Experimental Futures

Glynn Custred

On December 6, 2016, pioneer astronaut John Glenn died. He was the first American to orbit the earth. Now all seven of the original American astronauts are gone, and with them the initial stage of Man’s physical entry into space, a phase as perilous for the astronauts as were the voyages of discovery of Columbus, Magellan, and many other mariners of that era. When asked what was the most important event in space exploration, Glenn replied, “The next one.” This optimism exemplifies the spirit of exploration, the sense of constantly moving through the ever-expanding frontier of science, seeking, and sometimes achieving, a greater understanding of and greater human control over our universe.

Such optimism was most spectacularly embraced during the Age of Discovery in the early modern period from the late fifteenth century to the late eighteenth century, when people first traveled Earth’s great oceans and began to imagine a global world. For example, historian Edmundo O’Gorman describes the discovery of America not just as a discovery but also as an invention, for it took an act of reimagining the ecumene, the habitable places of the earth, to see the world in its totality. And so, scientists today are at work observing, recording, mapping, imaging (converting optic, x-ray, and radio data to images), and imagining the cosmos of which we are an infinitesimal part, a universe of “massive galaxies and galactic clusters” containing such mysterious objects as nebulae and black holes as well as many minor “globes of gas and rock that orbit relatively small stars” known as planets, most of which cannot be seen but only hypothesized.

Ethnography is the study and the systematic description of a community as seen “from the inside,” with information collected via participant observation, a method that involves living in the community and watching and interacting with its members in order to understand its organization and how its members see the world. One such community comprises planetary scientists, where astronomers, astrobiologists, chemists, physicists, atmospheric scientists, computer scientists, glaciologists, and oceanographers converge to study the planets (including Earth), moons, and planetary systems (so far, the solar system). This is a community not geographically bounded, for its members inhabit a number of different countries, but defined by a common perspective with common goals and methods connected through networks of communication.

Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds, by Lisa Messeri, is a study of the planetary science community. Messeri, a sociocultural anthropologist, is well-suited for the task, for she graduated from MIT with a bachelor of science in aeronautical science, which permitted her to enter that community as a colleague and participant. Her research lasted fifteen months, from 2009 to 2010, and took her from MIT to NASA laboratories to Silicon Valley, where she participated in a project mapping extraterrestrial bodies, to an observatory in the arid high Andes of Northern Chile, to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, where life on Mars is simulated, to see what living on the Red Planet might be like for humans, all the while gathering data through “interviews, involvement in research projects, chats over beer and pisco sours and email exchanges.”

It is from such interaction that ethnographers learn the already established collective meanings that constitute the culture of a social group, such as that of planetary scientists, as revealed in the behavior of its members, and from the categories, words, and narratives of their common language, and through their other symbolic systems. Messeri also examines the common culture and the aspirations of the community through the words they use and how they use them, what she calls their “rhetoric” and their narratives, and from conversations, as well as through the symbolic representations they work with in the form of mapping and imagery.

She focuses, however, on the task of “meaning-making” that will form the basis of the public’s view of other worlds and how they will affect our view of our own. Space is “universal, empty, prior,” but planets, even large, uninhabitable planets, are imagined as “places” comprehended in terms of our own world, as environments a scientist can imagine visiting, with mountains, seas, weather patterns, glaciers, etc., thus the phrase in Messeri’s title: Placing Outer Space. Through her ethnographic description of the scientific community that she studied, we watch this evolution from the inside—a progression comparable to the Age of Discovery, when the terrestrial Earth was explored, mapped, and imagined in global terms. In this sense, Messeri says planetary scientists are “literally world-builders.”

Initially, the motivation for the great voyages and expeditions of exploration in the past was commercial, later developing into colonization and the emergence of empires. But the quest for knowledge for its own sake has always been a powerful motivating force. There is also a commercial interest in outer space, in telecommunications, navigation, mapping, and one day possibly mining and even tourism. Political interest enters the picture here as well, for one justification for states is the defense of the society they govern. Reconnaissance and communications satellites have been launched for that purpose. As eighteenth-century Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz observed, “War is a continuation of politics by other means,”1 thus the increasing development of space weaponry to “secure the high ground” of outer space for strategic raisons d’état.

But planetary science cannot be reduced to those incentives, since planetary research is not concerned with such issues. The spirit of scientific curiosity and the goal of exploration are the only motives that attract scientists to that field, as evidenced in their commitment to the enterprise and the joy they share in their triumphs. This also holds for the participation of billionaires who, along with governments, have become involved in the development of space travel and eventual establishment of colonies on Mars, individuals who look forward to commercial return one day, but who obviously share the planetary scientist’s sense of discovery and adventure, taking pride that they, too, are pioneers on this expanding frontier.

Recently, the humanities and social sciences have turned away from objective research and from balanced fact-based interpretation, and toward the politicization of everything as seen through the narrow lens of race, ethnicity, and gender. This turn is strong in sociocultural anthropology, which straddles the social sciences and the humanities. Messeri hears that call, writing that “[t]he aim of this book could have been to unpack the white American, imperial subtext of exploration,” and examine how what she calls the “rhetoric of exploration…extend[s] the colonial narrative beyond the postcolonial Earth into space.” But to her credit she resists the temptation and instead tries to understand what the term “exploration” means to her interlocutors. Exploration, she writes, is “an unquestioned good for this group of planetary scientists. Thus, rather than trying to demystify and debunk this constant invocation” (i.e., reading the narrow activist narrative into the data), “the work of this book is to take that conviction seriously,” and to understand the activities of this community on its own terms, not on those of an outside commentator—what a proper ethnography always strives to achieve.

Ethnography was used for studying small, preliterate societies as a part of encompassing the world in all its rich geographic, biological, and human variety. It was then applied to the examination of folk communities of various kinds, and eventually to occupation groups in complex modern societies. Placing Outer Space, along with other works cited in the book, is an example of what might be regarded as the “anthropology of science,” the examination of the social and cultural aspects of human activity.

More interesting to the reading public, however, is that this well-written book offers an inside look at a field so many of us find fascinating, taking the reader on the scientist’s journey of “planetary imagining” and what this means for the future. Such readers come from all professions. They are people fascinated by science fiction, people who honor the space pioneers and their achievements, and who, like planetary scientists, thrill to every new discovery, cheering on NASA and those entrepreneurs working to fulfill the vision of visiting and living on other worlds in this new Age of Discovery.

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