Friday, Breitbart published a delightful satirical piece in which a fictional feminist academic laid into Buzz Aldrin for walking on the moon. Using phrases like “cissexist white male privilege” and “neocolonial triumphalism” and even “cosmic man spreading” the fictional Linda Thump lays into the space program as only a women’s study professor could. She even suggested rewriting Neil Armstrong’s first words, substituting them with, “This is an accidental and undeserved moment in time for a lucky entitled manbaby, one giant leap for oppressive neoliberal hegemonic capitalist heteropatriarchy. F— the lot of you.” But surely Linda Thump is too outrageous actually to have a real world counterpart.
Proving that satire is dead, Linda Billings, “a science communications researcher based in Washington, D.C.” offers a piece in Scientific America called “The Inexcusable Jingoism of American Spaceflight Rhetoric.” The verbiage in the piece is less lurid than that of the fictional Linda Thump, but the sentiments are about the same.
“Throughout the history of the U.S. human spaceflight program, a peculiarly American rhetoric of manifest destiny, frontier conquest and exploitation has dominated official and public discourse. Take, for example, the credo of the Space Frontier Foundation, an American nonprofit advocacy group ‘dedicated to opening the Space Frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible … creating a freer and more prosperous life for each generation by using the unlimited energy and material resources of space.’ Such rhetoric reveals an ideology of human spaceflight—a set of beliefs about the nation’s right to expand its boundaries, colonize other lands and exploit their resources.”
“This ideology rests on a number of assumptions about the role of the U.S. in the global community and American national character. According to this ideology, the U.S. is and must remain “number one” in the world community, playing the role of political, economic, scientific, technological and moral leader, spreading democratic capitalism. The metaphor of the frontier, with its associated images of pioneering, homesteading, claim staking and taming, looms large in this belief system.
“The rhetoric of human spaceflight advances a conception of outer space as a place of wide-open spaces and limitless resources—a space frontier. From John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, U.S. presidents have embraced this rhetoric of frontier conquest and exploitation. So have NASA administrators, members of Congress and decades of expert panels.”
Dr. Billings goes on to explain why this is a bad thing, quicker than you can recite the lyrics to “Whitey on the moon.”
“Rhetoric matters. More than 30 years of my own observations, along with results from public opinion surveys over at least as many years, indicate that the community of American human exploration advocates is predominantly white and male. The rhetoric of frontier conquest and exploitation may appeal to this demographic, but I doubt it has much allure more broadly. Women constitute half of the world’s population. A majority of people on Earth are not American, or European, or “white.” In my many years of critiquing the American rhetoric of manifest destiny, non-Americans have repeatedly told me that they are baffled, if not offended, by this rhetoric.”
Dr. Billings’ supposition that a bunch of white guys dominate human space exploration would come as a shock to Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, Anousheh Ansari, private space traveler and commercial space advocate, not to mention the late Sally Ride and Judi Resnick, the latter of whom died on board the Challenger. There are also plenty of astronauts, engineers, and space entrepreneurs who are not white. The administrator of NASA is an African American, for goodness sake.
Billings may have anecdotal evidence that foreigners are aghast at American triumphalism at space achievements like the moon landings. That hasn’t stopped international astronauts from flying on the space shuttle or doing tours on the International Space Station. The principle of cooperation with other countries in space was established by President Ronald Reagan, no slouch where it came to American exceptionalism. Indeed, the most “internationalist” president in modern times, Barack Obama, yanked the rug from foreign partners when he cancelled President George W. Bush’s return to the moon program, despite the fact that many countries were eager to be partners in such an effort.
Her anti-capitalists attitudes are just as disturbing. Why should we not mine helium 3 on the moon and platinum from Earth approaching asteroids? Why should we not build solar collectors and microgravity factories in space? Such efforts would have huge benefits for all humankind. But Dr. Billings seems to find such things kind of icky, or as her fictional soul sister Linda Thump would say, “just cosmic manspreading: white privilege and neo-colonial triumphalism.”