Winter 2002/03

The Clean Room / Superfly Me to the Moon

Race, physiology, and the culture of aerospace science

David Serlin

“The Clean Room” is a column by David Serlin on science and technology.

...There was a good view of the Earth which had a very distinct and pretty blue halo. It had a smooth transition from pale blue, blue, dark blue, violet and absolutely black. It was a magnificent picture.
—Yuri Gagarin at his first press conference, 15 April 1961.

In early 2002, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that it had cut $16 million from its annual budget originally earmarked for developing a smaller space suit for female astronauts.[1] The decision, which angered women scientists and their supporters both inside and outside the space industry, came as a surprise to those who have witnessed NASA’s commitment to gender equity expand over the past three decades. Prior to the 1990s, most space suits were custom-tailored to the individual physical measurements of (predominantly male) astronauts. But in recent years, in keeping with its mandate to make its gear reusable and cost-efficient for the long term, NASA has chosen to make available space suits in only three sizes: medium, large, and extra-large. According to NASA’s own internal accounting, these three sizes work for about 90 percent of the men in the space program but only about 35 percent of the women, most of whom tend to have smaller chests and shorter arm spans than their male counterparts. Smaller sized suits, if built, could accommodate up to 95 percent of the female astronauts currently enrolled in the space program. Indeed, creating a smaller range of space suits would benefit all astronauts of smaller stature, regardless of their gender, as it would allow many individuals a greater degree of physical control prohibited by the larger suits.

Neznaika, hero of Nikolai Nosov’s Russian children’s book, Neznaika on the Moon, 1965.

The demand by women astronauts for smaller-sized space suits highlights the relative homogeneity and uniformity of astronaut culture as it has evolved over the past half century. Until very recently in NASA’s history, women and minorities were almost universally excluded, especially since airplane pilot training was typically the prerequisite for NASA’s first roster of astronauts. The tacit emphasis given over to the needs of male astronauts, whether in space suits or in laboratory experiments, has obscured the needs of not only women but of women and men of varying sizes and physical characteristics. The privilege accorded to the male astronaut’s space suit by aerospace scientists and NASA administrators is, of course, hardly surprising: in the space sciences, as in the life sciences more generally, the male body is used as the uninterrogated base line of our species from which all variations and permutations emerge. Built upon centuries of passive assumptions and naturalized across a billion cultural exchanges, male privilege is the thin, alien oxygen that science sips to stay alive.

The internal history of astronauts and their haberdashers suggests how the focus on physiology and the norms generated thereby have contributed to an exclusive culture of male, and specifically white male, aerospace science. Long before Yuri Gagarin or Alan Shepherd were ever catapulted into their lonely orbits, scientists in the aeronautics industries during the 1930s and 1940s chose young white men for their leadership potential or their technical expertise to be part of the vanguard of experimental aeronautics. In order to train pilots for long-range air activities, officers chose men who could endure high altitudes and fast speeds as well as extreme conditions such as heat, cold, fatigue, hunger, and sleep deprivation. Ross A. McFarland, who chaired the Harvard School of Public Health in the late 1940s and early 1950s, used the cream of military recruits to study the effects of alcohol, tobacco, and carbon monoxide on human performance. His laboratory studies pushed the body’s limitations and charted its circadian rhythms in order to understand and even predict the extreme conditions of air travel on the human body. Nonwhite pilots, such as the famous Tuskegee Airmen, were kept isolated from the rest of the armed forces during World War Two and were naturally excluded from such tests, creating a shallow pool of applicants on whom to base the latest equipment designs or model the latest pressure suits.

By the time NASA reorganized administratively for outer space explorations in the late 1950s, the culture of astronaut training followed from the studies conducted on a small, elite sector of Navy and Air Force pilots, most of whom were chosen because they fit the masculine ideal required of specialized military personnel. Notwithstanding thorny questions about race, physiology, and performance that continue to vex contemporary biologists and social theorists, the physical standards that gave rise to an exclusively white population of aircraft pilots in the 1940s dictated the selection process for astronauts in the 1950s and 1960s. An unproblematized belief in the relationship between high levels of performance and white male body types influenced every aspect of astronaut training from endurance tests and health care needs to ergonomic designs for cockpit interiors and space suits.

Despite the inability of non-whites to participate as actual astronauts, the relationship between space and race in the 20th century was vividly imagined in both political discourse and cultural works. Both black and white visionaries used space as an arena for reimagining the possibility of social and political systems outside of the daily indignities commanded by prejudice, often configured as the transgalactic egalitarianisms seen in popular entertainments like Star Trek. Long before the arrival of Lieutenant Uhuru on the bridge of the starship Enterprise, however, black intellectuals and political figures adapted science fiction themes to challenge racial hierarchies. In the 1940s, for example, Elijah Mohammed, the originator of the Nation of Islam in the United States and former mentor to Malcolm X, explained the history of global race relations as a space drama of operatic proportions. Following an initial Big Bang and 66 trillion years of cosmic peace, an evil black scientist named Yakub was credited with having created the white race in a period of only 600 years. In 1991, Minister Louis Farrakhan, who assumed the Nation of Islam’s political leadership, announced that he had been taken aboard a wheel-shaped spacecraft currently in orbit 40 miles above the earth for a consultation with Elijah Mohammed. In addition, Farrakhan described a formidable battalion of fifteen hundred smaller space ships housed in the mother ship, though it is unclear exactly who or what is piloting these spacecraft. One wonders why the Nation of Islam keeps its astronaut training program surreptitiously hidden from public view.

Black artists in the 1950s and 1960s were reliable proponents of space travel to imagined worlds. With the mainstreaming of the civil rights movement and the international rise of Black Power as a political force, space exploration could be used to investigate ideas of race pride, race neutrality, or the absence of race altogether. Many black musicians maintained a deep and abiding interest in space themes: Thelonius Monk, for example, rechristened himself with the middle name of “Sphere,” while Sun Ra claimed an intergalactic citizenship influenced by theories of space visitors to ancient Egypt. The angular abstractions of Monk’s and Sun Ra’s music, coupled with unconventional time signatures and arrangements, stood in stark contrast to popular music of the era, with the noticeable exception of The Tornadoes’ 1962 instrumental “Telstar,” a wordless though eerie paean to the unknown. International hits of the early 1970s like David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” and Klaatu’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” are, for all of their conceptual drama, basically solipsistic teenage fantasies of white alienation deeply indebted to British high modernism. Elton’s astronaut pines for his family, desperate to “only connect” like E.M. Forster, while Bowie’s Major Tom does a Virginia Woolf and disappears into the black void of space altogether. By contrast, when themes of space exploration and visitation occur in black popular music of the 1970s—such as in concept albums by George Clinton/Parliament Funkadelic—they are community-based narratives filled with deft humor and social critique, tied inextricably to the house party dance floor rather than the isolated teenage bower.

The racial barrier for black astronauts was finally broken at the end of the 1970s, three decades after the consolidation of a federally funded aerospace industry. Major Robert Lawrence, Jr., an Air Force test pilot who held a Ph.D. in chemistry, is often recognized as the first black astronaut though he never left the earth. Lawrence was killed in the crash of an F-104 fighter in December 1967 just six months after he was named to the Air Force’s manned orbiting laboratory program, a short-lived precursor to NASA training that closed in 1969. Had he survived the crash, Lawrence would have been America’s lone black astronaut until NASA chose three black trainees for the space program in 1978. Dr. Guion S. Bluford, one of those three black trainees, became the first African-American man in space when he was named to the crew of the space shuttle Challenger in 1983; coincidentally or not, it was the first space shuttle flight both to launch and land during the night. Dr. Mae C. Jeminson, the first African-American woman in space, made even more spectacular headlines when she flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992.

But the era of seemingly unlimited equal opportunity for astronauts is more deceptively complex than it might appear at first glance, challenging the narrative of immutable social progress at the heart of any civil rights agenda. In 2000, Russian officials announced the availability of space aboard its Soyuz 5 rocket for the small price tag of $20 million. One year later, and exactly four decades after cosmonaut Gagarin’s historic mission during the height of the Cold War, white American businessman Dennis Tito ponied up the dough and became a Soyuz 5 Nominated Space Flight Participant. Short, squat, and well above the median age of male astronauts of any nationality, Tito realized his life-long dream of space tourism, bypassing the regimentation of NASA’s astronaut training program for post-communist Russia’s embrace of cold hard cash. More recently, Lance Bass of the boy band ‘N Sync negotiated and won available space aboard the first Soyuz rocket scheduled to depart in 2003 on a ticket paid for by Pepsi. Television networks, taking advantage of this new frontier of product placement, are preparing to launch new space-based reality TV programs, including one called Celebrity Mission which will follow Bass’s adventures. One imagines a succession of images of the maudlin singer giving, with Glasnost-inspired earnestness, a pearly-toothed, life-affirming thumbs-up for the umpteenth time to the on-board cameras. The whole enterprise will resurrect the pre-Warholian transmutation of ordinary people into extraordinary super-citizens reminiscent of popular Sputnik-era television shows like Queen for a Day and This is Your Life. Future installments of Celebrity Mission will follow big-name (though obviously expendable) industry icons as they mawkishly writhe in zero gravity.

In early 2002, at approximately the same moment that NASA had chosen to dismantle its program for designing smaller-sized space suits, Mark Shuttleworth of Cape Town, South Africa, became the world’s second space tourist. Shuttleworth, in the words of Nelson Mandela, assumed the stature of “our first Afronaut.” But reading Shuttleworth’s biography alongside his temporary title of Soyuz 5 Nominated Space Flight Participant, words like “nominated” and “participant” seem exceptionally awkward given the relationship between the light-skinned Afronaut and the apartheid society in which he spent his formative years. In the end, the twentysomething Shuttleworth—who made his $600 million fortune by inventing the prototype for VeriSign, the encryption software used by millions of Internet retail sites around the world—followed the trajectory of least resistance by following the privileges of wealth rather than the triumphs of democracy. Riding on the Soyuz 5 enabled Shuttleworth to bypass the demands for racial and social justice still needed in his own home country as well as in other post-colonial nations. Multimillionaires, after all, have no need to challenge the gravity that weighs down the rest of us here on earth. The historical precedents that restricted mobility for astronauts of any color other than white are erased from popular consciousness once again by the 800-pound gorilla of capitalism: a creature which, despite its colossal size, undoubtedly has its own space suit.

  1. See Andrew Lawler, “NASA Decision Not Suited for Women,” in Science, vol. 295 (1 March 2002), p. 1623.

David Serlin is an editor and columnist for Cabinet. He is the co-editor of Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics (NYU Press, 2002).

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