Diversity on the Space Shuttle

President Richard Nixon, on 20th July 1969:

Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one, one in their pride of what you have done and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.

Don’t forget that there is another Shuttle Mission in progress at the moment: STS116. I’ve been listening to the cockpit communications this afternoon, which (as I have mentioned before) I find quite medative.

CFrew of STS-116, 9th Dec 2006 (Photo © NASA)
CFrew of STS-116, 9th Dec 2006 (Photo © NASA)

It might be a cliche to draw attention to the diversity of the shuttle crews (much was made of the fact that the ill-fated Columbia crew included an Indian and Israeli astronauts). To point out that this person is a woman, or that person is black, seems an odd thing to do when they are in orbit, hundreds of miles above the earth.

But, when we continue to see so many examples of intolerance and racism in the world, I think it is worth re-emphasising, and celebrating the equality of race, gender and religion we see aboard the space shuttles. These people, the vanguard of human exploration of space, are drawn exclusively from the group of those who have transcended prejudice and tribalism to become representatives of, simply, humanity. Do you suppose someone with Ahmedinejad’s world-view could muster the attitude of co-operation necessary to explore the heavens?

11 Replies to “Diversity on the Space Shuttle”

  1. These people, the vanguard of human exploration of space, are drawn exclusively from the group of those who have transcended prejudice and tribalism to become representatives of, simply, humanity.

    In some cases, they have also managed to transcend the patriarchy, which is a considerable achievement. Though of course, even when they have, they can expect the usual bullshit ridicule. Example – the jokes that circulated about Christa McAuliffe after the Challenger disaster:

    Q: What do Playtex tampon users and Christa McAuliffe have in common?
    A: They both should have stayed on the pad.

    Q: What were Christa McAuliffe’s last words?
    A: “What’s this button do?”

    etc. etc.

    Utterly charming. Some engineers fuck it up but of course, it was the woman’s fault.

    Well, all I’ve got to say to that is: Fuck the patriarchy.

  2. I would never say never, Matt. There’s plenty of poor taste to go around. I simply found it curious that within the spate of jokes that circulated after Challenger, many of them revolved around McAuliffe’s presence on the shuttle. I can’t imagine why people would choose to pick on her, when there were so many engineers and accountants to blame! (scratches head, twirls hair)

    Anyway, to get back to the point at hand, I agree with you Rob – the diversity aboard the shuttles today is certainly worth celebrating. I find it interesting that space exploration in general has become more about what you called a “attitude of cooperation”, since didn’t it initially stem from a spirit of competition, fear, and paranoia? It’s a welcome change.

  3. MK – I’d turn the question around and say why shouldn’t jokes be made at the expense of women – should they be immune from being the butt of jokes, and if so, why ?

    Robert – Something that’s always puzzled me about diversity is how (and why) are we supposed to “celebrate” it ? Throw a party, get drunk, or is it just like that 1970s ad for Coca Cola, where they all stand with vapid self-satisfied grins singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” in the company of a representative sample of planet earth, whilst drinking a can of symbolic and unifying multicultural fizz ?

  4. Something that’s always puzzled me about diversity is how (and why) are we supposed to “celebrate” it ?

    The ‘why’ is, I think, a political position. I think there is inherently something valuable in diversity of thought and culture, because I think that is how humans progress and evolve for the better.

    The ‘how’ is not so much opening cans of fizzy drinks, so much as simply continuing to mention that it is no bad thing, in (say) blog posts and other public platforms.

  5. In terms of the why – there may well be something valuable in diversity, there may not, the true position is probably that there are good and bad things about diversity and that the benefits/disadvantages are highly subjective and deeply political judgements. I’m just not convinced that saying “it’s a good thing” is sufficient justification to adopt a political position without any attempt to measure the “goodness” . Adherents of all sorts of ideologies no doubt thought the same, although history has shown many of them to be misguided. I’m also not sure that the propagation of any ideology can be conductive to true diversity of thought.

    In terms of the how – Just building on your “true meaning of christmas” post where you suggested that non-christians couldn’t legitimately celebrate Christmas. It struck me that by the same logic those who are not diverse cannot legitamately celebrate diversity.

    A thought provoking piece though, as ever, and the shuttle and its diverse crew are indeed a great achievment, although I’m still not convinced about the moon landings.

  6. It struck me that by the same logic those who are not diverse cannot legitamately celebrate diversity.

    I think my point is that we are all diverse. Perhaps not in the mutli-racial sense, or the multicultural sense as understood by government institutions… but I think we all have myriad influences from home and abroad that change us. This is the way we are, and have always been, and I don’t see the continuation of this as a threat to anything.

  7. Agree, one of the problems with diversity is that it suffers from ambiguity of meaning. I adopt a fairly simplistic interpretation, meaning something like “a society comprising many different groups”. In that sense it’s an ever present and a pretty meaningless description which could be applied to pretty much all societies at some level, and asking whether someone is for or against it is like asking if someone is for or against the weather.
    However, to some it appears to mean a society of many groups APART from white/male/christian/insert your bogeyman of choice. This is certainly the implicit position of many “diversity programmes” and where resistance, from all points of the political specrum, is founded.

  8. Personally, I don’t think the shuttle crew is a good example of diversity. After all, beyond race and sex I would imagine they all extremely alike, and would reveal strikingly similar characteristics. In order to become an astronaut in the first place you have to fulfill umpteen highly selective criteria, which very much narrows down the type of person who will ever get on board a shuttle.

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