Hey, everybody. It’s Chris Tobias, co-founder of Take Back the Sky. I usually don’t post on our blog under my own name, but I feel the need to take personal responsibility for this one, and by that I mean both for what I’m about to say and for the social media post that gave me reason to say it.
On November 25, I tweeted an article by the Smithsonian on Take Back the Sky‘s Twitter feed about Mike Hughes, a self-taught rocket scientist who designed and built his own rocket, which he planned to launch this weekend with himself as a pilot. My comment on the tweet was: “This is the #Browncoats spirit!” You can still see the original tweet on Take Back the Sky‘s Twitter feed. It has not been deleted, and we have no plans to do so.
That in and of itself is relatively innocuous, but that’s not the whole story, of course. You see, Mr. Hughes was going to all this trouble because he was hoping that it would help to prove his belief that the Earth is flat! The article also stated that afterwards he planned to run for governor, which is somewhat eccentric, to say the least. I thought it was obvious that my admiration was solely for his gumption in designing, building, launching and piloting his own rocket. I should have known better.
This morning I got an e-mail from Take Back the Sky‘s other co-founder, Jeff Cunningham. He wanted to know if the tweet got the same amount of attention on Twitter that the cross-post had generated on our Facebook page (it hadn’t). According to Jeff, my posting of this one article had generated more discussion and comments than 99% of the other things we’ve ever posted to our Facebook page, and most of it wasn’t very positive. When I tweeted “This is the #Browncoats spirit!” I was referring to the fact that Mike Hughes was willing to do something against seemingly impossible odds because he believed strongly in a cause, even if the majority didn’t agree with him. But when I looked at the comments on Facebook, it was obvious that people were focusing on the fact that he believed in a flat Earth and was not a proponent of science, even though he was obviously making use of science in order to accomplish what he had set out to do.
In his e-mail Jeff made it clear that he did not see how Mike Hughes’ flight, or the Smithsonian‘s coverage of it, advanced an anti-science agenda. The Smithsonian is the last institution that either of us would accuse of that, and Jeff and I agreed that should be quite evident in the tone of their article. While I was relieved that he understood the motivation behind my posting it, he was obviously concerned that now some of our followers might actually believe that we were anti-science (despite over six years of statements to the contrary on this site, as well as Facebook and Twitter) just because we praised this man’s actions, even if we were viewing them independent (no pun intended) of his motivations. So I decided to take a closer look at the comments, and was very disappointed by what I saw.
The comments, some of which were made by people whom I know personally, referred to Mike Hughes as everything from “stupid” to “a bloody moron,” and one comment stated in the Firefly vernacular, “no hat’s gonna make that guy look cunning.” (sic) I don’t think that’s fair at all.
After all, we are talking about a self-taught engineer who is using principles of aerodynamics and fluid dynamics to fly a rocket he built out of spare parts, even if he refuses to recognize that’s what he’s doing. I may think his stubborn insistence on a flat Earth or his refusal to recognize the science of his venture is misguided, but I’ll also admit that despite my five years of university education I still struggle to change the tire or oil filter on a car, so regardless of his archaic beliefs, I’m still more than a little impressed by what he has managed to do.
Back in the early 2000’s, one of my favorite TV shows (besides a certain sci-fi western by Joss Whedon that we all know and love) was Joan of Arcadia, a short-lived drama about a teenage girl in small-town America who is visited by God, disguised as everyday people, and is given assignments and tasks that eventually have a positive outcome on people’s lives. In one of the earliest episodes, Joan challenges God, who has appeared to her in the form of a twenty-something young man, to prove He is who He says He is by showing her a miracle. In response, the young man takes her to a nearby tree and says, “How about that?” Joan, unimpressed, says, “It’s a tree.” The young man responds, “Let’s see you make one.”
When I read these comments on Facebook, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that line of dialogue from Joan of Arcadia. So you think this guy is a moron for making a rocket because he wants to prove the world is flat? Let’s see you make one.
Another of the comments claimed that crediting Mr. Hughes with the Browncoats spirit was insulting to Browncoats, because “We know the Earth isn’t flat.” What bothers me about this is that it presupposes that one has to have a certain degree of intelligence or subscribe to a certain set of beliefs to be a Browncoat. Well, regardless of whether your definition of “Browncoat” is “one who is a fan of the TV series Firefly and the motion picture Serenity” or “one who has a fierce independent spirit and holds strongly to the ideals of personal freedom and the right to live one’s life as one sees fit,” I just don’t hold to that. I saw a lot of this type of thinking last fall, when folk made the claim online that if you were a real Browncoat you couldn’t possibly vote this way or that. While I respect an individual’s right to make a statement like that, I think it’s just rubbish.
Think about it– do you really think all of the Browncoats who fought together at the Battle of Serenity Valley shared the same level of education and the same religious beliefs? Of course not. Heck, they probably had very different political ideas as to how the border planets ought to have been governed if they had managed to succeed in their resistance of Alliance control. Even Malcolm Reynolds himself made it very clear to Shepherd Book that he was welcome on board Serenity, even if Mal personally felt that Shepherd’s “God ain’t.”
And yet apparently some Browncoats of our day insist on joining in the prevailing doctrine that has been spread by social media, that if someone doesn’t share our beliefs, then surely it must mean that they are unintelligent and/or incapable of saying or doing anything of value. (Personally, I find this concept only slightly less perplexing than the other trendy Zeitgeist that was born of the internet– the idea that we ought to bully someone into not being a bully.) I would think that Browncoats of all people should want to rise above this, because when you really think about it, it sounds a lot like something the Alliance would promote.
But there’s another reason I was disappointed to read these comments, and that was simply that there were so many of them. In Take Back the Sky’s six years of existence, Jeff and I have written 184 articles for this blog and made over fifteen thousand posts on Facebook, Twitter, and to a lesser extent, Instagram. We have covered SpaceX launches and Browncoats events at cons, talked about the science of Firefly, written tributes to NASA missions and astronauts, and made numerous calls to action with comprehensive arguments for why Browncoats should work together as a fandom to convince SpaceX to name its first Crew Dragon after Serenity. Not one of these things has generated the discussion that this one tweet did. Many of them have gotten no response at all. It seems like the attitude is, “If you don’t have something critical to say, why say anything at all?” I can’t help but think that if Browncoats responded to our calls to action with the same kind of vigor with which they responded to this one tweet, a SpaceX Dragon named Serenity would be launching from LC-39A at Cape Canaveral next year.
It’s disheartening, to be sure. And yet, I think it also demonstrates why now more than ever, we need America’s next manned spacecraft to bear a name like Serenity. A name like Challenger may have been appropriate in the 1980’s, but if the climate on social media is any indication, we all face more than enough challengers in our daily lives, and serenity is something we could all use a little more of right about now!
So Godspeed, Mike Hughes. I may not agree with everything you think or say, but can’t help but admire what you’re doing. I still think your endeavor epitomizes the true spirit of Browncoats, and I hope that your efforts are fruitful, perhaps in ways you hadn’t anticipated.
Peace, love and rockets…