Giant leaps and forgotten steps: NASA and the performance of gender

2014-06-11T13:38:33Z (GMT) by Dan Sage
Popular portrayals of American spaceflight regularly propose that the history of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration epitomizes the masculinist organization of American post-WWII modernity. Films such as Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (and earlier book), or Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (see Llinares, this volume), seemingly correlate the success of NASA, and by extension America and/or humanity, around the fortunes of strong, stoical, active and resourceful men. Meanwhile, women, such as the astronauts’ wives, seemingly feature as rather passive, marginalized and abjected. Manly bodies are shown here capable of ‘risk taking’, ‘frontier exploration’, ‘technical decision making’, ‘competition’ and ‘attention to detail’, all qualities which Connell (1995) suggested typified ‘hegemonic’ masculinities and legitimated patriarchies.1 Popular examples of NASA's articulation of masculinist social power are complemented by various scholarly accounts explaining how NASA has historically subjugated women (Ackmann, 2004; Kevles, 2003; Moule and Shayler, 2003; Penley, 1997; Weitekamp, 2004). This chapter takes the underlying claim found within such studies – NASA articulated a gendered binary – as its starting point. Rather than foregrounding the stories of women in NASA as a revisionist counterpoint, as many of these studies have, I will go further and critically assess the dis/organization of underlying binary oppositions which often frames explanations of the relationship between NASA and gender.