What’s in a name? That’s a loaded question when NASA’s human spaceflight programs are concerned.
Bold, daring names that carried a sense of grandeur were sought for NASA’s first programs to send man beyond Earth’s grasp. So Abe Silverstein, NASA’s director of space flight programs in the 1960s, turned to Greek mythology.
Mercury. Gemini. Apollo. What they have in common: they’re male Greek gods.
Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister and goddess of the moon, wasn’t even considered because, at the time, there simply was no space for women at NASA.
“When I was a little girl, my generation had no idea that (women) could have a career in space,” said Lisa Steelman, a professor of industrial psychology at Florida Institute of Technology. “Space was traditionally sort of the domain of men, your Buzz Aldrin types.”
Engineers, pilots, and astronauts with “the right stuff” — American white men, often with a college education or military experience – defined the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo generations. After all, NASA of the 1960s was a civil government agency supported by the U.S. military with one purpose: beat the Soviet Union to the moon.
Today, while NASA has changed as an agency, the goal of sending astronauts to the lunar surface remains. This time, however, Artemis is getting her due as the name of a more inclusive lunar program.
“Now we have female role models who are going to space as captains on space expeditions, who are scientists,” said Steelman. “It’s definitely more part of the conversation now than it used to be that these types of careers are accessible.”
The new era of exploration is reflected in the Artemis generation, from the people sharing the stories of the missions to the engineers and scientists building the rockets and even the astronauts who will one day place the next footprints on the moon.
Inclusivity is a badge of honor. It represents an industry-wide shift toward collaboration, international partnership, and celebrating a more diverse workforce.
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The inaugural crew of Artemis astronauts selected in April will bridge the gap between the Apollo and Artemis generations when Artemis II, the program’s final demonstration mission, launches as early as next year. NASA’s Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, Christina Koch, and the Canadian Space Agency’s Jeremy Hansen represent several firsts for people venturing beyond low-Earth orbit: a person of color (Glover), a woman (Koch), and a non-American (Hansen).
The crew is set to achieve the farthest distance humans have ever traveled from Earth but they won’t land on the lunar surface. NASA’s Artemis III mission, slated to liftoff sometime before 2030, will land two astronauts on the moon, including the first woman.
Laura Forczyk, physicist and space industry consulting firm owner, told FLORIDA TODAY, “Back in the time when NASA was stood up when the initial space program kicked off, it was a difference in the cultural standards of the United States where women were not expected to work. They were expected to stay home.”
“There was an expectation that the races would be separate and that higher level careers would not be accessible to people of certain races or ethnicities, or religion or gender identity,” Forczyk said.
Across NASA, the workforce is comprised of about 40% women. Seven of the agency’s 10 centers are led by women directors.
Fifty percent of all leadership roles at Kennedy Space Center in Florida are held by women, with the center led by Janet Petro, its first woman director. Two-thirds of the center’s Press Site employees responsible for telling Artemis generation stories are women.
“To be here now, in an office that’s female-led and dominated, it is a good reminder for us that there are girls like us out there, and we need to find ways to reach them and keep inspiring women to come here and work at NASA and in aerospace,” said Madison Tuttle, a NASA public affairs officer at KSC.
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Diversity starts from the top down
The gradual shift to more diversity within the space industry has spanned decades guided by federal mandates. In 2021 Executive Order 13583 was enacted “to strengthen the Federal workforce by promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.”
“The Executive Orders are a demonstration of the country’s commitment to access to all. It provides a lane of opportunity for everybody to expand access to these types of careers,” said Steelman.
Vanessa Wyche, the third female director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, said she believes that an intentional effort to provide women and members of other minority groups with opportunities drives necessary change.
“We have what we call an inclusive leadership cadre where our managers opt-in to being in this environment where they can learn and share best practices, and all of those efforts have made the environment such that it is more inclusive and more diverse,” said Wyche. “That has definitely been a part of it.”
Forczyk said NASA has a responsibility to promote these kinds of initiatives as the de facto leader in the space sector.
“To have and promote those initiatives and for NASA leadership to set that standard is very valuable,” Forczyk said. “It trickles down.”
The danger of ‘groupthink’
Beyond laws and executive orders, Steelman said that the space industry needed more diversity and inclusion to advance and survive. Increasing inclusion helps advance creativity, innovation, decision-making, and problem-solving, she said.
It also helps reduce “groupthink.”
More diverse groups also help reduce instances of a phenomenon called “groupthink.”
“Groupthink is when people in a room go with the leader’s decisions without kind of critically evaluating whether (it) is the right course of action, or being hesitant to speak up, because somebody in a position of authority has said, we’re going in this direction,” said Steelman.
She pointed out that groupthink was part of a problem that contributed to a sort of launch fever for NASA in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, killing all seven crew members on board.
“The Challenger disaster had to do with people not speaking up about a certain malfunctioning O-ring, and it was part of that groupthink,” said Steelman. “Everybody’s saying let’s go, let’s do it, without raising an issue that was life or death.”
Sustaining efforts to promote diversity
Seeking a more diverse workforce is just one step, NASA’s women leaders said. The next: sustaining it. Some of those efforts at NASA include employee resource groups, mentorship programs, and outreach opportunities that promote and support a more diverse workforce throughout the space industry.
Petro credits KSC’s higher level of workforce diversity than any other center to “an intentional effort to ensure that women got the correct developmental assignments, the right opportunities, and the right experience to be able to be promoted in those positions.”
“A lot of women and others across the center are really inspired that they see a woman can come to the top,” said Petro. “I think people look up and can see themselves in that position once they see others there.”
Steelman echoed that, noting people need to “feel included and that they belong so that they can bring their full selves to speak up when they need to, so they can represent themselves authentically.”
A more diverse workforce pipeline
Another major contributing factor in NASA’s push for more diversity is the available workforce.
“The universities (have) more diversity coming out of them. That pipeline adds to the ability for us to have more women in these positions,” said Wyche.
At the Florida Institute of Technology, according to Steelman, there’s been “about a 10% increase in female applicants in science and engineering over the last 13 years or so.” She also said that over the last five years, the number of female applicants in space-focused programs has increased by 5%.
Karen Horting, executive director & CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, believes that independent organizations that support women and other minority groups before college also have a measurable impact.
An international nonprofit, The Society of Women Engineers advocates for minority groups in technical roles and works directly with NASA, industry partners, and schools to provide opportunities like professional development and educational outreach to help sustain gender equity industry-wide.
“We need to make sure that we’re encouraging girls to pursue STEM studies, even as young as middle school,” said Horting. “If (NASA is) going to maintain leadership in space, they really need to be focusing on all parts of the pipeline for girls thinking about being aerospace engineers and astronauts.”
“The organizations in this century that really get diversity, equity, and inclusion, who embrace it and do it well, will be the companies that in 100 years we’ll still be talking about,” said Horting. “You can’t innovate or have the best products if you don’t have a diverse team.”
The Artemis program motto, “We are going,” represents that this time around, space is for everyone, and for Petro, that’s an agency-level commitment and responsibility that she doesn’t take lightly.
“It’s a slow process, but we are turning that dial, and I think we need to do the same thing for all demographics,” said Petro. “We have a lot of conversations amongst our leadership team because we think it’s important that (NASA) should really represent a cross-section of society.”
You can contact Jamie Groh at JGroh@floridatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AlteredJamie.
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