One of the universally-championed benefits of human space exploration is not actually related to any physical activities performed while in space. Instead, an important aspect of leaving our world is the change in perception that space exploration has upon astronauts themselves, and the societies that receive them, upon their return.
Irrespective of country of origin, religion (or lack thereof), cultural background, or political ideology, and having seen firsthand the fragility of Earth in the context of the rest of the cosmos, a great majority of astronauts return as prophets of a unified Earth and humanity upon it.
Hearing what they have to say is powerful stuff, considering that they’ve lived through something still very, very unique to human experience.
Fighting Fire with Fire
So, as a bit of a social experiment, I took one of my favorite astronaut images and paired it with some of the more poignant, (if not also somewhat charmingly coarse), “overview effect”-inspired astronaut quotes as a meme (see image at right for an example) to inspire the question:
“How might the world be different if astronauts ran it?”
The six images I whipped up in series are included below – if so inclined, feel free to distribute at will. (Attribution not necessary – I want to promote their opinions, not mine.)
They’re intended to trigger the consideration that the same training, rigors, education, problem-solving skills, decisiveness, and unique experiences required of and provided to those selected to venture off-world might also happen to make them ideal for leading us here at home.
I’d argue that we need more out there communicating the idea that supporting human space exploration has more behind it than the development of new technologies, probing the laws of our universe, figuring out if we’re alone in the cosmos, turning a profit, or even capitalizing on our species’ deep-seated impulse to explore.
By no means a new concept, many have instead suggested that with the apparently-universal nature of the Overview Effect and an increasing number of astronauts in our midst, conflicts may be given a broader or different context, and world contention might thereby diminish. (It’s an admittedly lofty hope, but that’s no reason to avoid testing it; In my opinion, it provides all the more reason!)
About the Meme: Why That Picture?
The picture itself, that of future moonwalker Alan Shepard severely chomping on a cigar while leading ground control during the Gemini 6 mission to space, provides several subtly unsettling contrasts that I hope inspire thought or debate. On its face, by depicting a very assertive, gruff 1960s American male stereotype, we’re shown a side of science and exploration that is not really depicted today.
Next, by just placing the picture of an astronaut (not in a spacesuit) in a vaguely political context, I feel that the concept of the explorer and the politician – two seemingly unrelated or even incompatible archtypes – are juxtaposed in such a way that the idea of an explorer-politician might be seen as something beneficial or even desirable. (Many are unaware that several astronauts have, indeed, gone on to political careers after hanging up their flightsuits, John Glenn and Harrison Schmitt being two noteworthy examples.)
Further, however, is the fascinating contrast made by the impression of the picture and the content of the quotes superimposed over it. Most today would consider the quotes to be promoting “liberal” leaning opinions, (i.e., ideas that those of a “hawk”-style international relations stance would consider to be fundamentally weak views,) – yet the majority of the quotes were made my military men epitomized by the stereotype the image suggests!
In addition to highlighting that no personality types, even those perceived to be warlike, are immune to the power of the spaceflight experience, this contrast visually assaults two modern myths currently operating in America’s evolving cultural narrative:
- That stereotypical, “20th Century male” (i.e., overt or hegemonic masculine) personalities or gender identities are synonymous with physicality and are incompatible with intellect.
- That the same personalities typified (or classified) at the time by masculine stereotypes are synonymous with aggression and conflict and are incompatible with humanist views.
Meshed with the deconstruction of a stereotype, (to the point, several of our “Right Stuff” astronauts, themselves amongst the most disciplined and committed military men of our country at the time, admitted to being moved to tears at the simple sight of the Earth from beyond,) it’s my hope that their message finds a memorable channel to the public, if not to a virgin audience.
For those inclined to do so, let me know what you think, and please copy and “fire at will,” as they say, on your social media outlet of choice. Who knows? These might not get a single view, or they just might plant a seed to someone whose eyes drift over it in the daily waterfall of social media that washes over us all.
Hopefully, discussions will result.
Having had their eyes opened, (perhaps metaphorically-dilated by the cosmic darkness to resolve a reality we’re evidently excellent at blinding ourselves to down here on Earth), I believe that there is a pressing social motivation for broadcasting the consistent messages carried back by humanity’s astronauts.
Especially given the increasingly-polarized political views on display these days, and considering the global, long-standing ideological conflicts that persist to this day, I think the message from our off-world explorers is becoming only more, not less, relevant with time.