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.
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. “The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronaut would want makeup – 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 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!”.
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.
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.
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.