In their Scribner Seminar “Reading the Cosmos,” Skidmore College first-year students undertook an interdisciplinary study of the universe. Through explorations of Greek cosmology, the sublime, Einstein, and the Space Age, students charted a literary and cultural history of the cosmos.
Students drew on their insights in the course to write labels for NASA photographs in the Tang collection. The class conducted additional research to curate a selection of photographs around four major themes in space exploration: Aesthetics, Space, Nation, & Empire, Planet Earth, and Space, Childhood and Play. They also created a space playlist ranging from Gustav Holst to Beyoncé. Enjoy the results of their work below.
The pyramid also brings to mind Egyptian history and astronomy. The ancient Egyptians studied the sky in order to analyze the stars and accurately align their pyramids with Earth’s four cardinal points, and the Pyramid of Giza was among the seven wonders of the world. This rock’s aesthetic thus encompasses many cultures, and the addition of the Moon rock to the middle of it is a symbol of America presenting itself as the conqueror and successor of the other great civilizations.
While NASA is trying to portray space in a futuristic light, the ideas of these aesthetics are ancient. The ring of astronaut portraits around the space station evokes the image of a sphere, and by association, Pythagorean “sacred geometry.“ A sphere is one of the five shapes that Greek mathematicians regarded as “sacred.” The Greeks believed that these shapes fit between the six known planets orbiting the sun, and were the product of cosmic intervention, or in other words, the work of God. The sacred shape made up of astronaut’s faces, surrounding the space station implies the might of humanity—now that we are in space, we are like gods. This image employs these tactics in its aesthetic to create a view of space that is enticing, fascinating, and displays human ingenuity.
After the success of the Apollo-11 mission, the United States was able to assert its authority over the Soviet Union by winning the space race and successfully landing a man on the moon. As for this particular image, taken during the Apollo-16 mission, its composition emphasizes the American man and flag as the pinnacle of the image with the rover in the background, illustrating the United States’ progression into modernity and thus their technological superiority over the world’s other leading powers. The light casts an angelic glow over the subject, solidifying its representation American success and power as they further exert their superiority over the Soviet Union over the coming decades.
The Mercury Seven piloted all of the Project Mercury missions from 1961-1963. As astronauts, they had to go through some rigorous training to prepare for their space flight. At first glance, the only difference between these two photos of the Mercury Seven would be their clothes and setting. The first photograph shows an informal setting: they’re dressed down, very sweaty and dirty. This presentation contrasts with the second photo, as they’ve cleaned up: they are matching, sporting sheriff hats and star badges. These cowboys of the new Wild West, the “final frontier,” laying down the law for all of space, are the very picture of crisp, clean, honest Americans. However, these photographs reveal American nationalist sentiments towards people of color and foreigners in the 1950s-1960s. The clothing in the first photo resembles traditional male Arab dress of the thawb and the kufiya, meant for desert survival on the Arabian Peninsula. This outfit choice would seem unassuming, as the astronauts are undergoing survival training in the desert. However, when coupled with the second photo, these images reveal how the United States views people of color. When dressed in imitation Arab clothing, the astronauts are dirty and unkempt. When dressed in American sheriff fashion, they’re clean and pristine. The images suggest that people of color, especially foreigners, are dirty, and (white) Americans are clean. The release of these photos (especially during the sixties, a time period rife with racial tensions) intensifies this racist dimension.
Throughout her life Jemison also made huge contributions to local and global communities, playing an important role in her college’s Black Student Union, leading a study for the AMSA in Cuba, working at a Cambodian refugee camp, and joining the Peace Corps as a medical officer in Africa. Jemison’s extensive list of achievements is independently extraordinary, but it also demonstrates how much harder she had to work to become an astronaut than many of her white male counterparts.
NASA has had a long history of discrimination and conflict regarding BIPOC, despite its claims that “space is for everyone.” During the moon landing many civil rights demonstrators argued that government funding should have been channeled toward assisting American citizens with issues that disproportionately impact racial minorities as a result of systemic injustice. The national response of government agencies to the movement was severely lacking. The space program failed to increase inclusivity by hiring almost exclusively heterosexual white men around this time. When NASA attempted to make efforts to decrease the tension through actions like working on technological advancements that could address societal issues prevalent in low income areas like air pollution, and minorly diversifying their employees, people often saw these actions as performances. Given this history, Jemison was bound to be overly publicized and exploited by NASA. But this truth cannot detract from the impact she was able to make. When Jemison was sent into space, only 28 years ago, her involvement was an important step for NASA and a great achievement for BIPOC. She was, and still is, an inspiration and a symbol of defying the barriers that American society creates.
“The Blue Marble” quickly became one of the most popular photos used for environmental protection movements. When released, the photo struck a chord with those who saw it. The wonder that came with seeing our planet in its entirety for the first time helped kick off the environmental movement. On a day-to-day basis, when we didn’t know what the planet looked like, it was common to disconnect from the idea that the Earth was after all a beautifully complex planet. Viewing the full Earth was an experience that stuck with people, and it led to a more public appreciation of the environment. After its release, pieces such as the iconic “Love your mother” poster began to circulate, using “The Blue Marble” as the centerpiece of their movement.
Floating into space is the greatest fear of many astronauts. In 1984, Bruce McCandless left the hub of the Challenger in the first-ever nitrogen propelled jet pack, untethered from the spaceship. The STS-41-B mission sent a man “free-flying” into space. Humans until this point, never safely managed to fully disconnect, physically, from Earth and live to share the experience.
His first EVA lasted 5 hours and 55 minutes, and he went out for a second time 2 days later for 6 hours and 17 minutes. McCandless also was the first to use the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), testing its ability on long tetherless spacewalks. McCandless described his experience: “It was a wonderful feeling, a mix of personal elation and professional pride: it had taken many years to get to that point.”
He also remarked that despite being told it would be calming and peaceful, the spacewalk was anything but: “With three radio links saying, ‘How’s your oxygen holding out?’, ‘Stay away from the engines!’ and ‘When’s my turn?’, it wasn’t that peaceful.” The photo shows the first human being to experience being fully untethered from a spacecraft, floating above our planet with nothing but a suit separating him and the emptiness of the cosmos. This spacewalk marked another advancement in our steps towards the stars and away from our home.
Chaffee is holding the model with both hands, smiling in delight, almost like a child showing off his creation at a science fair or holding onto their favorite toy. The sense of pride Chaffee’s body language displays leaves viewers relating back to a proud and passionate student showing off the product of their hard work, grit, and determination.
The seal on the front says, “Of the President of the United States Seal.” The photograph radiates a joyful, celebratory mood in line with the Apollo mission’s goal to stir public enthusiasm and funding for the space program. The quarantine box also resembles a box theatre. These smiling astronaut “puppets” seem like they would put on an entertaining performance for all ages, awing children with the wonders of space.
This photo shows Charles Duke, an Apollo 16 astronaut moonwalking and saluting the American flag. The impression of the moonwalk is very playful. The weight-losing effect of low gravity makes something as mundane as walking look like skipping. The picture is reminiscent of a child playing make-believe, imagining he too is exploring the cosmos.
The moonwalk attracted the admiration of not only people in the United States, but all across the planet. Then in 1983, Michael Jackson debuted a gravity-defying moonwalk of his own. Jackson’s legendary move left an everlasting footprint on pop culture, and left America’s youth with the same sense of wonder and amazement that the original moonwalk had eleven years before.