As we are fast approaching the 50th anniversary of man’s greatest achievement of landing men on the moon in 1969, we are taking a look back and how women were treated in NASA’s space program and how things are different (or similar) today.

Sally Ride had never planned to be an astronaut. Even when Ride was completing her PhD in Astrophysics in Stanford, being an astronaut was not her goal – women could not be astronauts in the early 1970s. It wouldn’t be until 1978 that Anna Fisher, Shannon Lucid, Judith Resnik, Sally Ride, Margaret Seddon, and Kathryn Sullivan were chosen to become the first female astronauts. NASA has successfully completed the seemingly impossible task of landing men on the moon 6 times between 1969 and 1972 but not one woman was to be considered an astronaut for another 6 years. Ride was the first and so dealt with questions pertaining to her gender and suitability for space travel from day one. Ride was asked if she would weep if things went wrong with the mission or if she thought that space travel would affect her reproductive system – questions her male counterparts never fielded.

Sally Ride. Credit: NASA

Ride revealed in 2002 that NASA engineers had designed and made a prototype of a makeup case to take to space which had compartments for makeup remover, mascara lipstick. โ€œThe engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronaut would want makeup โ€“ so they designed a makeup kit.” If Ride had been consulted on this at any point she would have pointed out how ridiculous it was to spend time and money on this. NASA engineers also asked Ride if 100 tampons was the right number for a 7 day stint in space; it’s not the right number.

NASA’s prototype makeup kit. Credit: NASA

NASA’s exclusion of women from the space program was initially easily justified; they needed all astronauts to be trained military test pilots so they had the necessary engineering and problem-solving skill set that would be necessary to meet the high-stress demands of space travel. At this time, no women could be military test pilots and so they could not be astronauts. Under the justification NASA provided this seemed like a practical move at the time. However, by 1963 Buzz Aldrin had been accepted into the space program with no military test pilot experience; NASA’s space program was confirmed a boys’ club.

NASA’s exclusion of women from the space program did not go uncriticized. In fact a group of women pilots known as The Mercury 13 received private funding to undergo the same tests that men training to be astronauts would be put through. Little was known about the conditions of space in 1959 and so the 13 women were subjected to a variety of tests such as freezing the inner-ear to induce vertigo and endurance training with weights. All 13 passed and became members of a lobbying group to push the US Government to include women in its national space program. This lobbying was not well received; Vice President Lyndon Johnson responded in a letter to NASA’s chief administrator demanding, “Let’s stop this now!”.

Jerrie Cobb of The Mercury 13, ranked in the 2% of ability in the testing (including men). Credit: history.com

Another reason that was given against women entering against the space program was their very biology, particularly how women’s hormones would affect their ability to fly a space craft. In the 1940s women’s hormones were blamed for aeroplane crashes – this was later debunked. Additionally the source of the private funding for Mercury 13, Dr Randy Lovelace, remarked in 1964 (without evidence) that a woman’s hormonal cycle would impede her ability to operate “complicated machinery”. Finally, one of the largest concerns was how space flight could impact a woman’s reproductive system. In fact, a lack of information on the way blood flows in zero gravity produced panic. Women at the time, including Margaret Seddon – future NASA astronaut, suggested that NASA had sent men into space without fully understanding the risks; why not think of it as a non-problem until it becomes a problem? The assurance from women in NASA that everything would work as per normal fell on deaf ears for decades. And just so everyone is aware – it’s confirmed not be a problem! There have been 64 women in space and no issues in this area have been reported.

There would be no progression for another 19 years. NASA’s overdue introduction of women to their space program came at the behest of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act in the United States. The forcing of NASA’s hand on the issue shone a spotlight on just how intrinsically male the space program was until this point. For example, NASA had to install female lockers (made famous by Judy Resnik’s decoration) and the issue of going to the bathroom in space required an overhaul. The original NASA bathroom facilities were designed with only men’s biology in mind meaning NASA had to commission a new style of urinary collection in the on board toilets. If women had been allowed into the program from its conception this expensive adjustments would not have been necessary.

Judith Resnik saying Hi to her Dad from her 1984 mission. Tom Selleck sticker visible on her locker. Credit: NASA

The knock on effects of this institutional exclusion of women from the space program are felt today. Firstly, one of the International Space Station’s key areas of research is the effects of space on the human body and this has been the case since NASA’s conception in 1958. We have a decades long dearth of information on the effects of space on women’s bodies and there is a severe lacking of academic papers on the differences between men and women in space. The research that does exist suggests women might be ideal for space travel and they are generally smaller, lighter and consume fewer calories. However, they are more sensitive to the effects of radiation and motion sickness. Furthermore budgetary restrictions meant that NASA stopped manufacturing and replacing Extra-Small and Small spacesuits in the 1990s meaning the smallest spacesuit available is a Medium of which there is only one available. This had tangible effects in April of this year when the first all women spacewalk had to be cancelled as both women needed a Medium sized spacesuit; the final decision to not do the spacewalk was made by McClain due to her level of comfort being sub-optimal in the Large spacesuit. While the initial budget cuts were not sexist in nature their effects have been felt only by women.

History not made: the two astronauts, Anne McClain and Christina Koch, due to take part in the first all-women spacewalk which ended up not taking place. Credit: Space.com

NASA have been trying to right the wrongs of the past by announcing they will land the first woman on the moon in 2024 – 55 years after the first man. They have secured billions of dollars in funding to do so. NASA have also stated that the first manned mission to Mars will be a mixed-gender one. These developments are welcome and allow for women across The United States to pursue this opportunity and make history once more. We at Armagh Observatory and Planetarium are excited to see this happen, as will be the hundreds of girls that visit us with their school that will be able to hear about the first woman on the moon.

Written by Courtney Allison, Education Officer (& Admin)

5 Comments

Rob · July 11, 2019 at 08:26

Sounds like its already well and truly on its way to sorting itself out, and has been since the 70’s, just like in so many other industries, and professions. So what’s the problem?? You seem to be calling the fire brigade for a fire they’ve already well and truly arrived at, put out and are currently in the final stages of cleanup before departing.

You’re just pushing the (3rd wave) feminists “Never Satisfied” ideology of permanent victimhood and oppression. Which is utter rubbish. If men really did intentionally seek to oppress them and we really did live in a Tyrannical Patriarchy, then there’s “NO WAY” they would have been allowed to have the massive platform they currently have with which propagate such nonsense, and constantly moan about their terrible lot in life. Do some fact checking through proper credible sources of statistics. And “NO CHERRY PICKING THEM!!!”

    Armagh Observatory and Planetarium · July 11, 2019 at 09:42

    Hi Rob. Firstly, thank you for your comment as we encourage reader interaction on our blog. In terms of my “calling the fire brigade for a fire they’ve well and truly arrived at”, I disagree. This is a topic NASA remains to this day uncomfortable discussing as it ultimately showcases a systemic oppression of a group of people that were just as qualified for the position of astronaut. It showcases NASA’s embarrassing past reliance on pseudo-science, as well as structures within the organisation that prohibited women taking part in the program that were ultimately without basis beyond plain sexism. I wrote this piece as an educational imperative; if we are to encourage more girls into STEM they should be aware of the system they are engaging with; as well as its past. Also, these issues are not solely in the past as showcased by the recent failed spacewalk – older sexist systems are still impacting current astronauts. Also – I wrote the piece because I found it fascinating and I thought others would too.

    In regards to your second section of your comment – platforms for speech are not given, they are taken and fought for through years and years of grass-roots activism and hard work from those who are oppressed. Also your wording “been allowed” undermines your whole point – being “allowed” implies your must seek permission from a dominant class. Maybe something resembling the patriarchy? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Also just finally – I gathered these stats, qualitative information and facts from legitimate sources, including NASA’s own website. I also fact checked thoroughly. I would never put my name to something that was not legitimate. I should say I also have a background in statistics and I’m confident in my ability to present data fairly and so that shouldn’t be a concern you have.

    I appreciate your spirit for healthy debate and secondly thank you for using no foul language ๐Ÿ™‚ -admin

      Piotr · July 19, 2019 at 11:10

      Hi admin ๐Ÿ™‚
      Thank you for your carefully-worded response to Rob.
      I should like to point out that Rob had written *if* the Oppressive Patriarchy existed, they would not have “allowed” dissent. So his point stands.
      Small word, “if”, but it makes a big difference ๐Ÿ˜‰

Redd Davis · July 9, 2019 at 17:38

Great article! Its devasting women had to fight as hard as they did just to bravely enter the depths of space.

    Armagh Observatory and Planetarium · July 11, 2019 at 10:34

    Hi Redd. Thank you for your comment. I agree! Sally Ride in particular really had to tough it out but she serves as an inspiration to people everywhere ๐Ÿ™‚

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