Research Notes · 11/15/2019

First Woman On Mars

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, John Minichillo writes about First Woman On Mars from Spaceboy Books.


I was born the year before we landed on the moon and those missions had an undeniable impact on a boy growing up in Indiana. We had a National Geographic that commemorated the event with iconic photos and it came with a square flexi disc phonograph record of the sounds of Apollo 11. The Quindar tones between the vocalizations of the two-way radio broadcasts were imitated in our astronaut play and not until Star Wars eight years later would we find ourselves so thoroughly transported to the future with sounds. I read the novelization of Star Wars but wouldn’t be won over by the science fiction in the local library until I found Kurt Vonnegut. Rocket ships were my introduction to the imagination and the satire of Vonnegut was my introduction to imaginative literature.

Everything I’ve mentioned thus far would be (rightly) critiqued by feminists: a cold war that culminated in the uber-phallic Saturn V rocket, a childhood that catered to boys who could imagine tapping the resources of the richest nation simply so they could walk around on the moon, as well as the preponderance of white male science-fiction authors and their often sexist stories bound with titillating covers. By the time I was in my twenties I was made aware that my boyhood had been judged by the women’s movement and I was encouraged to turn my back on something I loved because its time had passed.

As for literature, earthbound characters and relationships were supposed to be more than interesting enough. My first attempts at writing were science fiction but by the time I went to grad school for writing, I wouldn’t dare hand in science-fiction stories to the writing workshop because the genre was shunned as formulaic, commercial, and/or just plain dumb. But many many years later, I can honestly say that straight science fiction has been the hardest writing I’ve ever done, and I wish I’d known this to be able to speak up about it in writing workshops. World-building means inventing a new society with new gadgets and giving everything names that don’t sound inane. By contrast, science-fiction satire has been some of the funnest writing I’ve ever done, because it includes the self-recognition of our stupidity, as well as an awareness of the feminist critiques that extend to the current iteration of NASA, which has adopted the look of dudes in blue Polos with cell phone holsters on their belts, who famously didn’t make the spacewalk suits to fit women. Meanwhile the tech industry is falling over itself to try to hire more women. As a novelist, I can toss in whatever’s astronauty from the pop culture that fits, which, for a kid who was thoroughly brainwashed by the space race, has involved considering the possibility that the moon landings never happened. Do I believe Stanley Kubrick used his front-screen projection technique to create the moon landing footage in a sound stage? It doesn’t matter what I believe, because that’s part of the story now, and we live with the obvious predicament that we’ve gotten a lot better at simulating reality since 1969.

What makes conspiracy theory ripe for satire is that it de-propagandizes. Currently, the lore surrounding the moon landings includes: UFOs, Freemasons, the Kuiper Belts, crazy Buzz Aldrin, crazy Edgar Mitchell, the introvert Neil Armstrong, the moonishly cratered bombing range at Groom Lake, expeditions for moon meteors in the North Pole, and the occasional hyped-up future date for a manned-and-womanned mission to Mars. Yet, with all the talk of putting men and women on Mars, no one has suggested that a woman should be first to set foot on another planet. We’ll send women, yes, but the notion of a woman being first is still radical.

She would really have to be an extraordinary woman, wouldn’t she? Not necessarily. Teslas drive themselves and so do the re-landing Space-X Falcon rockets. So that we’re all ordinary, or extraordinary, and we’re not heroes or anti-heroes, we just are. And science fiction — at a time when science has surpassed the imagination — turns in on itself. Did we really do all those things or was it a fantasy, can we tell the difference, and does it even matter? Science is on the side of the conspiracy theorists at least as much as it’s on the side of the defenders of the legends, and the NASA sympathizers are so serious they have no idea that remarking on the great masculine façades of the twentieth century even as they crumble is a roaring jest. Most of us would have never had access to participate in the world’s greatest PR campaign for American nationalism anyway, and I, for one, won’t get excited about sending astronauts to Mars unless they’ve thought it through enough to have an Eleanor Armstrong step from the capsule first. Since America’s not going because of the Russians this time, but because a few mega-billionaires have to invent fancy ways to spend all that money, we damn well better get some equality with the space rockets.

Note: While this essay was being prepared for publication, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters covering the first all-woman spacewalk, “We could very well see the first person on Mars be a woman.”


John Minichillo is the author of the novels The Snow Whale, EOB: Earth Out of Balance, and The Last Workshop. He teaches in Tennessee and lives in Nashville.