Up and Away: A Few Thoughts on Women and Outer Space

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One
Mars-One Mission/ Kellie Gerardi

A news story recently caught my eye about a young woman who wants to live on Mars. Kellie Gerardi is a self-described “aspiring Martian” who is among the candidates to go on a one-way mission with the Mars settlement project “MarsOne”. There is a slim chance that by the time the mission leaves in 2025 the technology will be in place to return from Mars, but for now this is a one-way ticket. Although Gerardi is a spokeswoman for the commercial spaceflight industry by profession, this is an extracurricular gig for her. She has been selected as one of a hundred finalists from over two hundred thousand applicants, in a continual winnowing process that will come down to only twenty four astronauts. In her training for this mission, Gerardi has emphasized the idea that space travel is, or will soon be, possible for the average citizen. As she said in a recent interview, “If we truly want to democratize access to space, and incentivize people to take an interest in space activities, then we need to do everything in our power to make it more appealing,” Gerardi says. “I see a future where space settlement isn’t a sacrifice – it’s an opportunity.”

Speaking of making space seem attractive, I should perhaps mention that Gerardi herself is very beautiful. There is no doubt that her youth and glamour are an asset to the marketing of spaceflight. Unsurprisingly, this scenario of a pretty young woman, who is also engaged to be married, taking a one-way trip to Mars has the media intrigued and bemused. Gerardi carries herself with grace and good humor but she gets a dose of shade nonetheless. In a recent appearance on the slightly ridiculous daytime TV show, The View, the interview focused on whether Gerardi’s fiancé would approve of her trip, what might happen sexually with fellow male explorers, and what her mother thinks of all this. While the hosts were quite cheery, it was a sort of moral dampening, a slight ridicule that someone so young and so pretty would do anything other than be a nice girlfriend, wife, mother, earthling. It’s as if we are asking, How can someone who so perfectly embodies our societal ideals want to leave it all behind? It feels like an insult to all we hold dear. Popular myth asserts that women are supposed to sink, have roots, be earth-bound. While men are meant to fly, explore, and leave. With rocket-red lipstick and Martian ambitions, Gerardi represents a challenge to our view of female aspiration on this planet and beyond.

 

Two
A Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon/ Leila Ba’albaki

The topic of space and gender brings to mind an evocative short story from Lebanese writer Leila Ba’albaki entitled A Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon, from a collection of the same name. The story opens with the protagonist staring at her husband’s naked body, taking in his beauty and the city before sunrise. We soon learn that there is tension between them, as he wants to have children and she doesn’t, although she previously did. The woman is deeply infatuated with her husband and their life together, but she feels nervous about bringing a child into this unknown world, a child that could even fly to the moon, a child that could be shattered. She is ambivalent and in love.

The fact that this story was published in 1964 in Lebanon adds an extra layer of deviance to its subject matter. Here is a female character expressing deep emotional complexity and acknowledging the capacity for her own desires to shift over time. Ba’albaki was actually taken to criminal trial for this book, with the particularly offending lines (from another story, “When the Snow Fell”) being a woman describing a man describing her as “fresh, soft, dangerous” and licking her. The collection is cited as an important moment for Middle Eastern literature, taking a feminist “personal as political” stance. Going further than simply defying social norms, Ba’albaki’s is a literature that sees women as complex and conflicted, with sexual appetite and agency that is central to their identities. In fact, “fresh, soft, dangerous” isn’t a bad description of Ba’albaki’s work as a whole. While her concerns were considered avant-garde at the time, they are still relevant now. Round, dynamic women are rarely given the space to move and grow in literature, thus allowing their living counterparts to more freely accept contradictions in themselves as well.

Published five years before man walked on the moon, A Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon taps into our fascination with space: both our childlike curiosity to learn everything we can about the universe and our adult fear of what there is to discover and how it will change us. The moon as literary metaphor loses its usual romantic symbolism of infinite potential and instead morphs into something more sinister, more open, more confusing. Alone in their bedroom, the couple in the story sink back into one another, papering over their argument with manic love, naked and together. The protagonist’s husband ends the story, saying, “Let us take off, you and I, for the moon.”


Three
Sci-Fi/ Tracy K. Smith

As a cultural concept, space evokes the thrill of the unknown and the impelling desire to reach into it — partially to sate our curiosity, partially as a contingency plan. Stories set in space are often charged with danger, the stakes automatically raised by the dark vastness and imminent threat to human life. But in her poem Sci-Fi, poet Tracy K. Smith relaxes this notion. She de-fangs space and imagines a colonized future up there.

Sci-Fi

by Tracy K. Smith

There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.

History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,

Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.

Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,

Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.

For kicks, we’ll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.

The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned

To a Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.

And yes, we’ll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,

Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once

And for all, scrutable and safe.

Sources:

The View interview with Kellie Gerardi

Bride-to-Be Would Leave Fiance for One-Way Trip to Mars

TED Radio Hour: Peering into Space

Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond by Joseph T. Zeida

Where is Leila Baalbaki Facebook Page

Poem: Tracy K. Smith, “Sci-Fi” from Life on Mars. Copyright © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith.

Image Credit: Nick Knight


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