Tuesday, March 29, 2011

NASA’s Shifting Identity: The NASA We Want vs. The One We Have

Constance Penley notes how NASA has morphed into a sort of “container” word—it has no single fixed meaning, but takes on all kinds of connotations in different contexts. In popular culture references, NASA can allude to “individual ingenuity and collective can-do” (11). The space agency also represents “creativity, cooperation, and perseverance” (12). Yet these very positive associations do not accurately reflect NASA’s actual performance, and felt to me somewhat dated. Mind you, this is coming from someone much more familiar with the NOAA (yeah Bay Scallop Bowl!—this was a big deal in my high school) than NASA. According to Penley, despite the fact that NASA’s past record is marred by disasters, broken promises, fraud, out-of-date technology, and an inefficient bureaucracy, NASA remains “a repository for utopian meanings” (14-15). But does NASA retain that capacity today? And if not, why? Has something else replaced NASA?

Given its less than stellar record, it made a great deal of sense for NASA to want to merge its identity with that of Star Trek (20), thereby enhancing its public appeal. According to Penley, NASA “has deliberately participated in making itself over as Star Trek” (18). This voluntary conflation of NASA and Star Trek has in turn contributed to the “individual and collective refashioning of NASA’s meanings.” Penley asserts that this refashioning “tends to be wish-fulfilling, to produce the NASA we want, not the one we have” (15). Such a re-casting of NASA seems to be a form of self-deception: we know NASA’s endeavors have not been brilliantly successful in the past, but we want NASA to succeed brilliant, so we imagine NASA as Star Trek and are content with that.

Penley’s book was published in 1997. I wondered if her charges of ineptitude and out-datedness were still an issue with NASA, or if the situation has changed in the past fourteen years. I did take AST 203: The Universe freshman year, but, alas, I did not come away with a deep understanding of the status of NASA and of space exploration today. I turned to nytimes.com for assistance, and did a quick article search for “NASA.” The results that came up were mixed: articles about a crashed satellite and space shuttles being retired seem to point to NASA’s gradual demise, while other articles concerning more terrestrial concerns like ice caps melting and climate change point toward a more earth-focused future for NASA. Even on NASA’s website, there is little futuristic “bombast” (14) to be found. The main news features include a Moonbuggy race in Alabama, a study of droughts in the Amazon, a new biofuel, and exercise for kids based on astronaut training—surprisingly down-to-earth topics for a space agency.

Where has all the space-oriented utopianism of NASA/TREK gone? Perhaps we are supposed to be unimpressed and critical of NASA—Penley’s conclusion seems to say so. By rewriting the NASA side of NASA/TREK, slash writing “offers a much more satisfying utopian solution than NASA has yet been able to conceive” (148). NASA’s failures and defects are what make it such a powerful catalyst for daring re-imaginings.


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