Although this was definitely not my plan, it seems fitting that the first, last and only posts of this month have a Star Trek component. As the passing of Leonard Nimoy is being commented upon by people the world over including statements by President Obama and Charlie Bolden – leaders of the US space program, I am reflecting on the juxtaposition of art and science. On the one hand, in the modern mythology of Star Trek, Vulcans observing the “real” first manmade artificial satellite Sputnik in 1957, crash in a fictional town in Pennsylvania. In the “real” world town of Lakehurst, NJ a few years later, a ground station at the naval base relayed the first live two-way telephone call between heads of state via geosynchronous satellite Syncom II to President Kennedy. On the other end of the call, via the US Kingsport docked in Lagos Harbor was the Nigerian Prime MinisterAbubakar Balewa. In a brilliant essay entitled The Race for Space written sometime in late 1957 but unpublished until 1993, Duke Ellington articulates how racial issues were holding America back in the space race. Pointing out the lack of educational and employment opportunities in the fields needed to compete The Duke said
“Everybody has to get in the game if we are playing to win”
America won, but barely and then stumbled. In 1958 Ellington named his band The Spacemen one of the first in the lineage Big K.R.I.T recognizes in this Rolling Stones interview from Nov of 2014, African-American musicians were not only tuned into outer space, but saw themselves as intellectually and creatively capable of contributing to the US space effort. Now we’re in a new race for space with an African-American in charge of NASA but no companies like Space X or Virgin Galactic. Dr. Ellen Stofan, Chief Scientist at NASA puts it this way:
“When you have problems like trying to get humans down onto the surface of Mars, if you don’t have all the best minds in the world — not just white men — then you’re not utilizing humanity the way you should.”
Even though the benefits of the space program have been well documented, some people still don’t see why we should care(let alone spend money on) space. There’s one simple reason why every human should care about space. It’s home! Someone might say that our home is here on Earth, but Earth is a planet orbiting a star in space. Space is also a repository of vast material resources and has proven economic value. Contemporary astronauts speak about the transforming impact of seeing Earth from orbit – something called the Overview Effect. At least 6000 years ago on what is now the Nubian desert, ancient astronomers at Nabta Playa were charting the stars.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Nichelle Nichols had a very fortuitous encounter at an NAACP fund raising event in Beverly Hills after the first year of the Star Trek television show which changed not only her life but countless others. MLK was a very expansive thinker, well aware of the benefits of space exploration even at a time when African-Americans made up only a percent or two of U.S. engineering workforce. Earlier that week Nichelle had decided to leave the show and return to her roots in musical theatre. When she mentioned that to Dr. King, she says he insisted that she stay, that her role was of historical importance(see other accounts by Wall Street Journal and CNN). He convinced her to stay and millions of people of all ethnicities were exposed to the notion that a woman of color could be fourth in command of an intergalactic starship. He understood that it was more than a television show. I suppose we can speculate how clearly he envisioned from the mountain top that Nichelle would inspire people like former astronauts Mae Jemison and Charles Bolden, that Dr. Jemison would bring Star Trek into space:
A quarter of a century after Lt. Uhura boldly went where no African American had gone before, her protegee returned the favor. Before blasting into orbit aboard the Endeavour in 1992, Jemison, the first woman of color in space, called actress Nichelle Nichols to thank her for the inspiration. And then she made a promise: Despite NASA’s rigid protocol, Jemison would begin each shift with a salute that only a Trekkie could appreciate. “Hailing frequencies open,
that Charles Bolden would become the director of NASA. However, one thing we know for certain is that for just about two more years, the Director of NASA and his boss are African-American. During this time every historic accomplishment at NASA happens under their our watch. During Black History Month this year, I’ll be tracking those historical events along with other aspects of African-American historical endeavors in both physical and virtual space.
Often, what we really mean has to do with ethnicity, culture, religion, socio-economic class – or some combination thereof. If we want to solve the problems that lead to humans dying, grieving, protesting in NY and elsewhere, understanding what we mean might help. We can’t transform the language we use overnight but we can plant thought seeds …
there are averages of genetic profiles of people from certain populations, but even those aren’t very illuminating for individuals. “I could tell you what the average Mexican would be — 50 percent European, 45 percent Native American and 5 percent African, but it’s a very broad spread,” he said. That makeup might vary wildly from person to person. The “typical” ethnic ancestry for a Mexican is very different from that of someone who is Dominican — or, say, a Filipino person whose DNA comes mostly from East Asia — but all might be lumped under the same racial umbrella and deemed to look “Latino.”
The racial profiles we assign ourselves — I’m black, I’m Asian, I’m white — remain overly simplistic
Those who identify as primarily white can have African ancestry. 23andMepublished a study (pdf) based on its own dataset that concluded that approximately 3 to 4 percent of their customers who identified as being of primarily European descent had at least one ancestor in the last 10 generations who could be traced back to Africa.
When modern humans migrated out of Africa some 60,000 years ago, they found the Eurasian continent already inhabited by brawny, big-browed Neanderthals. We know that at least some encounters between the two kinds of human produced offspring, because the genomes of people living outside Africa today are composed of some 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA.
Transportation matters. Experts say finding smarter ways to travel will generate more business and improve more people’s quality of life.
More and more people are expected to live in cities in the coming decades. More people equals more traffic jams. More traffic equals more air pollution from vehicle exhaust.
These things are pushing experts to rethink how we use cars to get around town. In the near future, the “automobile will be more of a service than it is today,” says Maggie Hendrie of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. “The car can come pick you up. It will be customized to your preferences. The vehicle is interconnected to an ecosystem of digital devices.”
Fictional characters in Way In The Middle of the Air – a part of the 1950 sci-fi classic The Martian Chronicles saw the idea of black people going to Mars as Silly. Some people at that time and maybe even now might think the idea had more in common with the religious folk song Ezekiel Saw The Wheel whose lyrics it took its name from than any down to earth, practical “reality”. However NASA’s Orion spacecraft has completed it’s first test flight led by an African American so perhaps it’s time to take the idea seriously. People can follow NASA Director Charles Bolden’s blog, read up on President Barack Obama’s space policy and decide for themselves.