How the space sector is responding to the killing of George Floyd

Space

For many, the Black Lives Matter protests occurring while NASA celebrated a historic achievement were reminiscent of the Apollo era.

In July 1969, civil rights protesters marched outside the Kennedy Space Center the day before Apollo 11 launched to the moon. NASA’s historic achievement occurred against the backdrop of a nation struggling to address discrimination against Black Americans.

The May 30 launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon, the first flight of astronauts from U.S. soil in nine years, also happened amid widespread protests prompted by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in Minneapolis who died with his neck under the knee of a White police officer.

Once again, NASA risks being out of touch with the nation as a whole by failing to be more proactive on matters of equality, said Lori Garver, who pushed NASA to hire more women and people of color as astronauts when she was the deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013.

NASA finally responded to the civil rights and women’s marches of the 1960s by selecting its first female astronaut in 1978 and its first Black astronaut in 1979. But more than 40 years later, the results of that shift remain limited.

“It is still unbelievable to me that we have flown only 11 Black males and three Black females in space out of 350 U.S. astronauts,” Garver said. “It’s shameful.”

Since late May, the space industry, like organizations and individuals around the world, has been responding to the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for racial justice.

Responses range from corporate scholarships and diversity training to new leadership for the Brooke Owens Fellowship and a petition to rename NASA’s Stennis Space Center. Still more action is expected in the weeks ahead as companies respond to this unique moment in American history when millions of people, confined to their homes for months to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, emerge to attend racial justice rallies.

Diversity initiatives

Many recent initiatives focus on increasing the diversity of the space workforce, which is overwhelmingly white compared with the U.S. population, according to Aviation Week’s annual aerospace and defense workforce report.

Small launch vehicle startup Relativity Space announced plans July 1 on Twitter to hire a diversity, equity and inclusion program manager to help “build and drive an inclusive workplace that personifies the values within our organization.”

Satellite fleet operator SES pledged to support underrepresented communities through various actions, including adding Black Lives Matter to charities included in its employee donation-matching program.

Virgin Galactic announced a new scholarship as part of its Galactic Unite outreach initiative. The suborbital spaceflight company pledged $100,000 to a scholarship for Black Americans pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math with a focus on aerospace.

Students selected to participate in the program, also backed by The Spaceship Company, Virgin Orbit and Virgin Hyperloop, “will receive scholarship support, mentoring, summer fellowships and job opportunities upon graduation,” Virgin Galactic announced June 19. “The aspiration is to support Black scholars through the academic pipeline to a successful early career placement opportunity.”

The Brooke Owens Fellowship, a similar initiative to bring women and gender minorities into the aerospace industry, announced a change in leadership. Garver, a Brooke Owens Fellowship founder, announced plans June 19 to step down from the leadership team to make room for women of color.

“I had been going to rallies and doing what I could, but it felt inadequate,” Garver said. “I thought [the Brooke Owens Fellowship] needed a more representative leadership team.”

NASA announced June 24 plans to rename its Washington headquarters after Mary W. Jackson, a mathematician and aerospace engineer whose contributions to the U.S. space program were depicted in the 2016 book “Hidden Figures” and the 2016 movie of the same name. Credit: NASA

Joining Brooke Owens Fellowship co-founders Cassie Lee, aerospace director at Vulcan Inc., and Will Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, on the executive committee are alumnae: Caroline Juang, a PhD student at Columbia University; Kayla Watson, Amazon Prime Air system reliability engineer; and Diana Trujillo, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory aerospace engineer.

Space industry leaders also are publishing letters and statements about racial justice online.

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith urged employees June 1 to “be thoughtful and compassionate” with colleagues “struggling once again with long-standing racism and are demanding solutions today — not in some vague time in the future.”

In the letter, Smith said, “The institutional and individual racism that has long plagued our country was pulled into plain view by Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting death in Georgia, through the lies of Amy Cooper in Central Park, in Breonna Taylor’s killing inside her Louisville home, and, most recently, the Minneapolis killing of George Floyd.”

SES CEO Steve Collar wrote about the deaths of several unarmed Black Americans.

“The frequency of these kinds of events and the fact that the underlying biases that drive them are endemic makes us question whether there is even a path to change,” Collar said in a June 9 LinkedIn post. “But the strength of the global reaction to Floyd’s killing makes me believe there are reasons to hope for something better.”

NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber, called on the space community “to become part of the solution to the horrific challenges America faces today.” In a statement posted on the NanoRacks website Manber said, “We must assure diversity in the workplace and in our kids’ school system — in such a manner that it is standard, not the exception, that your neighbors, your friends, your leaders, are people of color, women, or someone with a differing sexual orientation.”

An uphill challenge

Much of the space industry’s response has focused on increasing minority participation. A walk through the halls of any major conference — Space Symposium, the International Astronautical Congress or the annual Satellite show — show the industry struggles with diversity.

“It’s well documented that the aerospace community, like many other technical communities, is not diverse, but that’s not my biggest concern,” said Danielle Wood, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who leads the Space Enabled Research Group within the Media Lab. Lack of diversity is a symptom, she added.

If the space industry wants to become more diverse, it must come to terms with how racially motivated decisions shape the country, Wood said. The industry must acknowledge “that white supremacy is the reason why there is disproportionate violence towards Black people by police, why there are a disproportionate number of people of Black and Hispanic backgrounds in jails, why there are a disproportionate number of people who can’t get loans, and also why there aren’t enough people of color in the aerospace industry,” she said. “Then we can start to make progress.”

NanoRack’s Manber said he hopes the space industry sees today’s movement as a tipping point that leads to a permanent change.

“Part of my fear, in terms of being a business person in space, is that space exploration gets branded as being either behind the times or counter to the reforms taking place,” he said.

The space industry can’t risk, by inaction, being viewed only as a domain for the wealthy and white, he said.

“This is not your grandfather’s space program,” he said.

What’s in a name?

NASA announced plans June 24 to rename its Washington headquarters for Mary W. Jackson, NASA’s first female African-American engineer and someone who “spent her career advancing opportunities for women and minorities in engineering,” NASA spokeswoman Katy Summerlin said by email.

Also on June 24, Pomerantz called on Twitter for the space agency to consider renaming the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

“I think that was largely, but not entirely, a coincidence,” Pomerantz said.

“Space friends: maybe it’s time we had a talk about the fact that one of NASA’s main campuses is named after a person who has been called ‘the heart, soul, and brains of the white supremacist caucus in the 1948 Congress,’” the Twitter thread began.

Former U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, shown celebrating a space shuttle engine test in 1978 at the NASA field center that bears his name, has been called “the heart, soul, and brains of the white supremacist caucus in the 1948 Congress.” Credit: NASA

The quote by retired U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Reuben Keith Green appeared in his June 2020 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings commentary calling for renaming the USS John C. Stennis, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

Pomerantz began thinking about NASA facility names after watching organizations like university libraries and U.S. Army bases rethink their namesakes in response to national demonstrations for racial justice.

NASA field centers are named for locations, functions and white men, Pomerantz pointed out. They include: Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics chairman Joseph Ames, astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard, Army General and Secretary of State George Marshall and John Stennis, a U.S. senator from Mississippi.

Stennis opposed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and signed the Declaration of Constitutional Principles, also called the Southern Manifesto, a document published in 1956 in response to the Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education that found racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. The Southern Manifesto pledged “all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.”

NASA’s Stennis website focuses on less controversial details about the former senator. “The courtly senator from Mississippi who was unanimously elected president pro tempore of the Senate for the 100th Congress also served as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, 1969-1980,” the website says. “Senator Stennis stood firm for U.S. military superiority and was a staunch supporter of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”

NASA leaders are “sensitive to the discussion of racism, discrimination and inequalities going on around the world, including conversations about renaming NASA facilities,” Summerlin said by email. “We are having ongoing discussions with the NASA workforce on all of these topics. NASA is dedicated to advancing diversity, and we will continue to take steps to do so.”

On Twitter, Pomerantz’s idea has received both support and opposition. One person suggested Pomerantz “leave NASA and space alone.”

Others have embraced the idea.

After seeing Pomerantz’ tweet, Andy de Fonseca, Planetary Society outreach coordinator, created a Change.org petition calling for NASA to rename the Stennis Space Center.

Garver also endorses the idea of renaming Stennis, saying she regretted not knowing about Stennis’ namesake when she worked under a Black president and a Black administrator.

NASA renamed the Lewis Research Center after Glenn in 1999 and renamed the Dryden Flight Research Center to honor Armstrong in 2014, meaning names can and do change. “So yes, I would change it,” she said.

Another petition gathering signatures on Change.org calls for renaming the USS John C. Stennis.

This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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