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, 1900–1940, 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.
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.
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]
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.
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.