Why Mars Needs Diversity

Mars Diversity

In Ann Friedman’s 2014 profile of American astronaut Sally Ride, she notes that in 1990, NASA management “quietly ordered a working group of physicians to declare homosexuality a ‘psychiatrically disqualifying condition’” for astronaut selection. Although this rule was never implemented, to this day, no space agency has ever hired an openly queer astronaut. None have voluntarily come out while on active duty either – it remains an unwritten cultural rule that queer astronauts should remain firmly ‘in the closet’.

In the nearly sixty years since Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly into space, we’ve seen space exploration progress steadily in tearing down the barriers it once set up. Just last year, Dr. Sian Proctor became the first Black woman – a civilian, no less – to pilot a spacecraft on the Inspiration4 mission, along with Hayley Arceneaux becoming the first astronaut with a prosthetic. However, as we see with the implicit exclusion of the 2SLGBTQ+ community from the astronaut corps and other continuing issues within the space industry that make it unwelcoming to marginalized groups, it still has a long way to go. These are just part of a plethora of cultural and systemic issues within human society that continue to stagger diversity in space.

But why does diversity matter, and why will it matter to our future in the cosmos?

It Takes a Village

There is no one best personality for an inhabitant of a Martian community. Nor is there a single best skillset, background, education, age, sex, culture, or personal philosophy – just as it takes a village to raise a child, it will take a world to build a city on Mars. In the same way that a diverse ecosystem is resilient against disease, a diverse community is resilient against adversity, whether it is based on Earth or in the farthest reaches of the Oort Cloud. The relationships that form between radically different kinds of people, nurtured in the right environment, leads to a flourishing in creativity, effectiveness, and richness of life.

Anywhere we build a community, the proactive cultivation of diversity should be an explicit goal.

The first few expeditions to Mars may only carry a handful of scientists and engineers, but this is not sufficient to build a civilization. Farmers, artists, sociologists, lawyers, architects, teachers, and caregivers are just a few of the myriad professions that a growing culture needs. There is space for all, because all are needed. When a crisis comes that forces the Martians to throw out their textbooks, someone with a non-traditional background and unusual perspective could be the one who saves the day with their unique insight.

Diversity should not be limited to technical skill sets. Diversity of lived experiences also enrich a community with a greater capacity for innovation and positive change. In June last year, the science fiction-based LGBTQ+ empowerment nonprofit Gaaays In Spaaace (GIS) hosted a panel called A Transwarp Conduit to Transcending Our Differences: A Celebration of Our Trans/Non-Binary Family that focused on the experiences of transgender and nonbinary individuals with science fiction.

“I found that being trans is a superpower,” shared GIS Board of Directors Chair Inara Tabir, CEO of Galaxis Aerospace and a transgender woman. “I went from thinking of it as like a plague or a curse that was put on me to thinking of it like a tool, and then I realized that it’s a core piece of who I am. I wouldn’t trade being trans for being cis any day. This is something that I think is unique about us, but as a trans person I’m always analyzing our assumptions about what’s fixed and what’s not in a person, or in society.”

Having learned to fight against deeply-entrenched norms about gender and sexuality as a matter of survival throughout her life, Tabir found empowerment in transforming a lifetime of struggle into a force for good: “I realize, being a trans person, that a lot of our assumptions are just things we’ve normalized. I think that’s my biggest superpower. Any crew I’m on, in the space world, or the sci-fi world, or just in general in life, I’m able to help bring that to the table and give a little bit of that perspective to others, and that makes me an asset to any group I’m involved in, for sure.”

(The quote has been abridged for brevity. The full transcribed text is available in the footnotes1.)

Tabir’s experiences as a transgender person is an example of how gender diversity contributes to the long-term survival of the human race by improving its capacity for adaptation and lateral thinking. In the harsh, unpredictable environment of space, other dimensions of diversity will also be vital to the creation of a thriving civilization.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

However, walking this path demands caution: It is misguided to ground the value of diversity purely in terms of tangible utility to society. After all, the ultimate goal of the exploration and inhabitation2 of space is for the benefit of humankind – all of it, regardless of identity. We should include those who are traditionally excluded from the benefits of space exploration, for the simple reason that they are sentient beings and therefore deserve to be treated with fairness and dignity. To better understand the needs of minorities and to ensure that no-one is left behind, diverse representation in decision-making is necessary to better serve them. It stands to reason that the best people to provide information on a problem are the ones who must face it throughout their lives.

In short, as the mixing of different perspectives fosters creation and innovation, they also force us to have improved empathy for others. At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the surge in public consciousness of the marginalization faced by Black Canadians also threw light upon the struggles of Indigenous peoples, and the insidious ways in which colonial institutions still endure in our society. These issues coming to the forefront of public consciousness have forced us to question the foundations of the policing, penal, and healthcare systems, and how they can be unjust and destructive. Hence, the door to transform them or to dismantle them and make way for something better is opened.

In future cities and villages in space, it will become more clear than ever before in our history that consciousness and people are precious, being so isolated and surrounded by deadly atmospheres. Especially in the early years, the loss of even a single person could be injurious to a Martian city. They will need to value everyone as key parts of the community – if not as a matter of morality, as a matter of collective survival.

Humanity must find strength in our incredible diversity. Throughout history, at the intersections where two cultures collide as equals, we have seen not a dilution or weakening of either, but the synthesis of something new that enriches both. Diversity makes communities richer and more vibrant, if we take care to nurture it.

Dimensions of Diversity

When I began brainstorming the mandate for the position of Chief Diversity Officer for the Mars Society of Canada, I reflected on my array of experiences living in two different countries, meeting people from dozens of different cultures, my past and present work in social justice, and the troubles that our society faces. I wanted a diversity framework that did not simply improve some metrics, but that actually helped strengthen organizations and the societies in which they operate. I condensed my thoughts down into five pillars of diversity:

Anti-exclusion: The first step is to tear down barriers that unfairly exclude people. While much of the policies that blatantly excluded marginalized groups from space have been dismantled in the past few years, we still see an abundance of soft barriers to entry, such as hostile work environments for women and queer-identifying people in the space industry. Other barriers are less obvious, such as the accessibility difficulties faced by disabled and neurodivergent individuals.

Pro-inclusion: In canvassing for Martians to join the Mars Society of Canada, a common reaction we have received is that people simply “didn’t know we existed.” Even after all exclusionary barriers are removed, the lingering effects of historical injustice can still make it difficult for marginalized groups to join the effort. Non-traditional audiences may be less likely to hear about opportunities or imagine themselves using them, meaning that extra resources should be targeted at them. The organization’s strategy should actively seek to build diversity.

Equity: We must be cognizant of the social realities of inequality, and how they distort the playing field. Two people of equal merit and work ethic may not find equal success or recognition due to factors beyond their control, such as race, economic status, or gender. When we make decisions, we should ensure that all voices are heard and fairly considered, taking care to check unconscious bias. For example, this means calling on those who are normally talked over or ignored to weigh in during discussions.

Infinite diversity in infinite combinations (IDIC): Taken from a tenet of Vulcan philosophy from the Star Trek franchise, this means that it is not enough to have diversity; it must be actively cultivated and appreciated. To reap the benefits of diversity, an organization must have a culture that supports diversity, and the roots of these benefits are in the constructive conflicts that result from the collision of two different perspectives. It is in constructive conflict that creativity begins and stagnation ends.

Vision: To build the future, one must first be able to imagine it. We need a goal, a dream of the kind of civilization we want to be, or we will lose our way. When we align our efforts with a vision, we find a way from our flawed present to a better future, we are fueled by a cause greater than ourselves, and we are inspired to work together. Vision drives us to work for things that will not come to fruition until long after we have passed on, and that attitude is how we will become an interplanetary species that endures for thousands of years.

Together, these five pillars of the mandate allow diversity to take root and grow.

The Next Giant Leap

What distinguishes the modern age of space exploration from the Apollo era is the greater focus on the problems of long-duration spaceflight and of permanent human presence in space. When we think about building societies, the question of “Who is the best person for the job?” starts to become less important than the question of “Who is the best person for the team?” Like spacecraft and biospheres, societies are systems. We are no longer simply transiting through space or visiting it – we are going to stay. And to stay, we cannot ignore the issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

The isolation of space is an opportunity to build and experiment with new societies that overcome the problems that plague Earthbound ones. We should strive to make them safe and welcoming places where people can live and work as their whole, authentic selves, because that will unlock the full power of diversity. But more fundamentally, we must make our communities safe and welcoming because space is neither. Despite the vastness of space, space habitats are too small to allow us to run away from our problems. We shall confront them.

When an ecosystem experiences a shock, having multiple species playing each role allows it to survive and recover. When an engineer designs a sensor suite, fusing the data from multiple different kinds of sensors results in a better measurement; one more accurate than any one of them could have had alone. When a democracy needs to make a decision, the checks and balances that govern it rely upon the balancing and integration of multiple perspectives.

Why should the Martians be any different?

Footnotes

1 Transcript of Inara Tabir’s speech on her experiences of being transgender:

“I found that being trans is a superpower. I went from thinking of it as like a plague or a curse that was put on me to thinking of it like a tool, and then I realized that it’s a core piece of who I am. I wouldn’t trade being trans for being cis any day. This is something that I think is unique about us, but as a trans person I’m always analyzing our assumptions about what’s fixed and what’s not in a person, or in society.

A lot of people may think that gender and sex and sexuality are all fixed, but for me, it’s like I see that we have so many different levels of experience, and who we are is such a mix-up and a mash-up of possibilities, and as a trans person, I’m always on the lookout for that. I’m always trying to compare that to other things around me, so I question everything: politics, and societal structures, and religious assumptions, all these different things, because I realize, being a trans person, that a lot of our assumptions are just things we’ve normalized.

I think that’s my biggest superpower. Any crew I’m on, in the space world, or the sci-fi world, or just in general in life, I’m able to help bring that to the table and give a little bit of that perspective to others, and that makes me an asset to any group I’m involved in, for sure.”

2 My usage of the word ‘inhabit’ to describe the act of humans going to live in space is borrowed from the Mars Society of Canada’s Architectural Concept Developer, Aastha Kacha. It is used here to avoid promoting the negative historical connotations normally associated with the words ‘colonize’ or ‘settle’.

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