Two female U.S. astronauts, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, will participate in the first ever all-female spacewalk outside the International Space Station (ISS) on October 21, NASA announced on Monday. The walk is planned to take place seven months after it was originally supposed to; the first attempt was called off due to the space station not having enough medium-sized spacesuits onboard. When the women originally intended to take part in the spacewalk arrived at the space station, it was discovered that the space station was equipped with just one size medium in the “hard upper torso” or the shirt of the spacesuit, and so it was decided that the all-female walk would be cancelled.
As a result the history-making event got off to an extremely controversial start, with NASA facing backlash for its lack of foresight and consideration of gender equality in its missions.
Jessica Meir, together with astronaut Christina Koch, will set out together on the first women-only venture outside of the International Space Station. Their mission is to install lithium-ion batteries to better serve the station’s power supply, and marks the fourth of 10 spacewalks due to take place in the next three months.
But it seems that emphasis on the gender undertaking the mission is attracting the most publicity about the walk. When asked how they felt about this, Ms Koch responded, “In the end, I do think it’s important because of the historical nature of what we’re doing and in the past, women haven’t always been at the table,” while Ms Meir said, “What we’re doing now shows all the work that went in decades prior. All the women that worked to get us where we are today. I think the nice thing for us is we don’t even really think about it on a daily basis. It’s just normal. We’re part of the team.”
Women making their mark in space isn’t exactly a novel achievement, though it certainly deserves celebration. Trailblazer Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, and paved a path for many women to follow. A Soviet cosmonaut, she was chosen from more than 400 applicants to launch on the Vostok 6 mission in June 1963. Her achievements didn’t end there: she went on to become a member of the World Peace Council in 1966, a member of the Yaroslavl Supreme Soviet in 1967, and was elected to the presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1974. She was the Soviet representative to the UN Conference for the International Women’s Year in Mexico City in 1975, and later received two Orders of Lenin and recognition as a Hero of the Soviet Union. A brilliant woman, to say the least.
Then we have her U.S. equivalent, NASA astronaut Sally Ride, who became the first U.S. woman in space when she launched on the STS-7 mission of the space shuttle Challenger, in June 1983. After Valentina Tereshkova and fellow Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, who flew on the Soyuz T-7 mission August 19, 1982, she was the third female to travel to space. Taking things up a notch, Peggy Whiston then became the first woman to command the International Space Station in April 2008 during Expedition 16, and still holds the record for being the oldest woman in space, having returned from her final mission at age 57. The women we can name who have played a part in space exploration number just a few, and they continue to face barriers when it comes to progressing in their careers.
But some argue women are in fact physically and mentally better suited to spaceflight than men.
Why? Well, their size, appetite, and mental ability to endure longer missions, for a start. Women are generally smaller and require less food to survive which could be “advantageous from the total-mission-weight standpoint”, according to Wayne Hale, former NASA engineer and space shuttle program manager. One mission which monitored the metabolic output of crewmates found that females expended less than half the calories of their male counterparts, despite similar activity levels. Equipping a space vessel for six slim women would require substantially less food and resources than a vessel containing men – that is just plain fact. Women have also been found to suffer less from some physical effects of spaceflight, in particular from a loss of vision. Men tend to have problems with deteriorating vision in space, a problem which women don’t experience as often or as severely.
It begs the question, why are we still sending all male crews into space? In the past 58 years, only 11 percent of the people we have sent into space have been women. Not only that, but some pretty serious measures are in place that restrict and prevent active female astronauts from spending as long in space when they are up there. Why? Medical reasons are generally cited to be the cause.
NASA argues that menstruation can pose serious health risks (and have a negative impact on performance, though that is a second tier excuse, surely) and due to the risks that radiation during space travel poses in terms of endometrial, ovarian and breast cancer, women at NASA are only allowed to spend half as much time on missions as men. Pregnant women have not yet been permitted to fly to space due to radiation concerns, and there have been no lactating astronauts on mission. Analysing the effects of sex and reproduction in space is a whole other ballgame – with crowdfunding platforms in partnership with pornography platform Pornhub leading the way so far in terms of sexual endeavours in space. But that is a story for another day.
Why aren’t women getting the professional validation they deserve with respect to space exploration, still? Do the men running NASA think women are better suited to staying home, procreating, and spending their husband’s hard-earned money on Audemars Piguet Watches and Gucci bags?
What is interesting to note is that there is one similar skill or expertise shared by the women NASA now allowing to take part in space missions: the majority of female astronauts have military backgrounds – something women previously did not have access to. Is that what is slowly changing the game, and opening space up to women?
What we need to do is give women a chance to solely take charge of the next mission, and see what successes come of it. Who knows, it might even open up doors and help break down unsurpassable barriers in space, paving the way for scientific discovery on a whole new level.