is the right stuff for us and what is the right stuff for the solar sys­tem around us.


Ashley Shew: Well if she had a hard job I have an even more dif­fi­cult one. It’s hard to go last after a pan­el like this.

So I work on dis­abil­i­ty nar­ra­tives. So what would I be doing here? The assump­tion with the right stuff is that dis­abled people…aren’t. They don’t. They don’t have the right stuff. My par­tic­u­lar work is on tech­noableism, mean­ing I think a lot about how the nar­ra­tives of tech­nol­o­gy that we have often rein­force ableism and some­times do this by using the lan­guage of empow­er­ment to cov­er up an ableist nar­ra­tive about dis­abled lives that would see us as defec­tive and need­ing to be fixed but oh yay, tech­nol­o­gy…

So a lot of the ways in which I think about how dis­abled peo­ple have or have not been includ­ed in what counts as hav­ing the right stuff, it takes three dif­fer­ent veins. So, the first is I’ve been think­ing about how every­one in space is going to be dis­abled any­way. So we don’t recruit peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties but if you go up in space the changes to your body? will mean that you come back with some sort of dis­abil­i­ty, whether it’s a tem­po­rary dis­abil­i­ty or more long-term if we’re talk­ing about changes to vision, if we’re talk­ing about things like osteo­poro­sis.

I’m also think­ing in this vein that every­one who goes to space, if we’re talk­ing about becom­ing inter­plan­e­tary, might want to make them­selves more like dis­abled peo­ple. So when I think about how we address dif­fer­ent dis­abil­i­ties and the tech­nolo­gies of those involved, my friend Mallory Kay Nelson, when I start­ed, we were hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about space poop because it’s my favorite. And—sorry, Lucianne. And we were talk­ing about how hard it is to poop in space and all the dif­fer­ent like, attempts to make good toi­lets in space—it’s real­ly hard, y’all. And she was like, You know, astro­nauts should just have osto­my bags.” We should change their diges­tive tracts, such that instead of tap­ing a bag to your anus, you already have a bag sys­tem worked out and all the equip­ment that’s involved in that sort of thing, and it’s not…it’s going be a lot less gross, actu­al­ly, in terms of the acci­dents that hap­pen with space poop. So just to think about cybor­giz­ing our­selves, to think about both being and becom­ing dis­abled in space, is one of the lines through which I think about these things.

The sec­ond has to do with recent work from dis­abled and deaf artists. So if you fol­low the hash­tag #CripsInSpace on Twitter, there was a recent issue of the Deaf Poets Society that focused on space nar­ra­tives from peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties and asked about what bod­ies were actu­al­ly best to send up and about the nar­ra­tives they’ve heard about space their lives. So part of it is you know, feel­ing as if when you’re told as a child you could do any­thing, that’s not true a lot of times for dis­abled peo­ple. We know who gets recruit­ed for things, who can serve in mil­i­tary and space con­texts, and it’s not dis­abled peo­ple. But also in terms of how dis­abled peo­ple might be bet­ter at going to space. So some of these artist’s nar­ra­tives, Sam de Leve, one of the co-editors, they talk about how nav­i­gat­ing the world in a wheel­chair they’re always push­ing off of oth­er sur­faces. Like this looks a lot more like low­er grav­i­ty. When you think about how bod­ies move in space, in fact, phys­i­cal­ly dis­abled peo­ple might be much more adept at move­ment in low­er grav­i­ty, just from all of the train­ing they’ve been doing on Earth on nav­i­gat­ing sur­faces in ways that peo­ple who ambu­late do not.

The third way in which I’m think­ing about some of these things is about how dis­abled and deaf peo­ple have been includ­ed in space research but nev­er con­sid­ered can­di­dates for going. So dur­ing the 1950s and 60s, you have the Gallaudet Eleven, which con­sist­ed of eleven peo­ple who were deaf from Gallaudet—yeah; I guess you guys just could have filled that in from your pri­or knowl­edge. But there were all these tests about motion sick­ness, right. So the peo­ple they recruit­ed, because of hear­ing loss that had to do with inner ear con­di­tions, they don’t get motion sick. So in test­ing for how peo­ple might go to space, they used deaf bod­ies to fig­ure out things about motion sick­ness instead of say­ing, Hey, maybe we should recruit deaf peo­ple to actu­al­ly be part of these tests because they don’t expe­ri­ence motion sick­ness in this way”, but they were used as a test ground to help fig­ure out how able-bodied peo­ple could go to space instead of say­ing, maybe these peo­ple ought to be con­sid­ered as can­di­dates as well.

So I think through­out in these three dif­fer­ent lens­es when I’m think­ing about the rela­tion­ship of dis­abil­i­ty nar­ra­tive and becom­ing inter­plan­e­tary. And I think about the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry like, things that are already built in to what’s going to be the right stuff, that there is right stuff. And that some­one can have it at all and that we don’t need like, a vari­ety of peo­ple with lots of dif­fer­ent types of stuff.

I’ll turn it over to you, Lucianne.

Walkowicz: Okay. Thank you to all the pan­elists for those won­der­ful provoca­tive open­ing state­ments. I promise we will return to space poop lat­er in the pan­el.

I’d like to return momen­tar­i­ly for our first ques­tion to real­ly the cen­tral theme of this par­tic­u­lar pan­el, in that we’ve talked a lot about mak­ing sci­ence more inclu­sive, or space explo­ration more diverse, or broad­en­ing the def­i­n­i­tion of who can be an explor­er. And I should men­tion also that in each of the pan­els that you’ll see today, the pan­els have all par­tic­i­pat­ed in pre-event calls, so I want to thank them for being the cocre­ators of some of the ques­tions that we’ll be talk­ing about.

But I’d like to start with, what is diver­si­ty for? And maybe I can prompt Chanda to do, as she is already doing, reach of the mic.

Prescod-Weinstein: Yeah, so I think that this was one of the things that came up in our pre-call and if I were to do a lit­tle bit of self-advertising, I have an arti­cle com­ing out in the Signs jour­nal of fem­i­nism next year called Making Black Women Scientists Under White Empiricism.” And one of the things that I talk about is that all of our argu­ments for diversity…at the fund­ing lev­el, at the fed­er­al lev­el, and this is encod­ed in our doc­u­men­ta­tion, is that diver­si­ty is nec­es­sary for nation­al secu­ri­ty, and it’s nec­es­sary for work­force pur­pos­es. And so, this rubs me the wrong way as an African American and as an Afro-Caribbean per­son, because it returns us to black peo­ple being nec­es­sary for labor pur­pos­es? I mean at least this time the plan is to pay peo­ple, so that’s good. And to…sort of allow them to live where they want to—redlining is still a thing.

So, I think that when we talk about diver­si­ty, some­how white peo­ple con­tin­ue to get to be curi­ous and black peo­ple con­tin­ue to be there for the sake of sup­port­ing white curios­i­ty? in some sense. And so we’re still kind of the sup­port staff.

And so I’m very trou­bled by that, and I think I real­ly want to turn towards an inter­sec­tion­al post-colonial analy­sis, rather than ana­lyz­ing from a diver­si­ty stand­point. I actu­al­ly think that diver­si­ty can be quite dan­ger­ous because it allows us to side­step these con­ver­sa­tions about colo­nial­ism and about hav­ing equal access to rights. So, we’re not talk­ing about the priv­i­lege of going to Mars or what­ev­er, we’re talk­ing about hav­ing the same abil­i­ty to access your right to par­tic­i­pate in what­ev­er human soci­ety has decid­ed to do with itself, that these are rights that peo­ple are pre­vent­ed from access­ing rather than priv­i­leges that are grant­ed to some.

Walkowicz: Anyone else? I think I’d like to hear from you, Brian, about how you think about inclu­sion in this par­tic­u­lar con­text, giv­en your work with Space Explorers.

Nord: It’s hard— Yeah, so, echo­ing every­thing that is…what you just said. I’ll start with how our aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions tend to train us for chang­ing our inclu­sive prac­tices and diver­si­ty. They tend to say, Hey, let’s just…,” as Chanda said, let’s side-step this and talk about maybe your implic­it bias or maybe what it means for these addi­tion­al human bod­ies to come and pro­vide this com­mod­i­ty of knowl­edge.” And that’s the only way that we talk about it in these aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions.

So in Space Explorers we…we don’t do that at all. We ignore that entire con­ver­sa­tion and we go for the key, deep­er ques­tions, I think, which are, how do humans think about…how do humans approach ideas of jus­tice? How do we think about how we just treat each oth­er on a one-on-one lev­el? So, in the Space Explorers Program this year, we’re in this build­ing for six or sev­en days, ten hours a day, and these sopho­mores are think­ing about these ques­tions. They end up approach­ing it by hav­ing to get along with each oth­er. Or in a con­text where they’re a diverse group. And the nuance comes in in the one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions. And so we’re there to ask them ques­tions to…as they stum­ble, we’re there to ask them ques­tions to answer for them­selves and approach the dif­fi­cul­ties head-on. And so, I look at it and our pro­gram looks at it as jus­tice first, and none of these oth­er aspects.

Walkowicz: Yeah. I had the great hon­or of being a pan­elist on the Space Explorers Program and I was real­ly impressed with the depth of thought and the cen­tral­i­ty of the dis­tri­b­u­tion and ethics ques­tions. Not just in the way it was posed to the stu­dents but also in the way that the stu­dents dealt with those top­ics first, I think.

Nord: They were…they were very hon­est. They did­n’t hold any­thing back. They asked some very chal­leng­ing ques­tions, espe­cial­ly— In one of the con­texts for these hundred-thousand-person civ­i­liza­tions is a space­ships, so a multi­gen­er­a­tional Spaceship Earth. And they came up with some pret­ty crazy answers. I won’t go into them, but there are things that we see our soci­eties using here that are not good. Control over the human body was one of the ways that they were try­ing to man­age how you main­tain this one pop­u­la­tion on a space­ship. And so they answered those ques­tions in that I think neg­a­tive way, because they had­n’t been exposed to real way—or oth­er ways of think­ing about it that are think­ing about humans as humans and not as machines.

Walkowicz: Interesting. You know, when we talk about the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of peo­ple for you know, some pur­pose, being used as tools in this larg­er enter­prise, one of the things that you raised, Brenda, dur­ing our call is that there have often been cas­es in history—and you brought up American Indians in the military—where some­thing was con­sid­ered to be a good thing” about a stereo­type that ulti­mate­ly was harm­ful to the per­son. So maybe you could speak to that.

Child: So, as I was think­ing about these ques­tions in terms of American Indian his­to­ry, I kind of was reflect­ing on some of my ear­ly work, which was about the his­to­ry of Indian edu­ca­tion and how native peo­ple were thought of. I’ll get into the mil­i­tary. But, of course, when the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment was putting native peo­ple on reser­va­tions and want­ed to move to kind of pri­va­ti­za­tion of land because Indians still had a lot of real estate, they decid­ed a com­pan­ion pro­gram would be to put chil­dren in off-reservation board­ing schools. And at that time, one of the argu­ments for this in the late 19th cen­tu­ry— I mean there were all sorts of rea­sons for doing it. But one of the argu­ments from the per­spec­tive of Washington and pol­i­cy­mak­ers and peo­ple who kind of thought about native issues is that native peo­ple seem to be dying a lot in the 19th cen­tu­ry, or the late 19th cen­tu­ry was our kind of all-time pop­u­la­tion low and we were very vul­ner­a­ble to prob­lems like tuber­cu­lo­sis. And, so, the board­ing schools were argued for as you know, a way to help native peo­ple who had kind of infe­ri­or bod­ies, and so they could enter into ath­let­ic pro­grams and things that would help them because of their, you know, poor— You know, what had hap­pened to them because of their hered­i­ty. And so, that’s inter­est­ing that that’s kind of one side of how peo­ple have looked at, and pol­i­cy­mak­ers and reform­ers, native bod­ies.

And then at some point, things changed. And maybe it had to do with kind of high rates of native peo­ple’s mil­i­tary par­tic­i­pa­tion in the 20th cen­tu­ry, where they were then thought of as hav­ing desir­able bod­ies because they were so good at hunt­ing. They were so good at gath­er­ing. They were so good at scouts. And so, to the detri­ment, I think, of native peo­ple, they were often put on the kind of front­lines in mil­i­tary con­flict since World War I. So, the ideas about native peo­ple and whether they have the right stuff or not kind of comes and goes with fed­er­al poli­cies.

Walkowicz: Yeah. And I’m struck at how this par­al­lels the dis­abil­i­ty nar­ra­tives that you [Shew] brought up in your open­ing com­ments about like the Gallaudet Eleven. What do you think the under­ly­ing… Well, I think I know the answer to this ques­tion but what is the under­ly­ing push­back against peo­ple who are dis­abled here on Earth hav­ing active par­tic­i­pa­tion? What do you hear most often in response?

Shew: Well, if you know the answer… No— [laughs] Well I mean, we have a per­va­sive cul­ture of ableism that almost every­one par­tic­i­pates in. You know, I’m dis­abled, I’m still unlearn­ing ableism every day, right? The assump­tion that dis­abled peo­ple are unable to do things and the his­to­ry that under­girds that. History that includes insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion, push peo­ple out of sight, right, if they don’t behave in the ways you hope they will. And often, that just means they tar­get peo­ple who are poor, right?

We also have a his­to­ry of shel­tered work­shops. So when you talk about the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of peo­ple, you can still pay dis­abled peo­ple sub­min­i­mum wage, right, in seg­re­gat­ed work­places. Those are begin­ning to become undone? There’s a push to elim­i­nate these things and a push to get sub­min­i­mum wages…to not have that any­more, but it’s also still there. You know, we’re still clos­ing down insti­tu­tions in Virginia, right. We’re close to Virginia—the…what was the…Virginia—I think—Colony for the Epileptics and Feebleminded. It has a new name since the 80s but it won’t be shut down until 2020. Like we’re still in a his­to­ry that we’re deal­ing with, the lega­cies of ableism. Disabled peo­ple have much high­er rates of under­em­ploy­ment, even under good employ­ment con­di­tions. The idea that you have to hide if you’re dis­abled if you’re going to go in for a job inter­view is very com­mon. I’m an amputee; in my amputee groups, they say wear pants to an inter­view, don’t wear a skirt. Don’t wear, you know, shoes that’ll reveal in any way that you’re dis­abled because they’ll think you can’t do things, right. Even when we have tech­nol­o­gized bod­ies that some­times allow dif­fer­ent func­tion­al­i­ties than peo­ple might expect, it’s still the case that a lot of peo­ple hide they’re dis­abled. And they do that for mil­i­tary ser­vice too, right. If you have any men­tal health issue raised, you’re not get­ting into the mil­i­tary, it’s not just about phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties here. The doubts peo­ple have about whether you’ll be able to do things are huge. And I think that exists for a lot of dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions but it’s one that in terms of recruit­ment for space, right, there’s a com­pul­so­ry able-bodiedness to a lot of things that we do? but it’s much more inten­si­fied when we talk about recruit­ment pro­grams for space explo­ration, or for the mil­i­tary, or for any­thing where phys­i­cal prowess is valued…maybe mis­tak­en­ly at times. Because I can think about dif­fer­ent types of dis­abled bod­ies that might nav­i­gate sur­faces much bet­ter in space than actu­al­ly able-bodied peo­ple. But we’re not often very cre­ative about think­ing about bod­ies at all. Like one thing you find out when you become dis­abled is you have to adapt every day and work around sur­faces in a way you nev­er expect­ed. That’s a lot like when astro­nauts will go to space, right? You’re hav­ing to think cre­ative­ly about the spaces you’re in and how you’ll move in them, and think ahead and plan ahead—oh plan­ning ahead. And you know, there’s this whole dif­fer­ent world that you have to adapt to, and I think most humans don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think about that. Because a lot of the spaces are already made to suit peo­ple who are non-disabled. So, you know, when I think about how we cre­ative­ly address spaces, think­ing about dis­abled bod­ies I think pro­vides a lot of excite­ment for me about what could be done dif­fer­ent­ly in this vein. But this com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion, I think, under­lies it all. I think you hit it in your first com­ment, Brian. This com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of bod­ies; whose bod­ies and minds do we val­ue is cen­tral here.

Walkowicz: [to Nord] Yeah, go on. Thanks.

Nord: So I’m won­der­ing if I could ask a ques­tion of some pan­elists if they have some thoughts about this. Over the week­end I was think­ing, do we think that it would be pos­si­ble if one of the ideas of going into space, one of the rea­sons, could it be to take every­thing that we’ve learned about this and in a sense start over? Do you see that as a rea­son­able rea­son to go?

Prescod-Weinstein: So, I guess… You know, I think the first ques­tion I would ask is, how can we get out of a con­ver­sa­tion where we’re talk­ing about val­ue and bod­ies, at all? And I think part­ly because in…you know, from a philo­soph­i­cal stand­point, and a his­to­ry of knowl­edge, that’s one knowl­edge sys­tem that we con­tin­ue to oper­ate in that we nev­er real­ly get out of? And if we can’t get out of assum­ing that that axiomat­ic start­ing point, that bod­ies and objects are things to be val­ued and that land is a thing to be val­ued, then if we take that as our start­ing point it fol­lows us into space.

So, I think we can’t escape from our­selves. We always go with us. And so, wher­ev­er we take the exper­i­ment, we are run­ning that exper­i­ment on can we be bet­ter, can we address knowl­edge sys­tems,” where…you know, to con­tex­tu­al­ize for some peo­ple, one of the issues with Mauna a Wakea, because I did­n’t talk about this at all, is that Mauna Kea is a tra­di­tion­al­ly sacred space for…not all Kanaka Maoli, because there’s quite a bit of diver­si­ty, but for peo­ple who are spir­i­tu­al prac­ti­tion­ers. It was a bur­ial ground. They don’t use European-style mark­ers that this is where the bod­ies are. So in fact you dig up a tele­scope and you’re dig­ging up some­body’s grave, essen­tial­ly.

And not just in native Hawaiian but sev­er­al Pacific com­mu­ni­ties, the land is a fam­i­ly mem­ber. So this is a vio­la­tion of a fam­i­ly mem­ber. And I think that when a lot of peo­ple heard that, it can be read very super­fi­cial­ly. Like yeah yeah, you think of the land as part of your cul­ture, part of your fam­i­ly. But I real­ly think that the chal­lenge for those of us who did not grow up in that knowl­edge sys­tem con­text is to sit with the idea what if this was my moth­er, what if this was my sis­ter?” and just to say to your­self it does­n’t mat­ter whether that’s not intu­itive for me, it is now my task to make that intu­itive.

And I actu­al­ly think as a physi­cist this is not hard, because peo­ple come to me and say, Oh, quan­tum field the­o­ry, I’ll nev­er get it.” Or gen­er­al rel­a­tiv­i­ty, how did— I’m a rel­a­tivist by back­ground and by train­ing. How did you get used to the idea of curved space-time instead of think­ing of grav­i­ty as a force?” And I tell stu­dents that if you sit with it long enough, even­tu­al­ly it becomes intu­itive to you. Curved space-time is much more intu­itive to me than grav­i­ty as a force is. Which is maybe why I’m a rel­a­tivist. Maybe there’s a—how-my-brain-works type thing hap­pen­ing there.

But the point is, is that you sit with it. And so, I don’t know if it mat­ters where we do the sit­ting, but I think that we have to do the sit­ting. And that’s one of the rea­sons the why now” ques­tion is so impor­tant. And it was the ques­tion I asked for the Thirty Meter Telescope. I love the idea of hav­ing some­thing like the Thirty Meter Telescope. I think I might be inter­est­ed in the idea of for exam­ple nuclear pow­er as an alter­na­tive ener­gy source. But I want us to do it in a moment where we can do it respon­si­bly. And I don’t know what respon­si­bly means, but I know that I don’t think that we are there yet, par­tic­u­lar­ly with the Thirty Meter Telescope. And I actu­al­ly think that there would’ve been a pos­si­bil­i­ty that had the TMT Corporation gone about things in a dif­fer­ent way, the out­come now might have been dif­fer­ent. But they nev­er actu­al­ly tried to get the buy-in from the com­mu­ni­ty and have the con­ver­sa­tion. And so in fact, I spent a lot of time dur­ing the height of those protests—nobody in the astron­o­my com­mu­ni­ty ever asked me about this because they were too busy pil­lo­ry­ing me. I spent a lot of time explain­ing to peo­ple what the Thirty Meter Telescope would do, and why it mat­tered so much to astronomers, and real­iz­ing that a lot of the pro­tec­tors, nobody had both­ered to have that basic con­ver­sa­tion with them.

Walkowicz: Brenda, you want­ed to—

Child: Yeah, just in… I like your com­ments very much, Chanda. I was think­ing how anoth­er sort of… Kind of a stereo­type and anoth­er sort of bar­ri­er to think­ing about indige­nous peo­ple as hav­ing the right stuff is that often we are not thought of, I notice—and even in the uni­ver­si­ty con­text, as not being mod­ern peo­ple. And so when you have some­thing like the tele­scope project and you have indige­nous peo­ple mak­ing, you know, an argu­ment that this land is sacred, it’s like our moth­er, peo­ple are thought of as, Well, you don’t like sci­ence; you’re not mod­ern.” And in fact indige­nous peo­ple, just like they con­ceive of them­selves as trav­el­ers and explor­ers, also think of them­selves as sci­en­tists. But yet respect is a real­ly impor­tant part of how native peo­ple con­cep­tu­al­ize their sci­ence. And some­times I noticed in the uni­ver­si­ty that we get into con­flicts at my uni­ver­si­ty, the Department of American Indian Studies has got­ten into con­flicts over tele­scope projects—the one in Arizona at Mount Graham. And the argu­ment was just, you know, Why are you opposed to this? This is sci­ence and we have the right to go in and do this.” And it’s like, we’re not talk­ing about rights, we’re talk­ing about our respon­si­bil­i­ties.

Walkowicz: Yeah. Yeah, cer­tain­ly. It reminds me also of some of the read­ing that I’ve been doing about like the cre­ation of nation­al parks and the way that the wilder­ness was thought about by set­tlers com­ing in and think­ing well like, a wilder­ness is where peo­ple aren’t, and not car­ing for the fact that it was, you know, used by mul­ti­ple nations, that there had been long-standing habi­ta­tion there, and the way that those two things you know…national parks which peo­ple now think of as these won­der­ful trea­sures was actu­al­ly real­ly tied I think to Native American reser­va­tion cre­ation as well and the dis­pos­ses­sion of lands.

And I had a ques­tion that’s total­ly gone now, so hope­ful­ly it’ll come back. You know, I think one of the things that comes up again and again also is just access to edu­ca­tion and to infor­ma­tion. And the nar­ra­tives that exist about hav­ing either spe­cial­ized knowl­edge or being allowed” in a par­tic­u­lar space. And I think also a com­mon­al­i­ty that I hear through­out some of the things that we’ve been talk­ing about is the ways in which access is often offered at the expense of a per­son­’s exist­ing iden­ti­ty. And maybe Ashley, you could speak to this from the stand­point of one of the most dom­i­nant ableist nar­ra­tives, which of course is that you know, all of this tech­nol­o­gy devel­op­ment will cre­ate peo­ple who are able-bodied” in the sort of typ­i­cal sense.

Shew: So yeah. So, when we think about who can go to a space, right, not just who can go to space. But a lot of this is inten­tion with peo­ple’s com­fort, right? So to have bod­ies that could be in com­fort­able spaces, to be able to be com­fort­able as some­one who’s neu­ro­di­ver­gent, for instance. The spaces are going to be dif­fer­ent? Or planned ahead, in ways that we can plan ahead for space, right? So when I think about cre­at­ing envi­ron­ments that are good, right, I think a lot about you know, curb cuts and things like that, too.

But, who has to be uncom­fort­able to be in a space often inhab­its my mind, and I’m sure it’s the same for my fel­low pan­elists here in think­ing through their work and what sort of com­pro­mis­es must be made in terms of how you iden­ti­fy and whether you iden­ti­fy, and whether you care to tell any­one. It’s why I actu­al­ly am pret­ty excit­ed about the idea about think­ing about how we’ll be all dis­abled in space.

So, there’s this idea… It’s gone out of favor in some ways, but peo­ple used to talk about—non-dis­abled peo­ple call them TABs, which stands for Temporarily Able-Bodied. I think there are all sorts of prob­lems with that nar­ra­tive, because you should­n’t just care about dis­abled peo­ple because you might be one one day, right. That should­n’t be… Like I should­n’t have to make it like, You’ll be dis­abled too.” But I think because, and when we think about what space will mean for our bod­ies, we’re already like organ­isms that grew up in a par­tic­u­lar niche in the world, right. So, we’re ani­mals; hi. And, already parts of the world are not par­tic­u­lar­ly acces­si­ble to us, that are unfriend­ly to our bod­ies in par­tic­u­lar ways, and we’re going to be tak­ing that to even greater extremes.

So to think about what that looks like for mov­ing bod­ies in places, and how our bod­ies will be com­pro­mised in dif­fer­ent ways, and what that will mean for think­ing about all bod­ies if we expect— Especially, even if we don’t leave this plan­et. Our suc­cess with glob­al warm­ing, as Chanda point­ed out, means that all of our bod­ies are not going to be fit to the envi­ron­men­tal niche that is com­ing for us in the future? So to think about dis­abil­i­ty as a cat­e­go­ry in which that’s per­me­able for a lot of peo­ple; a lot of peo­ple don’t imag­ine them­selves becom­ing dis­abled in the future—they should. But that is not often part of how any­one plans. I mean, that’s why we have sort of a hous­ing cri­sis for elder­ly and dis­abled folks, and why… I don’t under­stand why we keep build­ing hous­es with stairs, right? There are just some basic things about how we fail to plan, not just for space, but for age and for what we’ve done to the plan­et. All of those things knit togeth­er.

Walkowicz: Yeah.

Prescod-Weinstein: I just kin­da want to add some­thing to this. And I know I keep com­ing back to Mauna Kea, but I think for me it was the sem­i­nal point of hav­ing to eval­u­ate what am I still doing here and am I going to stay in the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty. And com­ing back to the ques­tion of moder­ni­ty and who gets to be mod­ern, one of the pro­tec­tor signs that was my favorite was Pono sci­ence is pos­si­ble.” And I’m not going to pre­tend to explain what pono means to peo­ple, but essen­tial­ly the idea was that there is a way of doing sci­ence that is eth­i­cal and keep­ing with Kanaka Maoli val­ues.

And I think the sec­ond thing that real­ly stood out to me, there was a beau­ti­ful essay by Bryan Kuwada, who’s one of the peo­ple I got to know and some­one I would con­sid­er a friend, called [We Live in the Future. Come Join Us] that he wrote in response to this. And I would encour­age every­one to go and read his words. But in fact, you know, I drew the par­al­lel between gen­er­al rel­a­tiv­i­ty and think­ing about the land as a fam­i­ly mem­ber for a very spe­cif­ic rea­sons, because GR is con­sid­ered advanced tech­no­knowl­edge. And I think that hav­ing to sit with this idea of land as fam­i­ly is equal­ly if not more dif­fi­cult mate­r­i­al to think through. And so maybe the dif­fi­cul­ty that sci­en­tists had with under­stand­ing the Kanaka Maoli posi­tion was because it is so advanced, if we were to use that word. And I think that that’s a real­ly impor­tant thing to think about, which is, could our sci­ence even be bet­ter? I don’t think that that should be the rea­son to think about respect, but I think that that’s cer­tain­ly a fea­ture in the same way that Ashley is think­ing about, I think.

Walkowicz: Yeah. [to Nord:] Sure.

Nord: So, my brief thought is that cen­ter­ing the ableist per­spec­tive and cen­ter­ing, or not even think­ing about indige­nous peo­ple’s per­spec­tives and how they live their lives, not think­ing about that is almost as will­ful­ly not cen­ter­ing inno­va­tion. We’re say­ing we want to live in an unimag­i­na­tive way.

Walkowicz: And to build off of imag­i­na­tion, one of the things that came up in our dis­cus­sion of course is how we imag­ine the sci­en­tist. So pop cul­ture depic­tions of sci­en­tists and how they do or don’t describe what we do, and how they also influ­ence the way we think of who is an explor­er. And I’ll throw that out to any­one who wants to take it.

Shew: Disabled explor­ers and sci­en­tists are always depict­ed as evil. Right, so as you were say­ing that it was like, well where does this inter­sec­tion hap­pen when dis­abled peo­ple have rep­re­sen­ta­tion in some way? I mean, we have like Captain Hook…you know, evil sci­en­tist, mad sci­en­tist, right, neu­ro­di­ver­gent sci­en­tists, that pop­u­late our sto­ries. Like even when we’re imag­ing how dis­abled peo­ple— When it’s pos­si­ble to insert them in the nar­ra­tives we have, with the nar­ra­tives we’re giv­en? it’s nev­er in a pos­i­tive light. It’s kind of… It just pricked me to think about that as you said it. We don’t imag­ine good sci­en­tists who have the right stuff, per­haps, as dis­abled peo­ple ever.

Walkowicz: Yeah, or we imag­ine them as hav­ing a spe­cial skill. So I’m think­ing about the movie Contact where there’s a—

Shew: Oh, yeah.

Walkowicz: You know, he’s lis­ten­ing in the… But he does­n’t get to be first author on the paper. The movie is not about him. You know, they just sort of come in and like serve a spe­cial place, and then are jet­ti­soned for the rest of the movie.

Shew: Yeah. Yeah, the side­kick.

Walkowicz: Yeah.

Prescod-Weinstein: I guess… I think about the film Hidden Figures. And I’m going to assume every­one in the room knows what that film is about. And maybe iron­i­cal­ly, some­thing that real­ly bugged me about the movie was— Or, I should­n’t say bugged me but some­thing I strug­gled with dur­ing the movie was skin col­or. Because…well, a cou­ple of things. So first of all, the actu­al hid­den fig­ures were paid so well that with two years of their salary they could buy a house. And so actu­al­ly sort of the socioe­co­nom­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the film is not accu­rate. And we all know Hollywood likes to dra­ma­tize things.

But I thought a lot about you know, what is the mes­sage that gets sent about who the hid­den fig­ures are if you only watch the movie and you don’t read the book. The oth­er thing is, is that they were light-skinned. And I want to high­light that because as every­one can tell, Brian and I are fair­ly light-skinned peo­ple. And we are two of real­ly three, maybe?, black cos­mol­o­gists in the United States who hold PhDs right now? And so I think the oth­er thing that we have to think care­ful­ly about is even with­in our nar­ra­tives of diver­si­ty and inclu­sion that cer­tain peo­ple are more like­ly to get through the door.

And I real­ly strug­gled with that dimen­sion of Hidden Figures being miss­ing. The dis­course that it was real­ly only light-skinned women of a cer­tain socioe­co­nom­ic class who were actu­al­ly get­ting those oppor­tu­ni­ties, and it was­n’t work­ing class darker-skinned women who were get­ting those oppor­tu­ni­ties. And I think that that needs to be part of the con­ver­sa­tion even in the cul­ture today, that cer­tain­ly I con­tin­ue to expe­ri­ence racism and I’m occa­sion­al­ly very shocked by this because I’m like I’m so pale, are you real­ly that invest­ed in it?” And not that I think it should­n’t hap­pen to me. I’m just, even because peo­ple don’t always know that I’m black, I con­tin­ue to be impressed that it finds me any­way in our one drop, deeply com­mit­ted anti-black cul­ture.

But I think that that is real­ly a fea­ture that we have to think care­ful­ly about, about how skin col­orism— And I think again, this is writ­ten on the body, is maybe anoth­er way of putting it, that all of these ways of how our bod­ies are per­ceived and which ones are per­ceived as being clos­er to the ide­al, even if non-ide­al, become part of the con­ver­sa­tion.

Shew: I know, and this picks up on how we design things. So if we want inclu­sion and diver­si­ty, the sort of design teams we need to have. There are so many good exam­ples of fail­ures of planning—like these soap dis­pensers— You know, auto­mat­ic soap dis­pensers and sinks that can’t see black peo­ple, right. Because who was on that design team test­ing that out? Yeah.

And then there’s the… On YouTube, it’s a won­der­ful video, it’s called, the HP is Racist.” [HP com­put­ers are racist] And it has two Best Buy employ­ees who dis­cov­ered that the HP cam­eras could not— They were doing facial detec­tion and fol­low­ing faces. But only for peo­ple of skin of a cer­tain light­ness. And it’s also a very fun­ny video. But just in how we’re pro­gram­ming things and how we’re attend­ing the things we’re already build­ing with the peo­ple we already have, we’re fail­ing in engi­neer­ing teams on a reg­u­lar basis in those ways.

Walkowicz: And this goes back to your point at the begin­ning, Brian, about the increas­ing use of AI and machine learn­ing in real­ly every aspect of our dai­ly lives. If you’re not famil­iar with machine learn­ing, this a major part of how your choic­es are giv­en to you in terms of like, its prob­a­bly great­est use aside from the mil­i­tary is mar­ket­ing. But when we think about you know, the design of algo­rithms, for exam­ple, a lot of the skin detec­tion or facial recog­ni­tion, a lot of that is used already in polic­ing, often with­out the con­sent of the com­mu­ni­ty that it’s deployed on. And you know, all of the facial recog­ni­tion algo­rithms per­form more poor­ly on peo­ple who are darker-skinned, and women. And so, again, women who are black and darker-skinned fare the worst in the tech­nol­o­gy that we design. And a lot of those are insep­a­ra­ble from sci­ence as an enter­prise because those are the same algo­rithms in many cas­es that we use on pret­ty pic­tures of galax­ies. [to Prescod-Weinstein:] Did you have anoth­er com­ment?

Prescod-Weinstein: Yeah. I think… I just want to make sure that I— I think the… There’s a debate within…I guess I’ll vague­ly term it eth­nic stud­ies, about where we are in terms of how racial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion works in soci­ety. So there are some peo­ple who think we are in a black/not-black soci­ety. And so you’re either black or you’re not black, and that’s kind of where the fault lines exist.

And then there are oth­er peo­ple who think it real­ly falls along skin col­or lines. And so, if you are of African her­itage but if you’re light enough, then it’s no longer kind of a fac­tor. And I think of race as social tech­nol­o­gy that was devel­oped. And I’ve writ­ten about this, so I wrote an essay called Physics of Melanin where I talk about how we could’ve used ear­wax to divide peo­ple because some peo­ple have hard ear­wax and some peo­ple have soft ear­wax. And that it was a tech­nol­o­gy that was kind of devel­oped in hind­sight. Well, Oh now we have all these dark-skinned slaves, so how do we sep­a­rate them and make sure the Irish don’t think that they’re on the same side with them?” And there’s a com­pli­cat­ed con­ver­sa­tion about how indige­nous peo­ple were sort of fit­ted into that.

But again, I think that when we talk about tech­nol­o­gy, I guess we have to think about these con­cepts as social tech­nolo­gies, because race was real­ly made into a sci­en­tif­ic con­cept even though it is a social con­cept. And again, that’s some­thing that fol­lows us into space.

But com­ing back to Brian’s ques­tion about you know, what if we used space as kind of a lab­o­ra­to­ry for exper­i­ment­ing on these things? I think we do in the sense that you know, I scoured the new astro­naut class for how dark is every­one. That’s always my first ques­tion when I look at when sci­en­tists are select­ed, myself includ­ed. If I’m the only black per­son in the room, I note I’m the only black per­son in the room and I am light-skinned. That’s part of the con­ver­sa­tion.

And so that would be part of our con­ver­sa­tion of who do we even send up in that lab­o­ra­to­ry. And I’m sure Black Twitter would have a lot to say about Are those peo­ple dark enough? Are there enough women? Oh, that per­son­’s not cis.” And I love that Black Twitter has those con­ver­sa­tions, most of the time. But I think that in some sense, we can’t escape our social tech­nolo­gies and we need to acknowl­edge that our social tech­nolo­gies are fused with our phys­i­cal tech­nolo­gies, includ­ing who bears the brunt of our glob­al warm­ing; that it is the Global South that felt it first and only now are we real­ly start­ing to feel it fur­ther up north. And so, I like to remind peo­ple that hur­ri­canes have been killing peo­ple in the Caribbean for a long long time, and typhoons have been killing peo­ple in Southeast Asia and South Asia for a long long time. But it’s only now that peo­ple are like, oh, maybe we should real­ly do some­thing about that.” I mean some peo­ple.

So I think that we need to not think of tech­nol­o­gy as a phys­i­cal thing, and I think race is kind of a cen­tral point for that.

Walkowicz: And since I promised we would return to space poop, I will use that to branch off into the phys­i­cal­i­ty of us all as human beings, and the fact that we have these social con­tracts that are on top of actu­al human bod­ies. And I think from our pre-event call, my favorite quote was Chanda say­ing there’s no free­dom in poop. And that we have this like won­der­ful, noble image of the astro­naut out there explor­ing, being the rep­re­sen­ta­tive, and also hav­ing to deal with all of these things—I see you’re already hold­ing the mic, Ashley.

Shew: You’re explain­ing it well, yes. I mean man­ag­ing bod­ies, right? I mean, what we’ve learned from the his­to­ry of space and poop­ing in space, and pee­ing in space, like…it’s been messy and awk­ward. The image of the astro­naut as being like, a buff white dude who is some­how a cut above the rest to have made it on the space pro­gram. But in the end, he’s either strap­ping a bag to his anus or wear­ing a dia­per and like, it just gets us back to like real­iz­ing that we’re like meat bags all the time, and man­ag­ing these meat bags is a real, real chal­lenge. Yeah.

Walkowicz: Yeah. Anyone else?

Prescod-Weinstein: I think I should clar­i­fy my com­ment. [laughs; audi­ence laugh­ter]

Walkowicz: Yes.

Prescod-Weinstein: I’ll just say that I think that one of the things we talked about is how it came into the pop­u­lar con­scious­ness that astro­nauts had to wear dia­pers or bags. Which was that there was a con­flict between astro­nauts who were a cou­ple, and I for­get exact­ly what the—

Shew: Texas to Florida.

Prescod-Weinstein: Texas to Florida. So the woman put on a dia­per and drove, con­tin­u­ous­ly. And she wore a dia­per so that she would­n’t have to get out of the car. And I think— I must’ve been a first or sec­ond year grad­u­ate stu­dent in astron­o­my, and I had no idea that this was how astro­nauts dealt with poop. But that you know, even when you go into space, you can­not escape your poop.

Walkowicz: Sometimes you lit­er­al­ly can’t. I mean the back­up of the one toi­let that sent like, bits of fecal mat­ter around the cab­in before they land­ed. Like it’s… Like, we don’t think about our bod­ies as engi­neer­ing chal­lenges gen­er­al­ly every day, espe­cial­ly if we’re able-bodied.

Walkowicz: Yeah.

Shew: Right? But the mechan­ics of these things, that a lot of dis­abled peo­ple have to think about every day, right. Thinking about the mechan­ics of using a restroom under par­tic­u­lar con­di­tions, for instance. Or even how close a restroom is. You have to, if we’re going to make these huge plans. Like most peo­ple just take toi­let­ing as a giv­en? And they should­n’t.

Walkowicz: Yeah, I think inter­est­ing­ly, even though we… You know, aside from this news sto­ry bring­ing it into the pub­lic con­scious­ness, we often hide that aspect of the real­i­ties of going to space. But when I work with stu­dents, for example—so we have a Gemini cap­sule at the Adler Planetarium. And right next to it in the dis­play case is the poop bag. And it is the thing that stu­dents are like: [points excit­ed­ly]

I had a cou­ple of interns who were work­ing with me to write poet­ry dur­ing part of their time to go around through the muse­um and speak to dif­fer­ent arti­facts in the muse­um. And one of them wrote an ode to the poop bag, and I was like…yeah.

So, we’re com­ing to the end of our time here. We’re going to have some time for Q&A. But maybe if I could ask all of the pan­elists, I’d love to return to this con­cept of not just the right stuff but the right time. Since we have peo­ple who think about time in a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent ways here. And maybe if you can each offer a clos­ing remark if it moves you.

Whoever wants to go first.

Nord: So, I’m not sure I have a com­ment on time, but I think the thing that was clar­i­fied for me at least sort of ver­bal­ly in my head dur­ing our dis­cus­sions is as you [Prescod-Weinstein] said, social tech­nol­o­gy. And if I can turn that around a lit­tle bit and say that all tech­nol­o­gy is social. And when we say the right stuff,” there’s this impli­ca­tion that there’s an objec­tiv­i­ty to these tech­nolo­gies or objec­tiv­i­ty to the sci­en­tif­ic per­spec­tive. And there’s an objec­tiv­i­ty to what a sci­en­tist or some­one who goes into space looks like. But that objec­tiv­i­ty is false and that objec­tiv­i­ty is just set up by the peo­ple who have accu­mu­lat­ed enough pow­er to define that as the objec­tive per­spec­tive.

And maybe that means that— And maybe since you know, liv­ing with that idea for so long myself that our des­tiny is to be in space, maybe that objec­tive per­spec­tive that I thought I had is that the time is always now to go. And maybe that default, maybe that idea of objec­tiv­i­ty as we always progress out­ward and we always progress to expand, maybe turn­ing that around and say­ing… And just con­tin­u­al­ly ask­ing maybe Chanda’s ques­tion of why now. Maybe that’s where we need to keep going instead of always say­ing, yes now, yes next, yes next.

Walkowicz: And I’d love to hear from you Brenda, also from the stand­point of some­body being deeply embed­ded in his­to­ry and not just sole­ly the young his­to­ry of space explo­ration.

Child: I’m afraid at this point I just have— I keep think­ing about jokes. And since we were talk­ing about poop we can talk about jokes, too. So, I think about dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions on Native American jokes about…that I’m remind­ed of often with the kind of debate on immi­gra­tion to the United States and native peo­ple always hav­ing to remind folks that, you know, we’re the ones from here and you folks are all from some­place else and you’re the set­tlers. And we always joke about what if the set­tlers leave. So I’m think­ing about kind of a future where…a fan­ta­sy for native peo­ple, where what if the set­tlers leave and go to oth­er plan­ets and Mars, and we get to stay here with our ances­tors?

Shew: To the ques­tion of when is the right time… You know, I don’t… Just as I don’t think that there is a good answer to who has the right stuff, right, I don’t think the answer should be lin­ear or clear? I don’t think we’re ever going to have an answer to what the right time might be. Unless like an aster­oid’s com­ing, that’ll real­ly put a time clock on things, right? But you know, I think it’s good to con­sid­er mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives as we think about who belongs in space and what the time­line is going to be for what that looks like, and who the stake­hold­ers are. And I mean, these things are…there will be no right time. There is no right stuff. But there’s stuff, and time. I’ll turn it over to the physi­cist now.

Prescod-Weinstein: That’s actu­al­ly a real­ly good lead-in to what I was going to say. So thank you for the set­up.

So, the key insight of Einstein’s the­o­ry of gen­er­al rel­a­tiv­i­ty, I think, is that there…and real­ly the key insight of spe­cial rel­a­tiv­i­ty is that there is no such thing as an objec­tive observ­er. And I went through a PhD, two qual­i­fy­ing exams that cov­ered this top­ic, I took GR, I taught GR, before I real­ly real­ized that this was the key insight. And I high­light this because it came out in… My mom is a radio host on the Pacifica Network, and she sent me a bunch of archival mate­r­i­al. And in there, buried, was a ses­sion from the American Association for the Advancement of Science 1983 meet­ing, where the late Joseph Johnson, a black physi­cist from Florida A&M University who had actu­al­ly played a major role in my life much much lat­er, talked about this insight. And real­iz­ing that it took a black physi­cist, who does­n’t work on rel­a­tiv­i­ty, to reframe the area that I was a spe­cial­ist in, for me. And this was real­ly… It was­n’t— I heard the record­ing for the first time last year and actu­al­ly just wept through it, because I was so stunned to hear this record­ing of a man that I’d admired so much.

And so, in con­nec­tion to this ques­tion of you know, what is the right time and what is the right space, and where bod­ies inhab­it space and are part of space­time, I think about the Palikir peo­ple who live in a region that we would I guess rough­ly call the Peruvian Amazon. And they have a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent astro­nom­i­cal sys­tem than we do in I guess what you would call insti­tu­tion­al astron­o­my.” And what’s inter­est­ing is because— Maybe because. I should­n’t speak on this as a big-time expert or any­thing. There are a lot of snakes in the Amazon. There are a lot of big snakes in the Amazon. And the way of think­ing of the Palikir peo­ple reflects this. And so, in fact, instead of using a Cartesian geom­e­try (so Cartesian, every­thing’s boxy and square‑y), they use what we would call a curvi­lin­ear sys­tem that is built around snakes in the sky and their spir­i­tu­al sys­tem. And what’s inter­est­ing about this is that they can actu­al­ly account for the move­ment of the stars across the night sky through the sea­sons bet­ter than we can, using their geo­met­ri­cal sys­tem. Because their geo­met­ri­cal sys­tem allows for things to be curved. And they also have five sea­sons, they don’t have four. And they can pre­dict from look­ing at the sky, to the day when the rains are going to change into a dif­fer­ent rain sea­son.

So com­ing back to our ques­tion of who is mod­ern. We can’t do weath­er pre­dic­tion for crap. But they can. And so when I think about time, we have a par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship to the Thirty Meter Telescope time­line of when we need to see galax­ies now because careers need to evolve in a cer­tain way in the astron­o­my com­mu­ni­ty, because there’s a new gen­er­a­tion com­ing up. But I’m guess­ing that peo­ple who are feel­ing the impact of glob­al warm­ing on their sys­tems, their tech­nolo­gies of know­ing the weath­er for exam­ple, are think­ing that now is the time to fig­ure out how to deal with the fact that these estab­lished tech­nolo­gies are now being shift­ed by things that peo­ple on the oth­er side of the plan­et are doing with their tech­nolo­gies.

And so I can imag­ine that peo­ple have very dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ships to what is sig­nif­i­cant in this moment and in this time, and that there’s no objec­tive observ­er. That’s the thing we have to sit with, is that astronomers are not more objec­tive about this. Astronomers who are for the TMT are not more objec­tive about this than astronomers who’re not for the TMT, etc. But I think that when we think about now, we need to rec­og­nize that there are many dif­fer­ent nows. And that our now may not be…comes with a posi­tion of pow­er per­haps, or a posi­tion of dis­em­pow­er­ment, or a sense of dis­em­pow­er­ment. And that that is always tied to our social tech­nolo­gies.

Walkowicz: Right. We have some time for ques­tions, but first let’s thank our pan­elists.


Walkowicz: So if you have a question, please raise your hand. We have two people with microphones. I see there's a hand up over there.

Audience 1: Hi. Thank you very much for your thoughts. I have one question. While coming here, I was reading the news and The Atlantic magazine just published the piece called [The] Moon Is Open for Business, and it's about the private interest and the business interest. And you know, you talked about ethics. I was wondering if you could comment on how do we talk about ethics in a society that is driven by economics. Accumulation of wealth. [inaudible sentence]

Shew: Yeah I mean, so one way to think about ethics in terms of economics is to think about what sort of economic system we want that could address a greater number of people's needs. So, a lot of how we think about space, at least is with SpaceX and other companies coming on the fray, is in terms of commercial interest, right? So the moon is open for business and the things that Elon Musk is up to, for instance, invoke a particular system by which perhaps some have gathered enough free sources to be able to dream these big dreams while… Well, they don't pay their employees as much as we would like to see them paid. Or we have a system where people aren't benefiting from the labor that they put in. Or are devalued and not— So, being commodified has a certain edge, but being not a commodity in terms of labor also has another edge. So to think about ethics and economics together is to question if whether the system we're in will produce just results.

Walkowicz: Yeah. I think also in terms of… Since you brought up the SpaceX narratives. The narratives coming out of new space companies that say, "Oh, we're going to make it accessible by making it cheaper. And it'll only be $200,000." And you know, not everybody will want to sell their house that they definitely have that is worth $200,000. But just the underlying assumption, right, that first, you will part with your worldly possessions in order to…what, live on Mars and be at the behest of the company that brought you there? You know, I think we have many examples of company towns and exploitation here on Earth that inform us that that is not a good premise to be starting with.

Oh, we have a question there.

Audience 2: So I think that a key question for any sort of exploration is always how do we prepare for something that we've never seen. So my question is practically, how do you think that we as kind of I guess society at large prepare to build a future for something that we have never experienced? So thinking that it's easy to view astronauts as cowboys because we've seen cowboys. It's easy to say that we're meant to go out and explore space because we've experienced Manifest Destiny. So how do we build visions for something that doesn't exist in a practical way?

Prescod-Weinstein: So… Oh gosh, this is being recorded. I'm going to be nice about it. So I love the new Star Trek series. I really do. But I want to say that actually I think this connects to the last question. Which is that they went out—in the Star Trek universe, anyway. They go out with a very clear ethical guide? I actually think that the Prime Directive is a pretty important one. And actually of the problem of the first episode— I'm not really giving it away for anyone who hasn't watched the series yet, but really the first ten minutes is not really thinking through what happens if you don't hold the Prime Directive around you as a barrier to choices that might violate it.

And it comes up a lot, because they do…violate it like all the time. Usually it's not so catastrophic as it is in this new series. But I think it really does come down to we have to prepare ourselves ethically and morally, and in terms of our thinking about respect as Professor Child was saying, that you are never going to be able to prepare for every scenario, but you can prepare yourself to be a decision maker in situations that are unfamiliar to you.

Nord: Riffing off that just a little bit, I think that some of the failure of our educational system is that we prepare for tasks of the past. Because people are setting up the jobs of the future for the people that they want to be in those positions. And so I think we need to rethink how we approach training in technological tasks, and I would include social technology in that. And so, why aren't we training folks for solving problems that they care about, and then learning all the pieces to get to that as they need to, instead of saying, "Hey just go through all these steps," and then oh, "eventually you'll figure out how to do research." So in a specific context like that, I think we need to innovate how we're educating each generation.

Child: And I guess I would just add to that, to think about the history of settler colonialism around the world. And there's been so much fantastic work in that area in the last decade or so, but a lot of it doesn't make its way into public school education. Just a few years ago, there was a— We did a… We're working on a grant, the historians at the University of Minnesota—the teachers in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area. And when they were writing the grant, they asked how much history education the teachers had. And they discovered that the average high school social studies history teacher had had 1.5 history courses in college.

Audience 3: So going back both to the there's no objective observer and there's no good time. A lot of what we… What a lot of us think about when we think about colonizing Mars is oh, it's a blank slate because nobody's living there right now. But it's not like we're only going to there once. How do we envision a way of sustaining whatever structures we put up when people are going to be going back and forth, presumably, to Mars and to other places?

Nord: You're talking about gentrification of Mars? [laughter]

Prescod-Weinstein: I guess I kind of—I went through this quickly but I think… In my opening remarks, one of the things that was kind of motivating me was what if the Vulcans had come to Earth before humanity had a chance to develop? So there are lots of scientific reasons that you might argue that the probability of this being an actual issue for Mars are small? But we also have often been wrong. Like for example about the speed of light about 140 years ago, right? So, we don't actually know what could happen on Mars if we didn't mess with it.

And…so that's actually before I even get to the gentr— I mean. Maybe the gentrification metaphor here is maybe an interesting one in that like, you know, maybe there are things that were going to happen in that community. And this actually stands out to me in Washington DC as someone who's been part of her childhood in Tacoma Park, that coming through the city now it's like it's a completely different city. And one wonders what are the things that might've happened on U Street if U Street had been allowed to remain U Street, instead of so many businesses and black people being forced to leave? And I actually think that that has to be our question before we even think about sustaining ourselves there, is really sitting—openly—with the ethical question of we have now made a decision about the future of Mars, and nothing will happen in a non-anthroposcenic way on Mars ever again.

Walkowicz: Also, point out that it's true that we don't you know, see like space giraffes or human beings walking around on the surface of Mars. But in many ways, we have often quite literally only scratched the surface and we don't know what history might be there. We don't know whether there are microbial or even more complex communities of life under the surface. You know, the results of methane on Mars are very very tantalizing. They could be geological, they could be…you know, it could be oil. Like, there's any number of possible outcomes for that. And so I think— And we'll talk about this later with the concept of environmental personhood and how we think about environments and whether they have life in them or not as being something that belongs to us. So I hope you'll stick around.

Time for one last question. I see…in the back there.

Audience 4: So, assuming that we do indeed want to colonize Mars, we want to give the first colony every chance of success. And it could still fail even if we do everything right. So it takes resources to put people into space, and picking the people most likely to succeed is critical to reducing the risk. So, I think that it's been a point well-made that it's very prickly question to ask, but what are the characteristics of the optimal first colonists? How do we pick those people?

Prescod-Weinstein: Depends on whether your goal is actually colonization, right? I think like— I think… I probably want someone who doesn't think about it as colonization. I'm sure that Donald Trump disagrees with me about that.

Walkowicz: Someone else? Alright. Well, let's thank our panelists again.


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