Went Woke, Got Broke, Can’t Fix Itself

NASA Understaffed and Underqualified – But Really Diverse

You can tell a lot from a tagline. Towards the end of the Trump/Pence administration, NASA signaled the administration’s full-throated support of equality with a new tagline on all of its space exploration press releases. This tagline announced their intent to place the first woman and next man on the Moon. In November 2020 NASA, now under new management and facing an existential visit from a Biden/Harris “transition team,” changed the tagline to: “Through Artemis NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon.” Now, closing out Biden’s third-year, NASA has pulled the bloody shirt Artemis CRT dedication. Its tagline now reads: “Through Artemis missions, NASA will send astronauts to the Moon to prepare for future human exploration of Mars.”

What happened?   

Lots happened.

When SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Demo 2 capsule launched for the International Space Station (ISS) on 30 May 2020, it was the first launch of astronauts on an American rocket since Obama killed the space shuttle program in 2011. It was also the last launch for legacy astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. When they arrived safe and sound back on Earth three months later, both were quietly informed that it was a desk job or retirement. Bob opted for a desk. Doug retired.

Crew Dragon 1 flew Mike Hopkins (white male) Victor Glover (black male) JAXA’s Sochi Noguchi (Asian male) and Shannon Walker (white female). Crew -2 flew Shane Kimbrough (white female), Megan McArthur (white female and Bob Behnken’s wife) JAXA’s Ashika Hoshide (Asian male) and ESA’s Thomas Pesquet. Crew -3 flew Raja Chan (male “of color”), Thomas Marshburn (white male), ESA’s Matthias Maurer (white male), and Kayla Barron (white female). Crew-4 flew Kjell Lindgren (Asian male), Robert Hines (white male), Jessica Watkins (black female) and ESA’s Samantha Cristoforetti (white female). Crew 5, which launched at noon (EST) on October 5, is flying fly Nicole Mann (woman “of color”), Josh Cassada (white male), JAXA’s Koichi Wakata (Asian male), and Roscosmos’ Anna Kikina (white female).

White Male Flight

The white (male) flight had begun. Doug Hurley, Chris Cassidy, Shane Kimbrough – all legacy astronauts, and all out the door. Doesn’t sound like much, but when the entire astronaut corps is down to 42, the lowest it’s been in two decades? That’s a loss of seven percent over two years. NASA’s “Astronaut Office” forecasts that three legacy astronauts will leave the corps each year through FY 2027. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reports that the accelerating attrition will seriously erode NASA’s ability to accomplish the missions already on the books, never mind any new as-yet unforeseen taskings.

Not counting the most recent class (Group 23) of ten astronaut “candidates” (four men of color, four women, two white males), the astronaut cadre is already officially “woke.” The current tally includes 44 percent women (mostly “white”) and 56 percent male (mostly “of color). The largest ethnic group of astronauts, “South Asians,” accounts for 23 percent. The next highest segments are “Other,” and “White,” making up 19 percent and 19 percent respectively. One might argue that the damage is done and the point is made. But the fix is in, and the inexorable process of disappearing white male talent continues.

When Group 23 “candidates” officially enter the mix as full-fledged astronauts this coming January, women (mostly white) will account for 55 percent, males (mostly “of color”) 45 percent. White males will be down to 20 percent, with “Arabs,” Pacific Islanders, African American, Hispanics, and East Asians making up the rest.

Not all astronaut billets involve actual missions to space.  Ground roles include program development, staffing, Astronaut Office leadership and liaison positions, and increasingly, agency spokespersons to further equity and diversity goals. But space flight missions are the agency’s bread and butter, and NASA’s OIG projects that the astronaut corps will fall below minimum mission requirements for FY 2022 and FY 2023 due to attrition and additional space flight manifest needs. In clear text, that means that with current flights to the ISS projected for SpaceX Dragon crew capsules, possible Boeing Starliner capsules, and a slew of yet-untested competitors which could come online over the next few years, plus possible Artemis “manned” flights, there won’t be enough astronaut butts to fill manifested seats.

Hence the new tagline, referencing “astronauts” – not “female astronauts,” or “astronauts of color” – just “astronauts.”

Six Degrees of (Mandated) Equality

On August 5, Biden administration’s pick to head NASA’s Astronaut Office Reid Weisman announced a major reversal from sole reliance on the restrictive pool of Artemis Team astronauts. According to Weisman, NASA will now consider every agency astronaut for Artemis moon missions, presumably without regard for race or gender. “The way I see it,” said Weisman, “any one of our 42 active astronauts is eligible for an Artemis mission.” It was an obvious ploy to entice legacy astronauts away from their desk job gulags and delay potential plans for early retirement. Weisman promised that ALL active-duty astronauts would now qualify for Artemis, regardless of age. “It doesn’t matter if they’re in their late twenties or mid-sixties,” said Weisman. Presumably, although not officially promised, restrictions excluding legacy white males would also be waved.

But it may not be enough. Weisman’s claims that “We have 42 active astronauts here in Houston and 10 astronaut candidates in training who will be beating down the door for Artemis 2 and beyond,” sounds like whistling past the graveyard. Legacy astronauts have learned not to trust the new NASA. Artemis class graduates are showing a distinct preference for ground roles and spokesperson positions rather than space flight. After all, “they also serve who stand in wait.” An astronaut is still an astronaut, and “ground assignments” offer most of the glory and much less risk. Also, Earth-bound astronauts aren’t subject to harmful cosmic radiation, and calling previous restrictions on radiation exposure for women “discriminatory,” NASA has “equalized” and increased their exposure limits to those of males.

It could be too late. NASA’s OIG reports six Executive Orders issued in 2021 which compelled the space agency to advance and mandate “equity:”

  1. Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government (January 20, 2021).
  2. Executive Order 13988, Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation (January 20, 2021).
  3. Executive Order 14020, Establishment of the White House Gender Policy Council (March 8, 2021).
  4. Executive Order 14021, Guaranteeing an Educational Environment Free From Discrimination on the Basis of Sex, Including Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity (March 8, 2021).
  5. Executive Order 14031, Advancing Equity, Justice, and Opportunity for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (May 28, 2021).
  6. Executive Order 14035, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce (June 25, 2021).

CareerExplorer tabulates the percentage of males interested in becoming astronauts at 74 percent, versus 26 percent for women, but tabulates the actual gender mix at 56 percent male and 44 percent female – so far. The gender imbalance reflects discriminatory hiring practices mandated by Executive Order.

NASA can’t expect any relief until 2024, and then only if common sense returns to the White House. Common sense, expressed in a tagline like: “Through Artemis missions, NASA will send the best qualified astronauts regardless of gender or “color” to the Moon to prepare for future human exploration of Mars.”

has traveled extensively in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and the South Seas – winning hearts and minds in and out of uniform – federal, military, and freelance.  Now working exclusively freelance, he is fluent in German and English, with survival skills in French, Haitian Creole, Russian, Standard Arabic, Swahili and Samoan.

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