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"Don't Stop Me Now!": The Perseverance of Women of Color in NASA during the 80s through the 90s (Arbeitstitel)

Throughout U.S. history, Women of Color (WOC) have been severely underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce. In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt would open the door for WOC as he signed Executive Order 8802, the “Fair Employment Practice in Defense Industries.” While in a racially segregated country, this decision prohibited racial discrimination in hiring and resulted in the recruitment of minorities in federal positions. Katherine G. Johnson, a mastermind mathematician, was selected and became one of the first Black women to work as a computer scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Langley Research Center. Her calculations were critical for the most significant achievement of U.S. aerospace: the three orbits of John Glenn around the Earth. She and many others would pave the way for other WOC to pursue and persist in STEM careers and aerospace domains when such occupations did not consider women. Executive Order 8802 serves as an example that policy changes are essential for deconstructing sexist and racial barriers within institutions. Nowadays, institutions have encouraged, developed, and implemented diversity and inclusion strategies to fight sexism and racism in the workplace. However, few studies focus on institutional policies and the efforts of U.S. federal agencies, such as NASA, to maintain and support WOC in the aerospace workforce from the 80s until the 90s.

The purpose of this doctoral research is to recount the lived experiences of WOC working in STEM careers at NASA during the 80s and the 90s, as well as to evaluate the role that institutional support from NASA might have played in advancing their careers. As an analytical framework I will employ critical race theory, specifically one of its theoretical tools, counternarratives, to analyze the personal experience of WOC put up against what is found in the administrative records at NASA. To do this, I will employ a mixed methodology of first, archive research, where I will search for records of anti-discrimination policies, professional development programs from NASA Headquarters and five research centers (Glenn Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, Ames Research Center, J.F. Kennedy Space Center) as the specific case studies. Second, oral history interviews will be conducted with approx. 25 WOC in the engineering, computer science, and mathematics fields. The data will be later examined to look for categories and emerging themes. Themes of particular interest will be associated with the challenges encountered, the strategies applied, and the institutional supports from NASA.

Cover photo: On Sept. 12, 1992, launch day of the STS-47 Spacelab-J mission on space shuttle Endeavour, NASA astronaut Mae Jemison waits as her suit technician, Sharon McDougle, performsa unpressurized and pressurized leak check on her spacesuit at the Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy Space Center. Dr. Jemison was the science mission specialist on the eight-day joint mission with Japan's space agency, which included 24 materials science and 20 life sciences experiments. She was the first African-American woman to fly in space. McDougle said of her role as Dr. Jemison's suit tech, "I just wanted it to be a good experience for her. I’m sure it was probably a little scary for her being the first African-American woman to go into space, so I wanted to do my part in making it special for her too. And for me, because I was excited about being a part of history." (Image Credit: NASA, https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/looking-back-astronaut-mae-jemison-suits-up-for-launch)