The women of NASA's New Horizons team are breaking boundaries—in more ways than one
NASA is setting precedent for gender representation. Other dimensions of diversity, however, continue to be difficult to achieve.
It’s no secret that science has a diversity issue. Black, Latinx, and female professors continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields at academic institutions, with experts in several subspecialties of science reporting stagnation in the trek towards inclusivity.
But the team behind New Horizons—which will make history this evening with its close-range flyby of the Kuiper Belt Object Ultima Thule—is among the few that have made advances on the axis of gender diversity.
Women now make up about 30 percent of the New Horizons staff, and about a quarter of the mission’s science leadership. That’s a pretty remarkable statistic for NASA’s planetary missions—their recent scientific cohorts have averaged closer to 15 percent female. (Prior to the year 2000, it was a meager 5 percent.)
In fact, 30 percent puts New Horizons ahead of the field as a whole: About a fourth of planetary scientists were women in 2011. And 30 percent hits an important sociological milestone, says Janet Vertesi, a sociologist at Princeton University who studies the culture of NASA spacecraft teams. “Once you get to 30 percent,” she adds, “you can do away with a lot of devastating dynamics associated with tokenism”—the mere guise of equity—and see a culture truly transform.
Particular subsets of the New Horizons staff, like the Operations sector, are nudging things along even further. According to Alice Bowman, Mission Operations Manager, or MOM, of New Horizons’ Mission Operations Center, her team of 17 includes nine men, seven women, and one non-binary individual. Bowman also is the first woman to hold her current position at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
Studies have shown time and time again that diversity pays serious dividends. Having a range of voices at the table can buoy productivity, creativity, and even profits; space exploration is no exception. And according to Bowman, gender diversity has played an integral part in New Horizons’ continued success. “Our job is different every time we come in in the morning,” she says. “And when you have a problem, the best way to solve a problem is to have input from very different sources.”
“Having diverse thoughts and perspectives helps in planning encounters,” says New Horizons Deputy Project Scientist Cathy Olkin. “New Horizons gathers data by flying past objects like Pluto and Ultima Thule. When you’re doing that… you need to think of everything in advance. Pulling in more diversity of thought makes us successful.”
Still, New Horizons is more the exception than the norm. Christina Richey, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory who previously worked at NASA headquarters, recalls a recent photograph in which they are one of only two non-male participants at the 2017 American Astronomical Society meeting’s NASA Town Hall (the other is Andrea Razzaghi, NASA’s Deputy Director of Astrophysics).
At its inception, New Horizons, too, had a more typical scientific team made up of about 15 percent women. But that was almost two decades ago. In the meantime, as the mission’s priorities have shifted, so too have its key players.
“There’s a big change in the atmosphere in the room, and the diversity that we now have, compared with those early days,” says planetary scientist Fran Bagenal, a Co-Investigator of New Horizons’ exploration of Pluto. Of course, some of these changes were practical: The transition from studying the dwarf planet Pluto to Kuiper Belt Objects like Ultima Thule prompted the ebb and flow of the roles of several personnel.
But Kelsi Singer, a New Horizons Co-Investigator, has experienced a career trajectory at NASA that leaves her hopeful. She and Olkin are two of several members of NASA’s scientific leadership that entered their respective missions as postdoctoral research fellows—often positions taken fresh out of graduate school—and progressively advanced into more senior positions. Singer will soon take on a new role as New Horizons’ Deputy Project Scientist as Olkin shifts her focus to her duties as Deputy Principal Investigator of NASA’s Lucy mission.
Yanping Guo, New Horizons’ Mission Design team leader, is one of several who cite Principal Investigator Alan Stern as a driving force behind these changes, adding that Stern’s leadership “has done an outstanding job of pulling the team together” through nearly two decades of work.
What’s more, the fact that women are represented at every level on the New Horizons team—including public-facing leadership positions—sets a critical precedent, Vertesi says. “So many women in prominent roles means we can just focus on the science,” she adds.
“Things are moving in a better direction,” says Carly Howett, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and member of the New Horizons team. “I hope it represents a change that’s not just restricted to New Horizons.”
The ultimate goal, of course, is a gender ratio that better reflects the human population, says Singer, who also coordinates the blog for the Women in Planetary Science steering group. That will mean a more balanced mix of male, female, and non-binary individuals. But, Singer adds, “This mission is taking steps toward that.”
Still, gender is just one aspect of true diversity. Statistics on racial and ethnic representation, for instance, have also plateaued across several STEM fields, especially at the doctoral level. In planetary science, Black and Latinx individuals constitute only one percent of the workforce each, despite making up 13 and 16 percent of the United States population, respectively (even the New Horizons team remains predominantly white). Other dimensions of diversity—including age, disability, and socioeconomic status—have also been difficult to address, and are infrequently quantified. Those holding dual (or triple, or quadruple) citizenship in multiple categories of underrepresented minorities, like women of color, are often even worse off.
So even though moves are being made in certain sectors, the trick is to avoid getting complacent, says Julie Rathbun, who studies the moons of Jupiter at the Planetary Science Institute. “Things improve, and they get backlash, and then they stagnate,” explains Rathbun, who has led several studies on diversity in her field’s workforce. “And then you have to make another big push. It’s not a constant ramp up.”
Two years ago, NASA made news by codifying a clear prioritization of diverse representation in future missions. In the rules put forth for entries into its New Frontiers competition, which included a $1 billion prize, the organization stated the following: “NASA recognizes and supports the benefits of having diverse and inclusive” communities, and “fully expects that such values will be reflected in the composition of all proposal teams.”
This sort of awareness is essential for progress, Bagenal says, but achieving diversity will require more than setting benchmarks. Long-standing perspectives—many of which have been embedded into the very infrastructures that dictate both teaching tactics and hiring practices—will need to be confronted and overturned. Bagenal believes overhauling the practice of inclusivity in education should take priority. Eliminating some of the earliest barriers to entry, she says, will help ensure that people of all backgrounds can obtain careers in STEM fields.
“I only see the future as being more diverse, and not just in terms of sex and gender,” says Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University and Principal Investigator of NASA’s upcoming Psyche mission. For workplace demographics to shift, she adds, cultural environments must evolve in a way that welcomes individuals from all walks of life.
NASA has made some subtle strides on this front as well. Since 2006, the organization has advocated for gender-neutral language in its style guide, stating, “In general, all references to the space program should be non-gender-specific (e.g., human, piloted, unpiloted, robotic, as opposed to manned or unmanned).” (A few exceptions exist for names of buildings and programs.)
It’s a start. But the social obstacles that face underrepresented minorities go far beyond semantics. Forty percent of women of color in the planetary sciences admit to feeling unsafe at work due to their sex or gender; 28 percent of the same group feel imperiled because of their race.
As New Horizons expands the known boundaries of our solar system, here on Earth, limits are still being pushed. Scientific stereotypes—like the way “planetary science” often evokes the ghost of Carl Sagan in his trademark sweater-jacket combo—change only if they’re challenged, Vertesi says. “But in moments like this flyby,” she adds, “it’s clear you don’t need a red turtleneck and a mustard sport coat to do this work.”