Crossing the Dingo Gap on Mars, a valley of red sand and rock with dusty sky
Crossing the Dingo Gap on Mars
Photo: NASA, JPL-Caltech, MSSS; Digital processing: Damia Bouic

A Feminist Science of Mars is Possible

A Conversation with Dr. Dawn Sumner

In this excerpted interview, Interim Co-Director Dawn Sumner (professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences) and Asking Different Questions scholar Maya Cruz (PhD candidate in Cultural Studies and Science and Technology Studies) explore the cultural and scientific significance of a viral image of Mars. Chiefly, how can we continue to center questions of care, responsibility and accountability in our scientific practices?

Maya Cruz: So, my interests most broadly concern whether Mars can be an opportunity for feminist science, for enacting feminist science practice. These conversations can be a part of that, I think, by creating interdisciplinary dialogue between Planetary Science and Feminist Science and Technology Studies and Ethnic Studies. To that end, I am interested in how we can think about this photo together. What does this image represent to you?

Dawn Sumner: It has very complicated representations for me. Some of them come from the context of taking it and some of them come from the context of how it is being used. The data collection policy, which I helped write, meant that we should not take photos that are not for scientific purposes. At the time when this photo was planned, we were waiting for the engineers to decide if we could safely go over that dune, through that gap. And I knew that it would be an iconic image, an iconic view. So we went searching for people to claim to have a scientific value for the photo, and failed, because there isn't one, really. The engineers didn't need it, and it wasn't useful for the people studying dunes, but we basically just wanted it and we [Sumner and her colleague Doug Ming] were both on duty making those decisions, and we put it in.

MC: What was the scientific justification that you eventually gave to be able to take the photo?

DS: I think what we said was to study the rover tracks on the dune sand. But… that's not really a scientific justification.

MC: What would scientific justification look like in comparison?

DS: So you could have “studying the rover tracks on the dune sand” as a scientific justification, but this image is too far away to get details like how much the rover slipped, or what the slip rate was, things like that. So it is a reasonable justification for an image if you abstract it, but you can't actually get useful data from the image to address that question.

MC: This image is now iconic, and it circulates widely. I’ve used it as my Zoom background throughout all of COVID, but I first found this image on Twitter, tweeted from the Curiosity rover’s Twitter account (see tweet here). From what I see, this image and the way that it is used in NASA’s official narratives and communications, it often comes to represent that now common feminist trope of what Donna Haraway (1988) described as “the god-trick”, a “view from nowhere,” or the disembodied gaze of scientific objectivity and maybe even a colonizing gaze onto a frontier landscape. As we are thinking about possibilities for feminist approaches to the study of Mars, I have a quote I’d like to think about with you, from Donna Haraway’s (1988) “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Haraway (1988) says:

“All these pictures of the world should not be allegories of infinite mobility and interchangeability but of elaborate specificity and difference and the loving care people might take to learn how to see faithfully from another’s point of view, even when the other is our own machine. That’s not alienating distance; that’s a possible allegory for feminist versions of objectivity. Understanding how these visual systems work technically, socially, and psychically ought to be a way of embodying feminist objectivity.”

Which contexts would you say are most important for understanding What Haraway describes as the “elaborate specificity and difference” of this image? And, how can we attend to these contexts, and think about them with care, so that we might resist the universalizing view of Mars that could be represented in this image?

DS: I do not see this image as representative of Mars. I see Mars as being a very diverse place. That one image is so different all the images the rover had captured up to that day. One of the reasons we chose to capture it is because we were going up and over into a new place, so we knew it would be different. We had been driving on these plateaus where you can see for a very long distance, places where you can see the crater rim, and you can see Mount Sharp. But when we came over the dune that you see in this image, we started driving in valleys. We chose to do that, to protect the wheels. But this move was also truly transformative from a geologist’s perspective, because at this point in the mission, instead of looking at the gravel on top of a plateau, you are looking at the valley walls. You get way more information and detail about the environments, so that dune represented a transition from a lack of detail, to more detail. It also represents a transition from expediency – driving as fast and far as we can, to care for the rover – taking time to look at where we are, making more specific observations of the rover path and the rocks around us.

MC: I’m interested in thinking of this photo as a moment of transition and transformation. I’m thinking about how the transitions you describe might transform what this photo represents, as we come to see these complexities of the dune.

DS: It is a transition in all sorts of ways - everything from taking care of the rover, to slowing down to be more present, to the scientists getting substantially better scientific results compared to the data we were collecting before.

MC: I love this ethics of care in this pause, and this kind of slower science (see Isabelle Stengers’ 2018 book Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science) that these specificities reveal.

DS: There's one other specificity in this image. It is the other reason why I wanted to take it: it is a footprint of the rover. It is a representation of our influence on Mars. In the case of the dune, when the wind blows, and dust falls, those tracks will go away. It's very much like carving “Dawn was here” in a tree. It will go away. But these tracks are putting a mark down. This fits both with a colonialist logic of expansion. But it also speaks to the joy of discovery, our presence somewhere, and who you are.

MC: One of the most fascinating things about the wheels of the Curiosity rover to me is that they are designed to imprint JPL in morse code on the Martian terrain, to facilitate measurements of the distance the rover travels. So, on one level, what we are seeing in the tracks is morse code, J-P-L, a hidden instrument of scientific measurement. And your reading of the tracks provides an opportunity to think about the complexities of human impact on another planet with care by looking at the specificities and contexts of these instruments of scientific measurement, and their representation. To that end, could you elaborate on this “joy of discovery,” and your idea that this photo lets us see where we've been and who we are, to see the human impact on Mars? What kind of accountability might come with that?

DS: The photo would not have had the impact that it’s had if the tracks were not there. We have plenty of images of dunes that that are maybe more beautiful in sort of an aesthetic way. And so, the fact that that people can do things like go to Mars, with a rover, is very inspiring to a lot of people, for some really good reasons. I think the feminist part of it is really paying attention to that human influence. You have to observe the impact, and then actually decide whether you want to keep having that sort of impact or not. It gives you the ability to make a choice, it gives you the responsibility of making a choice. If you don't look at the impact that you're having, you can pretend to ignore your responsibility for that impact. The image lets us see our impact.

MC: This is resonating with me. I have been thinking about how to think about the study of Mars, in ways that are not outside of or separate from these histories of colonialism and colonialist logics of expansion, but in ways that work against their reproduction. For example, how can we think of Mars with anti-colonial approaches, especially given the ways in which this image often circulates within the narratives and imaginaries of colonialism? I think this kind of “elaborate specificity” that we found in this image can show us one way to do that, how to begin to think about observing human impact with care. In my research, I think a lot about US technological development and expansion through the histories of colonization in the Philippines, and so that history is really informing how I think about Mars, and something that I keep returning to is this idea of bearing witness.

DS: Yes - that idea of bearing witness is and was the purpose of this image, now that I think of it. It really was this moment of thinking, “this is something we need to document,” in that sense of bearing witness.

To learn more about Sumner's work, follow her on Twitter.






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