Twenty Years of NASA/TREK
Both the best and the worst thing about Star Trek is the utopian future it portrays. Only a step or two down from the dream fully automated socialist utopia, the Star Trek universe is as wrenchingly desirable as it is ultimately unreachable. NASA/TREK: Popular Science and Sex in America, Constance Penley’s fanfiction-inspired rewriting of NASA and the popular culture of science and technology, is so special, in part, because it suggests that Trek can actually be a site for attainable utopian thinking––with a little careful critique and loving fan intervention. The book, which turned 20 last year, posits "NASA/TREK," a “blended cultural text” that describes a prominent mode of popular engagement with science and technology in American culture. Penley argues that in American culture, the space program is the avatar of our interest in science and technology, its idealized form and highest aspiration. By documenting the failures of this engagement, as well as the way that Americans use fiction to supplement the disappointments of real-world space projects, Penley shows how NASA and TREK are two parts of a whole, inextricable from one another, and part of an ever-evolving negotiation of the place of science and technology in human life.
Penley’s classic study of gender, fandom and desire in science and technology is an oddity in the best, most covetable sense of the word. NASA/TREK is a stubborn book, delightfully so. It resists all classification according to scholarly style or even subject matter. It’s format is small and square, and only 160 pages, and it is divided into just two chapters; NASA and TREK. But it’s range, and its conclusions, span from the television in your living room out to the edge of the galaxy itself. Blending an in depth analysis of the gender politics of the tragic 1986 Challenger accident, which claimed the lives of six American astronauts and one teacher, with an early ethnography of fan culture and erotic Star Trek fan writing, the book is hard to place on one’s library shelves.
At the heart of the NASA section is an extensive criticism of NASA’s inability to imagine a woman in space, and how that stubbornness and lack of vision had tragic consequences. The women who fly in space today do so under significantly better circumstances than those women admitted earliest to space, but they are still underrepresented. Chris Hadfield’s brief flare of astronaut superstardom just served to illustrate that NASA’s PR problem was even more serious than they perhaps realized. Not only was the only astronaut in popular culture yet another white man, he wasn’t even American. But the dream of women in space is even difficult to realize, still, in science fiction. In addition to the numerous slights and downright abuses of women characters in various Star Trek iterations, I am reminded again, bitterly, of the spectacular bait and switch that Star Trek: Discovery pulled in its second pilot. After weeks of exciting marketing that seemed to promise not just a woman captain, but a woman of color who got to keep her accent, the show rebooted itself after one episode with a white dude in the big chair. In space and in our space fiction, it seems that the best we can ever manage is feint in the direction of representation for women, often in bad faith.
NASA/TREK examines the radical possibility of a vision for women in space, but also of a vision of space authored by women and marginalized people, one which rewrites the impulse to travel to space in the languages of desire, real human emotion and within a reimagined scientific and technological context that is profoundly humane. And as Penley shows, the student of the history of spaceflight will recognize this as a deeply radical act that upends decades of official dithering and hand-wringing on the part of spaceflight officials about women in space and all the attendant baggage of sexuality they supposedly bring with them.
The second half of NASA/TREK is an examination of specific fan subcultures surrounding Star Trek, particularly the writers and readers of erotic slash fanfiction about Kirk and Spock. Penley argues that these fans rewrite Trek according to a queer, utopian logic that privileges desire, pleasure, and equity, within a high tech context that, on the NASA side of NASA/TREK, has traditionally and fervently purged all such impulses from its operation. For the straight women whose work she studied, Penley argues, writing erotic stories about Kirk and Spock is appealing in part because it represents an opportunity to rewrite masculinity itself. The power of that possibility, as Deanna Day has shown, is built into the setting and genre tropes of Star Trek. Just as Data learns to be human through acts of emotional labor usually reserved for women, Spock’s mixed heritage and the expedient of the mind meld provide fan writers with ample room to write complex male characters undergoing intense processes of self-discovery outside of what, for many women writers, can feel like the stifling circumstances of a heterosexual relationship. So armed with a queer vision of the future that makes a place for women, and all the “baggage” of sexuality they bring with them, NASA/TREK can rewrite the tired patriarchal, heteronormative scripts of science and technology and make way for true utopias that outdo even the most fully automated, most luxurious visions of the future in Trek alone.
There is nothing definitive about this book, which is perhaps its most important attribute. It is simply open to the possibility of NASA/TREK itself and to the seeds of all of the weird and wonderful imaginings of space, and science and technology more generally, that such a blended text contains. In addition to the virtually limitless Star Trek fanfiction available today, spanning all series and films and video games, one can even find small pockets of NASA fandom that operate according to the same conventions as traditional pop culture fandoms, and at least one piece of Neil/Buzz erotica among an endless sea of Kirk/Spock. But, most importantly, NASA/TREK is open to the idea of openness. It is committed to the idea that utopian thinking isn’t a vain fantasy, that hopefulness about the future, articulated and enacted through our interactions with real science and real technology as well as our popular culture, is not naive. Utopia might be possible after all, but not until we can make it possible for everyone, and that requires a persistence of vision that Star Trek fans have always had.