Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Colonialism and Place Creation in Mars Pathfinder Media Coverage

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Colonialism and Place Creation in Mars Pathfinder Media Coverage

Article excerpt

The Earth's invading Mars next week, and we aren't talking about science
fiction but about science fact.
--Joie Chen, 1997

Events within the past decade have enabled a tremendous expansion of the geographical realm. Unremarked on by any human geographers--except for one passing reference (DeFilippis and Smith 1997, 505), the amount of material territory that can be described geographically has nearly doubled with the successful landing of human-scaled explorers on the surface of Mars. (1) In this article I outline the process by which Mars has become constituted as a place within the sphere of human activity, beginning with a history of scientific interest in Mars and culminating in the 1997 media event that is my primary concern: the successful Mars Pathfinder mission. I demonstrate that media coverage constructed Mars as a place to be colonized, largely as a result of the coincidence of the economic interests of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the mass media, embodied in their anthropomorphic treatment of the Sojourner rover.

In 1997 NASA launched the first successful mission to Mars that involved a rover capable of moving about the surface and making observations, known as Mars Pathfinder. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a federally funded research center at the California Institute of Technology, managed the project on behalf of NASA. The purpose of Pathfinder's mission, officially, was to ground truth some of the abundant remote sensing data that had been gathered from Earth as well as from satellite-based platforms. Unofficially, the mission received authorization to provide a public relations boost to the beleaguered government agency (Markley 2005). On both counts, the mission proved incredibly successful, with NASA reaping reams of scientific data as well as tremendous amounts of public interest via an effective marketing plan that utilized multiple forms of visual media, including newspapers, television, radio, and the new visualization technologies of the World Wide Web. Given that the Pathfinder mission provided the first new images of the surface of Mars in a generation, and also given the restructuring of the news media over the past ten years to include twenty-four-hour news coverage, coverage of the Pathfinder mission was tremendous. The features of the mission, especially the rover that could follow orders to go to new places, interact with the environment, and send images back, enabled commentators and other viewers to anthropomorphize the machines that NASA had landed on the surface of Mars and understand this heretofore nonexistent experience through well-understood language of colonialism.

TOWARD AN INTERPLANETARY GEOGRAPHY

It may seem to be the height of hubris to claim that geography has some claim on the huge, hulking, objectively "real" planet of Mars, hurtling through the skies and visible at night. Nevertheless, it is helpful to think of Mars less as a planet, with all of the scientific baggage that the term carries, and more as a world, full of the hopes, fears, and ideologies imposed on it from our huge, hulking, objectively "real" Earth. In this way, Mars can be conceptualized as a place, perhaps with unique characteristics not found in any Earth-bound place but nevertheless socially constructed. With human activity routinely taking place beyond the frame of traditional geography--one need only think of the continually manned International Space Station--the idea of places as areas within the scale of Earth appears increasingly limiting. Although it is physically isolated from the human world, technological advancement has made Mars an extension of the realm in which human activity and signification can take place (Giddens 1984). Thus, even though it may seem at first glance to be beyond the realm of geographical thought, Mars is in fact a useful space in which to study the process of place creation, which can be more complex in earthspace because of the need to incorporate local residents' views--not an issue on Mars, so far. …

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