Planetarium Online Exhibit

Has There Been an Out LGBTQ+ NASA Astronaut?

An online exhibit by Jordan Ecker, Planetarium Educator and Presenter

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, taken by Neil Armstrong, 1969. Public Domain, via NASA.

In the astronomy world, 1969 is immortalized by Neil Armstrong’s famous utterance “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”  In the 53 years since Armstrong made that “one giant leap” in the Sea of Tranquility, humanity has made numerous small steps that lead to giant leaps.  In the 1970s, the Women’s Liberation Movement made great gains towards equality with the passage of Title IX and the Fair Credit Opportunity Act.  African-Americans continued to fight against racism and bigotry by making sure the gains towards equality made in the 1960s were enforced.  The 1980s saw the fall of the Soviet Union, and the increase in diversity representation in media, the US government, and at NASA’s Astronaut Program.  The first women, African-American, and Asian-American astronauts flew towards the stars and into the history books that decade.  The decades that followed were marked with more gains, as the first African-American woman, Indian-American woman, and Native American man (among others) took to the skies.

In the LGBTQ+ world, 1969 is immortalized by violence.  On June 28 of that year, a police raid on the known gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in New York City’s Greenwich Village brought to a head a fight simmering underneath the equal rights charge of the decade.  Instead of being arrested for the crime of being themselves, the Stonewall’s patrons that night resisted – by throwing coins and cans at the police, as well as performing a defensive Rockettes’ kick line.  The police responded by pushing people, hitting them with nightsticks, and forcing them into armored police wagons.  Similar to the Boston Massacre being a turning point in the American Revolution 199 years earlier, the Stonewall Riots were the same in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.  Celebrations memorializing the riots began a year later, and, by the 1980s, the entire month of June became reserved for members of the LGBT community to embrace, celebrate, and take pride in who they are.

In the 53 years since the Stonewall Riots, LGBTQ+ rights have come a long way.  Members of the community cannot be discriminated against in housing, at work, in education, and they also have the right to marry. For all of the progress, the LGBTQ+ community still has a first that has eluded them – in the history of NASA crewed space flight, there has not been an Out astronaut.

What About Sally Ride?

When the topic of LGBTQ+ astronauts comes up, the first name that most people think of is Sally Ride.  In 1983, Sally Ride (1951-2012) became the first American woman in space, and, unbeknownst to NASA and the American public, became the first member of the LGBTQ+ community to go to space.  When Ride knew that her pancreatic cancer was terminal, she wanted to honor her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, in her obituary.  Ride, who was known for keeping her private life private, instructed O’Shaughnessy to reveal their relationship in her obituary, which O’Shaughnessy did when Ride passed in 2012.  Why might Ride want to keep her private life so private?

For the majority of the late 20th century, life was extremely hard for the LGBTQ+ community.  In almost all states, loving, let alone marrying, someone of the same sex was illegal.  Members of the trans community were commonly called “cross-dressers,” and were at risk, especially trans women, for muggings, or possibly worse, for wearing clothes that affirmed their gender.  Being “Gay” was still used as an insult by children and adults alike.  Members of the LGBTQ+ community probably felt safer keeping their private lives private.  As long as no one asked, they wouldn’t share that information.

In 1993, President Clinton summarized the country’s current feelings towards the LGBTQ+ community with his Presidential Order for the US Military – Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  This Presidential Order made it legal for members of the LGBTQ+ community to serve in the military – as long as they didn’t tell anyone they were a member of that community.  In order to prevent soldiers outing themselves, the order also said that military officers could not ask any soldier if they were a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Before President Clinton issued this order, it was illegal to serve in the US military as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and if soldiers were found out to be, then they were let go from the military – or worse.

The culture surrounding the LGBTQ+ community during Sally Ride’s history making acceptance into NASA’s astronaut program, and after, was not as welcoming as it is currently.  During this century, President Obama repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Supreme Court legalized Gay Marriage, and it became illegal to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ+ community.  We will never know why Ride felt the need to not be open about who she loved during her lifetime, but she will forever have two firsts next to her name in the history books:  the first American woman and the first member of the LGBTQ+ community to go to space.

Sally Ride, Public domain via NASA
Why Does Having an Open LGBTQ+ Astronaut Matter?

Representation matters.  The value of seeing someone in popular media of the same race, gender, or orientation cannot be overstated, especially as the make-up of the United States’ population shifts.  According to the most recent US census, the racial makeup of the United States is shifting towards persons of color, and 62% of the United States’ population growth between 2010 and 2020 was because of immigration.  Media representation not only affirms its consumers that they are part of popular culture, but it is also exposes people to those who are different from them, and expands their worldview.  Probably the most important reason why representation is vital is that it shows children they can do something.  Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space famously credits watching African American Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols’ character, Lieutenant Ulhura, as the reason she wanted to go to space.  Jemison saw that Nichols was not playing an African American stereotype, but a strong lieutenant working on a space ship and visiting new worlds, who happens to be African American woman.  Media representation inspires children to work toward their dreams, because it shows people like them are already out there.

NASA astronaut candidates are, to a lesser extent now, in the public eye, and in the media.  To have an Out member of the LGBTQ+ community as an astronaut would show younger community members that they can embrace all of themselves, and still reach the (literal) stars.  That they do not have to hide, or pretend to be something they’re not.  An Out NASA astronaut would allow young LGBTQ+ community members to see themselves in space.

What’s Being Done to Improve LGBTQ+ Representation in Space?

Some people may ask “if this is so important, what is being done to improve LGBTQ+ representation in space science?”  There are some great steps different organizations have taken to improve that representation (and work towards the first Out astronaut!)

While there are no Out NASA astronauts (yet!), the space agency has embraced their LGBTQ+ community members.  There is a section of NASA’s website dedicated to Pride Month, and highlights members of the LGBTQ+ community who work there, and what they do. 

Along with NASA showcasing their members of the LGBTQ+ community, the professional organization for LGBTQ+ STEM professionals, Out to Innovate, annually names a LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year.  The award honors a member of the LGBTQ+ community who has made outstanding contributions to their STEM field.  This year’s honoree, Astrophysicist Dr. Jane Rigby, works at NASA’s Goddard Flight Center, and is the Operations Project Scientist for the Webb Space Telescope, which launched on Christmas Day 2021.  When Rigby accepted the award, she commented that she “hop[ed] [she’s] part of the last generation to grow up without queer role models.  I hope this award brings hope to queer folks pursuing careers in STEM, and I hope it reminds organizations that inclusion matters every single day.”

NASA astronaut candidates are, to a lesser extent now, in the public eye, and in the media.  To have an Out member of the LGBTQ+ community as an astronaut would show younger community members that they can embrace all of themselves, and still reach the (literal) stars.  That they do not have to hide, or pretend to be something they’re not.  An Out NASA astronaut would allow young LGBTQ+ community members to see themselves in space.

Dr. Jane Rigby, Out to Innovate’s 2022 LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year, Public Domain via NASA

Not only are members of the LGBTQ+ community being publicly recognized for their contributions, there is at least one nonprofit organization working towards the goal of an Out astronaut.  The organization Out Astronaut is very publicly working towards that goal.  They believe that representation is important, not only for the next generation of LGBTQ+ space scientists, but also the current one.  According to Out Astronaut, over 40% of LGBTQ+ people currently working in STEM are not Out.  Their solution to the lack of representation is, with the backing of the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences, to sponsor an annual Out Astronaut merit-based grant that funds the winning candidate to attend the Advanced PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) Academy at Florida Tech.  Later, Out Astronaut wants to train and fly an exceptional LGBTQ+ student to space to conduct research.

By increasing the visibility of LGBTQ+ STEM professionals, along with organizations who are actively working towards finding an Out astronaut, hopefully we can soon add another first to the space list – the first Out astronaut.