The internet is arguably the best thing humanity has created. We have unlimited access to the entire wealth of human knowledge at our fingertips that we can easily access from a device that we carry around in our pocket. And quite often, we use this limitless capability in the best ways possible – to look at cat memes and photoshop cats into astronaut suits.
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But the internet can also be a terrible place, as a would-be NASA intern (who we will call “Bianca” in this article) found out earlier this week.
She is clearly, and understandably excited. It’s definitely a big deal, and something to be proud of.
I can somewhat relate to the excitement. Here’s my public response back when NASA invited me to go to Kennedy Space Center to see the launch of the TESS mission:
What you didn’t see from me publicly was the cascade of excited expletives I screamed at my girlfriend as I was reading the email. I figured that it’s probably not a great idea to use profanity when associating yourself with the best space agency in the world.
(Plus, in my application I sent to NASA, I promised to not use profanity.)
A seemingly random person on Twitter agreed with my mindset, and simply responded by saying “Language.”
A simple and respectful reminder that when identifying yourself publicly as a representative of your employer, you are expected to act in a professional manner.
Everybody makes mistakes. It’s really not a big deal. It’s very clear that Bianca was rightfully excited about the gig, and is used to talking to her friends like that. What really matters is how you respond to mistakes and how you learn from mistakes. And in this instance, Bianca decided to double down:
There were three options here. Delete the original tweet and repost something a bit more professional (why WOULDN’T you want to tell the world you have a gig with NASA?!), ignore the reply, or double down.
Now we have someone who is identifying as a NASA employee publicly telling someone to “suck [her] dick and balls.” Yikes. That’s a problem.
The problem is made worse by the fact that Homer Hickam isn’t just a random stranger on the internet. He’s a god damn NASA legend.
Hickam is a former NASA engineer who trained the first Japanese astronauts, and who wrote Rocket Boys which was turned into the film October Sky.
His work also includes the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station.
Oh, and that whole “National Space Council” thing, too.
As one of my followers said:
And the replies by others to Hickam’s tweets weren’t the best. Some got even worse, insulting Hickam himself, while others used hashtags that NASA’s social media team monitors. This got the attention of staff at NASA, and reportedly resulted in Bianca having her internship revoked.
Many were quick to blame Hickam for taking away the internship, but as he pointed out on his own blog:
I’m a Vietnam vet and not at all offended by the F-word. However, when I saw NASA and the word used together, it occurred to me that this young person might get in trouble if NASA saw it so I tweeted to her one word: ‘Language’ and intended to leave it at that,” he wrote. “Soon, her friends took umbrage and said a lot of unkind things but long after I was gone as I immediately deleted my comments and blocked all concerned.
He also added:
I do not hire and fire at the agency or have any say on employment whatsoever,” he wrote, explaining that “the NASA hashtag her friends used… called the agency’s attention to it long after my comments were gone.
This is a great lesson, and as one of my followers pointed out, should be pinned to the wall of every high school guidance counselor as a lesson in what not to do.
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You are free to talk to your friends and family however you please, with as much or little profanity as you want. But when you identify yourself as a NASA intern, and in the same post tell someone to “suck your dick and balls,” then it becomes a concern for NASA, or whoever your employer happens to be. It’s of particular concern for an agency such as NASA, who has the best and brightest scientists working for them all over the world. As an agency, they can’t afford to have representatives hurling insults at strangers.
The situation would have been different had she behaved in the same way but not given herself an air of authority by name dropping her employer. Companies are concerned with their reputation, and like it or not, when you identify as an employee of a company, you are serving as a representative of the company – whether or not you want to.
I started this blog while I was a Case Manager for the Indiana Department of Child Services, and I never once mentioned my employer anywhere for this very reason. My former employer soon found out about my blog. I was made to sign a document that stated I wouldn’t identify as an employee of the Department of Child Services because someone potentially could cite me as a source in a court hearing as a public representative. It was a risk they didn’t want to take.
And an agency like NASA, whose main job is minimizing risks for failure, isn’t going to take any unnecessary risks.
That said, Hickam said that Bianca reached out to him and apologized for the situation. Showing remorse for mistakes demonstrates that she’s learned from the mistake. Hopefully she will be able to find another opportunity with NASA or a different agency.
Like I said, everybody makes mistakes. It happens. And ultimately, this was a rather minor, but very public, mistake. There’s no reason for her future career to be derailed and no reason for people to harass her over it. That’s why I didn’t use her real name and blurred out her Twitter handle (which she’s since
Yes, the situation is pretty funny. It’s okay to laugh about it. But we’d all do better to have a quick laugh at the situation, wish Bianca the best, and have everyone move on.