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NASA Drops ‘Harmful’ and ‘Insensitive’ Nicknames For Cosmic Objects

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Aug 10, 2020

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Image Credit: NASA

NASA has announced that it is reevaluating its use of nicknames, or unofficial terminology, for cosmic objects.

Official names for astronomical objects like planets, galaxies, and nebulae, typically, comprise combinations of letters and numbers. So these objects are often assigned unofficial nicknames to make them more approachable to the general public. However, according to the announcement from NASA, these seemingly innocuous nicknames can be “insensitive” and “harmful.”

The space agency is dropping the terms ‘Eskimo Nebula’ (NGC 2392) and ‘Siamese Twins Galaxy’ (NGC 4567 and NGC 4568) with immediate effect. Considered a derogatory term used by racist, non-native colonizers, ‘Eskimo’ is believed to mean “eater of raw meat,” connoting barbarism and violence. In fact, this June, Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, an American ice cream company, changed the name of its Eskimo Pie, a product launched almost a century ago, due to the derogatory origins of the term. Last month, Canadian football team, Edmonton Eskimos, also dropped the word from its name, to become ‘Edmonton Football Team.’ The term ‘Siamese Twins,’ too, is considered inappropriate because it has its roots in a 19th-century “freak show,” where customers paid to gawk at a pair of adult conjoined twins who came from Thailand (earlier called Siam).

In addition, NASA will be working with a team of experts in diversity, inclusion, and equity, to guide them through a thorough examination of their unofficial terminology. The space agency has termed this endeavor a “part of its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” at a time when “the scientific community [is working] to identify and address systemic discrimination and inequality in all aspects of the field.”


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“These nicknames and terms may have historical or culture connotations that are objectionable or unwelcoming, and NASA is strongly committed to addressing them,” Stephen T. Shih, Associate Administrator for Diversity and Equal Opportunity at NASA Headquarters, said. To refer to cosmic objects whose nicknames are deemed inappropriate, NASA will only use the designations officially-assigned to them by the International Astronomical Union.

Following the announcement, certain conservative groups took to social media to criticize NASA, by calling its move “leftist race baiting” and “appeas[ing] the woke cult.” But, in conducting this systemic overhaul of terminologies for racial sensitivity, NASA has joined a long list of companies like Mrs. Butterworth’s, Washington Football Team, Uncle Ben’s, and Shaadi.com, among others, that are weeding out problematic elements of their branding, or operations, in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests, to reflect evolving mindsets.

“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,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said.

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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