NASA: ‘Certain Cosmic Nicknames’ Are ‘Actively Harmful,’ Will ‘Reexamine’ Their Use

NASA will “reexamine” its colloquial names for galaxies, stars, planets, and other cosmic systems to cut down on “insensitive” space terminology.

NASA announced on Wednesday that it would begin reviewing unofficial names, and change the way researchers refer to certain “cosmic objects” by either using the scientific name or finding a fitting new nickname.

“As the scientific community works to identify and address systemic discrimination and inequality in all aspects of the field, it has become clear that certain cosmic nicknames are not only insensitive, but can be actively harmful,” the space agency said in a statement. “NASA is examining its use of unofficial terminology for cosmic objects as part of its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

NASA continued:

NASA will no longer refer to planetary nebula NGC 2392, the glowing remains of a Sun-like star that is blowing off its outer layers at the end of its life, as the “Eskimo Nebula.” “Eskimo” is widely viewed as a colonial term with a racist history, imposed on the indigenous people of Arctic regions. Most official documents have moved away from its use. NASA will also no longer use the term “Siamese Twins Galaxy” to refer to NGC 4567 and NGC 4568, a pair of spiral galaxies found in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster. Moving forward, NASA will use only the official, International Astronomical Union designations in cases where nicknames are inappropriate.

In June, Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream announced that it was purging the name “Eskimo Pies” from its line of snack cakes. The company had determined that the name “Eskimo,” which typically refers to indigenous peoples living in places such as Canada and Alaska, was “derogatory.”

NASA said the new names would further its mission and keep the focus of its work on science. “Often seemingly innocuous nicknames can be harmful and detract from the science,” the agency said.

“I support our ongoing reevaluation of the names by which we refer to astronomical objects,” NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement. “Our goal is that all names are aligned with our values of diversity and inclusion, and we’ll proactively work with the scientific community to help ensure that. Science is for everyone, and every facet of our work needs to reflect that value.”

Stephen Shih, who heads the agency’s Diversity and Equal Opportunity office, added, “These nicknames and terms may have historical or culture connotations that are objectionable or unwelcoming, and NASA is strongly committed to addressing them.”

“Science depends on diverse contributions, and benefits everyone, so this means we must make it inclusive,” Shih said.

In June, prestigious scientific journals Cell, New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), and Science Magazine published a series of editorials condemning “systemic racism” in their own publications and in the scientific community at large.

“Science has a racism problem,” the editorial board at Cell declared.

“Slavery has produced a legacy of racism, injustice, and brutality that runs from 1619 to the present, and that legacy infects medicine as it does all social institutions,” the NEJM editorial board wrote in a nod to The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” an effort to base the founding of the United States and all progress since in slavery.

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