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NASA Channels its Inner Goddess; Breaking Boundaries with Artemis

Updated: Feb 18


NASA-produced art representing woman on the moon from the Artemis program marketing campaign: “Her features are abstract enough that all women can see themselves in her.” (NASA)


This is a story about two gods and an American space agency that has decided to use both of them to sell a very similar mission.


The words “lunar landing” conjure images of the past for most Americans: crew cuts; horn-rimmed glasses; analogue instruments; white, masculine faces. Apollo was an achievement of the century, but a century in which women were not often encouraged to wear scientific laurels. Almost seventy years later, NASA wants to return to the moon, but it is a very different time with different power brokers and a different electorate. When leaders at NASA went to Congress to make the pitch, this time they sold an image with a distinctly female face and a goddess’s name to go with it.


In May 2019, NASA announced the Artemis program, tasked with returning man to the moon and bringing woman this time as well. Artemis, Greek goddess of the moon and more, is also twin sister to the god Apollo, for whom the original moon missions were named. With budget shortfalls and the distinct uncertainty of the success of the program, at least as currently planned, the space agency’s dynamic webpage and colorful cell phone wallpapers are all the more interesting in that they seem aimed at casting a net designed to capture the attention of American women. All stress what is history-making about the program, and may help it garner additional support: the first woman stepping foot on the moon.


Artemis, Twin Sister of Apollo

Comparisons of art and insignias from Artemis to Apollo show NASA’s desire to recall its great, 20th-century accomplishment. (Courtesy collectSPACE.com)


All of this had me wondering how much has changed in American (and NASA’s) culture that NASA would choose Artemis, goddess of the moon, in 2019 when it did not do so in 1960s. Artemis’s brother Apollo, associated with the sun, light, prophecy and arts claimed that prize. How much had changed in American culture and gender politics for NASA to choose the first feminine name for a major manned space mission?


Margaret A. Weitekamp, historian and curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, said that while NASA does not have complete gender equality, women have worked there in important roles for the last fifty years. She sees Artemis, both the mission and the selling of the mission, as the natural conclusion of this history. “The attempt to foreground an appeal to women or to having an explicitly mixed gender group going to the moon, I think is a reflection of changes that have been under way at NASA since the seventies. You have a few generations [at NASA] that are used to working with women in all of the various fields.” Weitekamp even said that she has heard rumors that women and women of color were on the Biden Administration's short list for NASA’s next top administrator.


Much has definitely changed in the naming and marketing of space missions since the days of the Apollo program, said journalist Robert Pearlman, whose website, collectSPACE.com investigates the intersection of pop culture and space exploration. The public-private nature of space ventures these days, for a start, means that marketing and legal trademarks play a larger role, but it was not always so. “It was very informal at the start,” said Pearlman. Indeed, NASA provides a story of the naming of the Apollo missions on its website. An engineer, not a public relations or marketing director, named the Apollo program. Dr. Abe Silverstein, credited with designing the first wind tunnel, developing liquid propulsion rockets and later becoming a leader at the agency that became NASA, is also credited with naming the first lunar program Apollo: “He said the image of ‘Apollo riding his chariot across the sun was appropriate to the grand scale of the proposed program’” (NASA). Pearlman said this was the romantic description, the prosaic version being, “It sounded good next to Mercury.”


Weitekamp said that NASA puts great emphasis on how it names missions and creates images to communicate the purposes of missions because communicating with the public is an important part of its role as a tax-funded agency. While she does not have insider knowledge of the naming of the program or the “woman on the moon” art, she pointed out that NASA has entire laboratories whose job it is to create and convey visuals for public consumption, to help tell the story of its missions effectively. "The name and the symbolism of a program is often put together at the very beginning, in some ways before they start bending metal on actual spacecraft and getting to do the science and build the technology, what they have is the emblem.” Communicating the message of a mission, then, is part of the mission. “I see NASA very self-consciously, through that symbolism, also trying to find a way to capture the public imagination in a way that connects to popular support and then funding. So I think that is a clever, effective, strategic decision. The decision to create a woman-centered symbol for this program has, I think, put it on people's lips, that they know what it is and what [NASA is] trying to do, which speaks to a very effective evocation of the mythology. They found a symbol that really does what they want.”


Not everyone agrees. “There are two things I cringe at,” said space historian Amy Shira Teitel, author of Fighting for Space: Two Pilots and Their Historic Battle for Female Spaceflight. "The first is Artemis as being the twin of Apollo. We're trying to recapture the lost glory of Apollo instead of doing something unique and different for the new era. The push of putting a woman forward and making it [about that]. It bothers me a lot.” Teitel’s criticisms are both about the shifting nature of U.S. plans to return to the moon, a goal that has been set several presidents, but not invested in seriously, and also the gender-forward approach of Artemis's marketing. Both, she says, reflect a backward-looking thinking. “Stop putting woman as other; because if you put it as first woman and next man it sounds like the woman is there just to be a woman as opposed to, the next crew on the moon happens to be a diverse interesting crew of humans that are very accomplished at their jobs.”


Not just your Moon Goddess

Depictions of Artemis, suggested by Topper, that show a range of interpretations of Artemis from ladylike to downright bestial. (Left to right, top to bottom) A stately Artemis feeding a swan, on the St. Petersburg lekythos, ca 500 BCE, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; the “Mistress of Animals,” a winged version of Artemis, decorating a handle of the Francois vase, ca 570 BCE, Archeological Museum of Florence; the Gorgon-headed goddess, a mysterious wedding of Artemis and Medusa on the Rhodian plate, ca 600 BCE; and a fully-fledged Medusa figure from the the pediment of the Temple of Artemis at Corfu, ca 580 BCE, Archeological Museum of Corfu.


NASA’s explanation of the name Artemis was simply that Apollo had a sister and that she was the goddess of the moon, but no one controls existing symbols and government agencies pick and choose the various aspects of mythological figures at its peril. Of course Artemis is also the huntress and most will recall the wrath she aims at Acteon for spying her bathing—turning him into a stag and having his dogs kill him. But the goddess has another ancient association with boundaries and thresholds that is also appropriate for a mission that would bring a woman to a place no woman has gone before.


A Goddess of Margins and Thresholds

Classical archeologist Kathryn Topper, who specializes in Greek art and teaches at the University of Washington, walked me through some of these less common attributes of Artemis in the ancient world. I asked the professor about the moon, but when Topper considered naming a lunar mission after Artemis, a more abstract concept occurred to her. “One of the things that I find kind of interesting about her being used for the lunar missions is that one of her main associations in antiquity had to do with the margins of civilization, with the wilderness, with the dangerous, often liminal areas, and this was symbolically consistent with how she presided over liminal times of life too.”


Liminality is the condition of existing in the area or border between different states, a no-man’s land of sorts, or a threshold. Artemis is the goddess of virginity, puberty and childbirth, which sound like very different states of being, but are similar in that they are transitional states of being. Puberty is easy to understand as a state of being that is neither childhood nor adulthood. Childbirth is a gateway or transformation, and in antiquity a dangerous one, where a woman will become a mother, unless she dies in the process, which is nevertheless another state. Virginity was considered a state of wildness that preceded the civilizing force of marriage, and virgin girls were considered to be like wild animals, said Topper. To relate this to the physical reality of the moon, it too is a dangerous wilderness, where humans can stay only temporarily. “[Artemis] presides over that sort of environment,” Topper said.


Regarding Artemis’s status as a gender hero of antiquity, Topper could not say how individual women felt about her—whether she was, let us say, the Wonder Woman of the day—but she could consider the expectations of the time, regarding women. “Because [goddesses] are both female and divine, they have elements to them that the Greeks would not have associated with proper women. Let’s say you’re a woman in sixth or fifth century Athens. A personal celebration or emulation of some of her more masculine aspects, like the fact that she’s a hunter—that is something that you’re not supposed to identify with.”


Woman on the Moon

NASA-produced desktop and cell phone wallpapers. (NASA)


The story of the room where Artemis was chosen as a name will someday be told. Pearlman, who follows closely the names, images and products that come out of and are inspired by NASA said that there was a chance that with the changing of administrations and change of leadership, outgoing administrators may be willing to speak more candidly and more information about the Artemis marking blitz will come to light. Pearlman said that the move can be seen as part of efforts in recent years by NASA to celebrate the women in its ranks. Pearlman said that NASA tried to be very helpful to author Margot Lee Shetterly during the writing of Hidden Figures, and allowed the 2016 film access to facilities. In 2019, NASA renamed the street of its Washington DC offices Hidden Figures Way. NASA has even licensed a LEGO series called Women of NASA, with figures like astronaut Sally Ride and astronomer and Nancy G. Roman, considered the “Mother of Hubble.”


NASA Celebrating Women

Author Margot Lee Shetterly helps unveil NASA’s Hidden Figures Way and the LEGO Women of NASA series, both efforts NASA has made to show its desire to welcome women to the exploration of space. The featured LEGO pack shown includes Apollo program computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, astronaut and engineer, Mae Jemison, astronaut and physicist, Sally Ride and astronomer, Nancy G. Roman, the Mother of Hubble.


NASA is no stranger to naming missions from mythological sources, though not always as would make sense to a mythologist. The reasoning behind the naming of early manned missions to space, Mercury and Apollo, might be described as “they sounded cool.” In the early 2000s, NASA named a proposed mission to the moon Constellation, and the Orion craft to be used to bring Artemis astronauts to the moon bears its name because Orion was a constellation, said Pearlman. The more appropriately-named Juno probe is still circling Jupiter. (Juno is Jupiter’s wife in Roman myth.) In 2011, NASA did name a mission to study space weather between the Earth and the moon ARTEMIS (Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun) and the mission is now known by the hyphenated acronyms THEMIS-ARTEMIS. Themis is the Titaness of law and natural order, so using her name to study the magnetic systems that affect the Earth makes sense to me. Missions have often been named for classical heroes known for their travels: Odysseus (Mars Odyssey), Ulysses, Jason. That the names inspire us and make the less accessible scientific purposes of space missions exciting, and to some extent, worth supporting with our tax dollars, is proof that some Americans, at least, still see classical mythology as something we can all agree upon.


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