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What’s new for women+ on the science teams for NASA’s robotic planetary missions?

September 13, 2019

This post was written by: Julie A. Rathbun (PSI), J. A. Grier (PSI), Kathy Mandt (APL), Franck Marchis (SETI), Moses Milazzo (Other Orb), Jen Piatek (CCSU), Edgard Rivera-Valentín (LPI), Kunio Sayanagi (Hampton U.), Matthew S. Tiscareno (SETI)

In this article, we examine the percentage of women-presenting people (hereafter referred to as women+) on spacecraft science teams.  This and our previous analyses examine gender presentation and not actual gender. Actual gender is not binary and can only be determined by asking each individual.  However, gender presentation is likely an important factor in considering implicit and other biases that are likely impacting the selection of spacecraft science teams. This is not a scholarly article and no social scientists are co-authors.  Instead, we, a group of practicing planetary scientists, inferred the gender of each individual who was listed as a member of a spacecraft science team. We are assuming that if we perceive an individual as being a woman, for example, other planetary scientists would also perceive that individual in that way and treat them according to the usual stereotypes and implicit biases that are often associated with women in science.  We did not use explicit criteria, but instead allowed our unconscious biases to inform our decisions. We have noticed that currently, most planetary scientists still perceive only two genders and, therefore, are likely to make decisions based on their interpretations of the gender binary. Furthermore, many of the scientists whose gender we inferred have retired or have passed away, so looking at actual gender by surveying the individuals involved would not have been possible, though we suggest missions begin doing this now.  Non-binary scientists have made great advances in planetary science, and we hope that the planetary science community will gain a deeper appreciation of genders beyond the gender binary and that we will be able to study the more holistic gender diversity that exists on science teams. We applaud the scientists that are working to change this and strongly recommend everyone read this white paper submitted to the Astronomy 2020 Decadal Survey committee (

Additionally, true diversity and inclusion rest on much more than gender. Studies have shown that racial and ethnic minority groups are the most underrepresented in planetary science (Horst et al., 2018; Schindhelm et al., 2019; Bernard and Cooperdock, 2018).  Furthermore, most studies don’t even consider disability status, LGBTQ+ status, or other marginalized identities. 

Rathbun (2017) found the names of the original science team members for 26 NASA robotic planetary missions that were selected over a period of 41 years.  They used the work of a group of planetary scientists (some of the same authors as this post, so hereafter we will use “we”) that went through these lists of science team members. In the cases where one of us had met the person, we used the gender we had been using for that person.  At that time we did not know of any non-binary scientists on the lists. If we had not met the person, we looked for photographs on-line and determined gender from those. In some cases, we found articles about the person that used gender pronouns. We found no cases of non-binary gender pronouns being used.  In a small number of cases, we relied on the name only to infer the person’s gender.

Our results published in Rathbun (2017) showed that women+ are underrepresented on the science teams for NASA’s robotic planetary missions.  While women+ make up more than 50% of the US population, they make up only 25-30% of the planetary science community. But, their representation on the science teams for NASA’s robotic spacecraft is even lower, having remained constant at an average value of ~15% since the beginning of the millennium, with individual missions ranging between ~10%-25% women+.  On the plot, the area of the circle is proportional to the log of the size of the mission team.

We further found that New Horizons, when selected in 2001, had 3 women+ named as part of the science team (PIs, Deputy PI, and Co-Investigators) making up 16% of the team, Juno (selected in 2005) had 4 women+ making up 13% of the science team, and OSIRIS-REx (selected in 2011) had 9 women+ making up 25% of its science team.  We note that we looked only at the originally defined team members and that, due to the length of these missions, the composition of the teams have changed with time. We did this because the names of official science team members are publicly released and therefore available for all past missions. Mission teams will naturally evolve over the course of the mission, but not all team changes are publicly documented, making it difficult to compile equivalent statistics for all past missions.  These missions are part of NASA’s New Frontiers program of medium-sized missions that, like the smaller Discovery-class missions, are proposed and led by a single Principal Investigator (PI). All of these missions are still operating (  In 2017, NASA released an announcement of opportunity (AO) for another New Frontiers mission.

One notable difference in the 2017 AO compared to previous AOs was the addition of one phrase: “NASA recognizes and supports the benefits of having diverse and inclusive scientific, engineering, and technology communities and fully expects that such values will be reflected in the composition of all proposal teams as well as peer
 review panels (science, engineering, and technology), science definition teams, and mission and instrument teams” (   At the time, we hoped this new language would result in an increase in the participation of women+ on the proposal teams.   While we do not know the percentage of women+ on the proposed New Frontiers teams, the selected mission was recently announced to be Dragonfly and we do have access to information about that mission team.  We used the list of team members available from and determined which team members were scientists and which were engineers to keep our analysis the same as that in Rathbun (2017).  

From our investigation, we have found that there are 13 women-presenting scientists on the Dragonfly team making up 42% of the science team. When we added this data point to the plot of the percentage of women+ on spacecraft teams, we had to change the scale of the plot!  The original plot maxed out at 35%, so this team with 42% women+ is a dramatic increase. While it is impossible for a single data point to convince us of a new trend (we’re waiting for the results of the Discovery AO that went out last year), the sheer size of the improvement makes us hopeful that this bodes well for the diversity on future NASA robotic space missions.  While NASA does not control the make-up of spacecraft science teams, they do control which team is selected and we hope that the new AO language encourages mission proposal PIs to consider the diversity of their proposed teams.

The 42% of the Dragonfly team that is women+ includes Dr. Zibi (Elizabeth) Turtle, who is the first woman to PI a New Frontiers mission.  Previous missions that have been led by women+ have all been Discovery-class missions, including Grail led by Maria Zuber, Dawn (the team with the previous highest percentage of women+) led by Carol Raymond, NEOCam led by Amy Mainzer, and Psyche led by Lindy Elkins-Tanton.   Flagship class missions do not have individuals who lead the entire science team. Instead, each instrument or investigation has a PI. While we have not performed an exhaustive search for women+ who have been instrument PIs on NASA flagship missions, there have certainly been very few and we can only think of one mission with more than one woman as instrument PI.  Furthermore, we are not aware of any mission or instrument PIs who identify as non-binary nor do we know of any scientists of color who have served in such a role. We are only aware of one woman of color who has been an original co-I on a mission science team. This demonstrates that while there has been progress for white women in planetary science, more work needs to be done for members of other underrepresented groups.

When the Europa Clipper instruments were announced in 2015, three of the nine selected instruments had women+ as PIs.  The Mapping Image Spectrometer for Europa (MISE) is led by Diana Blaney, the Europa Imaging System (EIS) is led by Zibi Turtle , and the Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG) was led by Carol Raymond. Having fully one third of the instrument teams led by a woman PI is a remarkable achievement and, along with the diversity in the Dragonfly mission, bodes well for the future of women+ who want to be involved in the science teams of NASA’s robotic spacecraft.  However, the previous discussion speaks only about the selected teams and the composition and leadership of teams can change after selection. Earlier this year, NASA announced that the ICEMAG instrument would be removed from the Europa Clipper payload. Since Clipper’s science goals included looking for an ocean and a magnetometer is a great instrument for doing that, NASA decided to then add a “Facility magnetometer” to the mission and keep the entire original ICEMAG science team, but with a change in leadership.  In effect, Carol Raymond was removed as an instrument PI from the Clipper mission and the new leader was announced to be Margaret Kivelson from UCLA. (See OPAG finding #1 from March 2019 for more details: 

We don’t know the details surrounding Dr. Raymond’s removal from leading the magnetometer team, but it is concerning that this happened to one of the few women leaders on a planetary mission when we cannot think of something of this magnitude happening to any of the much larger numbers of male PIs.  NASA asserts that the ICEMAG instrument was facing serious and unmitigable cost overruns, but many NASA missions have faced serious and unmitigated cost overruns (such as JWST and Mars 2020). In addition, much of STEM has a problem with equity, diversity, and inclusion (e.g. Williams et al., 2016) and most of those problems are structural.  This recent incident is consistent with structural issues such as implicit bias against women+, where women+ are held to a much higher standard than their male counterparts. We would like to see combating implicit bias to be an explicit part of NASA’s process of evaluating spacecraft missions and instruments, particularly when the PIs involved are members of underrepresented groups..  Additionally, it is important for NASA to consider the impact that removing a minoritized PI (and the method of removal) has on some members of the community, given the existing very low number of minoritized people in positions of leadership (see OPAG finding linked above for similar recommendations).  Finally, NASA should continue to encourage and reward proposals with diverse science and engineering team membership (through all leadership levels) and encourage, through policy change if necessary, the needed cultural shift within the space exploration community.

We applaud NASA and the planetary science community for all the great work they have done to increase the number of women+ on spacecraft science teams.  These efforts appear to be working and might even be wildly successful. However, we also urge NASA and the planetary science community to understand that diversity and inclusion are different and may require different strategies to address them.  While spacecraft teams are becoming more diverse, are our communities more inclusive? Are we truly embracing the ways different people work and accomplish our goals, or are we presenting a “bait and switch” scenario, where groups traditionally underrepresented in missions/planetary science are told they will be given the support they need, but then end up having that support taken away?

+ As discussed in the first paragraph, we say women+ to denote people that the authors perceive as women and that invoke, in us, women-in-science stereotypes and implicit biases. 


Bernard, R. E. and Cooperdock, E. H. G (2018) No progress on diversity in 40 years, Nature Geoscience 11, 292-295.

Horst, S., Rivera-Valentin, E. G., Rathbun, J., Chanover, N. J., Diniega, S., Mandt, K., Marchis, F., Piatek, J., Thomas, C., Tiscareno, M. (2018) Introducing the DPS Professional Culture and Climate Subcommittee (PCCS), DPS #50, 213.05

Rathbun, J. A. (2017) Participation of women in spacecraft science teams, Nature Astronomy 1, 0148.

Schindhelm, R. N., Rathbun, J. A., Diniega, S., Brooks, S.M., Horst, S.M., Mandt, K.E., Piatek, J., Rivera-Valentin, E.G., Soto, A., Tiscareno, M.S., Thomas, C. (2019) Making Planetary Science More Inclusive: An Introduction to the Work of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences Professional Culture and Climate Subcommittee (PCCS), LPSC 50, id2849.

Williams, J. C., Phillips, K. W., Hall, E. V. (2016) Tools for Change: Boosting the Retention of Women in the STEM Pipeline, Journal of Research in Gender Studies 6(1): 11-75.

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