NASA is getting into the comics game to inspire new astronauts

NASA First Woman Graphic Novels. Credit: NASA.

NASA’s “First Woman” is a fictional near-future portrayal of life on a NASA lunar base, told from the point of view of Callie Rodriguez, who is the first woman (and of color) to step on the Moon in the way of the (currently planned) Artemis mission. And while Callie is fictional, that part isn’t — NASA has committed to having at least one woman of color as part of the Artemis program.

The comic itself is written by Brad Gann and Steven List with art and color by Brent Donoho and Kaitlin Reid. It is clearly accessible for kids, brightly colored with approachable art that younger audiences can appreciate — but aside from Callie’s slightly over-the-top comic-relief robot sidekick, it manages to be accessible without being too cloying for parents or other adults curious about NASA’s foray into comics. 

(And even the robot’s main gag of talking like a movie trailer announcer will probably connect with adults nostalgic for the trailer voice overs from Don LaFontaine and his immortal trailer voice overs.) 

The first issue’s story doesn’t actually spend too much time on the ins-and-outs of running a base on the Moon. Instead, it primarily delves into Rodriguez’ background, her life, her motivations, and even the robotics and AI work that helped her become someone suitable for the astronaut program and a role as prestigious as the first woman on the Moon. 

While it doesn’t shy away from the conflict and challenges that come from being a woman of color dealing with the reality of prejudice and bias in America, the comic doesn’t dwell on it either, and even sounds an optimistic note about how astronaut classes have become more diverse. 

Instead, it focuses strongly on the idea that astronauts don’t have to come from a specific background nor follow a straightforward career path. Callie was a gifted student that was fascinated with space and robotics, but spent time as a teacher, and only started her path to becoming a NASA scientist later in life. 

The comic does emphasize that Callie’s inventiveness and eclecticism were instrumental in the decision. This comes across as a very deliberate choice. While Callie is fictional, NASA seems to be laying out the kind of people that it expects to become Astronauts in the near future: people with both diverse identities and diverse backgrounds, with the kind of broad skill sets that will be needed to deal with the rigors, surprises, and challenges of long-term lunar habitation. 

It’s also unsparing when portraying the dangers of life on the Moon, ending with a deadly-dangerous but realistic cliffhanger situation. It may be a bit alarming for young readers. It strongly implies, however, that these kinds of diverse skill sets will not just be useful, but may even save lives. 

Almost every page has a QR code, which leads to the other part of First Woman: the mobile app. Available for both Android and iOS, the mobile app provides background information and the ability to scan the codes to provide supplementary material on the science, technology, and people that are part of both current NASA missions and the coming Artemis missions. For those with recently-made mobile devices with Augmented Reality (AR) capabilities, this includes the opportunity to use AR to explore some of the environments in the comic, taking a closer look at some of the technologies that will play a role in Artemis and other future lunar missions. 

While the idea is welcome, it does run into an important issue. The same marginalized communities that First Woman is clearly aimed to inspire are the ones that are least likely to have devices with AR capability. There’s no fallback for older devices. There also isn’t any option for PC users, even those with actual VR hardware. First Woman simply shuts out those audiences with an error message, which is a surprising and unfortunate oversight.

Still, these are just supplementary gimmicks, and it’s made up for by the fact that First Woman itself is available for free in multiple formats. Not only is it available to read online and as a PDF file, but there’s also a fully-voiced audio version as well. This is exceptionally rare for any comic, and is a welcome move towards accessibility. 

There is no information yet on when the next issue will be released, but in the meantime, you can read it yourself.

About Craig Bamford

Craig started writing for SpaceQ in 2017 as their space culture reporter, shifting to Canadian business and startup reporting in 2019. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and has a Master's Degree in International Security from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He lives in Toronto.

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