Space Races & Special Forces at Smithsonian’s Future Con

In April of 2018, as cosplayers, geeks, and comic vendors descended on the Walter Washington Memorial Convention Center in Washington, DC for the annual Awesome Con, affiliates of Smithsonian Magazine’s Future Con were also setting up stalls in the convention hall, prepared to substitute hawking Funko bobbleheads and custom-made Game of Thrones sigils for scientific education and STEM community engagement. As attendees to DC’s version of Comic Con debated the future of the Marvel Universe after Avengers: Endgame or the shocking finale of The Magicians, the Future Con segment of the con was dedicated to highlighting the “the intersection of science, technology, and science fiction” with exhibitors from the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Geographic, NASA Goddard Space and Flight Center, and NOVA Labs. Established as a “celebration of science,” and a form of STEM education made accessible to attendees of all ages, Future Con programming included more technical panels like “Science Fiction to Fact: The Voyage of Biometrics” to fan-submitted discussions on “Harry Potter and the Genetics of Wizarding.” As an exploration of the continuum between scientific fiction and reality, it’s worth dwelling on the overlaps between Comic Con fans and professionals in STEM industries. But the two biggest draws, or debates, of Future Con over the weekend were the space-related programming, including a panel with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, and the participation of another government agency, namely the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Future Con programming at Awesome Con

Future Con programming at Awesome Con

Embedded in the nation’s capital, it is perhaps unsurprising that federal agencies like NASA and the CIA were present at Awesome Con. Future Con’s affiliation with the Smithsonian certainly denotes some connection with the government. But, as the Smithsonian website describes, although the Smithsonian Institution was created by Congress in 1846, the Smithsonian itself “is considered unique in the Federal establishment. The Smithsonian is not an executive branch agency and does not exercise regulatory powers, except over its own buildings and grounds. Thus, courts have held that the Smithsonian is not an agency or authority of the Government” (Smithsonian 2019). The Smithsonian—including its numerous museums and zoo—receives federal funding with the explicit purpose of establishing “the increase and diffusion of knowledge” (Smithsonian 2019). This dedication and passion for knowledge is one of the core organizing principles behind Future Con. Ron Brister, Vice President of Events at LeftField Media, which helps to produce Future Con each year, noted the heavy focus on STEM education behind the event. When speaking about options like the “Ask a Scientist Booth,” where Con attendees could talk to physicists, engineers, aeronautics specialists and geologists about their work, Brister emphasized the importance of accessibility. “To be able to talk to the NASA Administrator,” he said, “That’s something that most people in the general public wouldn’t be able to have access to.” His hope is that the closeness and physical proximity of real-life scientists, as well as the participatory elements of the programming—VR headsets, topographical maps of the moon—will assist to “break down those barriers” between the general public and professionals in STEM industries.

We can consider, for instance, the role of representation in STEM fields and the media, as well as the conversations and advocacy campaigns around improving diversity and inclusion in science education, literacy, and employment across the life span. Scientific disciplines have long been skewed as particularly technical and therefore masculinized, conflating gender with an individual’s scientific acumen or skill. Many science fields, particularly those that require many years of graduate education and training, have also been overrepresented by those with the privileges to pursue a career in STEM. As Kenneth Gibbs writes, “While there are strong imbalances in the racial/ethnic and gender representation across scientific fields,” however, “there is no evidence to suggest that cultivatable scientific potential differentially segregates across lines of social identity” (Gibbs 2014). Movies like Hidden Figures (2016) are working to disrupt monolithic narratives about who can and should consider themselves to be a scientist, just as Shuri in Black Panther and Riri Williams of Ironman invert the stereotypically white, wealthy male scientist figure. Future Con, too, provides an opportunity for young fans to quite physically meet the scientists of today, perhaps providing tangible models for the potential scientists of the future.

These models of futurity also impact our visions of the “next frontier,” the cosmological domain of space, Mars exploration, and the question of life beyond Earth. One of the “Grand Challenges” of the Smithsonian is “unlocking the mysteries of the universe […] in the quest to understand the fundamental nature of the cosmos, using next-generation technologies to explore our own solar system, meteorites, the Earth’s geological past and present, and the paleontological record of our planet” (Smithsonian 2019). These very mysteries were on full display at Future Con, with representatives from NASA’s Goddard Space and Flight Center, Planetary Missions and Explore Mars. The synergies between space exploration and science fiction here are fairly evident. Russian science fiction is credited with inspiring the USSR’s investment and innovation in space technology, and NASA scientists have often spoken about how sci fi media like Star Trek, ET, and even Space Balls served as sources of motivation in their own career trajectories (Kross 2015).

Yet it would be naïve to suggest that the exploration of the “next frontier” is one borne purely of interplanetary curiosity. The panel with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine opened with a rousing clip about the importance of going back to the moon, echoing Space Policy 1 issued in 2017 under the Trump Administration that called for a return to the moon, a trip to be conducted in collaboration with private sector partners. The policy also calls upon the NASA Administrator to, “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities” (Wang 2017). Bridenstine discussed the possibilities of pharmaceutical development in space and the ability to generate new materials employing the minerals on the moon and an anti-gravity environment as part of this “return to the Moon” initiative. According to The Outer Space Treaty (1967) and The Moon Agreement (1979), nations can’t claim sovereignty over outer space, but this doesn’t mean that companies can’t extract and profit off of materials (namely minerals) they discover in space.

Indeed, this maximization of profit seems central to the Trump Administration’s space policies, encouraging the increasing commercialization of lower Earth orbit. Numerous anthropologists have explored the extension of neoliberalism and capitalism in space, the elaboration of corporate logic, resource management, and colonization to the space beyond Earth’s atmosphere (Battaglia, Valentine & Olson 2015). As Taylor Genovese points out in his research on Spaceport America, “The metaphysical ideal of outer space may be a place beyond politics, but the reality in this “second space age” is that globalized capitalism—and all the politics that are inherently intertwined within it—are alive and well in the commercial space industry” (2015). Even the ability to compete or participate in the commercialized space race is stratified between the Global North and the Global South, the countries with the GDP and technological capacity to develop the resources and capital necessary for such interplanetary ventures.

In David Valentine’s ethnographic exploration of the commercial space industry—from a governmental perspective and taking into account the growing number of private corporations, like Richard Brand’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX—he interviewed numerous space entrepreneurs. One of his interlocutors, Amaresh Kollipara, “began his presentation by saying: ‘Space is not a destination.’ Rather, he said, space is an enabler of profit: ‘Space accelerates and expands business verticals by providing new disruptive ways of doing business.’ Or, to translate: space is just another site, but a potentially remarkably profitable one, for new kinds of capital investment. Space, here, is presented as disruptive not in the sense of evolutionary human futures, but in the sense that it will provide unforeseen opportunities for wealth production in the very near future for those investors who have the foresight to get in the game early” (2012, 1057). In juxtaposition to John F. Kennedy’s famous “We got to the moon” (1962) speech, which exhorted that, “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people,” this new era of space exploration is equally attentive to the markets generated by interplanetary travel and colonization. We go because that is where the future of the free market is leading us, it would seem.

The mission to return to the moon is also being framed, according to Bridenstein, as a “proving ground” for future Mars colonization. Bridenstein went on to say at the panel that the moon is the “quickest way to Mars”—the moon can serve as an opportune space to develop new technologies for space travel and prolonged human habitation, perfecting NASA’s techniques and expertise on a satellite only three days travel from Earth. The initiative to establish long-term colonies on Mars, and expand public-private partnerships in space, has also been coupled with Trump’s vision of a military Space Force, established under Space Policy Directive-4. Envisioned as a sixth and separate service of the US Armed Forces, Space Force’s stated goals include: “Protecting the Nation’s interests in space and the peaceful use of space for all responsible actors,” “Ensuring unfettered use of space for United States national security purposes, the United States economy,” and “ Projecting military power in, from, and to space in support of our Nation’s interests” (White House 2019). Although the memoranda references the US economy, it’s clear that the Space Force is far more concerned with hard power than capital, ostensibly seeking to securitize space without overstepping legal boundaries of sovereignty. When I asked a representative of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center tabling as part of Future Con about the Presidential mandate to return to the moon by 2024, she emphasized the scientific and engineering value of going back to our “friendly space neighbor.” In reference to Space Force, however, she replied, “The Space Force is a military organization and we are not. We don’t interact at our level with the Department of Defense. There’s obviously a lot of shared technology and we have a Space Technology Mission Directorate. We are here on a science mission. We are here to talk about the science.”

CIA at Awesome Con

CIA at Awesome Con, Photo by author

But discussions of Space Force were not the only evidence of military involvement at Future Con. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Selective Service System—an independent agency of the US government that keeps track of who is subject to military conscription—were also participants in Smithsonian’s Future Con programming. Posters recruiting Awesome Con attendees to join the CIA could be found throughout the convention center, advertised alongside Doctor Who Tardis sculptures before big Q&A events on the Main Stage. At first, this recruitment strategy seemed wildly out of place to me, crushed between groups discussing the latest Legend of Zelda game and standing in line for the 80 years of Batman exhibit. A number of the story arcs in major franchises spotlighted at Awesome Con deal with the fraught relationship between the government and our cultural superheroes. Captain America comes to distrust the US government, and its use of military surveillance in Winter Soldier (2014), a rift that drives the division between the Avengers team in Civil War (2016). Although Tony Stark believes that the United Nations should be given oversight to the Avengers initiative, Cap’s discovery of Hydra within S.H.I.E.L.D. leads him to distrust any kind of government interference into their activities. Amidst the other baddies of The Incredibles (2004), government regulation and control of heroes like Elastigirl remains the Parr family’s most trenchant foe, while other franchises like Christopher Nolan’s Batman and the CW’s Black Lightning explore a frustrating détente between lone vigilantes and agents of the state like the police or the military. Matt Murdock adopts the persona of Daredevil because he believes that the system of legal and criminal justice in the US are broken. These story lines would suggest hesitancy, if not outright hostility, toward collaboration with the US government.

Yet the United States military has a long history of involvement in geek culture, not only as the source of inspiration behind characters like Captain America, but also in the video game industry. In Corey Mead’s book, War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict, he documents how, “the armed forces took the lead in financing, sponsoring, and inventing the specific technology used in video games” beginning as early as the 1960s (Shaban 2013). This technology was initially employed to train soldiers in tactics and maneuvers best created in virtual environments—we can consider, for instance, the set up for Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985). Beyond the use of video games as training modules internal to the armed forces, the US military has also sponsored the development of video games like America’s Army and Medal of Honor for more commercial use and public recruitment strategies (Robinson 2016; Thompson 2019). In addition to banking off of the gaming contingent of First Person Shooters popular within the genre, the “geeks” and “nerds” who frequent comic conventions might also be interested in the more technical elements of military engagement. Hugh Gusterson (2016) has noted the parallels between drone warfare and video games, and with the rising necessity of cybersecurity experts to counter violence extremism and radicalization online, the stereotypical hacker or computer nerd might seem like an obvious candidate for employment at cons. Ron Brister, who helped to coordinate Future Con, even described the CIA as “the next genesis of cosplay,” just with higher stakes to “protect the nation’s assets.”

The obvious question is where or not the CIA’s recruitment strategies in a con space are working. Brister envisions Future Con eventually becoming its own stand-alone convention, one that travels around the country making STEM education and engagement more accessible and exciting to the general public. In addition to inspiring greater scientific literacy and potential careers in the STEM fields, we might also ask the role “service to the country” or patriotism might also play in Future Con’s programming. Fans certainly care about whether or not The Avengers protect our country from the Chitauri or Thanos—it’s another matter to presume that such a heroic spirit translates into a special forces or military career trajectory.

Works Cited

Ron Brister (2019). Interview.

Battaglia, Debbora, Valentine, David and Valerie Olson. “Relational Space: An Earthly Installation.” Cultural Anthropology 30 (2015): 245-256.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2019). Dir. Joe Russo and Anthony Russo. Marvel Studios.

Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. Tor Books, 1985.

Genovese, Taylor (2015). “Fear and Loathing in Truth or Consequences: Neoliberalism, Colonialism, and the Lineage of the Frontier at Spaceport America.” Space + Anthropology, Medium.

Gibbs, Kenneth. “Diversity in STEM: What It Is and Why It Matters.” Scientific American.

Gusterson, Hugh. Drone: Remote Control Warfare. MIT Press, 2016.

Hidden Figures (2016). Fox Searchlight. Directed by Timothy Melfi.

Kross, Karin L. (2015). “NASA and the Life Cycle of Science and Science Fiction.” Tor.

Mead, Corey. War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Robinson, Nick. “Militarism and opposition in the living room: the case of military videogames.” Critical Studies on Security 4 (2016): 255-275.

Shaban, Hamza (2013). “Playing War: How the Military Uses Video Games.” The Atlantic.

Smithsonian (2019). “Legal History: Legal Nature of the Smithsonian.”

Smithsonian (2019). “Purpose and Vision.”

The Avengers: Civil War (2016). Dir. Joe Russo and Anthony Russo. Marvel Studios.

The Incredibles (2004). Dir. Brad Bird. Pixar & Walt Disney Pictures.

Thompson, Mike (2019). “Killing in the name of: The US army and video games.” Ars Technica.

Wang, Jen Rae (2017). “New Space Policy Directive Calls for Human Expansion Across Solar System.” NASA.


About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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