Let’s Make Space Better

June 10, 2020

For the last two weeks I have been watching the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and demonstrations against police violence in the United States, Canada, and around the world. To me they have been shocking, but to many these sights are all too familiar.

I struggled for some time understanding how to help. If I spoke up, would I be taking space from a more meaningful voice? Would I be making these events about me and not the victims? Am I actually trying to help or just absolve myself of the shame I feel?

This indecision coupled with the overwhelming realness of everything that has happened made me pause longer than I should have. But I realize now that it is no longer good enough to just not be a racist. I must be anti-racist. With that clarity, action becomes non-negotiable.

We have work to do

In our world of space exploration and space science, there are some startling racial disparities that must end. Consider these statistics:

  • A 2011 Study by the American Institute of Physics reported just 1% of the Planetary Science workforce is Black or Latinx, despite those groups comprising a quarter of the US population. In 2012, they reported only 2% of the Astronomy workforce is Black.
  • In engineering it isn’t much better. The American Society for Engineering Education reported that only 4.2% of all Engineering degrees were awarded to Black students in the US in 2018.
  • Since NEAR Shoemaker in 1997, not one Black Principal Investigator across fourteen NASA Discovery-class missions.
  • Since New Horizons in 2006, not one Black Principal Investigator across four New Frontiers-class missions.
  • On the entire science leadership team for Curiosity (9 instrument PIs, plus the program and project scientists), not one Black Principal Investigator.
  • Not one Black CEO at Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Arianespace, Thales Alenia, Rocketlab, RSC Energia, Airbus, Raytheon, Honeywell, Planet Labs, Intuitive Machines, Astrobotic, Masten Space, MDA, Maxar, Ball, RUAG, Intelsat, or Iridium.
  • A total of 339 American astronauts have travelled to space. Only 14 of them were Black.
  • There hasn’t been a Black astronaut on the International Space Station since 2009, and none have ever flown a long duration mission.
  • Not one Black Center Director for all ten NASA Centers.
  • And it took the first and only Black President to get the first and only Black NASA Administrator.

I’m not just here to throw shade, either. I took a look in my own backyard and examined the guests I’ve had on this show.

  • There have been 115 guest appearances across all five seasons of WeMartians. Only seven were BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour).
  • All eighteen guests of Off-Nominal were white.

Space needs to do better, and I need to do better. The best time to act was ages ago. The second best time is now.

So what are we doing about it?

It’s easy to call out injustice, but it’s another thing to do something about it. I’ve been working closely with my Off-Nominal co-host Anthony and engaging with our Discord community this past week to come up with a plan.

Many of these initiatives were developed not just by me and Anthony, but in partnership with the Patrons and listeners of our three podcasts. I’m proud that this is a community-led effort.

You can learn more about our joint plan in this short podcast in the Off-Nominal feed, reading our joint message, or by reading about it below.

  1. Our community is putting on a fundraiser to support two Black organizations whose missions we believe in. These include:
    • Black Girls Code – BGC empowers girls of colour ages 7 to 17 to become innovators in STEM fields, leaders in their communities, and builders of their own futures through exposure to computer science and technology. Code plays such an integral role in both aerospace engineering and science that it’s hard to overestimate how important organizations like BGC is.
    • Banneker Institute – Banneker provides ten week summer research and study experiences to undergraduate students of colour to prepare them for graduate programs in astronomy. As one of the least diverse of the sciences, anything we can do to give underrepresented peoples an edge will pay off.
  2. Anthony and I are matching all contributions made by our listeners until July 10th, 2020 to a maximum of our July Patreon income. Donate directly with these organizations and send your receipt to donate@offnominal.space.
  3. Our community is working on building some resources to help find and give exposure to Black contributors in the space community and the work that they do, including a Twitter follow list and a list of books written by Black authors in an upcoming space book-sharing application. More on these soon.
  4. We are committing to providing more space on our platforms for BIPOC guests.

I am inspired by many who have spoken much more eloquently on this. Last February, I spoke with Tanya Harrison at the Women in Space Conference in Phoenix. She told me something that has stuck with me ever since.

The science that we do is not separate from the people that we are.

Tanya Harrison, 2019

It helps me remember that it isn’t possible to just do space. To properly engage with this topic and this community, it’s necessary to engage with all of it, its good bits and its bad.

It was said best by Lauren Lyons from SpaceX, who after covering DM-2, recalled a blog post she wrote in 2014. She had just processed the decision by a grand jury not to indict the officers involved in the murder of Eric Garner, and she did it heading into the Orion EFT-1 event the next day. The parallels to DM-2 are obvious, and the words are just as applicable today as they were then, and forever.

We all bear the burdens of the crimes and sufferings of both our ancestors and our neighbors. The people that will one day populate the surface and caves of Mars are the same ones bearing the cultural traumas of our dark and bloody roots. And the DNA of these roots will follow us, like poltergeists, to whatever exoplanets we run to.

So let’s stop running. Let’s wrestle with this. Let’s get dirty. Let the brightest minds of the day step down from their thrones and engage. Engage in not only what inspires us to greatness, but also what reflects our deepest failures as a species.

Lauren Lyons, 2014

I’m sorry I took so long to speak, but I hope we can still make a difference together.

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