NASA needs sharper diversity focus to boost representation, audit finds

four astronauts standing in spacesuits against a dark background
NASA has been striving to increase diversity, including with crew assignments, but new audit says there is more work to do. The crew of NASA’s Artemis 2 mission (left to right): NASA astronauts Christina Hammock Koch, Reid Wiseman (seated), Victor Glover, and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA's diversity statistics are staying much the same despite a decade of efforts to increase representation, a new audit finds.

NASA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found at most a 2% increase in representation in groups such as women, African-Americans and Hispanics, a new audit revealed on April 20.

"Despite support from agency leaders and multiple initiatives to increase diversity, we found NASA has made little progress in increasing the representation of women and minorities in its civilian workforce or leadership ranks," OIG officials wrote in the report.

Only two of NASA's research centers have increased African-American representation markedly, while others have made small gains overall, the auditors said, noting that "few gains" in diversity have been made at the senior-official level as well. Overall, the agency has 18,000 civil service employees, with 35% being women and 30% African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic or "multiethnic."

Related: How astronaut diversity changed for the better in a single NASA class recounted in 'The New Guys' book

NASA, like many other government agencies, has been striving to correct decades of discrimination against certain groups. Examples include the Lavender Scare of the 1950s and 1960s against LGBTQ+ people, failing to fly women astronauts until 1983 (more than 20 years after the first males), or initially not acknowledging the role of "Hidden Figures" African-American mathematicians and engineers in the early space program.

The OIG traces NASA's efforts to foster diversity and inclusion at least to a 2010 decision to include this priority in strategic decision-making. Then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order the following year, in 2011, for all government agencies "to develop specific diversity and inclusion plans by March 2012," which NASA performed, the OIG found. 

NASA has been updating its strategy every few years since, and in 2020 inclusion was placed as the agency's fifth core value along with safety, integrity, teamwork and excellence, among other efforts to improve representation. (LGBTQ+ statistics were not referenced in the report, but such employees are discussed under the "equity" section of NASA's definition of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.) 

Related: Diversity will be key to Artemis moon-to-Mars push, NASA officials say

Sally Ride was the first U.S. woman in space. Posthumously, it was also announced she was the first known LGBTQ+ astronaut in space. (Image credit: NASA)

But all of this work has not resulted in meaningful changes in group composition, the OIG said. As such, the report issued seven recommendations for improvement and said that NASA officials were responsive to these ideas. 

The first six initiatives target hiring and promotion, professional development, mentoring, a "barrier analysis" to see why certain groups are facing issues, creating trackable metrics to see how well diversity initiatives are performing, tracking hiring trends and including an "official or organization" to coordinate stakeholders in diversity work.

NASA appointed Stephen Shih (left) as the agency's first diversity ambassador and Elaine Ho (right) as the next associate administrator for the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity.  (Image credit: NASA)

The agency has been taking even more steps recently to address diversity. For example, NASA created two new high-ranking positions in March to boost representation. Stephen Shih will be NASA's first diversity ambassador, and Elaine Ho will head the agency's Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity, the agency announced.

And NASA's Artemis 2 moon crew, which was announced earlier this month, boosts representation considerably compared to the 24 white males who flew on the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s and 1970s. Artemis 2, which will launch no earlier than November 2024, includes Christina Hammock Koch, who will be the first woman astronaut to fly around the moon, and Victor Glover, who will be the first African-American to do so.

NASA also released a policy statement in early 2022 concerning diversity, saying it aimed to ""enable all NASA organizations and individuals to maintain a transcendent focus on our common goals." NASA Administrator Bill Nelson signed the action plan on Jan. 18, 2022, which also stated such initiatives are "a strategic enabler of our safety and mission assurance."

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon:

  • CStone
    NASA's focus should be on important things like space exploration and science.
  • RikF
    NASA is narrowing its number of potential competent staff as a direct consequence of focusing on the racial and gender make-up of the people they are hiring. Therefor competence at NASA will be lower in the future, with the increased risk of fatal disasters.

    "Overall, the agency has 18,000 civil service employees, with 35% being women and 30% African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic or "multiethnic." ."

    What is the corresponing numbers/percentages in the US population as a whole, and among the applicants?
    How about native americans, jews, hindus, muslims and mormons? How about transexuals?

    "But all of this work has not resulted in meaningful changes in group composition, the OIG said. "

    What group composition would constitute as "meaningful"?

    What would be considered a satisfactory (or "meaningful") level of diversity? Each minority group being represented on par with its share of the total US population, or some other metric, like for example compared to each groups share of total number of applicants to each position?

    Is there a pre-determined percentage, which would have to be continually adjusted as each groups share of the US population changes in the future?
  • Unclear Engineer
    It's basically a "good idea" that has been turned into a bureaucratic process by a group that is insulated from the main priorities of NASA. As such, it somewhat undermines both the scientific priorities of NASA and the sociological effectiveness of showing participation by "minorities" - who may become seen as not as worthy if they are not hired in direct competition with all other candidates.

    The real measure of "equality" should come from the evaluation of who actually applies and how well they measure-up to the hiring critieria. If society does not provide substantially equal preparation for applicants, it should not be up to NASA to "compensate" by hiring quotas of "minorities". The reason that quotas are applied by bureaurats is the excuse that NASA must be prejudiced against minorities in its hiring or it would already have a work force that exactly matches the composition of the overall society. That is a flawed assumption on many levels. First, NASA is not getting an applicant pool that is exactly matching the overall society. Second, there is no reason to expect all "minorities" to have the same level of desire to be NASA employees, much less astronauts. Humans are not "all the same", particularly with respect to the typical goals of men and women in their individual lives. It is not just a matter of "opportunity", it is a matter of individual desire. Would you ask a woman who decides to prioritize raising children to the best of her ability "What's wrong with you - why aren't you an astronaut?" That would be just as bad as asking a female astronaut "Why aren't you home raising children?"