Texas abortion ban could have unexpected impact on space industry


Texas’ new anti-abortion law could have an unintended side effect: upsetting the space industry.

On September 1, a new abortion law came into effect in the state of Texas; an almost total ban that prohibits all people from seeking, receiving or performing abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The law could nullify Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling to protect a pregnant person’s ability to choose to abort without undue government restriction, and is expected to face legal challenges. But as government officials continue to grapple with the legality of the ban, people who can get pregnant in Texas grapple with the grim realities of its ramifications – and its consequences are already reaching the space industry.

“This law is only a nightmare”, Frances “Coquelicot” Northcutt, now a Texas lawyer who became the first female engineer to work on NASA Mission Control during the Apollo program, Space.com said.

The new law prohibits abortions more than six weeks after the onset of a pregnancy – even before many people know they are pregnant – and allows individuals to prosecute offenders (including the medical professionals involved) for a monetary reward. The law comes despite a United Nations affirmation in 2018 that access to abortion be considered a human right. Even President Joe Biden has criticized the law, declaring that he is violating constitutional rights and calling on his administration to react.

Related: Pioneer Women in Space: A Gallery of Early Astronauts

Healthcare and spaceflight may seem independent, but Texas is a major aerospace hub. From NASA’s Johnson Space Center to offices, factories and launch sites owned by companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and many more, around 144,000 people are employed in Texas in the aerospace industry, the state reported in 2020.

NASA estimates whereas its Johnson Space Center in Houston employs 3,000 public servants and works with approximately 12,000 contract workers; agency-wide, a third of its employees are women. (These numbers only reflect gender binary categories.)

Comparable statistics are not available for private space companies based in Texas, but given the number of people working in aerospace in the state, it is clear that this law will have a direct impact on many people in Texas.

By affecting the space sector workforce in Texas, this contentious law could impact industry efforts to improve the diversity and inclusion of minority groups, including women and non-gender minorities. binaries.

The abortion ban has already started a conversation in the online space community, with women contacting each other and sharing their concerns about working in the aerospace industry in Texas and accepting jobs in the state.

“I had a handful of women * just today * looking for advice in my DMs [direct messages] because they are anxious either to decide to take a job in space in Texas or to have already accepted a job in space in Texas, ”science communicator Emily Calandrelli, who hosts the award-winning science series at Emmy “Emily’s Wonder Lab” on Netflix, tweeted September 2, the day after the law came into force. “Texas space rulers, please be careful of this. You are going to lose talent.”

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Calandrelli’s post also included an excerpt from a CNBC interview with Republican Governor of Texas Greg Abbott, who said that EspaceX founder Elon Musk “had to leave California because, in part, of social policies,” and this Musk “constantly tells me that he likes the social policies of the state of Texas.” California has a long-standing reputation for liberal policies, and abortion is legal in the state.

“In general, I think the government should seldom impose its will on the people and in doing so should aspire to maximize their cumulative happiness,” Musk tweeted in response to CNBC reporter Michael Sheetz, who shared the clip. “Having said that, I would rather stay out of politics.”

Space.com has contacted NASA and SpaceX for comment and has yet to receive a response.

An open letter

As concerns swirl over how this law could affect the space industry in general, a Johnson Space Center employee argues the agency should try to protect its employees despite the ban or state enacted law .

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Kira Altman, International Space Station flight controller at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, saw the repercussions this new law could have for people who work at the NASA center in Texas. In response, she wrote a open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, with guidance and support from Northcutt who, both as a lawyer and through her personal activism, works to support women’s reproductive rights and health care. (Altman told Space.com that his words and thoughts expressed in the letter are personal and do not reflect the agency or his professional role.)

In the letter, which Northcutt posted online on September 4, Altman wrote that, like many others at NASA, she works in a job that is “a dream come true” but now feels threatened.

“As an ISS flight controller who works on a console, I don’t have the option of doing my job outside of Texas. There are countless others like me – women who are flight controllers. flight, flight directors, astronauts, flight surgeons and administrators – who have now seen their freedom threatened, “she wrote.

“I am at the crossroads of an impossible decision: will I have to sacrifice my bodily autonomy to continue the work that I love?” the letter continues.

“I had to do something and channel my frustration,” Altman told Space.com, “and ask someone who had the power to hear me and understand how terrifying it is to have this at over my head. “

In the letter, Altman calls on NASA to proactively support its employees and make them feel safe despite the realities of the new law.

For example, the new law allows anyone (he doesn’t even have to be in Texas, Northcutt pointed out) to take legal action against someone seeking, providing, or assisting with an abortion. In one of the examples given by Altman of how NASA could protect its employees, she suggested that “there should be a program created to combat the lawsuits that will be brought against NASA employees,” she wrote in the letter.

The letter also suggests that JSC’s existing health clinic be equipped to perform abortions and that the agency develop a program to support employees looking for new aerospace jobs in another state.

“More than anything, your employees – government officials and contractors – need to know that the leaders of NASA will not stand idly by while our freedoms are private,” Altman wrote. “Know that your support will be invaluable.”

Altman told Space.com that “it’s not about being angry … I wanted to provide the solution.”

Some will feel the heat more than others

Altman noted that some have suggested that people might choose not to work in Texas or work remotely, but these opportunities are not available to everyone. In the space business, roles like hers exist only in person and in Texas.

In addition, “the women most affected [by laws like this] are the lower level workers “and” the people who are not yet working in the space program, “Northcutt told Space.com.

Thus, the law affects not only those already employed in the space industry, but also countless others who hope to one day have a role like Altman’s and who may be forced to reconsider their search for the job of their dreams. . Altman added that she had heard of people being reluctant to take space jobs in Texas before.

If people leave the state or turn down aerospace jobs at such a major space hub, it could seriously damage the space industry’s continued struggle to employ and retain women.

“It’s a guarantee that it will deter women from taking a job here or continuing their careers here,” Altman said. “It’s not something we can just ignore.”

It’s not just women

Northcutt stressed that the new law does not only affect women or only people who can get pregnant. In addition to those directly targeted by the law – people at risk of becoming pregnant, healthcare providers and more – other Texas residents would still be affected by their colleagues, family and friends struggling with the disease. repercussions of this law.

Additionally, Northcutt said she was particularly concerned with the way the law was drafted, which she said goes against standard legal practice in encouraging individuals to take ownership of its enforcement.

“Anyone who cares about the rule of law should be concerned,” said Northcutt, explaining that the extreme nature of the law and the way it was written could set a new precedent for the law itself.

“It’s a horrible precedent for how the law works,” Northcutt said, adding that “other states are lining up” to try to enact similar laws. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the same ripple in the South, in particular, as well as some states in the Midwest,” she said.

Northcutt added that whether or not NASA acts on one of Altman’s suggestions, there are likely many different ways the agency can creatively find ways to support its employees.

“We want you to push the boundaries,” Northcutt said. “Look at your assets as you would solve an Apollo problem.”

Altman said she had not yet received a response from Nelson, but was contacted by a NASA director.

Email Chelsea Gohd at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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