How can portraying the future help us prepare for it? As part of the Smithsonian’s upcoming FUTURES exhibition, the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (AIB) collaborated with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination to bring together museum experts, cultural and research centers, writers, and artists to help answer that question. Then acclaimed sci-fi writers Tochi Onyebuchi and Madeline Ashby wrote eight stories—four each—based on that work.
Private citizens are already travelling to space, and journeys between Earth, orbiting stations, and far-flung worlds will almost certainly become more common in the future. In this story, Ashby imagines the world of 2071, in which an international crew of researchers, scientists and museum professionals learn how to safely bring a fetus to term on the Moon, ushering in a new generation of humanity among the stars.
Join Future Tense, AIB, and the Center for Science and the Imagination on Tuesday, Nov. 9, at noon Eastern to discuss the exhibit, the pieces, and the roles museums play in depicting future narratives. RSVP here.
No matter how many times they repeated this, no one seemed to believe it. “This organization doesn’t have accidents,” they kept hearing, from both their respective organizations. And, “How could you let this happen?” and, “What do you mean, your methods failed?”
It was ironic, of course, that it happened on the moon. Across millennia, Earth’s moon was thought to govern these things in the same way that it pulled and pushed the tides. The Ishango Bone was most likely a lunar calendar intended to track menstruation. Selene, Chang’e, Mayari, Huitaca: All were moon goddesses one could imprecate for a child. Muslims made dua for sighting both the new and full moons. This was one reason why the ghazal, the Arabic love ode, so often contained references to the face of a lover resembling the face of the moon: occasionally turned away, occasionally smiling back.
“What does that have to do with you getting knocked up?” asked Haniya, the program director at Rachel’s agency.
Rachel sighed. She was so tired. The only thing worse than morning sickness was morning sickness in a low-gravity environment. M.R.E.s didn’t taste any better on the way back up.
“I’m trying to paint a picture,” said Nasser, through gritted teeth.
“Paint it somewhere else.”
Rachel spoke directly into the device on her wrist, in the hope it would make her sound more authoritative. “It’s my decision,” she said, just as Nasser said, “It’s her choice.”
“There’s misoprostol in your medical complement,” said Haniya. In the ensuing silence, she added: “I’m trying to spare you some heartbreak, here. You and your team. No one has ever done this. We have no idea if or how it would work, to carry this child to term. The child could die. You could die.”
“The same is true of every mission,” Rachel said. “How are we supposed to become a spacefaring species if we can’t procreate in space? We’re up here to do research on lunar life. This is the ultimate research project.”
Haniya sounded exhausted. “You know our policies. It’s just like the protocols regarding possible extraterrestrial life: Existing human life takes precedence over potential life. We’re working hard enough just keeping adults alive in space, Rachel. You want to throw a baby into that scenario?”
“I want you to send me a crèche.”
“Prenatal or post?”
“Both,” Nasser and Rachel said, simultaneously.
Haniya cursed foully in each of her many languages. “No. Out of the question. We don’t have room on the shuttle for that kind of weight. And your habitat can’t handle the power drain.”
“China seems to be doing just fine.”
“China’s crèche already has primate embryos in it. And that’s all they’ll ever be. The experimental plan is to terminate after 200 days, if they survive that long. And even if we could get you a crèche, our surgical bots aren’t coded for the procedure. You’d still need an OB/GYN.”
“Well, why don’t we have an OB/GYN here?”
“You know why not. We expected the first inhabitants of our lunar bases to be smarter than this! Smarter than you!”
Nasser ended the call with a single swipe. There was a moment of uncomfortable quiet, and then Nasser’s captain, Aisha, sighed deeply. “OK,” she said. “No crèche. None from our people, either.”
“When’s the next Russian robot re-up?” Nasser asked.
“Three months. Even if they could do the transfer, both Rachel and the fetus would be at too much risk by then. I’m not even certain it would be legal.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “We’re really going to debate the window of viability, up here? On the moon?”
“Every nation on the moon has to abide by its own laws,” Aisha said. “It’s not like any of us are …” She trailed off. “Mashallah, of course! The curator!”
The curator, a man named Nigel Trombey, was a U.S.-Canada dual citizen who had come up to install an Apollo exhibit on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution’s Neil Armstrong Center for Lunar Culture and Innovation. The strain of the install—there was a livestreamed media event, and a tight deadline—brought about a heart attack. But his emergency stent, part of a lunar medicine complement that had arrived 30 years prior, was no longer guaranteed for re-entry. So he’d stayed three months longer than intended, while his team down below gathered data on whether his heart could survive the trip home. He existed like those stateless people trapped in the nooks and crannies of international airports, constantly being promised a trip home that never materialized. This indefinite waiting period was made possible thanks to his compressor suit, which had originally been intended for display as part of the exhibit, as an example of biomedical innovations necessary for scaling up long-term human survival beyond Earth. It was a flame-orange full-body leotard with millions of dollars’ worth of sensors and actuators inside, plus micro-pneumatic threads to create pressure and give Nigel’s heart the conditions for recovery. It was this piece of sartorial innovation that Aisha suspected would be helpful to Rachel. On the heaviest resistance setting, her heart would experience Earth-like gravity—and so might her uterus. That is, if Nigel could help them fabricate another one.
“You know, we have a prototype crèche in the exhibit,” Nigel said. He paused for effect. “Granted, it’s a prop from media that the Smithsonian consulted on, but honestly, making a fictional prop work like the real thing seems easier than making a whole new suit from scratch out of parts cannibalized from every habitat here.”
“The current compressor suit design isn’t interoperable with our exosuits,” Rachel said. “Right?”
“That’s true. It’s not. If you were to put this on, you’d have to stay inside the habitats, and hope you never needed to go outside.”
“So I couldn’t do half my job,” Rachel said, throwing up her hands, “because I’m pregnant. What century is this?”
Nasser looked grim. “We’ll have to modify this design extensively. Wasn’t it meant for pneumonia patients?”
Nigel nodded. “For upper respiratory and pulmonary disease, yeah. It can detect low blood oxygen and emerging blood clots. Once the early research was published—it was a shirt, first—the space agencies got interested. But the designer refused to code for systems that weren’t interoperable with each other—basically, she said that until every country on the moon agreed to the same programming standards and offered to share resources, she wouldn’t license the design for continued production. So here I am, wearing the most expensive piece of vintage clothing this side of the Victoria and Albert.”
When the others said nothing, Nigel added, “That’s a museum joke. It’s well-curated.”
They didn’t laugh. Instead, Rachel said, “Can we ask the designer for help?”
“You could, if she were alive,” Nigel said. “She designed the suit to deal with her own long-term illness. She willed it to the Smithsonian.”
Now it was Nasser’s turn to curse in every language he knew. Rachel just sat down dejectedly on one of the storage cubbies. She instantly rose again when it woke up and trundled away someplace safer. She watched it leave and snuggle up against its storage unit brethren.
“Maybe my director is right,” she said, in a defeated voice. “Maybe I should just go home. Maybe they should have sent someone else.”
Nigel rolled his eyes. He pointed out his porthole. “Look outside. What’s out there?”
They looked. “The little blue marble,” Rachel said.
“Exactly. This is the moon, damn it. And on the moon, we do not know the meaning of the word quit. I had a heart attack here, and I’m still alive. You can do this. You just need to ask for help.”
“We tried,” Nasser pointed out. “It didn’t go so well.”
“Think about everyone on that marble. What’s the one thing that unites our species? What’s the one thing that might encourage all our agencies to work together toward one goal, if you ask for their help?”
“You mean going public,” Rachel said. “Right now. Sharing this. With the whole world. As a way to put pressure on our respective agencies.”
“This is space. Everything’s about pressure, in one way or another. You’re going to give birth to the first lunar citizen, the first person for whom borders truly mean nothing. That’s huge. And you can do it, if every agency here agrees to provide you with the resources you need. More compression suits, a better surgeon, a crèche, whatever it might be.”
“What, like a United Nations in space?”
Again, Nigel gestured toward the porthole. “Why not? What are we here for, if not to do something new? Why even do this job at all, given the risks? You could say the same thing about parenting.” He smiled. “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that challenge is the one we are willing to accept.”
“And unwilling to postpone,” Nasser added.
“And one we intend to win,” Rachel finished.
This story is a piece of near-future science fiction, but is inspired by the real-life work and research being conducted today by Sara Cronan, Ashley Hornish, Rebecca Ljungren, Matthew Shindell, and Ryan Sim at the National Air and Space Museum.