Why sending a Native American into space is a big deal

In this image from video made available by NASA, U.S. Marine Col. Nicole Mann, a member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in California, enters the International Space Station from a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on Oct. 6. (NASA via AP)
In this image from video made available by NASA, U.S. Marine Col. Nicole Mann, a member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in California, enters the International Space Station from a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on Oct. 6. (NASA via AP)

Outer space has been grabbing headlines over the past few months. The James Webb Space Telescope continues to wow astronomers and the masses alike with unparalleled images of distant galaxies, stellar nurseries, Neptune’s rings and more.

A couple of weeks ago, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) altered an asteroid’s trajectory by slamming a spacecraft into it, a feat that, in theory, could help humanity avoid the fate of the dinosaurs. Even the thrice-delayed launch of NASA’s Artemis I, which will eventually take a crew to the moon, continues to make front-page news.

However, another cosmic achievement has been eclipsed by these flashier feats: On Oct. 5, Nicole Mann, a registered member of the Wailaki tribe, became the first Indigenous woman to go to space.

Space exploration has always been marked by firsts: the first person or country in space, on the moon, and someday, on Mars. There are countless practical and symbolic reasons representation matters in space, just as it does everywhere else, particularly for Indigenous people.

Agencies, organizations and companies that spearhead space programs and interests have always been dominated by wealthy white men. John Glenn testified in front of a Congressional subcommittee that women shouldn’t participate in NASA’s astronaut program. The naming of the James Webb Space Telescope has generated much controversy because of Webb’s participation in the Lavender Scare, when the U.S. government tried to identify and jettison any employees who weren’t demonstrably heterosexual. The first all-female spacewalk happened just three years ago, and only after a debacle involving a lack of spacesuits sized for non-male crew members.

Diversity and representation in NASA’s astronaut classes, as well as in other astronaut programs around the world, are slowly improving. But not quickly enough.

The existence of overwhelmingly white, male crews — and space tourists — suggests false homogeneity on Earth and perpetuates destructive power dynamics. Private space companies run by rich, white men imply that space is accessible only to certain people if they just “work and save up.”

The dominance of space ventures by the white and wealthy also paves the way for cosmic capitalism. The “finders-keepers” and “frontier” mentality prioritizes exploration, not for the sake of knowledge or even of species survival, but rather, for power. But spacelike Earth, is not a commodity and shouldn’t be treated as such.

Indigenous people have lost far too much on Earth already, and we need to prevent that from happening in space, too. Problematic rhetoric around “manifest destiny,” pushing the space “frontier” or “colonizing” celestial bodies perpetuates those ideologies and behaviors. Quantifying how much Native Americans have lost is impossible; what is entirely possible, however, is disrupting these patterns before they reach the stars.

Most of us don't think much about the cosmos except when we glimpse the occasional eclipse or shooting star. However, that’s not the case for Indigenous communities, whose connection to the cosmos is spiritual, cultural and practical. These communities use the stars to navigate, celebrate holidays dictated by the position of the planets, and incorporate constellations into religious and spiritual practices. Space X currently has over 2,300 Starlink satellites orbiting Earth (with some 30,000 more on deck), which disrupt ground-based astronomy and create a gap between Indigenous communities and the natural elements that have guided their customs for centuries.

Indigenous communities have also had to fight to retain land that offers superlative access to the sky. The controversy about the planned Thirty Meter Telescope on Hawaii’s Maunakea mountain is one recent example. Maunakea, an inactive volcano with a sacred summit used for prayer, already accommodates 13 independent observatories, each of which is committed to sustainability and stewardship. The Thirty Meter Telescope would be far larger than the existing observatories, and most problematically, its plans didn’t involve local Indigenous communities or consider the impact its construction would have on them.

Fortunately, the National Science Foundation is assessing the environmental impacts of the telescope’s construction, and the Environmental Protection Agency recommended that the Foundation find an alternative site that wouldn’t have such negative impacts on the lives of native people.

This July 14, 2019, file photo, shows a telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii's tallest mountain. (Caleb Jones/AP)
This July 14, 2019, file photo, shows a telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii's tallest mountain. (Caleb Jones/AP)

Still, the clear implication is that Native American land is ripe for theft, especially in the name of "progress." Powerful white people still get to decide which Indigenous beliefs, values, practices and property to respect and which to bulldoze for their own use.

A team of astronomers concerned about the impacts of such developments suggests treating space as an “ancestral global commons that contains the heritage and future of humanity’s scientific and cultural practices.” That legacy, as well as the present and future, should be accessible to all people. In corporate terms, all of us are shareholders and stakeholders in the sky and in space, and that paradigm should guide decisions about who does what in space, why and at what cost to whom.

In this context, it’s hard to overstate the significance of the first Native American woman in space. Mann, commander of the CREW-5 mission, is the second Native American in space (20 years ago, John Harrington, of the Chickasaw Nation became the first). She will live on the International Space Station for up to six months, where she and the other astronauts will conduct research on the effects of microgravity on the human body and other processes essential to life off-Earth.

This mission paves the way for Artemis, which aims to send astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars. One of the goals of the Artemis mission is to put the first female and the first person of color on the moon — some 50 years after Neil Armstrong set foot there. Whoever NASA selects will, like Mann, serve as inspiration for generations, and as a reminder that cycles can be broken. As we think about the future, we can choose not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.


Headshot of Joelle Renstrom

Joelle Renstrom Cognoscenti contributor
Joelle Renstrom teaches writing at Boston University. She is the author of a collection of essays, "Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature."



More from WBUR

Listen Live