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President Kennedy
While President Kennedy could refer to the need of the US to establish leadership in space, present-day leaders need to use softer language. (credit: NASA)

The feminization of American space policy

<< page 1: the conquest of space

From leadership to cooperation

The end of the Cold War marked a major turning point for the change in language and symbology for the civil space program. It also forced civil space leaders to search for new justifications for their actions. By the late 1980s NASA’s primary justification for the space station had become its research benefits, not its symbolic Cold War value.

However, once the Soviet Union evaporated at the turn of the decade, civil space could no longer be justified in terms of Cold War competition. So civil space leaders began adopting new policies and language to accompany them. By 1993, the goal of the space station was no longer leadership, or even beneficial research, but international cooperation.

There was also another factor at play: the increasing separation between the American civilian and military space programs. Once military payloads were moved off of the space shuttle, the civil space program had even less of a connection to national security goals. Not surprisingly, the language used to justify military space programs became more masculine at the same time that the language used to justify civilian space programs became more feminine. Military space officials, particularly those in the Air Force’s Space Command, began to use more bellicose jargon to describe their goals. “Space control” was replaced by “space dominance,” for instance. Civilian space officials softened their language, often after hearing the complaints of their new international partners who resented being treated as second-class participants.

Not surprisingly, the language used to justify military space programs became more masculine at the same time that the language used to justify civilian space programs became more feminine: “space control” was replaced by “space dominance”.

Space policy was not unique in this regard. Many other so-called “big science” projects had also been justified in terms of their ability to maintain American scientific and technological leadership as well as economic competition. The Superconducting Super Collider, for instance, was touted as necessary to maintain American leadership in basic physics. Fusion power research was also justified as a Cold War race to stay ahead of the Soviet Union. The Super Collider was ultimately canceled and fusion research scaled back dramatically. It was clear by the early 1990s that leading the world in a scientific or technological effort was no longer a sufficient justification for the expenditure of huge amounts of money.

Throughout the 1990s, the old language and symbolism of space policy continued to erode. NASA began to justify its existence to the American public to a greater extent upon its ability to teach and to inspire, and its ability to solve health care problems—what Lord and Jamieson have called “feminine” issues. It became commonplace for NASA and aerospace company officials to claim that a vigorous exploration program was necessary to inspire students to pursue careers in math, science and engineering. The NASA administrator regularly touted the value of the International Space Station in terms of its ability to contribute to research on health problems of the aging such as osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease. In the 1980s political junkets by congressmen were justified in terms of Congress’ oversight duties, but when John Glenn flew aboard a space shuttle in 1998 he justified it in terms of conducting research on human aging. NASA Administrator Dan Goldin regularly decried the fact that so much of the agency workforce was “male, pale and stale.” These changes in the rhetoric of the space program mirrored larger American society, where a focus on health care became the major debate of the early-to-mid 1990s and where “soccer moms” became a major voting demographic.

There was a fringe of the American space community where the more traditional, masculine imagery and language survived, however. That fringe was the Mars Society, led by its zealous spokesman Robert Zubrin. Zubrin makes no effort to be politically correct with his language and frequently talks of the conquest and colonization of Mars. He uses language and imagery about America’s western frontier that is at odds with current scholarship about this subject and that even some members of his own organization have found offensive. His language would have been unnoticeable in 1967, but seems anachronistic today.

A clash of visions and language

In recent years American politics has taken a swing back in the opposite direction it had moved during the 1990s. National security, which faded as a dominating political concern with the end of the Cold War, assumed greater importance after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Political language and rhetoric has also shifted. Whereas President Bill Clinton was occasionally mocked by his critics for his statements about “feeling your pain,” President George W. Bush is mocked for his “cowboy swagger.” Even domestic American politics have taken a more masculine turn in recent years. “Soccer moms” have been replaced by “NASCAR dads” as a desirable voter demographic.

Instead of “conquest” or “leadership,” or “science,” the goal has become “exploration.”

The new civilian space policy unveiled in January was criticized by some parties for its lack of clear reference to either science or international cooperation, both of which had been at the center of American civil space policy goals and rhetoric during the 1990s. But while the new policy in some ways reflected a return to older and more traditional goals, Bush’s speech did not use the traditional rhetoric. There was no mention of conquest or ensuring international leadership or colonization of other worlds. There was no mention of any of the other countries that are currently planning lunar spacecraft, such as the Chinese.

Instead of “conquest” or “leadership,” or “science,” the goal has become “exploration.” In fact, in his speech Bush mentioned the word exploration eleven times. He mentioned the word science only once, and then in terms of the role that future space exploration can play in inspiring children to pursue careers in science—the traditional feminine language of the modern space program.

President Bush’s new space vision in many ways highlights the uneasy relationship between more traditional space goals and the newer language and symbolism that has developed since the end of the Cold War. A program of returning Americans to the moon and eventually sending them to Mars has traditionally been justified in terms of masculine language that is no longer acceptable to larger audiences. In order to build the coalitions necessary to pursue this new policy, Bush could not embrace the old language about conquering the heavens or even leading the world. So he has adopted the word exploration as a compromise term.

Similarly, NASA itself has embraced the word exploration to define its goals without clearly describing the relationship between science and exploration. And in speeches by the NASA Administrator and the agency’s literature, the goal of inspiring children is oft-repeated as a reason for conducting space exploration.

Clearly over the years the goals of the civilian space program have evolved and changed in response to the larger political environment. It is not simply politics, however, that affects the space program. It is the larger social context that molds politics as well. There is probably no returning to the masculine rhetoric of space exploration of days past, even if space policy has adopted more ambitious and challenging goals. Politicians and bureaucrats will try to develop new language and descriptions to broaden the appeal of these plans.


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