Sunday, July 10, 2005

Let our worth define our roles

This isn't a great headline, considering the circumstances: "Diverse shuttle crew is poised to put US back in space." JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, TEXAS – There's an Air Force test pilot, a triathlete, a Japanese engineer, a lead guitarist in a rock band, an Aussie named Andy, and a scientist from Queens who holds seven patents. And wrangling them all together is the commander they call "mom." These are the astronauts of shuttle Discovery - America's "return to space" crew. Most of them have been working together on this mission for years, becoming one of the best-prepared shuttle crews in history. They've also had longer than most to bond. That's because the majority of the group was one month away from liftoff when their ride to the International Space Station, the shuttle Columbia, disintegrated over east Texas Feb. 1, 2003. Since then, NASA has been studied from the inside out, its purpose questioned, and its mission restructured. I can't find it now, but I recall - during coverage of the Columbia disaster - some talking head or another (I want to say Katie Couric, but Google's giving me nothing) seeming to be most upset not at what the accident itself meant in terms of NASA's long-term plans, national morale, or the like, but instead the fact that the lost crew were a "United Nations in space," being appropriately Officially Diverse for her taste. It would be unfortunate to see echoes of that attitude still, the premise that American space policy should be a PR exercise in demonstrating just how Diverse a crew can be picked. The only question NASA should ask is if each crewmember is best in their field; nothing else matters. If that ends up making a crew that could be the wackily mismatched cast of a bad reality show, fine; if they're all thirtysomething white guys with crewcuts, that's fine too. Indeed, reading further into the article, it's clear that NASA's policy is to compose a team to accomplish specific tasks with specific skills. The headline is something of a misnomer, then, because it uses the term "diverse" properly, in a way that newspaperspeak rarely does. Instead of being used as a code word for "employing as many women and visible minorities as possible without regard for other qualifications," as usually employed in description of a team or group, it actually speaks to the diversity of skills required for Discovery's upcoming mission. I'm not sure whether to fault the CSM for using a word easily misinterpreted, due to decades of subtly massaging definitions, or the code word-users themselves, for causing this kind of second-guessing. (Or myself, for being led into accepting that definition.)

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