Science & Technology Studies Day explores research and the social life of spacecraft

As part of a full year of events marking the 50th anniversary of the Faculty of Science, the Science & Technology Studies (STS) Program is hosting STS Day on Feb. 24. The events planned are: an informal opening reception, a keynote lecture and a panel of researchers from the STS Program. All are welcome to attend.

All events take place in Norman Bethune College on the Keele campus. STS Day begins with an informal reception from 11:45 to 12:30pm in Norman’s Room, 203A Bethune College. The reception offers a chance to meet and chat with leading researchers and faculty in Science and Technology Studies.

spacecraft nearing the planet Saturn
The Cassini Spacecraft
Princeton University Professor Jane Vertesi
Princeton University Professor Janet Vertesi

The keynote lecture begins at 12:30pm and runs until 2pm in the Paul Delaney Gallery, 320 Bethune College. Presenting the keynote is guest lecturer Princeton University Sociology Professor Janet Vertesi. Her lecture is titled “The Social Life of Spacecraft: Social Organization and Scientific Practice on NASA’s Robotic Exploration Teams.”

Vertesi will compare the Mars Exploration Rover mission with the Cassini Mission to Saturn, asking how each team decides what their robots should explore next. Her talk draws on a variety of rich sources, including archival studies, oral histories and interviews conducted as the in-house ethnographer at locations such as NASA and Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“How does social organization affect the conduct and practice of science? To explore this question, I present empirical data from a comparative ethnographic study of work on two NASA robotic spacecraft mission teams,” writes Vertesi in her lecture abstract. “While the robots appear to be singular entities operating autonomously in the frontiers of space, decisions about what the robots should do and how they accomplish their science are made on an iterative basis by a large, distributed team of scientists and engineers on Earth.

The Mars Rover
The Mars Rover

“As spacecraft team members negotiate among themselves for robotic time and resources, their sociotechical organization is paramount to understanding how decisions are made, which scientific data are acquired, and how the team relates to their robot,” she explains. “Describing the contrasting organizational practices, interaction rituals and forms of talk by means of which decisions are made and consensus is achieved on the Mars Exploration Rover mission and the Cassini mission to Saturn, I explore how the social studies of science can reveal implications for how we might best construct high functioning scientific teams, taking into account group solidarity, data sharing, and scientific results.”

After the lecture, a panel featuring STS professors and researchers will respond to Vertesi’s remarks and answer questions about their research. Participating in the panel are: Jordan Bimm, STS PhD student, Faculty of Science Senior Lecturer Paul Delaney and STS Professor Kenton Kroker. The panel will be chaired by STS and Sociology Professor Aryn Martin.

For more information on the day’s events, visit the STS Day webpage.