What about “the final frontier?” Saying goodbye to the Space Shuttle Program By Sara Frykenberg

The following is a guest post written by Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D., independent scholar and graduate of the Women Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University.

“It all started when they messed with Pluto,” my husband joked to me as we listened to the NPR report last week about the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.  I imagined a slighted god of the underworld smiting our exploration of the heavens!  “How dare you tell me that Pluto doesn’t count,” he yells, dragging our shuttles out of the sky.  But joking aside, I am really, truly bummed about this new “development” is US space exploration.  The idea that human beings have the ability to travel in outer space is a great source of hope and inspiration for me— but why?  And why am I so bummed?  I decided that I needed to examine these feelings from both a feminist and a spiritual dimension.

Does feminism care about the Space Program?  That is a question, because I really don’t know.  I know particular feminists do.  I know some don’t.

On the one hand, the whole NASA program seems like a financial drain to some US citizens.  I read one report that said the Shuttle program’s annual budget was $19 Billion dollars.  19 BILLION.  That is a lot of dollars.  Its true that this amount is a drop in the bucket in comparison to the billions spent in the defense industry, for Medicare or for Social Security… but these industries have a practical and measured impact on US citizens.  Some commentators basically called the Shuttle Program nostalgic, unnecessary and unproductive—as in, it doesn’t give us anything of worth (anymore), except maybe sentiment.

On the other hand, from a “practical” perspective, 7 to 8 thousand people lost their jobs last week because of this program’s termination… mechanics, engineers and scientists.  These individuals’ professional status may make their unemployment easy to trivialize: “They had good jobs.  They have an education.  They can get jobs.”  But can they get jobs?  All of them?  I am particularly sensitive to this issue.  It makes me think of all the highly educated teachers who can’t find work and the departments that are disappearing from colleges because they aren’t considered ‘necessary’ for a student to get an education.  Art and music aren’t thought of as ‘necessary’ elements of curriculum.  Feminist studies itself is often thought of as ‘additive’ to ‘necessary’ studies… and I think I can say with confidence that most of us reading this blog do not feel feminist analysis is ‘additive’ or ‘unnecessary.’

I guess for me, then, the question we need to ask when considering the Space Shuttle Program is what gives it value?  What gives it value for feminists?  I have to admit I don’t feel totally qualified to answer this question.  I am not a scientist and cannot tell you much about the impact of actual discoveries in space.  I also cannot ignore the shuttle program’s (comparatively) small practical reach, or the Space Program’s history with the war industry.  However, I can tell you that I believe space travel is imagination incarnate.  It is a means of reaching past what are thought to be “normal” human limitations.  It is evolution and it is the possibility of contact with more life and so, more of our selves as cosmically interconnected beings.

This is a funny thing to me now, but one of the first challenges to my conception of God as a child surfaced when considering the possibility of life on other planets.  I was raised as a conservative Christian and taught: “Jesus was the only way to God, period.”  One day as a kid, I remember thinking to myself: “If that’s the case, then what about all the aliens?”  Wouldn’t Jesus have to have gone to all of those other planets too?  Or was it just that God did things differently with different planets? … I now believe that God/dess has infinitely creative and diverse relationships with all life, here or “abroad.” ;)

Overall, if everything is interconnected and in some way alive, as many Process philosophers suggest, then there is a whole universe of relationships out there that can help us to better understand our own relatedness.  I believe that space travel and exploration helps us to encounter these relationships.  I also believe that its helps to inspire and is inspired by science fiction—a genre that has helped us to challenge oppression, imagine new technologies and creatively shape the future.

I know, I know.  Its not like the whole space industry is disappearing—just this one (big) program in the United States.  Private companies may take over.  Other countries are still sending international groups of astronauts to the international space station and building their programs.  But I am sad to see our country give up on this program… it is, to me, a missed opportunity to “go where no one has gone before.”

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