NYT, WaPo Recall Racism, Sexism at NASA in 1960s

Saturday marks 50th anniversary of first moonwalk

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• July 17, 2019 12:55 pm


As the 50th anniversary of the first moonwalk approaches, the New York Times and Washington Post published stories this week pointing out sexism and racism in the early days of the American space program.

"The Apollo program was designed by men, for men. If we do not acknowledge the gender bias of the early space program, it becomes difficult to move past it, the Times tweeted in a piece penned by Mary Robinette Kowal.

"As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, NASA has started Artemis, a program that aims "to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, including the first woman and the next man," Kowal wrote. "Although both astronauts have enormous challenges ahead, the first woman will face added hurdles simply because everything in space carries the legacy of Apollo. It was designed by men, for men."

The article pointed to the embarrassing incident for NASA in April where two women were scheduled for the same spacewalk, yet only one suit that was the correct size for both astronauts.

"This is not an indictment of NASA in 2019. But it does demonstrate a causal chain that begins with the Apollo program and leads through to present-day staffing choices," Kowal wrote.

The Washington Post recounted that the people leading the successful Apollo 11 mission were primarily white men:

As NASA worked relentlessly to fulfill John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon by decade’s end, it turned to the nation’s engineers. Many of them were fresh out of school, running the gamut from mechanical to electrical engineers, because that’s mostly what was taught in universities, and almost exclusively to white men.

In archival Apollo 11 photos and footage, it’s a "Where’s Waldo?" exercise to spot a woman or person of color.

"I don’t want to be politically incorrect here, but the workforce, the culture, was white male. In the firing room, we had almost 500 people and we have one female, one black guy and one Hispanic," says Ike Rigell, 96, chief engineer and deputy director of launch vehicle operations at the Kennedy Space Center in Central Florida. "That was the culture."

The story also delved into the intense work hours and the toll they took on family life: "Divorce was rampant. Especially in Florida. Cape Canaveral became the capital of kaput unions. The court was overwhelmed."

Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the Saturn V rocket launch that began the Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969.