“When you’re a bloke, terms such as ‘mankind’ automatically include you. You don’t have to think about it at all; you’re already in there,” Alice Gorman, an archaeologist who studies the history and heritage of space exploration, wrote on her blog in 2014. “Women have to ‘think themselves into’ such expressions, even if it happens at a subconscious level.”
Research has found that this feeling of exclusion can have real, measurable effects. Studies by the National Institute of Mental Health in the 1970s, when NASA first began to recruit women astronauts, showed that women were significantly less likely to apply for jobs with titles that ended in man rather than person. A similar effect was found among men, who avoided professions with feminine-sounding names.
Such thinking is difficult to dispel. A study of college students in 1988 found that those instructed to complete sentences about professionals using he and him were more likely to imagine men, even when the researchers said the pronouns applied to both men and women. When the students used gender-neutral language, they pictured fewer men as they wrote.
This subconscious reasoning can take root early. In a 2013 study, when elementary-school teachers described male-dominated professions, such as astronaut, using masculine rather than gender-neutral language, their female students were more likely to think that women in those roles were less successful.
Astronauts who joined NASA in the 1990s say the agency had shifted away from manned and toward gender-neutral language by the time they arrived. But vestiges of Apollo-era vernacular still floated around, in part because many engineers who worked those missions were still at NASA. “There was still a lot of the same—I don’t want to say mind-set in a negative sense—but, ‘We call it this because we call it this, and no one’s ever questioned it,’” says Danny Olivas, who became an astronaut in 1998.
Pamela Melroy, another now-retired astronaut, remembers the terminology coming up in jokes. She joined NASA in 1995, after working as a pilot in the Air Force. When Melroy and a female colleague boarded a T-38, a sleek two-seater jet that astronauts often use for commuting, “the guys out on the flight line would tease me that it was an unmanned mission,” Melroy says.
NASA formally codified its preference for crewed and human over manned to describe spaceflight in the early 2000s, as part of a “major overhaul” of the agency’s internal style guide, says Stephanie Schierholz, a NASA spokesperson. Today the entry appears as follows:
manned, unmanned. Avoid use. In many cases, the distinction is unnecessary or implied. Substitute terms such as autonomous, crewed, human, piloted, unpiloted, robotic, remotely piloted.
“Now if we could just get others to follow suit,” Schierholz says.