Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Sprouting the Seed of Georgia's Space Community

I’ve been very fortunate to spend almost all of my adult life living in space hubs: the Space Coast of Florida, followed by Huntsville, Alabama, then back to Florida. I’ve immersed myself in the space community by choosing to live where space activity happens. (Also, where it’s warm most of the time.) I naturally feel connected to “my people” - fellow upward-looking forward-thinking space enthusiasts.

When my husband’s career took us to Atlanta a year ago, I naturally began to seek a new space community. I didn’t need to look hard in Florida or Huntsville – space is everywhere. But the Atlanta area, and more broadly in the state of Georgia, is not known for space activity. There is no solid space identity here, not yet. I didn’t find the space community I sought.

I did find space activity and groups, pockets of people here and there, all over the state. Groups that didn’t talk to each other, didn’t coordinate, didn’t even know of each other’s existence in most cases. There was little to no collaboration or communication between the academic space pocket, the military space pocket, the satellite broadcasting pocket, the entrepreneurial newspace pocket, the AIAA chapters, the variety of amateur astronomy and rocket clubs, the tiny space law student club, the small space policy pocket responsible for 2017’s Georgia Space Flight Act, and the proposed Camden Spaceport in southeast Georgia.

It’s hard to pinpoint when Georgia Space Alliance was conceived in my mind. It could have been as early as last December at a holiday party when I learned the local National Space Society chapter was inactive. It could have been in January when I toured one of Atlanta’s space companies and was encouraged by the CEO to take the reigns in leading an organization. It could have been in February when I began attending meetings with state elected officials and realized the need for a unified space organization. And, most importantly, that no one else was motivated enough to start one. Later in February, a colleague and I met with two state economic development employees about promoting space and was told, “You’re just two voices. You need an association behind you.” At that point, Georgia Space Alliance was an inevitability. And I was the one get it off the ground.

The name was carefully chosen. Georgia Space Alliance is state-wide, not just focused on Atlanta. It’s an alliance of the existing groups, companies, organizations, and individuals. It’s not meant to replace or compete with any existing space-related effort. Its goal is to unify, to bring people together, to encourage communication and collaboration, to promote what is already happening and what is to come. Even the word “space” is meaningful. Georgia already has a very strong aerospace industry and aerospace community, aerospace primarily meaning aviation. The focus of Georgia Space Alliance is not aerospace – it’s space –the much smaller but growing branch of aerospace in the state.

Georgia Space Alliance is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. This, too, was carefully chosen. The organization’s focus isn’t economic development, political lobbying, or providing an income for its leadership. In fact, the organization is entirely volunteer-based at this time. There may be GSA activities that promote economic development and advocate for space within local and national governments, but GSA is so much more.

GSA is first and foremost educational: educating its membership, educating students of all levels, and educating the wider community. It is community development. It is social and professional networking. It is multidisciplinary; it’s an alliance of Georgia’s existing strengths, space-related and otherwise.

In the months from March to now, I’ve worked in the background building an organization and a team. Having to balance this effort with my existing work meant that I worked slowly, working toward an October public kick-off. I’m very grateful for the great leadership team who stepped forward to work toward this common goal! I could not have put this all together in time without their efforts.

We still have much work to do spreading the word, registering members, gaining corporate sponsors and partner organizations, and planning future activities. We have many ideas! How much we’re able to do depends on the number of people who volunteer to assist and the number of sponsors who can chip in funds.

An October kick-off is also meaningful. This evening (Oct. 18) starts the first Symposium on Space Innovations, a new space conference hosted by Georgia Tech and Georgia’s Center of Innovation for Aerospace. The state hosts a Space Working Group which I joined at the start of the year, which quickly morphed into the organizing committee for this conference. We of the organizing committee are all very excited to put together and share it with you all! We wanted to showcase Georgia’s space achievements and bring to the state some excellent space speakers and topics, and we’ve succeeded in both goals.

The Georgia Space Alliance’s kick-off Space Party is the conference after-party on Thursday evening, open to the public. It’s a way for everyone to get together to network, socialize, and relax, the busyness of the conference behind them. There will be space art on display. There will be an optional costume contest with space prizes. I’m looking forward to connecting with existing friends and colleagues and meeting online space friends in person for the first time.

Georgia Space Alliance will take the momentum and energy of the conference and the networking and community-forming of the kick-off party and carry that into the new year. GSA will participate in February’s Georgia Aerospace Day and encourage our members to engage with our elected officials. Yuri’s Night will come to Georgia in April (for the first time?), potentially with a professional development event for students and young professionals. GSA’s Education Committee will plan a charity activity for Georgia STEM education. We may start a lecture series meant for the general public, illuminating connections between space and other fields. We may host an amateur rocket launch activity. We may restart the tradition of hosting an annual SpaceUp unconference. We will organize launch parties for Camden Spaceport’s first public rocket launches. As Georgia’s space community needs evolve, so will GSA.

I’m looking forward to seeing the seed of Georgia’s space community form, a seed that will grow into something much larger. I don’t yet know what that will look like, but I’m excited to find out!

Georgia Space Alliance:
Symposium on Space Innovations:

Friday, October 6, 2017

Is this a Spaceman or an Astronaut? Gendered Language

On Wednesday, the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, I was reading a Space News article about the event. One line stood out to me: “Space would be a place where the new man of the future, the communist man, would live, explore and create.” I immediately pictured a towering, heroic man resembling Yuri Gagarin preparing humanity’s way to explore the cosmos.

I realized something about myself just then. My initial instinct is to take words literally. If the word is “man”, I picture a man. If the word is “manned” as in manned spacecraft, I picture a man or men in a spacecraft. An instant later, I correct myself. I know better intellectually. The speaker or writer didn’t literally mean man the majority of the time, they meant human. But by that point, it’s too late. The image of a male has already formed in my head.

Am I the only person who thinks this way, I wondered? Does everyone else in the world instantly translate “man” as “human”? Or are there others whose first instinct is to literally imagine or interpret “man” or “manned” as a man or men?

I took to social media for an unscientific poll on the matter. I asked my mostly-space-involved Twitter audience and mostly-not-space-involved Facebook audience the following question and offered the following choices:

If I say "manned", what is your IMMEDIATE 1st impression/image?
1) a man
2) a woman
3) men and women
4) gender-neutral human

Of 106 responses on a 24 hour poll on Twitter:
42% voted gender-neutral human
32% voted a man
26% voted men and women
0% voted a woman.

Of the 11 responses on Facebook, 100% voted gender-neutral human.

So altogether, with 117 votes:
47% voted gender-neutral human
29% voted a man
24% voted men and women
0% voted a woman.

From this (unscientific) poll, I came to two conclusions:

First, I’m not the only one who literally thinks “a man” as an immediate first impression. A bit more than a quarter of the respondents think the same way I do. Unreasonably extrapolating this out, it’s possible a quarter of the English-speaking population forms the image of a man in their minds when reading about manned spaceflight, spacemen, unmanned, man-made, and other gender-specific terms.

Second, the majority of people don’t think this way. This may explain why transitioning from gender-specific terms to gender-neutral terms (e.g., manned spaceflight to human spaceflight or crewed spaceflight) is unimportant to some people. For most people who use gender-specific terms when they mean the gender-neutral equivalents, it’s a habit from years past, a slip of the tongue, or a concept that never occurred to them. But for some, they just don’t see the big deal in using gender-specific wording. Maybe in their minds, everyone automatically knows “man” means human. They may even think the emphasis on gender-neutral language is overly politically correct.

This week, I was introduced to a friend-of-a-friend whose first-grade-aged daughter wants to be an astronaut. But for some reason, despite knowledge of female astronauts, this girl thinks only boys can be astronauts. The mom said when they search for astronauts online, they find mostly male images. This could be because most astronauts have been men. This could also be because the general perception of “astronaut” in popular culture is male or for boys.

Since becoming a mother two years ago, I see the deep and widespread sexism in baby and child marketing from birth onward. Space-themed baby or children items are almost always labeled for boys. What impact does this gender-labeling of space, combined with gender-specific terms such as manned spaceflight and spaceman, have on the quarter of the population who literally forms an image of a male astronaut in their minds when hearing these terms? Is it enough to turn off a space-loving first grader who may go forward in life thinking a space career isn’t for her because she’s a girl?

Words matter. Word choice may not matter to you or to the majority of the population. But it may make a difference to others who think and process language differently than you do. I caught myself just today saying “congressmen” when I meant “members of congress” as a slip of the tongue. I recognize the changes I need to make within myself to be more accurate and inclusive in my language. Change comes from within ourselves first.