Diversity at NASA: social reality, cultural challenge

February was Black History Month. March was Women’s History Month. They came and went at NASA with no big fanfare.  Today I’m writing, again, about work done by the political appointees that President Obama put in charge at NASA that is changing work life for female and minority employees at the agency.

Mainstream historians may not pay much attention to the efforts of NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver to change the “culture” of NASA, especially where they work, at NASA headquarters.

I’m talking here about changes affecting “ordinary people,” not programs and projects and politics.  “Although ordinary people remain bit players in space history,” historian Glen Asner wrote in 2006, “with the emergence in the past two decades of…the ‘New Aerospace History,’ space historians have moved away from hagiographic approaches that uncritically relate tales of inspirational individuals, revolutionary technologies, and momentous political decisions.” (See Chapter 20 in the NASA history volume Societal Impacts of Spaceflight.)

I’m not crazy about all of the programs, projects, and political agenda that Bolden and Garver are promoting on behalf of the White House – the stuff that mainstream history will likely document. I admire and respect them, however, for positive changes they’ve made in the working environment for “ordinary people” at NASA.

While these changes at NASA HQ are subtle, they are perceivable, to me…. I’ve been working with people at NASA HQ for 30 years, so I have some basis for comparison.

Laws, regulations, and policies have been in place for decades prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of gender, skin color, ethnicity and other social factors. More subtle forms of discrimination persist, however, as documented, for example, by the well-known 1999 “Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT” (and the follow-up “Report on the Status of Women Faculty in Science and Engineering at MIT, 2011”).

My colleague Kim McQuaid has explored NASA’s dismal early history on civil rights.  (See Chapter 22 in Societal Impacts of Spaceflight. Also see Kim McQuaid, Race, gender, and space exploration: a chapter in the social history of the Space Age, Journal of American Studies 41(2), 40-5-434, 2007.) From the 1970s until recently, NASA has, in my judgment, been slow to adjust to demographic reality. While NASA’s workforce has grown more and more diverse, the agency has remained a hierarchical organization dominated by white men and, depending on where one might look, not always welcoming to others.

While non-white-males are slowly but surely moving into the higher ranks of the aerospace community – Bolden and Garver are examples, of course – aerospace is still very much a White Man’s World, especially in the upper ranks of management, engineering, and science.  As Garver herself reported last year, while women are making progress at NASA, equity remains elusive.

More disturbingly, a belief system – a mindset, a worldview – that I would characterize as “masculine” continues to dominate and direct the U.S. space program: pioneering, conquest, colonization, and exploitation.

In the first year or two of President Obama’s first term, I had hope that the administration might tune its rhetoric of space exploration to the times. Alas, I’ve been disappointed.

I’m not convinced that this worldview of conquest and exploitation is widely embraced outside the aerospace community.  And I’m not at all sure how thoroughly it’s embraced inside the community. I know, because they’ve told me, that even some white men within the community are not comfortable with this sort of thinking.

I’ll continue to keep an eye on the rhetoric….

Manly Mars exploration


Since when did Mars exploration become such a manly thing?

If one didn’t know better, one might think, in reading New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger’s recent epic take on the current era of Mars exploration, that in 2013, women are scarce in the Mars community.

Bilger’s 16-page spread in the April 22 issue of the magazine, “The Martian chroniclers: a new era in planetary exploration,”, is one part science story and two parts paean to two men on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team – entry, descent, and landing engineer Adam Steltzner and chief scientist John Grotzinger.

Don’t get be wrong: these two people deserve all the praise they can muster for their accomplishments on this mission. They’re Good People and outstanding in their fields. But this manly thing is a bit much for me….

As a 40-year subscriber to The New Yorker, I’ve been reading Bilger’s work there since he joined the staff in 2001. According to the magazine, “his articles have focussed on food, science, and American subcultures…”

I think of Bilger as a writer who’s most fond of manly topics. Witness the title of his latest book: Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish and other Southern Comforts.” Among his many articles for The New Yorker are pieces on “extreme beer,” baldness cures and hair transplant surgery, hunting exotic game, killing squirrels and eating their brains hunting squirrels and eating their brains, and tunneling machines.

Yes, yes, I know he’s written about non-manly things, such as global warming, invasive species, “the cheese nun”…

But still….

In his Mars opus, Bilger tells us about Steltzner’s “rebel without a cause” youth. We learn, for example, that “between the ages of seven and seventeen, Steltzner broke thirty-two bones and got a hundred and seventy-two stitches” and that later he had a brief career as “a small-town playboy.” (Bilger tells us that he knew Steltzner before his days on MSL.) Of Grotzinger, Bilger tells us that he “has worked in Siberia, Namibia, Oman, and Arctic Canada…rafted rivers in Yakutsk, dodged grizzly bears and black flies around Great Slave Lake….” And on and on.

I guess this is what you call “human interest.” But, jeez, I guess you’ll have to read the piece yourself to decide whether Bilger is hitting the reader over the head a bit too enthusiastically with the manliness of this engineer and this scientist (Again, I want to emphasize that I’m questioning the writer, not criticizing his subjects.)

You may ask yourself, who am I to poke at Bilger, anyway?  He’s a leading science writer, widely published…a New Yorker staff writer (every writer’s dream), for pete’s sake…. (You can listen to Bilger talk about his writing career here.)

I’m a 30-year member of the space community, a lifelong feminist, a former president of Women in Aerospace who remains committed to advancing the status and the profile of women in the field (many of whom still don’t toot their own horns enough), and someone who knows many of the men and women who work together on Mars exploration.

JPL Curiosity rover driver Vandi Tompkins, who warrants four paragraphs in Bilger’s voluminous piece, is not alone on the MSL team. Joy Crisp is MSL’s deputy project scientist. Jennifer Trosper – who became well known to NASA’s public audiences as he Mars Exploration Rover Spirit’s “boss” (see below) – is MSL’s mission management office manager (not a trivial position, with a team of hundreds to herd). Jessica Samuels is MSL’s engineering operations team chief. Nicole Spanovich is MSL’s science operations team chief…and there are more women who are key team members.

Yes, all nine principal investigators for MSL science instruments are men. However, on MSL’s science team we also have Mary Voytek, deputy project scientist; and Pan Conrad, deputy principal investigator for the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, among others (of 31 scientists on the SAM team, 11 are women). By the way, if you like rugged, ask Voytek about her multiple field expeditions to Antarctica, and ask Conrad about how many summers she’s spent working in the high-Arctic Svalbard archipelago….

As to historical precedents at NASA, women have always played key roles in Mars exploration. The late Lynn Margulis was the first woman to receive funding from NASA’s exobiology program, in 1971, for research relating to the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe. NASA’s first landed mission to Mars, Viking, involved women: Bonnie Dalton, Marjorie Lewalt, and Bonnie Berdahl were on the team that designed Viking’s biology instrument package.* JPL engineer Donna Shirley was the designer of the Mars Pathfinder Rover, and manager of JPL’s Mars exploration program at the time. JPL’s Diana Blaney and NASA Ames Research Center’s Carol Stoker were co-investigators http://phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu/team01.php on the science team for NASA’s Phoenix lander mission to Mars. For NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission, Cathy Weitz was program scientist, Joy Crisp was project scientist, and (see above) Jennifer Trosper was mission manager for operations for the MER rover Spirit.

What Mars exploration – space exploration – is all about today, as it always has been, is teamwork. The myth of the Lone Ranger in Space is just that – a myth. Nobody can make in space alone. Every member of the team is important.

Okay. I’m stepping off my soapbox, and I hope I’ve made my point.


*Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick, The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, Rutgers University Press, 2004, p. 81.