NASA’s New Equity Action Plan: One Giant Leap for Inclusivity in Spaceflight

Better late than never, the U.S. space agency makes a bold statement.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

On Thursday, April 14, NASA released its first-ever Equity Action Plan, which, according to the space agency, “Establishes key focus areas that will allow the agency to track progress toward improved diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility both internally and externally to NASA.”

It appears to be more than just lip service and addresses four specific areas of focus that aim to increase diversity in NASA’s workforce (including contractors), add grants to benefit underserved populations, mitigate environmental stresses among underserved populations, and expand access and civil rights compliance to populations that have limited English-language proficiency. In the words of NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, the plan “deepens our commitment to further identify and remove the barriers that limit opportunity in underserved and underrepresented communities. 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 entire text of the action plan can be located at this link.)

This is a bold, encouraging step by a government agency not always known for its commitment to equal opportunity. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, NASA’s record in hiring underrepresented populations was, to put it bluntly, horrendous. In 1973, NASA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Equal Opportunity, Ruth Bates Harris, was fired and publicly humiliated simply for requesting a meeting with then-Administrator James C. Fletcher to address staff complaints about the lack of racial and gender diversity within the agency.

On October 27, 1973, The New York Times reported, “In a one-inch thick document, Mrs. Harris and her staff accused the agency of refusing to take the steps necessary to hire more women and persons in minority groups. The report noted that NASA’s minority employees had increased only from 4.1 percent in 1966 to 5.1 percent as of June 1973. The report also noted that the June figure was down from last June, when minority employment at the agency was 5.2 percent.” Harris notably was NASA’s highest-ranking African-American woman in a leadership position at the time.

Former NASA Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center Director Isaac “Ike” Gillam, pictured circa mid-1978. NASA photo.

The story has a “happy” ending if you can consider it happy; Harris’ dismissal spurred a series of Congressional hearings during 1974, and she was reappointed later that year. Within two years, NASA had brought on Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on the show (and had personally been encouraged by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to stay on the show), to recruit the agency’s newest group of astronauts. As a result, NASA’s 1978 astronaut class was the most diverse one up to that point, boasting six women candidates, three African-American candidates, and one Asian-American candidate. Moreover, the Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center boasted NASA’s first African-American Center Director, Isaac “Ike” Gillam, by the end of the decade. The agency’s newer outlook arguably inspired a generation of children during the early Space Shuttle years, who finally were seeing people who looked just like them in space careers.

However, beyond NASA’s astronauts and center directors — arguably the most publicly visible NASA “employees” — the agency still had and has a way to go in recruiting, hiring, and training a more diverse, equitable overall workforce. This announcement that NASA has specific key performance indicators to gauge that its equity plan is working is a reassuring step forward for the agency, as the space industry and community continue to grow and inspire daily.

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Emily Carney

Emily Carney

Space historian and podcaster. Space Hipster. Named one of the Top Ten Space Influencers by the National Space Society. Co-host of Space and Things podcast.