On Wednesday, Columbia attended an NYU talk hosted by Dr. Anne Johnson for her lecture, “Mexico in Orbit: Modernity, Nationality and Satellite Fetishism.”

The conversation on space exploration has been dominated by developed countries such as the United States, Russia, and China, yet this grand narrative of global space exploration often overlooks the efforts and mini-narratives of space technology in developing countries. This was the starting point for the first Fall 2023 lecture in the virtual series “NYU Space Talks,” which highlights research into the history and politics of outer space and astroculture. Dabbling in both STEM and historical subjects, Dr. Anne Johnson, a professor of social anthropology at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, presented a section of her latest book-in-progress on the historical progression of Mexico’s space technology and the sense of patriotism tied to its growth. 

Fascinated by Mexico’s sense of modernity that arises from its partaking in space exploration, Johnson explored three periods of time in space exploration in which Mexico developed its technology and imprint in the global space conversation. Beginning with the Proto-Space age in the 17th century, Johnson spoke about the push for a rational understanding of outer space. Despite many Europeans captivated by the idea of heavenly bodies influencing the Earth, astronomers began moving towards “rational science” and a more formal investigation into outer space. For Mexico, the Proto-Space period marks the first time the nation recognized outer space exploration as a symbol of modernity and rationality. In an attempt to create this image for itself, Mexico established observatories for the development of astronomical studies during this era, with the first being established in the 19th century.

The 20th century brought about a new period of outer space exploration, Old-Space, that featured many of Mexico’s greatest strides in space technology advancement. Most notably, Mexico launched Morelos I and II in 1985—Mexico’s first telecommunications satellite system. Not only did this launch put Mexico on the global stage in terms of technology, but it also marked the first time a Mexican astronaut, Rodolfo Neri Vela, was sent to space. While the Morelos satellites were a remarkable achievement for Mexico, perhaps its most fascinating outcome was the introduction of the tortilla to astronauts’ diets, thanks to Neri Vela.

The Morelos satellites demonstrated Mexico’s eagerness and ability to coexist in the same sphere of space exploration as leading countries, yet it also revealed Mexico’s reliance on the United States to help the nation advance its space technology. The project was assisted by the American Hughes Aircraft Corporation, and the satellites were launched in Florida, despite being Mexican satellites. While Mexico aimed to increase in modernity through their space exploration during this era, Johnson acknowledged that one could argue these strides to be code for Eurocentrism, quoting a popular saying in Mexico, “So far from God, so close to the United States.” 

The 21st century marks the era of New-Space, in which privatization of space exploration rules. Now, many Mexicans hold the idea that “space is for everyone,” primarily because of the development of the CubeSat satellite, a small, relatively inexpensive option for telecommunications. In addition to its usual function, Johnson discussed how CubeSat satellites are currently used for artistic purposes as well in Mexico, such as when an ordinary citizen launched a satellite to broadcast his own music. Ultimately, the CubeSat represents the new index of national modernity for many Mexicans and a sign of being in the modern space age.

Despite the affordability of CubeSat satellites, Mexico has to fight to maintain its global presence in outer space technology today; Johnson remarked that the budgets of all Latin American space agencies combined only accounts for 3% of NASA’s budget. Regardless of Mexico’s lack of resources, Johnson believes that the nation still plays an important role in the history and current development of outer space exploration. Though she admitted that countries like the United States certainly have an advantage, Johnson held faith in the new generation of Mexican scientists and engineers. “They’re forced to be creative due to their budget and other factors,” Johnson reported, but they’re also “not afraid to use creative ways that United States engineers might not use” to solve problems. 

Interested in NYU Space Talks? Explore their upcoming virtual events, including their next lecture on October 5, “Woman/Astronaut: Sally Ride, Work and Gender in Space.”

Morelos satellite via Wikimedia Commons