A Lesson in Crewed Language

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Oct 7, 2015
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In many ways, NASA is slow to change. That’s not surprising; it’s a government agency, for one thing, and for another being a tad conservative isn’t such a bad feature when you’re trying to put people into space safely.

But even NASA is ahead of a lot of the curve when it comes to language used when talking about spaceflight. The terms “manned” and “unmanned” have fallen out of favor with the space agency: The NASA History Program Office Style Guide now specifically states that “All references referring to the space program should be non-gender specific.” The only exceptions are for names of buildings and programs; these are—pardon the expression—grandfathered in.*

I think this is great! Words matter. Using more inclusive words is a tacit invitation to people of all flavors, and diversity = strength.

My friend Emily Lakdawalla wrote about this on her blog for the Planetary Society (the comments there are interesting, too, so be sure to check them out as well). The topic came up again when a few science communicators were trying to come up with a good substitute for “manned” and “unmanned.” A lot of us use “crewed,” but as Emily points out (and as I have said many times) it sounds like “crude” when spoken aloud, which can cause momentary confusion for an audience. I’m still not sure what might be best there. “Crewless” works well for “unmanned,” though.

I did a quick search and found that I used the word “crewed” in a post way back in 2007, though it’s unclear if I did that to be more inclusive or just to switch my word usage up a bit. I stopped using the word “manned” a few years ago, though (except when quoting someone, or referring to something like the Manned Maneuvering Unit). I did that when I got into a conversation on this very topic on Twitter with some science communicator friends a while back. I’m a balding, bearded, middle-aged white guy, the very picture of stereotypical science dork. If I figured this out, others can too.

I know a few folks will froth and fume over this change; some people get very hot and bothered when others want to be more inclusive. But things like this cost us very little, and the payoff is large. Even if the cost were higher it wouldn’t matter, because it’s the right thing to do.

Everyone deserves to feel welcome when it comes to math, science, and tech … really everywhere. There’s no way to know from someone’s sex, skin color, or superficial characteristics what they might contribute. We all have brains. What we all need is a chance—and the environment—to participate.

*Space advocate Ariel Waldman points out that this has been in the style guide since 2006!