Houston: We Have A Problem

After the past several weeks keeping up a steady pace of constant output, I’m in slow-collapse mode. I just finished putting together a paper that is due for a July 10 conference deadline, and I am breathing a deep sigh of relief. I’ve been scrambling to research and write it while also preparing for my trip to Texas, my two presentations at Denver Comic Con, and my trip to South Africa. Well, I’m currently in South Africa so everything else had come and gone successfully (to my relief), but this one last paper was being pesky. I’ve been feverishly working on it in airports, on planes, in bed . . . wherever I get a few moments to focus. But it’s mostly done, and now I get to relax a little more and focus on why I’m in South Africa. (A topic I’ll cover in a later post.)

As I mentioned above, I was recently in Texas with two objectives. Primarily, I was attending a conference in Waco as part of a teaching fellowship I am in. Since I had to fly to Texas anyway, I decided to rent a car in Waco and drive down to Houston–to pay a visit to NASA. 

One of the real-to-goodness Baylor bears.

While the core of my research is still focused on South African national identity and popular media, I have recently embarked on a side project that also involves my love of media and post-colonial theory. I have been looking at the rhetoric and philosophy around why we, as humanity and as particular nations, choose to explore space. This is a project partially fueled by the science fiction I read, which is where I started to think about how many of the topics I was studying in post-colonial studies pertained to our current extra-planetary actions. We talk about space as “the final frontier” or as a storehouse of potential resources. We speculate on how we might colonize Mars or some other exo-planet, which might serve as a back-up plan once we’ve destroyed Earth. When I hear such statements, all the warning bells go off for me because I immediately think about how Western Europeans colonized the New World. For those of us who are Caucasian, our ancestors said pretty much the same sorts of things, completely disregarding the indigenous people and animals already living on the land and with very little respect for the land itself. Such an exploitative attitude has continued to shape many of the political, economic, and ecological problems we see today.

I don’t propose to have all the answers, but I do think we should be asking more ethical and philosophical questions that challenge our intentions. For instance, who or what gives us the right to land on Mars and turn it into a Terran colony? That’s a very messy question, and one that people will no doubt disagree fervently over, but that discussion needs to be taking place and in the public arena. Perhaps we need to slow down the technological and scientific development for a moment to first hold these discussions and come to some tentative agreements or compromises.

Valkyrie

As part of this research, I’m doing a number of different mini-projects, such as analyzing news articles and feature films; surveying students preparing for work in space-related fields; and interviewing various key professionals. Earlier this year, I met Dan Huot, the NASA Public Affairs Officer responsible for all PR related to the International Space Station, and he invited me to visit him at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. So I did! It was a pretty incredible visit, complete with crawling into the cockpit of a space shuttle, meeting the lovely Valkyrie, and strolling among the desks of Mission Control while the ISS astronauts completed an assignment. My trip concluded with an official interview with Dan, the first of hopefully many fascinating conversations with a diverse group of individuals thinking about space from quite distinct perspectives.

Fan-girling hard at this moment!

What are your thoughts on space travel? Does it thrill you? Concern you? What do you think the public’s involvement should be in the decisions around how, when, and why we visit other planets? Please do share as I really am interested to hear the spectrum of perspectives!

Next up: Denver Comic Con!

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