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Texas abortion ban could take an unexpected toll on the space industry

The space station flight control room at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
The space station flight control room at NASA's Johnson Space Center. (Image credit: NASA)

Texas' new anti-abortion law could have an unforeseen side effect: upending the space industry.

On Sept. 1, a new abortion law went into effect in the state of Texas; a near-total ban that prohibits all people from seeking, receiving or performing abortions after six weeks into a pregnancy. The law could overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision to protect a pregnant person's ability to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction, and is expected to face judicial challenges. But while government officials continue to grapple with the legality of the ban, people who can get pregnant in Texas are grappling with the grim realities of its ramifications — and its consequences are already reaching the space sector.

"This law is just a nightmare," Frances "Poppy" Northcutt, now a Texas attorney who became the first female engineer to work at NASA's Mission Control during the Apollo program, told Space.com. 

The new legislation bans abortions more than six weeks into a pregnancy — before many people are even aware they are pregnant — and permits individuals to sue violators (including medical professionals involved) for a monetary reward. The law comes despite a United Nations assertion in 2018 that access to abortion be considered a human right. Even President Joe Biden has criticized the law, saying that it infringes on constitutional rights and calling on his administration to respond.

Related: Pioneering women in space: A gallery of astronaut firsts

Healthcare and spaceflight might seem unrelated, but Texas is a major aerospace hub. From NASA's Johnson Space Center to offices, factories and launch sites belonging to companies including SpaceX, Blue Origin and many more, roughly 144,000 people are employed in Texas in aerospace, the state reported in 2020. 

NASA estimates that its Johnson Space Center in Houston employs 3,000 civil servants and works with roughly 12,000 contract employees; agency-wide, one-third of its employees are women. (These numbers only reflect binary gender categories.)

Comparable statistics aren't available for private space companies based in Texas, but given how many people work in aerospace in the state, it is clear that this law will directly impact many people in Texas.

By impacting the space sector's Texas workforce, this contentious law could impact the industry's efforts to improve diversity and inclusion across minoritized groups, including women and non-binary gender minorities.

Concerning comments

The abortion ban has already started a conversation in the space community online, with women reaching out to one another and sharing their concerns about working in aerospace in Texas and accepting jobs in the state. 

"I've had a handful of women *just today* seeking advice in my DMs [direct messages] because they have anxiety either deciding to take a space job in Texas or already having accepted a space job in Texas," science communicator Emily Calandrelli, who hosts the Emmy award-winning science series "Emily's Wonder Lab" on Netflix, tweeted on Sept. 2, the day after the law took effect. "Space leaders in Texas, please pay attention to this. You're going to lose talent."

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Calandrelli's message also included a clip of a CNBC interview with Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who said that SpaceX founder Elon Musk "had to get out of California because, in part, of the social policies," and that Musk "consistently tells me that he likes the social policies in the state of Texas." California has a longstanding reputation for liberal policies and abortion is legal in the state. 

"In general, I believe government should rarely impose its will upon the people, and, when doing so, should aspire to maximize their cumulative happiness," Musk tweeted in response to CNBC reporter Michael Sheetz, who had shared the clip. "That said, I would prefer to stay out of politics."

Space.com reached out to NASA and SpaceX for comment and has not yet received a reply.

An open letter

While concerns swirl around how this law might affect the space industry in general, one Johnson Space Center employee is arguing that the agency should try to protect its employees despite whatever ban or law the state enacts.

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Kira Altman, an International Space Station flight controller at NASA's Johnson Space Center, saw the repercussions that this new law could present to people who work at NASA's Texas hub. In response, she penned an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, with guidance and support from Northcutt who, both as an attorney and through her personal activism, works to support women's reproductive healthcare and rights. (Altman told Space.com that her words and thoughts expressed in the letter are personal and do not reflect the agency or her professional role.) 

In the letter, which Northcutt posted online Sept. 4, Altman wrote that, like many others at NASA, she is working in a job that is "a dream come true" but now feels threatened.

"As an ISS Flight Controller who works on console, I do not have the ability to perform my job in a state other than Texas. There are countless others like me — women who are flight controllers, flight directors, astronauts, flight surgeons and administrators — who have now had their freedom threatened," she wrote. 

"I stand at the crossroads of an impossible decision: Will I have to sacrifice my bodily autonomy to continue the work I love? Or will the time come where I will be forced to abandon what I have worked so hard to achieve to secure my safety?" the letter continues.

"I had to do something and channel my frustration," Altman told Space.com, "and ask someone who actually had power to hear me and understand how terrifying it is to have this hanging over my head."

In the letter, Altman calls on NASA to proactively support its employees and make them feel safe despite the realities of the new law. 

For example, the new law allows anyone (they do not even have to be in Texas, Northcutt pointed out) to file a lawsuit against someone seeking, providing or assisting with an abortion. In one of the examples Altman gave for how NASA could protect its employees, she suggested that "there should be a program created to fight lawsuits that will be filed against NASA employees," she wrote in the letter.

The letter also suggests that JSC's existing health clinic should be equipped to provide abortions and that the agency develop a program to support employees looking for a new aerospace job in another state.

"More than anything, your employees — civil servants and contractors alike — need to know that NASA's leadership will not stand idly by while our freedoms are stripped," Altman wrote. "Please know that your support will be invaluable."

Altman told Space.com that "it's not about being angry ... I wanted to provide the solution."

Some will feel the heat more than others

Altman noted that some have suggested that people could choose to not work in Texas or to work remotely, but those opportunities are not available to everyone. In the space sector, roles like her own only exist in-person and in Texas. 

Additionally, "the women who are most adversely affected [by laws like this] are the lower-level workers," and "people that are not yet working in the space program," Northcutt told Space.com.

So the law affects not just the people already employed in the space sector, but also countless more who hope to one day have a role like Altman's and who might be forced to reconsider going after their dream jobs. Altman added that she's already heard of people shying away from accepting job offers in the space sector in Texas.

If people leave the state or decline positions in aerospace in such a major space hub, this could significantly hurt the space industry's continuing struggle to employ and retain women.

"It's a guarantee that this will deter women from either accepting jobs here or continuing to pursue their career here," Altman said. "It's not something that we can just ignore."

It's not just women

Northcutt emphasized that the new law does not only affect women or only people who can become pregnant. In addition to the people who are directly targeted by the law — people who can become pregnant, healthcare providers and more — other Texas residents would still be affected by their coworkers, family members and friends struggling with the repercussions of this law. 

In addition, Northcutt said she is particularly worried by the way the law was written, which she argued goes against standard legal practices by encouraging individuals to take enforcement into their own hands.

"Everyone who cares about the rule of law should be concerned," Northcutt said, explaining that the extreme nature of the law and how its written could set a new precedent for law itself. 

"It's a horrible precedent for how the law works," Northcutt said, adding that "other states are lining up" to try and enact similar laws. "I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the same rippling through the South, especially, as well as some of the Midwestern states," she said.

Northcutt added that, regardless of whether NASA acts on any of Altman's suggestions, there are likely many different ways that the agency could, creatively, find ways to support its employees. 

"We want you to push the envelope," Northcutt said. "Look at your assets the way you would look at solving an Apollo problem."

Altman said that she has not yet received a response from Nelson but that a director at NASA has reached out to speak with her. 

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea Gohd

Chelsea Gohd joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History and even wrote an installation for the museum's permanent Hall of Meteorites. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music and performing as her alter ego Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd.