“Diversity is Universal,” Former NASA Experts Promote STEM Equality During West Point Diversity and Inclusion Conference

By Jorge Garcia - September 8, 2023
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With over 60 years of space exploration and breakthroughs in technological innovation, NASA remains a key international player in the ever-evolving space industry.

NASA's longevity in space exploration stems from its hospitable working environment, with the agency earning the No. 1 spot in the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, according to the Washington Post, marking its 11th year holding the No. 1 ranking.

Creating a productive workspace allows NASA to seek cutting-edge ways to expand its Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) research to innovate and expand its threshold in space exploration. Those areas of focus lend themselves to future voyages like the Artemis missions that will eventually land the first woman and person of color on the moon, according to NASA.

This display of diversity in the workforce is a progressive step in the right direction. It also perpetuates the notion that innovation is a universal imperative that anyone can positively impact regardless of race, gender or religious affiliation.

However, this display of diversity is only scratching the surface of a deeply-rooted issue that has prevented minorities from seeking job opportunities in a STEM career at NASA and other federal agencies.

This issue also begs the question: How much STEM innovation is lost when antiquated hiring traditions do not consider inclusion but reinforce practices that habitually recruit a predominantly White male workforce?

To find the answer, Ramsey Smith, former NASA research scientist, and former NASA astronauts Charles Bolden and Robert Shane Kimbrough engaged the audience during the "Diversity is Universal" segment of the West Point Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Conference on Aug. 31 at the U.S. Military Academy.

"... To steer this right onto the discussion of NASA from the highest levels, I found the strategic plan for NASA diversity and inclusion. It says 'NASA meets or exceeds the federal STEM diversity benchmarks,'" said Lt. Col. William Koch, an academy professor in the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering. "I'm going to quote the strategic plan, 'Overall, women and minorities are underrepresented in various locations along the leadership pipeline.'"

From an astronautics perspective, females have made many historic contributions to the advancement of space exploration.

Most recently, in October 2019, history was made when the first all-female spacewalk took place, coordinated by astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch.

However, the first all-female spacewalk was scheduled for March but was postponed due to NASA requiring appropriately sized spacesuits.

Originally, Col. Anne McClain, a 2002 USMA graduate, had to make a critical decision in donning a large space suit that did not fit her to conduct the spacewalk.

Bolden explained that to understand the crux of McClain's problem, one would have to backtrack 43 years when he first entered the astronaut office in 1980.

" ... We were making fiscal decisions because NASA was always stuck with budget limitations and we made a conscious decision to limit the sizes of spacesuits that we built," Bolden explained. "Because in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo (eras), every spacesuit was tailor-made for the individual astronaut."

During the early stages of space exploration, spacesuits were mostly tailored with men's sizes in mind. In McClain's case, Kimbrough emphasized how vital it is for an astronaut to fit into the right-sized spacesuit to conduct detailed maintenance on the space station and why McClain had to think carefully about her circumstances.

"... We all get trained in our primary space size, and then you have a backup (spacesuit) as well. So, in (McClain's) case … medium is your primary and large was the backup and we train (in those spacesuits) in the (swimming) pool," Kimbrough explained. "But she had to make the hard call, which was a great call that 'hey, I do not feel comfortable in a large going outside. And going out on a spacewalk is not trivial. You probably are aware of that but it is the hardest thing we ask any astronaut to ever do."

Kimbrough added that the spacesuit is firmly secured to the spacecraft so that the astronaut is "one with the spacecraft" as they conduct routine maintenance on the space station However, every spacesuit does not thoroughly fit all astronauts. Especially women.

"You're tucked in there as tight as you can be so that you are one with the spacecraft -- one with the suit. That doesn't happen for most of us. So, we have extra space in there and you're bouncing around inside the suit. And it's just very inefficient," Kimbrough said. "For one, it wears you out. You use your resources in your backpack much quicker -- those sorts of things.

"And so, you really want to have that primary suit when you go outside, but it doesn't always happen," he added. "... To not do a spacewalk, especially as this one was hyped up so much in the media, really took some courage from Anne so I just want to make sure you guys are aware, that was a hard, hard decision that she made but the absolute right decision due to the circumstances."

Kimbrough also addressed how often women and minorities are represented in their respective roles at NASA relative to what the analytics show on multiple reports.

"... There are females at all the top leadership levels, from the director of the NASA space center to the chief of the flight directors, the deputy of the Astronaut Office, and the deputy of the space station program, and it's just amazing," Kimbrough said. "And so, I think that's why it seems like there are so many women and African Americans in those leadership positions, which is amazing, but if you look at the numbers, it's not as good as we think it is."

According to this year's NASA Office of Inspector General (O.I.G.) report, over the past decade, NASA's overall workforce demographics have remained unchanged, with slight increases in percentage for some groups.

"Approximately, 12,000 civilian employees worked in STEM occupations, of which 25% were women and 26% were from minority racial and ethnic groups," the O.I.G. reported.

Additionally, there have been minor improvements in the percentages of women and minorities filling senior-level positions.

"In addition to its civilian workforce remaining essentially demographically unchanged during the past decade, we found NASA has made few gains in the percentages of women and racial and ethnic minorities in its senior levels (GS-14, GS-15, and Senior Executive Service during the same period)," the O.I.G. noted. "For the GS-14 grade level, we found the percentage of Black or African American employees remained static from 2012 to 2021 at approximately 10%.

"... Asian American employees increased 1.6%, and Hispanic employees increased 1.2%. Native American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and undeclared employees remain the same," the report highlighted. "We also found that the representation of women at the GS-14 level increased approximately 1% during this timeframe to 33.1% of the workforce by 2021."

These percentages may also reflect the lack of programs and opportunities minorities are infrequently exposed to at the grassroots level.

Earlier this year, the National Science Foundation reported that in 2020, Blacks "earned 10% of the associate degrees awarded in science and engineering fields, 9% of the bachelor's degrees, 11% of the master's degrees, and just 7% of the doctoral degrees."

Triscel Morgan, an African American woman, is a management and program analyst for the Veterans Health Administration, spoke with the panelist, remarking that she was never exposed to space science and engineering while raised in a low-income household. However, her 9-year-old son, who is interested in science, recently constructed the International Space Station out of Legos and has aspirations of becoming an engineer.

She posed the question, "how are we reaching kids who grew up like myself, with lower income families ... or what should we all be doing as diversity, equity, and inclusion champions to reach out and expose these children to the opportunities that you all have laid before us?"

Bolden clarified that programs such as FIRST Legos and FIRST Robotics help younger students explore the STEM fields, think innovatively, encourage teamwork and build confidence.

"Sponsor a FIRST Legos and FIRST Robotics team because that'll get your kids really interested, and it teaches teamwork. The focus is not winning. You want to win, but the focus is really teamwork," Bolden said. "They learn how to look and interact with people who are different from them.

"When you talk about diversity, they actually have somebody on the team who's a scout and over the course of the competition, that scout goes out and looks at other teams," Bolden added. "Because when you get to the finals, you're going to combine with two other teams, so the team that wins (the final prize) is actually three teams ... It's amazing to see how kids get blown away by it."

Bolden understood the gravity of Morgan's question and the underlying cause behind the struggle to find equality in receiving a first-rate education.

Bolden recalled his humble beginnings pursuing his passion for STEM.  He was a high school senior in 1963, making preparations to pursue a degree in the sciences.

His next objective was to enroll in the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA).

However, at one point, he believed his chances of becoming a midshipman were cut short after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Nevertheless, Bolden still made an effort, but his state representatives denied his appointment. Specifically, Strom Thurmond, the longest-serving senator in American history and an ardent segregationist, flatly denied Bolden the nomination.

"(He) told me, 'No way are you going to get an appointment from me to go to the Naval Academy,'" Bolden said in an interview with NPR. "It was clear why they were not supporting me and it was because of the times. They were just not about to appoint a Black to the Naval Academy or to any academy."

And yet, Bolden planned a few steps ahead of his detractors when he began writing letters to Lyndon B. Johnson during his junior year in high school. If he couldn't secure a nomination from his state representatives, he would cash in on the hope that he would secure a vice-presidential (VP) nomination.

However, Bolden felt the chances of securing the VP appointment were unlikely following the Kennedy assassination.

Unbeknown to Bolden, Johnson had sent out federal judges to recruit Black men interested in applying to the service academies. He would eventually be visited by a recruiter and secure his nomination from Rep. William Dawson of Chicago.

Bolden realized his dream of becoming a STEM professional, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Science from USNA. He would later in his career find himself advocating for diversity while filling various esteemed leadership positions in the military and federal government.

From commissioning as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps to becoming the first African American appointed as the 12th NASA administrator, Bolden shared from personal experience how employees from every echelon have a responsibility to promote equal opportunity.

Smith attested to Bolden's statement highlighting recent experiences in his current role working as a special assistant to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Space Acquisition and Integration.

He also drew some anecdotes working as an African American in the STEM field in his former role as a NASA research scientist to emphasize the change he had witnessed over the years when Bolden was the NASA administrator.

"I've been working for the Department of the Air Force for a year and a half and the individuals I've worked with there and in the Pentagon are cultivating an ecosystem to be very inclusive and it's been encouraging," Smith said. "... Full disclosure, (retired) Maj. Gen. Bolden was the administrator of NASA when I was there, and he created an environment that was encouraging and welcoming for young scientist like myself."

Smith added that at the management level, some leaders may fail to advocate for diversity and inclusion. That display of negligence can crush the dreams and end the passion of scientists and engineers who have spent years, maybe even decades, working to earn the position they are in.

Bolden added to Smith's statement, mentioning that among all the echelons in the STEM field, mid-level leadership can significantly impact junior-level employees.

"The mid-level leadership can quash the dreams and aspirations of a young engineer or young scientists," Bolden said. "Because of this, I highly recommend to all of you ... the cadets, midshipmen and others that are here, to look into the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics).

"One of the things I've found since becoming actively involved with the (AIAA) is you go to a conference, and lo and behold, there are a lot of Black kids there," he added. "And they're there from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And you ask them, 'how in the world did you find out about this and why are you here?' The answer they give you is, 'there are people like me who are here and I don't have to feel like a nerd, or like I'm alone.'"

Smith also encouraged the audience to research organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science.

"... There is talent out there. We can't make the excuse that we can't find them. They're there. How are you going back and looking for those individuals?" Smith asked. "And are you going one time or are you revisiting the well to see if there are new people who were able to get their conference funded that year and attend a conference?"

As the segment concluded, the panelists gave their closing remarks, readdressing the critical need to improve equal opportunities standards across military and federal channels.

Kimbrough said that apart from his STEM experience, much of what led him to become an astronaut came from his desire to become an aviator and highlighted that the Army needs to improve its stats within the aviation branch.

"... I gave Fort Novosel a call and got the numbers on diversity. So, we have 1,664 flight students right now in flight school--10% women, 90% men, 6% African American -- that's a problem ... I'm sure the other (military) services are not too dissimilar -- we just got to do better," he concluded.

Smith emphasized the dire need to humanize STEM professionals from all walks of life.

"Humanize the scientists and the engineers, humanize the (personnel) within various branches of the military. They pursued their career because they had a passion and a purpose," Smith said. "So, if you invite them out to speak, please invite them to talk about their technical experiences -- not just diversity and inclusion. It helps to humanize them toward their audience, and it helps them feel valued as a scientist and engineer."

Lastly, Bolden made a statement earlier during the conference to encapsulate the essence of what the "Diversity is Universal" segment represented.

"... As I look around, it's not a very diverse group of cadets and midshipmen, to be quite honest, other than women, which is really important, but we're not talking about just reaching Black students and Native American students and women, we're talking about reaching all of you," Bolden said. "And so, let's try to get out of the (mindset), 'this conference didn't even address me.' This is for every single one of you.

"Because if you're passionate, if you're strong, if you really enjoy what you're doing, trust me, the young females sitting next to some of you hard-nosed guys, or the young Blacks sitting next to some of you who happen to be White. They're all just as enthusiastic (about STEM) as you are. It's contagious. So we're not talking just to minorities and women in this audience. We're talking to every single one of you … please don't go away from here saying 'they didn't talk to me,' because this is intended for every single one of us in this audience."