Space is practically infinite, but it’s been unreasonably restrictive when it comes to inclusivity. NASA announced the release of its first-ever equity action plan to try to resolve the diversity and accessibility issues that have plagued the space agency for decades.
Through its action plan, NASA will focus on catering more towards underserved communities to encourage increased participation in its programs, according to a statement released by NASA on Thursday.
Indeed, NASA has a serious diversity problem. It was only in 1978 that NASA first selected a diverse class of astronauts, a group that finally included the first African-American and first Asian-American astronauts and the first women. But of the 350 NASA astronauts who have traveled to space, only 15 African Americans have made the trip. Similarly, only 12 Hispanic NASA astronauts have flown to space.
But NASA has been making an effort to diversify its group of astronauts, with the requirements to qualify as an astronaut candidate no longer being restricted to fighter pilots. Instead, the only criteria are that candidates must be U.S. citizens and have a master’s degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) field. Some progress has been made; NASA’s class of astronauts that graduated in January 2020—the first group to graduate under the Artemis lunar program—included six women and four people of color. The space agency is also touting its plan to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon as part of its Artemis 3 mission, which will launch no earlier than 2025.
NASA’s most recent effort in inclusivity is the equity action plan, a part of the agency’s Mission Equity initiative. The space agency announced this initiative last year and invited the public to share ideas on how NASA could be more inclusive in the future. The public feedback then helped NASA assess and review its programs and policies.
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As part of its action plan, the agency will be increasing its use of contractors and businesses from underserved communities, improving grants to those same communities, using Earth science and socioeconomic data gathered by NASA to help resolve some of the environmental challenges faced by underserved communities, and expanding access to people with limited proficiency in the English language.
“The Equity Action plan deepens our commitment to further identify and remove the barriers that limit opportunity in underserved and underrepresented communities,” Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, said in a statement. “This framework anchors fairness as a core component in every NASA mission to make the work we do in space and beyond more accessible to all.”
The problem with inclusion in the field often extends beyond NASA. Black and Latino students tend to drop out of STEM programs at a much higher rate than their white counterparts. About 40% of Black and 37% of Latino STEM students switched majors as undergraduates, compared with 29% of white STEM students, according to a 2019 study.
So while NASA could be calling on minority groups to join the space agency’s missions, the pool of candidates remains troublingly limited. This isn’t just a NASA problem—it’s a societal problem.