Diversity at NASA: social reality, cultural challenge

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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….

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