Does Space Really Need to be Politically Correct?

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‘Unmanned Rocket Explodes After Liftoff.’ Most people would read this headline and think, “Thank goodness no one was on board!” because the term “unmanned” has, historically, been used to describe machines with no people on board. But others may think, “If there were people on board, I wonder what gender they would be?”

The divide comes after NASA decided to change the language they use to talk about spaceflight. But the reform isn’t exactly new. As of 2006, NASA’s Official Style Guide states that, “All references referring to the space program should be non-gender specific.” The only exceptions are for names of buildings and programs which are grandfathered in.

The uproar today, in 2015 (almost 10 years later), is because the term “unmanned” is still appearing in headlines, and is being used by many major organizations. But the folks throwing this word around aren’t just nobodies.

A recent Twitter conversation among some of the smartest people in space conjured up some alternatives to the gender-sensitive term, but quickly realized, it’s really tough to be politically correct in NASAspeak.

Well, unpiloted doesn’t work for a simple reason. Unpiloted means no pilot, not that no people are on board. In order to fly, the spacecraft has to be piloted by something, whether it’s a man, woman, robot, or who-knows-what. The pilot might not be on board, but it is certainly still “piloting the ship.”

These are all nice suggestions, but they don’t rule out having people physically onboard. Self-driving cars, for example, will be autonomous and pilotless, but not unmanned.

These words are not interchangeable, which makes finding a universal alternative so difficult.

You’d never describe Curiosity as “unoccupied,” because it was never designed to carry people in the first place (and that ship is actually occupied by a lot of cargo), so it just wouldn’t make sense. “Drone Aircraft” was thrown out there, too, but that would no doubt confuse people.

The experts half-heartedly agreed, “crewless” would be the best alternative, though it’s not (yet) in the dictionary.

I think what they’re looking for is “unhumaned,” but that’s not quite English, either.

You can read the entire Twitter conversation here and come up with your own alternative, but I will leave you with one last question:

Is it still politically correct to play R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon?”

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