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Coping With Injustice

© 2023 Lane Wallace

Aviation for Women magazine, May/June issue, 2023

Fact: The World Is Not Fair.


I’ve struggled with this truth since I was a little girl, because—in addition to being female, which exposes us to more instances of unfairness while simultaneously giving us less power and status to affect the outcomes—it seems I have an overdeveloped sense of justice. So I’ve shed emotional blood on many battles others would have left alone. And that means I’ve also had to learn some hard lessons on how to cope with losing.


For example. I wrote six books for NASA over a span of 15 years. All of them required a ton of work, pages of careful documentation, and stretching my brain to comprehend and then translate complex topics into readable English, so the American public could understand why the work NASA does matters. The first book I wrote won a prestigious award, and NASA came to me, sole-source, for all the others, because my standards for accuracy and quality were so high. That recognition meant a lot to me. And I was always really proud of the work I produced for them.


Eighteen months ago, however, I discovered that NASA had updated one of my books without telling me. NASA had the right to do that. But when I looked at the online version of the new book, I was stunned. First, because it was just my old book, word for word, with a couple of new front pages and one new chapter clumsily slapped onto the end. But the bigger problem lay with the new material, and the contractor who claimed to have written it—and who put his name on the cover with mine, claiming to be a co-author.


The new material sounded familiar. So I went back to my original book and discovered that the contractor had, among other things, just tweaked the original Foreword and claimed the plagiarized work as his own. But that wasn’t the worst part. The updated chapter—the only part he could have claimed to have written—had a disjointed feel to it, as if someone had just cut and pasted articles and fact sheets together. So I dug deeper. In just an initial search, I discovered 12 entire sections that had, in fact, been lifted word for word from other people’s bylined work. Without attribution. That level of egregious plagiarism would get you thrown out of college. But this contractor hadn’t just gotten away with it—he’d gotten paid for it!


Two points are important here. First: NASA had the right to generically re-use all that writing, even without attribution, since it was written by NASA staff and contractors. The issue was that the contractor who put his name on the book had falsely claimed to be the author of all that material. That made it plagiarism. Serious plagiarism. Second: Plagiarism in publications about taxpayer-funded scientific and technical research isn’t just unethical. Because it can undermine confidence in our nation’s research, it’s a specifically prohibited act that violates numerous Federal Statutes and NASA regulations. Which meant that in addition to the inherent wrong of the plagiarism, my name was now on a book that was in violation of Federal law. My name; my good reputation; all that pride I’d had in my work; all of it now forever damaged and tainted by a work that was not only shoddy and embarrassing, but also in violation of the law. It made me feel violated. Violated, horrified, wronged … and outraged.


Surely, I reasoned, NASA couldn’t be aware of what had happened. And if I informed them, they would take corrective action. The NASA I knew cared deeply about integrity and quality. That’s why I was so proud of working for them.


I couldn’t have been more wrong. NASA temporarily halted production on the print book and took down the electronic version. But they wouldn’t take the contractor’s name off the book, correct it, or take any action against him. Six months of stonewalling followed (with attendant legal bills piling up). I even escalated the matter to NASA’s Administrator, to no avail. So I finally went to Congress. I met with aides for the two top members of NASA’s Congressional oversight committee who, when they saw the evidence I’d compiled, were appalled. They took the matter directly to NASA—and got the same response I had. “Lack of awareness is not the biggest obstacle we’re encountering,” one of them told me. “NASA just keeps insisting no wrongdoing occurred.” When I consulted a whistleblower attorney, he said, “You’re right, and you have concrete evidence of wrongdoing. But it doesn’t matter.” Yes, NASA had violated statutes, regulations and the public trust. But nobody had died, and it hadn’t cost $300 million of taxpayer dollars. So if I pursued it, I was going to lose.


I couldn’t believe it. My reputation would remain damaged, my work destroyed, my pride in NASA shattered, with no repercussions for the wrongdoer. And for what? So NASA wouldn’t have to admit they’d made a mistake? 


How do I come to terms with that? What does anyone do when faced with injustice they cannot right or change? For as surely as the sun rises, we all will find ourselves in that spot, more than once in our lives. And although all injustice stings, there are often much bigger consequences than my NASA loss. Careers can be limited or ruined. Lives can be irreparably harmed. How do we cope with that?


I wish I had an easy answer. But here’s what I’ve learned—both from my own experiences, and from talking to others who’ve suffered and survived far greater injustices than any I’ve faced:


  1. Feeling anger and rage is completely justified. It will also destroy you, mentally, emotionally and physically, if you don’t find a way to let it go. Don’t give them that victory, on top of everything else. Focus on all that is still good and right in your life. Even if it takes every ounce of discipline you have. Do not let the rage consume you. Find another path forward.

  2. Seek out community that can help you heal, and potentially give you a way to channel your rage into positive action. Many people join Women in Aviation for this very reason.

  3. Finally, find a way to tell your truth, even if it takes a long time before you’re able to speak up or find the right outlet. This is important. It’s also why a lot of women are passionate about mentoring. In many cases, sometimes years after the fact, we are finding ways to speak our truth and work to effect change and protect others from injustices we could not right at the time.


None of that makes it right. But it helps. And it allows us to breathe, laugh, and stand tall, even when the world is not fair.

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