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Subject: <nettime> NASA / TREK
From: McKenzie Wark <>
Date: 26 Feb 1998 00:40:27 +0100

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"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
-- McKenzie Wark

Not in front of the Klingons
McKenzie Wark
Wednesday, 23 July 1997

Seeing that plucky little Sojourner in the foreground of
those sublime pictures from Mars reminds me of just how
exciting this whole space exploration thing can be -- and how
much its connected in my mind with images from

When Armstrong made his "small step for a man, a great
step for mankind" on the surface of the moon, I was about 8
years old. I watched it on TV in a hospital ward. While
Armstrong bounded across the surface of the moon, I was
immobilised with both legs in plaster. Even the most far
flung images can be deeply personal.

Constance Penley's new book NASA/TREK: Popular Science
and Sex in America (Verso) explores this strange
conjunction of outer space and inner life, hi tech science and
pop culture, by looking at the connections between NASA
and the StarTrek TV show in the American imagination.

Penley is best known for her pioneering work in feminist
screen theory. This new book also has a Freudian basis, in
that Penley believes in "carrying out the search for what
really happened while acknowledging the work of fantasy."

While the recent Mars mission boosted NASA's stocks
among American policy makers, its still the case that in
Washington, NASA stands for Never A Straight Answer.
The space shuttle program in particular is plagued by claims
of bureaucratic waste and bill padding by the aerospace
contractors who built it. The delays and cost overruns
involved in the joint projects with the Russians and the
recent accident on the MIR space station don't help much,

Penley argues that in its attempts to touch down in
American popular culture, NASA has often been its own
worst enemy. Popular movies like The Right Stuff and
Apollo 13, while celebrating the macho heroics of
astronauts, raise questions about the pop politics of space
that NASA cannot ignore.

Penley presents herself as a fan of NASA. Growing up in
Florida, her father would drive through the early hours of
the morning to show his kids the rocket launches on the
cape. "There is no better critic than a fan," she writes.
"Science is popular in America," and hence the need for
research on the popular culture of science.

The object under investigation in this book what Penley
calls NASA/TREK, "a collectively elaborated story that
weaves together science and science fiction to help write,
think, and launch us into space."

While it may at first sight seem strange to bracket these
things together, consider the evidence: A female astronaut
who commences her tranmissions from the shuttle with
Lieutenant Uhura's famous line from StarTrek, "hailing
frequencies open." Or, the Pentagon exhorting legislators to
"set your weapons to stun" to get funding for "non-lethal"
firepower. Or NASA giving in to a huge letter writing
campaign from Tek fans and naming the first shuttle the

And yet NASA doesn't always get it right, and sometimes
fails to work as a utopian vision of social and technical
engineering. Penley's key example was the selection of
Christa McAuliffe to fly on the Challenger space shuttle.
NASA could have had one of the top school teachers in
America, even some with Phds in technical fields, but
instead they chose McAuliffe. She "was selected for her
representative mediocrity and knew it."

NASA promoted McAuliffe to the public as its idea of a
woman in space, in spite of the fact that Judith Resnick, an
electrical engineer with mission critical tasks to perform,
was also aboard Challenger. What Penley finds galling is the
way the most conventional domestic stereotypes were put in
orbit. Stereotypes so obvious that even the TV show The
Simpsons turned it into a joke.

The fallout from the Challenger disaster was a setback for
NASA. Penley provides a few interesting clues as to how
traumatic this moment was for American culture. Arlington
National Cemetery, where America's "unknown soldiers"
lie buried, is the last resting place for the unidentified
remains of the astronauts. The guides, she says, are rather
coy about exactly what is buried there. Then there's the
Building Blaster kits marketed by one toy company. Kids can
work through the trauma of the event by building the
shuttle, blowing it up -- and putting it back together again.

Like NASA, the original StarTrek TV show was comfortable
with a few prominent women, but didn't want to address
their structural absence. Like NASA, it was built around the
American myth of the frontier. "To boldly go where no man
has gone before", as it said in every episode, in what must be
the world's most famous split infinitive.

StarTrek is "an uncanny mixture of suburbia and space
travel". The bridge of the Enterprise looks remarkably like a
family living room, with all the seating facing the TV. Its
impossible to watch the show now without thinking of the
fantasy of Kennedy era optimism that it so brilliantly
articulated. The peaceful use of technology, the global
outlook, the "Prime Directive" of not interfering in
developing cultures -- all these features are Kennedy
legacies. But so too are the military overtones and fantasies
of unlimited American power.

There's a rare moment of irony in one of the Trek movies,
where Captain Kirk makes an emotional gesture towards
Spock, and Spock restrains him by saying No sir, not in front
of the Klingons." Its one of the rare details upon which a
particular subculture within the broad church of StarTrek
fans build their own curious interpretation of the series -- on
premised on an underlying homosexual relationship
between the Captain and the First Officer.

StarTrek has one of the most dedicated and elaborate fan
cultures of any pop culture artefact. Another example of
how deeply strange Trek stuff gets is the Klingon Language
institute. There are folks out there who can actually speak
this totally artificial language, created for the series, and
elaborated since by professional linguists. There is even a
translation of Romeo and Juliet.

The 'slash' fans, as they are known, invent their own mix of
romance, porn and science fiction. And strangely enough,
most slash fans are heterosexual women.

Penley uses the slash fans as an exemplars of the creative
work that popular culture performs, rereading and rewriting
mainstream media artefacts. Over the 25 years of its
existence, slash fandom has created a whole other universe
of characters and stories, based on their creator's shared
experience of StarTrek.

The literary critics Leslie Fiedler once famously claimed that
Mark Twain's Huck and Jim were as "queer as three dollar
bills". So perhaps there's a precedent for this homoerotic
reading of heroic American narrative. What's curious is
why women would find it interesting to read StarTrek along
those lines. Penley sees it as part of a "project of retooling
masculinity itself." Spock and Kirk have evolved beyond the
men of this world and these times. Penley also thinks that
the fans use the gay male couple as an image of sexual and
professional equality.

The slash women are proud of having created a space where
women can reimagine and recreate images from pop
culture. Penley also shows that they are active in rethinking
the technology of popular culture. There are detailed
discussions about what printing and video dubbing
techniques to use, and how to deploy such processes without
creating an impossible threshold for new writers and video
makers to join the culture as creators as well as consumers.

The slashers rewrite Startrek, and so Penley slashes NASA.
She rewrites its project as she imagines it should be, as part
of an American tradition of utopian experiments using
technology to reinvent the possibities of the social. As such,
she sees cultural studies as performing, in a more knowing
way, the same process of creative imagining that popular
culture itself performs whenever people seize hold of it as a
technology for making their own kinds of space.

Penley and I were both in London for a conference at the
Institute of Contemporary Art when Mars mission started
sending back those pictures, so I was able to ask her what she
thought they meant for the future of NASA. She remarked
that its success with the public seemed to contradict the old
NASA assumption that only 'manned' missions could be
popular. That the NASA web site took one hundred million
hits the week after the first pictures went up should put that
old saw to rest.

The Mars mission is the work mostly of university based
engineers, rather than aerospace contractors. In part at least
its a return to a certain creative engineering tradition. What
remains unresolved is NASA's troubled relationship to the
dream of space as the final frontier for social as well as
technical change.

McKenzie Wark is the author of the forthcomg book The
Virtual Republic: Australia's Culture Wars of the 1990s, to
be published in October by Allen & Unwin.

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