Monday, June 24, 2019

"Un-manning" Space Exploration

Next month we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. If you've been on Earth that long, you probably remember what you were doing at that historic moment, though you were most likely just a kid.

But today I want to talk a little about the point that the SyFy series The Expanse really drove home--space exploration is for everyone. Not just males. And there's been some considerable effort involved in "un-manning" space language the last few years. The term itself is now considered archaic and sexist. Using "manned" and "unmanned" implies that females are not included in the equation, and we all know that's very untrue.

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Back in the 60s, this thinking might have aligned with the views of the time, but a lot of things since the 60s have, well, evolved. We've made many advances forward in five decades, and our astronaut corps is now very diverse. But that's not to say our thinking as a culture has changed.

Even in 2019, the terms "manned" and "unmanned" are still in use. It's a matter of perception, but sometimes perception is everything. Using a sexist term allows some people (especially those who tend to be sexist) to mentally exclude women. Yet women have contributed substantially to space exploration ever since the white-shirt-and-pocket-protector mindset of the 60s--as astronauts, as team members supporting the missions and as scientists on the cutting edge of astrophysics, astronomy and other sciences. In fact, there have been about 60 women from 10 different countries who have had missions in space. High time to change the "manned mission" language, I would think.

Although the colonization of Mars is being spear-headed primarily by wealthy white males, Dr. Mae Jemison--a black woman astronaut who has the experience of actually having been in space--now heads the 100 Year Starship Project, with the ambitious goal of reaching another star in the next century.

Below is a short video of Dr. Jemison explaining the 100 Year Starship Project, to educate the public what the mission is all about.

So what's being done to eradicate gender-based terms?

Ariel Waldman, founder of, adviser to NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program and co-author of a National Academy of Sciences study on the future of spaceflight, took the initiative to start educating the press in 2014. She tweeted a "Memo to Journalists" reminding them to stop using terms like "manned" and "unmanned" in their reporting, and start using the more fitting terms such as "crewed" and "uncrewed."

There has been resistance to the new terms for two seemingly silly reasons. Because the term "crewed" is not in the Associated Press Style Guide, reporters claim even if the non-gender term is used it is often edited to "manned" which is included in the style guide. (Time for a new edition, Associated Press!) And also because the term "crewed" when spoken is often confused with "crude." (Imagine the phrase "the first crewed spacecraft bound for Mars" being confused as "the first crude spacecraft bound for Mars.") For this reason, some prefer to use "human" or "robotic" missions.

Actually, back in 2006, NASA's History Programs Office published a style guide that said in part space program references should be non-gender specific. Yet here we are, thirteen years in the future, and journalists and writers are still using terms like "manned mission," "sending men into space," and "landing a man on Mars."

As a writer, this hit home.

Language changes over time as the culture changes. As writers (and readers) revising our own references from "manned" and "un-manned" and other gender-specific terms to more inclusive terms might help move the world a little faster toward including them in dictionaries and style guides.

As for this writer? I can see I've got my work cut out for me when I do the next edit of The Outer Planets, which takes place only about 20 years in our future. At the time I originally wrote the novel, "manned" and other gender-specific terms was the norm in relationship to space exploration and I confess I didn't give this a lot of thought at the time. Editing to remove such terms in this and other books will be my contribution to un-manning space exploration. After all, fiction can also be an important part of modern culture.

Have a great week!

Unmanning Space Language: Outer Space and Gendered Language
No Longer Hidden Figures: Women in Space Leadership
Men, Women and Mars: How Gender Diversity is Key for Success


  1. It's a good point. It's a little like when airline 'stweards' and stewardesses' morphed into the much more suitable 'cabin crew'.I can see where 'Man' comes in, as in Man as a species but yes, no longer suitable. It's hard to think of a suitable alternative. Robotic or drone - sure. But I can't think of a better word than 'crew'.

  2. I know what you mean, Greta. Because there's a lack of obvious alternatives, I think it's another reason space exploration is still man-oriented. I'll see if I have any bright ideas for other phrasing when I'm working on my edits. After doing this research, I'm sure a lot more aware of the "man" language in reporting now.


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