IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The changing face of NASA

As NASA celebrates the heroes of the first generation in space, most of them white test pilots, it’s also making the transition to the next generation: a “rainbow of people” representing women as well as a variety of ethnic groups and national origins. The precedent-setting flight of shuttle commander Eileen Collins is just one small step in a giant cultural leap.

Estella Gillette still remembers how her parents greeted the news back in 1964 that their daughter had been offered a job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center:

“My parents said to me, ‘What are you going to do, working with all those white men? A little Mexican girl, one year out of high school?’ And I said, ‘They’re offering me three jobs as a secretary, I guess they want me.’”

For years she worked as a clerk, a secretary, an administrative assistant — and today she’s director of equal opportunity programs at Johnson Space Center, with a seat on the panel that selects each new class of astronauts.

“I remember coming here and how intimidating it was,” she says. “It’s all about comfort zone: If you don’t see somebody like yourself, you begin to think, well, this must not be for me.”

No role models
It’s a situation that Collins, who is the first female commander of an American shuttle mission, had to cope with even as a little girl: “I didn’t really have women astronaut role models to look up to, because back in those days only men were astronauts,” she said during a pre-flight interview.

But those days have changed — in orbit as well as on the ground, for women as well as for people of color. And although past and present NASA personnel acknowledge there are many further steps yet to be taken, most say that the drive toward greater diversity is as inevitable as the drive toward life in space.

Sensitivity to diversity may be more of a prerequisite for extended flights aboard the International Space Station, says Steven Hawley, a white astronaut who was on the board that selected Collins to become an astronaut in 1990 and is now serving on her crew. As time goes on, astronauts from the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, Canada and other regions of the world will be living together for three-month stints or even longer.

“There is certainly an awareness issue ... The leadership skills are going to be also necessary, not only to take people and make them a team, but take these people from diverse backgrounds, different cultures,” he says. “Someone clearly with a multicultural sensitivity is going to do better than someone who doesn’t have that.”

Black astronaut Winston Scott says he tells minority students to be “global people” — to think beyond their own neighborhoods and cultures.

“I emphasize, particularly to minority students, that the opportunity is there, the opportunity is real — it’s not just something that you read about in a book,” he says.

Adding up the figures
There’s no formal quota system for future astronauts. But Duane Ross, chief of NASA’s astronaut selection office, says diversity is an “absolutely important” consideration in choosing each new class of spacemen and spacewomen.

“Now it’s evolved to the point where it’s business as usual,” says Ross, who is white.

The figures don’t yet match up with the proportions in the population at large, however. In the most recent class of 25, for example, nine are women (with one of those part Asian), one is a black male and two are Hispanic males.

“What we try to reflect is the pool of applicants,” says Gillette. Last year, 11 percent of the 2,600 applicants represented minorities, she says.

“It is not a quota, it is a metric,” she says.

When it comes down to the top 50 applicants or so, diversity plays a role along with other “tie-breakers,” such as flying or diving experience, she says. The end result should be a mix of varied backgrounds and skills.

“I would love it one day if we didn’t have to worry about, ‘Do we have a mix?’ Where it’s just a natural process and your picture shows up without even thinking about it,” she says. “And that’s not going to happen unless people prepare people evenly.”

For Gillette, the biggest issue is getting minorities to apply — not only to become astronauts, but to work for NASA on the ground as scientists, engineers and administrators. To that end, her office spends $6 million a year on grants directed at universities with high numbers of minority students, such as Spelman College, Morehouse College and Florida A&M University.

“We spend an awful lot of money and time in outreach,” she says.

Making a difference
NASA workers say diversity has made a difference.

“There’s a lot of improvement since the ’60s and ’70s,” says LeBarian Stokes, a black aerospace engineer who works with robotics. “The barriers are not as hard to break as they used to be — so to minorities, I say ‘go for it.’”

However, the raw figures for Johnson Space Center illustrate the challenges ahead as well as the progress to date. In 1982, just after the space shuttle program got off the ground, more than 70 percent of the 3,289 workers at the center were white males. That figure is now at 52.1 percent. During the same period, the proportion of women has risen from 16.9 to 25.1 percent — even as the center’s total workforce has declined 10.8 percent, to 2,931 workers.

The drive toward diversity poses a particular challenge for the space agency in light of the agency’s shrinking budgets and payrolls, says Keith Cowing, a former NASA worker who is now the editor of NASA Watch, an independent online publication.

“You have declining budgets, you have the increased need for diversity, you have the increased need to cut people, and you have the need to do the things that need to be done at the end of the day — and you have a collision,” says Cowing, who is white.

A policy of reducing staff while at the same time increasing the proportions of women and minorities runs the risk of “classic reverse discrimination,” Cowing says. He also notes that the space agency has a particular need to attract and retain the nation’s top scientists and engineers.

“Skin color and technical capabilities have no correlation,” he says.

All sides would most likely agree with that bottom line — that the key issues involve “diversity on the inside,” in the words of Jeri Brown, a white program manager in NASA’s Space and Life Sciences Directorate. She prefers to talk about how NASA is fostering the commercialization of space while preserving its traditional role as a research and development agency.

‘Rocket mentality’
Several NASA workers say they deal with the diversity issue by concentrating on the highly technical work at hand rather than skin color.

“Sometimes you sit in your meetings, and you just see a rainbow of people,” says C.L. Ross, a black manager involved in the International Space Station project. “It’s beautiful in a way, because everyone’s concentrating on one particular subject, whatever technical issue that might be. And it’s not about color, and it’s not about race, and it’s not about religion. It’s about (seeing) what you have to bring to the ballgame to help us win — and ‘win’ is, of course, building the space station and moving on to Mars.”

Gillette says the “rocket mentality” can pose a challenge.

“Sometimes, anything that doesn’t have to do with the rocket stuff is hard to deal with,” she says, “but if you understand this way of thinking, it’s my job to figure out how to communicate.”

As an example, she recalls how the space center came to establish a child care center, back in 1990: The committee in charge of the effort took a classic engineering approach, surveying other centers and analyzing what facilities were available within a 5-mile radius. The report submitted to the center’s top managers was packed with charts and tables.

“We made the point because we put it in a language that they could communicate in, and we got our child care center,” she recalls. “Rather than being emotional and talking about ‘all these poor children,’ we used an approach they could understand.”

Does all this mean the mental attitude of the space pioneers who landed on the moon has gone out of date? Not at all, says Ross, who has worked at NASA since the heyday of Apollo. He contends that the competitive, can-do spirit embodied by moonwalkers and Mercury trailblazers is still very much alive and well.

“I think those guys would fit right in,” Ross says.