White Space
December 9, 2014 8:03 PM   Subscribe

Why are there so many white men in space?

Space meaning space industry. (But literally in space too—few astronauts are not white/male.) How did space industry get so disproportionately white and male?

Recently at Students for Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) annual SpaceVision conference—which is comprised of future space professionals—I was grateful to see there is a great variety to the make-up of student attendees: of peoples, of colors, of ethnicities, of genders, of identities.

Yet at parallel industry conferences made up of working space professionals that is glaringly not the case. Many space science conferences are utterly devoid of diversity. Likewise, many professional space companies and space organizations seem to fall short. Likewise, there is a discomforting absence of dialog on the matter.

Is this a matter of old guard/new guard? Is there a wider range of space professionals of diverse backgrounds that are going unacknowledged? And if not, how do we encourage new space organizations and new space companies the value of pursuing and encouraging diversity?
posted by Mike Mongo to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm sure others will contribute more comprehensive answers, but the short version is that (at least in the US), the space industry is manned (ahem) by folks from STEM + military. In both fields, as far as race and gender, there has been a structural and cultural pipeline issue for decades. Very few people, period, make it into this elite field, and very few POC make it into the pool of prospective candidates below for many, many reasons having to do with equity in educational and advancement opportunities. I'd like to hear from folks who are in the field an "inside" perspective.

Anecdata: as a gifted young woman, I got the message early on that a career in science meant a career dealing with misogyny on a daily basis and just said no.
posted by Schielisque at 8:19 PM on December 9, 2014 [20 favorites]


Pretty much. If women aren't/weren't allowed to become test pilots, and engineering is filled with white men...
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:53 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


To be very glib, most of the space industry is a byproduct of the Cold War, and the military, political, and STEM elite of the first and second worlds were white men. Meanwhile, the third world had lots of POC in high positions, but few/no space programs. This is changing, though, now that India, China, and Japan have entered the scene.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:58 PM on December 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


Here's the famous photograph after ISRO put a probe in Mars orbit.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:01 PM on December 9, 2014 [24 favorites]


I'm not sure there's a lack of dialog on the subject if you take a look at a slightly more macro level there's tons of dialog on the lack of women and minorities in STEM programs of which aerospace is a small sliver. I think the issue is much broader than just the space program, and it is a pipeline issue combined with an entrenched old guard.

Would be fascinated to know if these issues persist in newer organizations such as SpaceX or Virgin Galactic.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:05 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


All of the astronauts in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were previously military pilots. At the time it was against the law for any woman to serve in a combat position, and there weren't very many non-white men in those positions either.

It isn't so much that NASA was selecting against non-white-men as that the pool of potential choices was already filtered to be all white men.

I should point out that those astronauts had to be particularly physically fit because the Apollo launches hit 8 G's. Few men, and pretty much no women, are capable of sustaining such acceleration without harm. (You have to be very fit to even breath at such accelerations.)

The Shuttle, on the other hand, launched at about 3G's, which most healthy people can deal with, and NASA didn't have to be as stringent about picking its astronauts, which is why there were a lot of non-white-men who became astronauts during the shuttle program. Once it became possible, NASA did its best to spread things around. (For instance, only three of the seven people who died in the Challenger disaster were white men.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:26 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


We're working on it.
posted by infini at 9:33 PM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Also, I don't know if SpaceX/Virgin Galactic are super white-male dominated, but if so then it's probably partly just the fact that silicon-valley culture is hugely unwelcoming (if not outright hostile) to women and minorities. I'm a woman who is qualified to and might have considered working in the tech industry, I've heard enough awful stories to know I don't want to deal with that level of grossness.

Also, that Isro photo made me tear up.
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:45 PM on December 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


Here's an assembly of (some many) SpaceX employees. Women and (visible) minorities can probably be counted on about three hands, or under 10% of those present. Just a data point.

It's worth noting that Charlie Bolden is black (and has four shuttle missions on his ticker, two as pilot and two as commander).
posted by dhartung at 10:17 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm a minority woman currently employed at a large commercial communications spacecraft manufacturer located in Silicon Valley that was founded in the '50s (in terms of overall company culture it sticks out like an old wart from its techie neighbors). The workforce as a whole could be described as reasonably diverse, but as salary levels increase from entry level floor/assembly techs to system/test engineers to management to C-levels, the population gets noticeably older and paler and maler.
Maybe some of my minority or female peers will stick around long enough to change this distribution, but maybe the company won't be around in another 60 years to see it happen.
posted by casarkos at 11:14 PM on December 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


I should point out that those astronauts had to be particularly physically fit because the Apollo launches hit 8 G's. Few men, and pretty much no women, are capable of sustaining such acceleration without harm. (You have to be very fit to even breath at such accelerations.)

From Ms. Right Stuff: The Lovelace Space Program And The Mercury 13 Women:

"The Mercury 13 Women
"Before WISE testing could begin the Air Force announced that it would no longer pursue the program. In response, Lovelace established a privately funded effort, the Woman in Space Program, in 1959. A total of 19 women were enrolled, most of whom had been selected from flight schools.
"The women underwent the identical tests that the male candidates had undergone. In the end, 68% of the women passed with "no medical reservations" compared to 56% of the men. The 13 females who passed were known as the Mercury 13. They were Bernice "Bea" Steadman, Janey Hart, Geraldine "Jerri" Sloan Truhill, Rhea Allison Woltman, Sarah Lee Gorelick Ratley, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, Wally Funk and Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb."

More from wikipedia.
posted by glasseyes at 2:21 AM on December 10, 2014 [22 favorites]


Many astronauts have aeronautical/astronautical engineering Ph.D.s from elite engineering universities which are male dominated. Students from lower socio-economic strata are more concerned with making a living and supporting their families than becoming astronauts. The field consistently "narrows" as you go further up the hierarchy (management/executive positions always go to people with higher levels of social capital), and many people leave realizing that one can make just as good a living doing programming, some form of consulting, government contract engineering, or quantitative finance rather than trying to pursue one of the decent "space professional" positions available.

This is a problem endemic to many engineering fields, but particularly space professions since it is a "vanity field"-- lots of people given the option between testing engine sprockets or writing back-end .net objects to connect to a database and launching stuff into space would prefer the latter. Thus the competition is rather fierce, and the financial rewards are easily achievable elsewhere.
posted by deanc at 4:33 AM on December 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


To the above arguments, I'll add the pill and abortion rights.

Seriously, the space age launched before women had reproductive choices and the act of sex (a basic act of being human) often turned women into mothers, greatly limiting career opportunities.

I once worked at UCLA Med Center in the 90s. They had a long hallway with photos of the medical school classes. Even up to 1965, there were one or two women per class of 100. By 1990, half were women.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:27 AM on December 10, 2014 [8 favorites]


I don't know, but the problem is even worse in software engineering. I went to a conference last week with 120 men and two women. There is no one simple answer -- women drop out of the pipeline disproportionately in middle school, high school, college, after they start working, and then the ones who are remaining in the field often don't feel feel welcome at conferences and meetups. So if you want to help fix this, there is a lot to fix!
posted by miyabo at 6:17 AM on December 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


Some stats on diversity in engineering from 2011: Engineering by the Numbers

For undergrad degrees: 11.7% female for Mechanical Engineering. 13.4% female for Aerospace Engineering.

If you can't change those numbers, the overall percentage of women working in the field is also going to be terrible.
posted by smackfu at 8:34 AM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Security clearances may also be an issue, since they are hard to get for immigrants and children of immigrants who still have strong ties outside the country, and many space contractors are also military contractors. (I have heard anecdotally that BYU gets a lot of recruiters for military contractors, since they a much lower proportion of international students than most engineering departments.)
posted by ckape at 10:39 AM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


two recent historical works on this (well, about engineering as an education/profession generally): One is Girls Coming to Tech! by Amy Sue Bix on the struggle against the continuing tokenization of women in engineering long after their nominal exclusion from engineering education ended.

On top of this, Amy Slaton's Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line argues that underrepresentation of people of color (well, this is specifically about black men since the start of the Cold War) is not just a result of white-supremacist attitudes in primary and secondary education, the underfunding of African American education, etc. but also a two-tiered vision of engineering--one that split off young black engineers attending, say, Maryland's state-supported HBU into lower-prestige career tracks while their overwhelmingly white peers at the flagship engineering school had a higher-prestige set of potential career experiences.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 12:32 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Wiki entry on the Ugandan space initiatives

Nigeria's Space Program: A Rare Glimpse Inside The West African Nation's Satellite Operation


The truth about Africa's space programmes


Space programs in Africa are not focused on getting men in space,” says Professor Nithaya Chetty of South Africa’s space agency. “African governments are finally coming around to understand the critical importance of science as an instrument for development. Training in astronomy, and training in computing and engineering leads to skills that are very wide ranging and are transferable to other disciplines.”

Some of the countries being talked about have space programmes, but we shouldn’t read too much into the idea. Kenya is a leader in astronomy, but in terms of actual spacefaring ambitions, it has a disused Italian launchpad off Malindi that it would like to renovate as a commercial venture. Ghana’s Space Science and Technology Centre did launch its first ‘satellite’ this year, but it was the size of a coke can, built by students and was launched by weather balloon as a demonstration project.

The Daily Mail was being particularly disingenuous in its tutting about Uganda this week. The very same paper ran a story poking fun at Uganda’s ‘space programme’ two years ago, under the headline ‘Not exactly NASA!’. The Ugandan space project is run by volunteer enthusiasts, and suggesting Uganda doesn’t deserve our aid because of it is self-serving nonsense.

Secondly, satellite programmes can help the poor. Many parts of Africa, especially deeper rural areas, are badly connected and in desperate need of infrastructure. Satellite technology can open up communications to those regions far more cheaply than attempting to cable them all. This improves governance too, with governments able to keep in contact with the further reaches of the country.

Satellites can play a role in monitoring droughts, pollution, desertification and natural disasters. One of Nigeria’s satellites relays images of natural disaster zones to relief agencies, and was used to study malaria vectors. They can keep an eye on conflict zones and border disputes and track the movements of rebel forces, as the Satellite Sentinel Project does in Sudan. Now, that particular satellite project was set up by George Clooney and friends, so that’s obviously okay. If an African country had launched it, would it be a luxury vanity project that could have been better spend on the poor? Of course not.


posted by infini at 4:25 PM on December 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


China's Crewed spaceflight programs, from Wiki on their space program.

All of these also make me wonder how much of perception is due to blindness or not thinking to search out and invite scientists from other programs and locations.
posted by infini at 4:28 PM on December 10, 2014


Margaret Hamilton, lead software engineer for the Apollo Project (includes wonderful picture)
posted by Rumple at 4:59 PM on December 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


All of these also make me wonder how much of perception is due to blindness or not thinking to search out and invite scientists from other programs and locations.

^ This. Either way, I run into walls when I propose MAKING A POINT of fostering diversity. My peers are immediately resistant to it: "These kind of things can't be forced", "We already tried", "There isn't anybody", et al but that last one is the most damnable. It is just untrue. What it really means is that the reward does not merit the effort. It means this is not important.

I am regularly REGULARLY told to "get off my high horse/pedestal/etc" when broaching the subject of team diversity even though 1) I am consistent in my position, appreciation, and embrace of diversity, and 2) my horse is not so high: I just think that having one team or board member who is not white and male is worth extra consideration because diversity has immediate reward while potentiating likelihood of far-reaching (project; organizational) value.

Immediate rewards:
- opens doors
- sets good standard
- social justice/feels good doing right thing

Far-reaching value:
- diversity engenders variety, which ensures intellectual/organizational/economic sustainability
- diversity is the best defense against many pitfalls which would otherwise threaten uniformity
- makes for better planet, better future
posted by Mike Mongo at 5:47 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Historically, it was considered a 'race' and the Sputnik spurred competition and action. Perhaps corporate culture was set then regarding the necessity for keeping barriers to inclusion high and doors tightly shut.
posted by infini at 6:18 AM on December 11, 2014


All of these also make me wonder how much of perception is due to blindness or not thinking to search out and invite scientists from other programs and locations.

I don't think the context of the question was with respect to international space professionals, who are obviously as diverse as the world is, but rather Americans in the space industry.

I have seen the lifecycle of students who show up to college wanting to be astronauts. First of all, the programs are extremely difficult-- regardless of how "competitive" the industry is, even if you are trying to get through an aero/astro engineering program, it's hard to do well in those classes. Even those who do succeed find the departments a huge mess of unfriendliness and disorganization leaving them embittered with plenty of them saying, "screw it, I'll start a software company or join Google." And in the end, being in "the space industry" if you're lucky means being a functionary within an entrenched engineering group owning a small piece of a scientific satellite (which is itself pretty cool when it finally reaches its destination). If you're unlucky it means working for a satellite communications company or being part of the boom/bust cycle of government contracting.

What you're seeing in the transition between SEDS conference and the Space Industry professionals conferences is the young dreamers vs. the ones who managed to hang in there over time.

It's hard to foster diversity in the indsutry in a country where economic insecurity is a reality and the barriers to entry to actually having a stable job in the industry are high and where the industry isn't growing outside of a few specific commercial applications. The industry isn't getting rid of upper management to make room for new entrants-- just the opposite: the industry shrinks or goes through a boom/bust at the lower levels leaving the longtime incumbents in place.
posted by deanc at 6:29 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


The OP has a different experience from what you are suggesting.
posted by infini at 6:59 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


I find the framing of this question personally offensive. I’ve debated whether or not to flag this AskMe as "offensive/sexism/racism" and open a MetaTalk about it, but I'm not sure whether anything worthwhile would come of that. Since I can’t decide whether Mike Mongo is being intentionally bigoted towards white males in the space industry I've decided to assume good faith on his part. I thank you all for respecting the diversity of opinion I may bring to this AskMe.

How did space industry get so disproportionately white and male?
My first answer for this was going to be “Because we’re really good at the space biz.” Robert Goddard. Von Braun. Me. A lot of white males have made significant contributions to the space industry and their contributions deserve to be recognized as much as any other cohort. My second answer was going to be that women are smarter.

But I think the most reasonable answer is that the US space program was spawned from military programs and came into existence at a time when attitudes about race and sex weren’t as enlightened as they are today.

Is this a matter of old guard/new guard?
Possibly. I thought I was the new guard. I started in industry in 1996 and I don’t know of anyone who worked on any of the famous programs of the 60s. Based on what you report about the demographics of SEDS conferences it’s possible that the (worldwide) space industry could get more diverse. I think a barrier to increased cultural (non-US person) diversity in the US space industry would be ITAR which prohibits export of certain space-related items and data to non-US persons.

Is there a wider range of space professionals of diverse backgrounds that are going unacknowledged?
Yes. Look at the demographics of NASA versus demographics of the US, for example. NASA seems to mirror US demographics pretty well, but it would be great if we could bring the percentage of women at NASA up about 13%.

And if not, how do we encourage new space organizations and new space companies the value of pursuing and encouraging diversity?
The promotion of diversity is something that already exists. NASA is committed to a diverse work force. The center at which I work has a series of posters around campus called “I am Goddard”. But to answer your question demonstrating the value of diversity would be a good start. Demonstrating that diversity makes money for companies would be huge. You mention some reasons promoting diversity upthread but fail to provide any data to support those reasons, maybe get that data and present it where you can.

Further, my personal experience has been that diversity already exists in the space industry. Women have recommended me for jobs including one recommendation from a friend from college. African Americans have been instrumental in my training and networking. The vast majority of women I have met during my career have been in management. I have worked with international partners from ESA, ASI, and JAXA.

Mike, I’d be curious to find out what do you do when you encounter a young white male interested in space. Do you encourage him and give him a copy of your book?
posted by Rob Rockets at 7:56 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Rob, one of my colleagues suggested the question be framed differently as well. Of course I am for all students; when I meet "a young white male interested in space" I encourage him. However I don't really think of it like this. I encourage all young students to pursue careers in space and space science. Unfortunately, their are barriers for those students who are not white and not male.

One of the most obvious barriers is the message images of astronauts sends to students. Take this one. You as a self-defined person who is white male (I presume) may not see the image as the big "SPACE MAY NOT BE FOR YOU" sign as a person who is female and/or not-white might—there are nine astronauts who are men, and four who are women—however be assured others do. To quote, "While awesome to see almost a handful of women in space simultaneously, it also breaks my heart: I would love to live in a present where counting the number of women in space is a puzzling historical artifact."

And in case you did not notice—you may not have—there are thirteen astronauts and one—one!—who is not white. There is one astronaut who is black. Out of thirteen astronauts.

So while I am not putting anyone down for being a member of a group in the space station astronaut which makes up more than twice the number of women, or 85% of the racial make-up of the astronaut crew—two people are Asian, twice as many as who are black—what I am doing is pointing out that as a professional space educator this is an obstacle to encouraging students to pursue careers in astronautics. That is, students who are not white and not male.

And that photo is not some special example; it is the rule. For instance, if you google international space station international crew and click images, you will discover that it is not until image #34 that an astronaut who is black is depicted. There is another astronaut who is black being depicted in image #37. And that's it for the first fifty images.

If you were counting you would discover that out of two hundred fifty-one (251) depicted astronauts, two (2) are black.

Out of that same number of astronauts, sixteen (16) are not male, sixteen are female.

Approximately eighteen (18) astronauts are asian. It is difficult to discern but there are most obviously less than six (6) people who are brown.

Which means of 251 depicted astronauts, 42 are not white and male; 209 are white and male. That's 83% depicted.

Now if you look at even the demographics of the US alone, those demographics are distortedly skewed. Again, not to put down anyone who is white or male, my students who are not both white and male take this depiction as one giant space "STOP" sign.

My own career as astronaut teacher began in 2007, and I do know many Apollo/famous program "old space" professionals. The annual SEDS SpaceVision conference is nearly exclusively made up of US-based students. The majority of the speakers are nealry all from the US. And yet comparatively SEDS does an amazing job of inclusion. People who are women make up at least 25% of attendees. People who are not white make up at least 25% of the attendees. In fact, aside from Mae Jemison's 100 Year Starship Conference, I would say that SEDS SpaceVision is the most diverse of any of the top US space conferences (maybe NSS' ISDC but that is a widely international conference). Perhaps this because young students today would not have it any other way. Pretty awesome nonetheless as all of SEDS founders are both white and male.

What is exciting is clearly someone has figured out a way to get it right. As NASA's Dr Camille Alleyne pointed out (first link) in reply to this thread, we must figure out how to get young students who are minorities interested in #STEM. And we are making headway. Google space scientists and click images. WOWOW now that is progress!

My point in asking this question is to learn what others think on why we are where we are. I asked to learn other people's thoughts on this because my job is to point classrooms of today's young students to the stars and this specific condition is a wall I run up against, and I want to know how to deal with it so that I may be the best at doing what I do: Connecting kids with space and space STEM careers.

To this end, Rob Rockets, your point here is preeminent: "Demonstrating that diversity makes money for companies would be huge. You mention some reasons promoting diversity upthread but fail to provide any data to support those reasons, maybe get that data and present it where you can."

Thank you. That's a good idea and a plan. Additionally, it reinforces what I have been working to wrap my head around: We can make this work by showing space companies it is in their best interest to pursue diversity. You and I may disagree on where we are presently in terms of that pursuit but by promoting the use of facts data and established results to foster healthy diversity I believe we are in alignment on how to get where, as Christa McAuliffe famously put it, "space is for everybody".
posted by Mike Mongo at 7:23 PM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


I cannot help but think that the tenor of your original question and the followup comments you've given reflect a significant lack of understanding about the economics of the space industry and the priorities and motivations of young people and young professionals.

Your experience with the diversity of SEDS tells me that the problem is not role models at top levels-- obviously, despite astronauts being depicted as overwhelmingly white and male, people from all sorts of backgrounds are excited about space travel (heck, who isn't? it's awesome!). So the problem isn't that not enough young people are interested in space. The problem is that there isn't enough waiting for them on the other end. It's less about whether diversity makes money for the space industry and more about whether the space industry makes money for people from diverse backgrounds.

One of the best analogies I can draw is with the shipbuilding industry in the US. Naval Engineering/Ocean Engineering used to be a significant part of the US economy and engineering universities used to have a large departments dedicated to ocean engineering. Various US laws ensure that a domestic shipbuilding industry will always exist (and is experiencing a boomlet), but it's nowhere near as large a part of the US economy as it used to be, it's heavily tied to the military, its "famous" people are white and male (captain phillips), and colleges have been deprecating their ocean engineering departments. Likewise, "space" doesn't have a lot of expanding economic and professional opportunities for the American engineer (at least ones over and above what's already available).

What I can tell you is about the experience people have in the aeronautical/astronautical fields. I'll only take the people I knew of at a top tier university, though all would be classified as white for US census purposes:

1) (f) - wanted to be an astronaut, the aero/astro department was extremely difficult, she took a couple extra years to graduate. Ultimately got a master's at another school and has worked for a few government labs and government contractors working on scientific satellites.

2) (m) - top aero/astro student, frustrated with the department and got his Ph.D. at another top-tier department in the USA. Finished his Ph.D. and then started a (non-space-related) software company

3) (f) - Ph.D. student who ultimately got frustrated with her department and left for the mechanical engineering department

4) (m) - got his Master's degree after expressing frustration with the department and went on to work for a government research contractor

4) (m) - Ph.D. student who ultimately got frustrated with his department and left for the electrical engineering department (I warned him about the experiences of #2, #3, and #4. Did he listen? No)

5) (f) - Top Ph.D. student who finished her Ph.D. and then went on to become a biostatistician


Other acquaintances I know ended up working for satellite or unmanned aircraft companies in various capacities. The roommate of a friend I heard was super-determined to be an astronaut but I never met her in person because she was always working. Looking at the records, no one from my undergraduate era at my college has gone on to become an astronaut, so I guess she's still working on it.

I think the most important thing we can do for women and minorities in STEM is make sure to recruit them into economically growing fields. We missed our window 50 years ago with space. In fields like medicine, it is working because the economic incentives are there. There's still work to do in software and other technology fields to ensure that all Americans reap the economic rewards of new, growing fields. But the space industry is a narrow, niche field likely to stay that way for the medium-term, at least in the USA. There will always be room for a few elites, and we should look far and wide to identify that top-tier talent (and hope they don't bail out and work for a hedge fund), but the root problem of the space industry isn't "not enough diversity in people who want to be astronauts." Your experience with SEDS shows that this is not the problem at all. The problem is the economic and career opportunities available for those interested in the field and the priority that the USA places on the space industry (very little).
posted by deanc at 12:05 PM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I also believe this thread is offensive. However, I will answer one of your questions.

And if not, how do we encourage new space organizations and new space companies the value of pursuing and encouraging diversity?

You quantify it in terms of profit. Most of current space work is done by private companies and government contractors. They do not value "diversity" in and of itself. They value getting government contracts and/or maximizing their profit margin. You have not indicated how "diversity" helps either of these areas. Unless you are able to do so, most companies involved in space development have no reason to listen to you.

Many space science conferences are utterly devoid of diversity. Likewise, many professional space companies and space organizations seem to fall short.

I strongly disagree with you in both of these areas. However, this is not a question, so I am not allowed by Ask MeFi ideals to state why I believe you are stating your question incorrectly. I read this thread more as a rant by you about how you perceive the space industry right now rather than as an actual question. I think it's useful to point out that's not in the spirit of AskMeFi and that I believe the premise of your question is false.
posted by saeculorum at 6:29 PM on December 14, 2014


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