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Emily LakdawallaOctober 5, 2015

Finding new language for space missions that fly without humans

Unmanned? Robotic? Unpiloted? Uncrewed? Unoccupied? Unhumaned? Drone? Autonomous? Crewless?

Historically, human spaceflight was described using the words "manned" and "unmanned," but NASA has shifted to using gender-neutral words to describe human space exploration. Since 2006, the NASA History Program Office Style Guide has stated:

All references referring to the space program should be non-gender specific (e.g. human, piloted, un-piloted, robotic). The exception to the rule is when referring to the Manned Spacecraft Center, the predecessor to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, or any other official program name or title that included "manned" (e.g. Associate Administrator for Manned Spaceflight).

Why is this important? The words that we use to describe human endeavors matter, and professional organizations are working now to shape a future that is more inclusive of people who are not male or white. As one example, the National Council of Teachers of English writes: "Word choices often reflect unconscious assumptions about gender roles. As professionals, we all need to examine our language to reduce or eliminate choices that silence, stereotype, or constrain others."

Many space news outlets now use the words "crewed" and "uncrewed" to distinguish spaceships that contain humans from ones that do not. While I like the gender-neutral shift, I personally don't like these words much; when spoken aloud, the unfamiliar "crewed" sounds like the more-familiar "crude," which is both negative-sounding and confusing. I usually use "human" and "robotic."

The Associated Press Stylebook (the law for many news organizations) has nothing specific to say on the matter, but in response to online questions, they still use the outdated "unmanned" and "manned":

AP editor answers to questions about usage of

On May 1, my fellow space blogger Jason Davis submitted his own question to the AP about their policy regarding the use of gender-neutral language to describe human spaceflight, pointing to the NASA History style guide. They have not responded.

That leaves mainstream media reporters who want to use more inclusive language in a tough position. Last week, there was a lengthy discussion on Twitter between New York Times science writer Kenneth Chang and several researchers about alternatives to the word "unmanned." I Storified the discussion, which is very much worth reading in its entirety, but here's the gist.

The conversation began when scientist David Grinspoon suggested another science writer use the word "robotic" rather than "unmanned" in an online article. Chang responded to Grinspoon that there were situations in which he has no choice but to use the word "unmanned." Chang's specific example was: the first line of an article in which a Space Station cargo resupply ship blows up. Chang said that he has written entire articles using gender-neutral language, only to have editors (often women, he pointed out), insert the word "unmanned" in the lede.

They insert the word because it's important to establish in the first line in as few words as possible that there were no people aboard the unfortunate spacecraft, and Chang's editors won't allow "uncrewed" because it's not in the dictionary. "Unpiloted" doesn't work because, in fact, the ships are piloted, with tightly controlled ascent and descent -- it's just not always a human doing the piloting. "Autonomous", "drone", or "robotic" vehicles could all contain humans, and indeed many modern vehicles are at least partially autonomous, from self-driving cars to passenger planes to human-carrying spaceflight capsules. In the cordial conversation that followed among Grinspoon, Chang, and several other researchers, they discussed a variety of alternative words and eventually hit upon the word "crewless," first suggested by astronomer Michele Bannister. Meanwhile, astronomer Alex Parker suggested that people submit "uncrewed" to the dictionary as a different way to solve the problem.

The conversation was interesting on its own merits. But I also think it demonstrates the value of Twitter as a platform for reasoned discussion. Read the entire conversation here.

I'm writing about this subject because I care about it personally, but The Planetary Society considers it an important organizational issue, too. Erin Greeson, our director of communications, told me:

Our mission is to empower the world's citizens to advance space science and exploration. Our mission, by nature, is all-inclusive. Language that potentially alienates any given group of people - whether based on gender, ethnicity, age, ability, or other - may impede our success. We thus strive to communicate in a way that reminds people of all walks of life that they do have a place in space: space is not for limited, isolated groups. This adventure is for everyone.

Hear, hear!

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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