National Air and Space Museum

A Seat in the Cockpit: Recognizing and Replacing Biases with Gender Inclusive Language

Christina Koch (left) poses for a portrait with Jessica Meir while preparing for their first spacewalk together. (Image courtesy of NASA)
Christina Koch (left) poses for a portrait with Jessica Meir while preparing for their first spacewalk together. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Much has changed since the first American spaceflight in 1961: NASA has explored new places with new programs, new people, and new technologies. Yet some of the language popularly used to describe these activities has not kept pace with the evolution of America’s space program. Specifically, the adjectives “manned” and “unmanned,” early NASA mission classifications that designated the participation or absence of astronauts (at first, only men), persist in writing and discussions of spaceflight today. What’s the problem with using this outdated terminology?

At the most basic level, this language is inaccurate. Women have been part of NASA’s astronaut corps since 1978. And the first Soviet woman to fly in space, Valentina Tereshkova, did so in 1963. The era of “manned” spaceflight ended long ago, and the continued use of this language diminishes and erases six decades of women’s contributions to spaceflight.

Left to right: Drs. Shannon Lucid, Rhea Seddon, Kathy Sullivan, Judith Resnick, Anna Fisher, and Sally Ride became the first women to join NASA’s astronaut corps in 1978. (Image courtesy of NASA)

As well as being inaccurate, this language is harmful because it perpetuates gender biases. At face value, the adjective “manned” might be excused as merely descriptive. After all, the entirety of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronaut corps was made up of men. But a closer look at the history of spaceflight reveals this was no accident. As Museum curator Margaret Weitekamp demonstrates in her book Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program, although NASA did not explicitly prohibit women from applying to the astronaut corps, the space agency set prerequisites for the position that implicitly disqualified women from participating in spaceflight. NASA’s ideal applicant, the military test pilot, was a career unavailable to women—not because of women’s abilities and aptitudes, but because of widely-held biases about women’s abilities and aptitudes.

A NASA official writes to astronaut hopeful Linda Halpern to explain that the astronaut eligibility requirements preclude women from participating in spaceflight. March 13, 1962. (NASM)

Recognizing the biases that informed discussions around the formation and evolution of the astronaut corps means recognizing the values embedded in the gendered language from that time. Continued use of the “manned”/”unmanned” classification system perpetuates those discriminatory ideas and subtly suggests to the next generation of aerospace workers that space is a place for men. This message is not only harmful to individual girls, young women, and nonbinary people, but it is also harmful to spaceflight itself. Social science research suggests that workplace performance improves when everyone has a seat at the table.

Replacing inaccurate and harmful language with gender inclusive language is easy. NASA suggests using the adjectives “human” or “piloted” to describe spaceflight that includes astronaut participation. “Crewed” is another useful alternative. To describe missions that do not involve human participants, “robotic,” “unpiloted,” and “uncrewed” are acceptable alternatives to “unmanned.” Some nuance is required when making the switch. For example, Artemis I, the planned test flight of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, will be an uncrewed mission in a human spaceflight program.

Flow chart of gender-inclusive adjectives to describe spaceflight.

There is one notable exception to the gender inclusive language rule—proper names. For example, from its establishment in 1961 through 1973, NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, was known as the Manned Spacecraft Center. Proper names including the adjectives “manned” and “unmanned” should not be changed. They are important reminders that, in that moment in time, women were denied the dream of spaceflight.

Mercury astronauts Deke Slayton, Gordon Cooper, Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gus Grissom, pose with Robert Gilruth (center), Director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, ca. 1963. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Language describing work often reflects harmful stereotypes about who can perform different kinds of jobs, on Earth, and in space. Recognizing the historical role of gender biases in shaping the US space program, and understanding that gender identity is completely unrelated to an individual’s ability to execute the duties and responsibilities of an astronaut, requires us to adopt gender inclusive language to make spaceflight more equitable.

Christina Koch (left) poses for a portrait with Jessica Meir while preparing for their first spacewalk together. (Image courtesy of NASA)