Stars in motion streaking across the dark sky.

Forging a New Path for Diversity in Outer Space

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally submitted as an entry to the Progress Notes Diversity Essay Contest.

“Space: The Last Frontier.” What if this border was not for all of us?

Of the approximately 600 people who have flown into space over the past 60 years, the overwhelming majority were white and male. If this group encompasses the majority of physiological and psychological data related to human adaptation to space, then the data might not be as useful as people traveling in space become more diverse. We see the same problem of insufficient recruitment of subjects from underrepresented minorities that is found in clinical trials and other research that only take place on Earth. Why should space be intrinsically different?

I’m not the first person to recognize these issues, but I’m part of the team creating the solution.

At the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), we realized that our scientific research needed to be applicable to diverse groups. However, this is only part of the problem. We are also committed to ensuring that underrepresented researchers can tackle the issues facing space health.

This situation meant that we had to make a significant change in ourselves. We created a program targeting underrepresented researchers and understanding their barriers to applying for and obtaining grants to work on space health research. Our program is just getting started, but we are already seeing the huge impact it can have.

I hear the same thing over and over again from underrepresented researchers and communities: “Space is mystifying; it’s not for me” or “We have problems here on Earth. Why should we care about space? I recognize their passion for caring for the community they see before them here on Earth. But they don’t see what I see. I see a new community that has the same systemic institutional issues – instead it’s just over the moon. This future colony practices medicine in space but does not understand how variability in drug metabolism based on gender or ethnicity is further compounded by the impact of the space environment on the human body. Lunar obstetricians/gynecologists must determine which aspects of women’s health are changing due to lower levels of severity. To answer these questions, we need people from all walks of life to think about and investigate these questions.

Our goal is to tell everyone that space is for all of us. It’s a little easier to explain now, considering what an incredible year the space has had in the public eye. In 2021, commercial space missions have exploded. Celebrities we know and love like Michael Strahan and William Shatner have gone to space for short trips and come back to tell us how transformative their brief experiences were. It’s easy to see these getaways as a waste of money, but it’s also easy to see these trips as new opportunities to study more diverse, non-professional astronauts and their own adaptation to the space environment. More than that, these thefts are just the beginning. The more currently underrepresented experts focus on Earth rather than space, the more underrepresented peoples will be left out of the conversation.

Therefore, we need to inspire underrepresented communities to become both astronauts going into space and researchers studying space today, so that our space communities tomorrow can be diverse. We need people from all walks of life and walks of life to bring new ideas to the forefront and help us meet the difficult challenges of living and working in space.

Most importantly, the space must be accessible to everyone. We cannot be a human race that takes its inequalities beyond the earth’s atmosphere. We cannot separate the upper echelons of society and everyone between Earth and outer space. We would then rise to another failed attempt at “separate but equal” and, having learned nothing of our earthly history, we could repeat it again in heavens and celestial bodies as yet unknown.

By Catherine Domingo, Research Administration Associate at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health at Baylor College of Medicine

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