I was glued to the live coverage of New Horizons yesterday, both in the morning when it zipped past Pluto and the evening when it took a quick break from science to check in.
Like the show of excessive patriotism. Up here in Canada, only a fraction of us know all the words to the national anthem. With the exception of a single day, halfheartedly observed, the only people who regularly go rah-rah Canada are our flailing “Progressive” Conservatives. So the overt flag waving and “our country is the BEST” nonsense I sat through was annoying. Not unexpected (I am Canadian), but not that welcome either.
There was also that swipe at the Army by Charles Bolden. I gather there’s a friendly rivalry between different branches of the US military, much like the jousting between police and firefighters. If the press conference was about a military matter, I wouldn’t have batted an eye over this; as it was a scientific mission that had an international audience, an eye did bat. Even Bolden sensed a faux pas of some sort, and invoked self-depreciation as a defense (“I can say that, because I’m a Marine, and I can guarantee you that if it weren’t written on my paper here I couldn’t spell it.”)
The tip of the molehill, though, was the casual sexism.
Alice Bowman is the Mission Operations Manager for New Horizons, which the plaque above her monitor helpfully reminds us spells “MOM.” NASA freely splashes around MOM, and when New Horizons reestablished contact the various subsystems all called MOM. Oh sure, Rex Bowman is also a Mission Operations Manager, but no-one calls him MOM. Given the long history of society using motherhood to pigeonhole women, watching it reinforced so casually was jarring.
It didn’t help that while Alan Stern was handed technical questions in the evening, the first question directed at Bowman was “What did you feel, down deep?” Women were granted a limited sort of personhood in the Romantic Period, they became moral persons responsible for keeping the fabric of society together, a society that valued emotion over reason. This helped popularize things like Madonna/Whore complex and gender policing. Hundreds of years later, the association of women and emotions still echos around in our culture.
But these are little things, worth just a quick note in passing. It’s tough to get hung up on them when Bowman can deliver stirring speeches, be a goddamn inspiration to geeks everywhere, and hand us images like this.