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Why sexuality trumps talent at NASA

In an ambitious endeavor to return humans to the Moon after over half a century, NASA’s Artemis missions have been celebrated as a landmark for diversity in a historically homogeneous field. While the upcoming Artemis II and III missions boast their diversity milestones, a recent account highlights the hurdles faced by some individuals working at NASA’s home base, Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Robin Witt, an electrical engineer, recently made the painful decision to resign from her position at ERC, a NASA-contracted engineering firm in Cape Canaveral. Witt, a transgender woman, cited Florida’s increasingly strict anti-transgender legislation as the primary factor behind her departure, marking a disheartening setback to her lifelong dream.

Recalling her involvement in constructing the Artemis I rocket, Witt described the launch as the “greatest moment” of her life. She conveyed her deep attachment to her work and the monumental achievements at NASA, stating, “That was my dream — that is my dream. That was the greatest moment in my life… Nothing I’ve ever seen before — and probably ever will see again — will compare to that moment.”

Unfortunately, Witt’s experience is emblematic of the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in Florida. The state, under the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis, has taken increasingly punitive measures against the transgender community, further emphasizing his stance on these issues during his presidential campaign.

These measures include the 2022 Parental Rights in Education Bill and the revival of the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” policies, alongside book bans that specifically target queer literature.

Witt, who had been a resident of Florida since elementary school, described the swift and severe changes in the state’s political landscape as “drastic.” In a poignant reflection on her situation, she mentioned, “Last year, I was talking about wanting to support the next launch and doing all that. And now, I can’t leave fast enough.”

She also expressed feelings of being “chased out” and the fear she and her friends experience in light of the ongoing developments, noting an overwhelming sense of grief. Witt’s ordeal is a stark reminder that, despite NASA’s commitment to diversity in its Artemis missions, the employees and contractors remain subject to the laws and social attitudes prevalent in the states where NASA conducts its operations.

Tragically, this includes the case of Witt, who was compelled to make an agonizing choice between her human rights and her cherished career in aerospace engineering.

The challenges faced by individuals like Robin Witt underline the importance of addressing diversity and inclusivity not only at the high-profile level of the Artemis missions but also at the grassroots level of those who contribute to the agency’s missions, often silently enduring the impact of local laws and sentiments.

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