Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Everything I Know About NASA I Learned from TV

I struggled with Penley’s book when I first read it because I felt she never quite drew out the connection she claimed was central to her argument. Providing some comparisons at the beginning, her choice to deal with NASA and Star Trek separately made it harder for me to see where exactly the slash comes in. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the idea of looking at NASA in terms of narrative, and trying to understand how their story has changed over time.

I think part of my initial struggle might come from the fact that, as Alexandra pointed out, I’m looking at NASA (and Star Trek) fourteen years after this book was written. Because I didn’t watch Star Trek when I was young, I’ve always understood it more in terms of other people talking about it. When I saw the newest movie, I got the joke about red shirts, but only because they were referenced in other shows. I know my experience of Star Trek doesn’t apply to the whole class, but I think looking at NASA in terms of this backwards system of understanding might be more relevant. For people with post-Challenger memories, the narrative of NASA often revolves around cultural references. Penley did play out the idea of NASA trying to cast its own narrative to follow Star Trek’s, and I think that has expanded into incorporating other stories.

It’s hard for me to define what NASA means without thinking in terms of popular culture. I know more about the Homer in space episode of The Simpsons than the Teachers in Space program it was apparently loosely based on. NASA continues to tie itself to popular culture occasionally. Examples I could think of off the top of my head were Buzz Aldrin’s self-effacing appearance on 30 Rock and NASA naming a treadmill after Stephen Colbert when write-in votes won him a contest to have a room on the international space station bear his name (they don’t name rooms after living people, apparently). Since the connections don’t seem to be NASA-initiated and since NASA has shown some level of restraint, it’s harder to tell what they’re doing with their narrative. It seems they don’t want to become a joke, but also realize they have to do some joking to remain relevant. But instead of NASA using pop culture, it appears pop culture is using NASA at this point, calling the shots and having some say in its narrative as well.

The expansion from NASA/Trek to NASA/pop culture has in some ways allowed the organization to reframe its own story, though not necessarily for the better. In thinking about the narrative path NASA has taken since Challenger, and since 1997, I was surprised to realize how little I actually know about the organization. I’d completely forgotten about the Columbia explosion in 2003 – an event I did live through, which killed just as many astronauts as Challenger. But it seems to have had far less of an impact on the general public, perhaps because, as we talked about last week, 9/11 had taken its place as the defining flashbulb memory of a generation two years earlier. The real difference between the tragedies, though, seems to be the narrative that surrounded Columbia. There was no national hype, no pop cultural tie-in. And I couldn’t even remember it.

Talking about the success of Apollo 13, Penley explained that modern NASA narratives seemed to revolve around its moments of crisis. Perhaps it’s a sign of a successful reframing of their story that NASA's more recent failures haven’t taken such a hold in their narrative. But that leaves the problem of what we’re left with. Again, I’m reminded of our discussion last week, specifically Delany's idea that every story also includes the narrative of the things left out. In this case the exclusions seem a lot more important. From what I do know of the Challenger story, the idea of the astronauts dying in the explosion still remains (and when I talked about it with my friends, that’s the story they remembered as well). Though the transition into the space of popular culture has kept NASA somewhat relevant, I’m interested in the cost. Penley focused on the lack of a female voice, and that still remains, but I feel the loss of any real NASA narrative is evident today. They've replaced their focus on tragedy and near tragedy with comedy, and while I’m happy to watch Tina Fey's and Stephen Colbert’s versions of NASA’s story, it would be nice to hear NASA’s perspective again as well.


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