Anthropology / Everything Human

Unmanning Space Language


Unmanning Space Language

Language matters, as demonstrated by the recent discussion following the discovery of example sentences using sexist stereotypes in the Oxford Dictionary of English. Language about who goes into space also matters, both historically and again now as more people are on the International Space Station for longer-duration missions, and NASA, SpaceX, and others plan to send humans to Mars. When journalists write about a spacecraft, they often use the words manned and unmanned to describe whether there are humans on board. This use reflects the archaic practice of referring to humans as mankind, but does it reflect the reality of humankind and our engagements with outer space?

Dr. Alice Gorman, a space archaeologist based at Flinders University in Australia, has written about avoiding sexist or “gender exclusive” language when talking about space. She argues that the use of words like mankind and manned reinforces the idea that space is for men and not for women. Here’s how Gorman explains, on her blog, why this matters:

When you’re a bloke, terms such as “mankind” automatically include you. You don’t have to think about it at all; you’re already in there. Now we all know that these terms are supposed to also include women; but the reality is a bit different. Firstly, women have to “think themselves into” such expressions, even if it happens at a subconscious level. Secondly, there have been studies which show that men tend to assume such expressions to refer to them alone and do not automatically include women unless stated, again often at a subconscious level. And finally, there are plenty of examples of women attempting to exercise a right of “man,” only to be told it does not apply to them.

NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson was part of the first mission on which four women astronauts went to space at the same time.

NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson was part of the first mission on which four women astronauts went to space at the same time. NASA

Gendered language matters because it often reinforces both sexism and the idea of a fixed gender binary (woman/man, female/male). This impacts both how we think about who goes into space and those doing scientific research on space. In her forthcoming book Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds, anthropologist Dr. Lisa Messeri writes about her research with planetary scientists. “Three of my four chapters, each dealing with a different research project, featured women,” she told me. “Women are quite prevalent in the field of exoplanet astronomy,” Messeri said. “During my fieldwork I had the privilege to work with women who aspire to be the names remembered by future generations.” Messeri worked with one of the leading researchers in the area of exoplanets, MIT astronomer and planetary scientist Dr. Sara Seager, who has written about the challenges faced by women in her field.

Research on field experiences has demonstrated that women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) commonly experience both harassment and sexual assault. Recently publicized cases of harassment in astronomy and anthropology have started to bring this often-ignored truth to the surface, while barely scratching the surface, especially for black women, women of color, and others whose lives are, as MIT theoretical astrophysicist Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein writes, “shaped both by racism and sexism.”

Gendered space language is also linked to the racialized language of “manifest destiny,” which appears in many discussions of space settlement or “colonization.” As biologist Dr. Danielle N. Lee, a 2015 TED Fellow and Scientific American blogger, points out, space language is also involved in reproducing the myth that wealthy white men can “save humanity” by colonizing Mars. Lee asks a question that is central to the anthropology of space: Whose “version of humanity is being targeted for saving?

The first woman of color to travel into space, physician Dr. Mae Jemison, is now the principal of 100 Year Starship, a project to develop the capability to reach another star within 100 years. The leader of this visionary project is not a white male venture capitalist, but a black woman who has actually been in space. Shouldn’t the language we use to talk about humans in space reflect this reality?

ESA astronaut (and Star Trek fan) Samantha Cristoforetti points to an incoming cargo ship on the International Space Station.

ESA astronaut (and Star Trek fan) Samantha Cristoforetti points to an incoming cargo ship on the International Space Station. Samantha Cristoforetti/Twitter

The most recent woman in space was Samantha Cristoforetti, a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut. Cristoforetti went up to the International Space Station on November 23, 2014 and returned to Earth 199 days later to become the record holder for the longest single space flight by a woman. As of early 2016, 59 women from over 10 countries have gone into space.

In 2014, Ariel Waldman co-authored a National Academy of Sciences study on the future of human spaceflight. Waldman, founder of and adviser for the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, told me that her report did not use manned and unmanned, but instead used crewed and uncrewed. In 2014 she wrote on Twitter: “Memo to journalists who cover human spaceflight: please stop using ‘manned’ and ‘unmanned.’ It’s time. Words like crewed and uncrewed exist.”

Since 2006, NASA’s History Program Office style guide has said “references referring to the space program should be non-gender specific.” In 2010, NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson described her experience as part of the first mission in which four women astronauts were in space at the same time, noting “much of our training and mission assignments have become gender-neutral, as it should be.” However, many journalists continue to use manned and unmanned and continue to write about landing a “man on Mars,” sending “men into space,” and plans for “manned missions.” Why does this kind of language persist?

Part of the reason gendered language persists is the belief that a dictionary is an authoritative record of language, and from editorial style guides relying on that idea. In 2015, I was involved in a discussion on Twitter with space scientists about this issue. Kenneth Chang, a New York Times reporter, asked for a way to avoid unmanned but noted that since uncrewed is not in the dictionary his editors would simply replace it with the media standard, which is unmanned. Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist Emily Lakdawalla, of The Planetary Society, points out in a blog post that the Associated Press Stylebook still uses the outdated manned and unmanned but says she isn’t keen on crewed/uncrewed as a replacement, because “when spoken aloud, the unfamiliar ‘crewed’ sounds like the more-familiar ‘crude,’ which is both negative-sounding and confusing. I usually use ‘human’ and ‘robotic.’”

She goes on, however, to note that even a robotically controlled ship could have humans in it. I like crewed and uncrewed, and I think the context makes it clear when you say, for example, “this will be the first crewed spacecraft to visit Mars.” It may be awkward at first, but this is often the case with new words. It wasn’t long ago that few would have known what an iPad was, or a tweet, and before that a blog, and so on.

Twenty-two astronauts and Carolyn Huntoon, the first woman to serve as director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, met in 2012 to honor fellow astronaut Sally Ride.

Twenty-two astronauts and Carolyn Huntoon, the first woman to serve as director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, met in 2012 to honor fellow astronaut Sally Ride. NASA-JSC

So what makes a word a word? Those who study language know that it is always changing, and this process of language change is an often-discussed phenomenon in socio-cultural linguistics, one of anthropology’s four subfields. The Linguistic Society of America notes that language changes for a few reasons. First, it changes to meet the needs of its speakers, who need to talk about new technologies and experiences (sending a text, for example). Second, language changes because people with different experiences and knowledge exchange new words when they communicate. Third, we borrow words from other languages or create them by shortening or combining other words (gym from gymnasium, brunch from breakfast and lunch). And finally, language changes because word order, spelling, and sounds change over time. The word bird, for example, was originally spelled brid, but at some point the misspelling became the dominant spelling. Were text and gym and brunch real words before they were in the dictionary? Yes.

Dictionaries don’t determine which words are real; instead, they record certain words selected by editors because they are used by specific populations, often dominant or powerful ones, in speech and in print. From an anthropological perspective, a word doesn’t need to be in a dictionary to be a real word. It’s real when it can be used to communicate. If readers saw the word uncrewed in the context of a spacecraft without people in it, there’s a good chance most of them would understand what it means.

In October 2015, Russian scientists began Moon-2015, a simulated mission to the moon and back.

In October 2015, Russian scientists began Moon-2015, a simulated mission to the moon and back. Facebook

When we think about gendered language we have to remember that, as Gorman noted, sexism in space language has real-world impacts. In October 2015, six Russian scientists prepared to simulate the eight-day journey to the moon and back in an experimental habitat here on Earth. The mission, called Moon-2015 (Луна-2015), was a follow-up to a 520-day simulation conducted with an all-male crew that began in 2010. Before entering the simulated space habitat, the scientists held a press conference where reporters asked the crew questions, including “How will you deal with being without makeup for eight days?” and “How will you cope with not being around men?” All six of the scientists in the Moon-2015 simulation were women, and the goal of the study was to see how a crew of only women would work together. These are experts in physiology, psychology, cardiology, ecology, biological physics, and genetics, but because they are women they were asked about makeup and men, not science.

For the first time in history, the most recent NASA class of eight astronauts is 50 percent women. The four women from this class may be among the first humans to go to Mars 15 years from now. “With so much conflict in the world,” says astronaut Anne McClain, “space exploration can be a beacon of hope. No one cares about race or religion or nationality in space travel. We’re all just part of Team Human.”

The word unmanned has a secondary meaning: to deprive of qualities traditionally associated with men. On June 16th, 1963, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. She orbited the earth 48 times and remains the only woman to conduct a solo space flight, the only truly unmanned spaceflight. So far. It’s long-past time to unman space language so we don’t bring sexist baggage from Earth into space. Human futures in space and on Earth must include everyone.

Thank you to Dr. Alice Gorman, Dr. Danielle N. Lee, Ariel Waldman, Emily Lakdawalla, Dr. Melissa J. Hills, Amy Dentata, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Dr. Janet D. Stemwedel, and Dr. Lisa Messeri for their assistance in my research for this post. Any errors are mine.

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  • Also can we get away from calling vessels, especially space vessels her and she. They are vehicles. Machines, not people.

    • Michael Oman-Reagan

      This is another great example of where space language should change, thanks for mentioning it.

  • John Platko

    Interesting article, it reminded me of an indelible experience of space language I had many years ago.

    In the early 70s while working on an engineering degree I would often find places to study where I wouldn’t get distracted. So if I had a hard physics nut to crack I would take my book to the library and find a place where the chairs were comfortable and the temptations were minimal – for me, that was the literature section. But after hours of mind numbing closed integrals or some such thing even literature held some hope for relief. So I would reach up and pull out a book and – well one day to my amazement, the words were, “A rat done bit my sister Nell With Whitey on the moon” But somehow I was unable to read what the actual words were and what I thought was being said was, “Witty on the moon” – which made no sense to me. I repeated the words over and over a few times until the penny dropped and I realized it actually was saying, “With Whitey on the moon.” Even after all the years I can still feel how powerful that experience was for me – long after that physics nut seems hardly relevant to my actual life. I had discovered Gil Scott-Heron’s poem WHITEY ON THE MOON. ”

    A rat done bit my sister Nell
    With Whitey on the moon
    Her face and arms began to swell
    And Whitey’s on the moon

    I can’t pay no doctor bills
    But Whitey’s on the moon
    Ten years from now I’ll be paying still
    While Whitey’s on the moon …

    Thanks to modern technology, you can hear him perform it on youtube:

    Now the fact that I struggled understanding the language – the “Whitey” part has always been interesting to me, but what I really took from the poem was a message of misplaced priorities that I was somehow completely ignorant of until those lines, “A rat done bit my sister Nell With Whitey on the moon” sunk in.

    Yes, we went to the moon – there wasn’t much there. Now “we” want to go to mars. I don’t remember if I cracked that physics nut that day but I surely learned that language matters – but not as much having the right priorities.