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April 05, 2010

Historic milestone for women

The Space Shuttle Discovery is ready to launch Monday at 6:21 a.m. Eastern time with a crew of 7 that includes 3 women. If launch is on schedule, they will dock to the International Space Station (ISS)Wednesday at 3:44 a.m. That crew of 6 includes one woman. So for the first time in history, there will be 4 women in space.

A milestone for women, and something to celebrate, but also a good excuse for women everywhere to ask why it has taken so long--and why the number of female astronauts is such a low percentage, all these years after the first women were hired by NASA. Even though there will be 4 women in space, there will also be 9 men.

When I started work for NASA back in 1979, there were 6 new female astronauts in training (hired in 1978). Only one woman had ever been in space, the first woman, Russian Valentina Tereshkova. It wasn't until the 7th space shuttle flight in 1983 that the United States finally put a woman in space--and Sally Ride was the third woman because the Russians had flown Svetlana Savitskaya the year before.

The first black woman, Mae Jemison, didn't fly until 1992. And it wasn't until 1999 that Eileen Collins broke the command barrier. Women could not be in command positions because NASA required the commanders to be pilots, and the only people to qualify as pilot astronauts were military. The military hadn't provided that career path to women until recently.

NASA finally realized that fighter-pilots were not necessarily the best choices for leading long-duration science missions, and opened ISS command to scientists. Peggy Whitson was then made commander of the ISS in 2007. She and Pam Melroy, the second woman to command a shuttle, met in space for the first time that same year.

So we finally have 4 women in space: Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger who is an educator astronaut, Naoko Yamazaki who is Japanese, Stephanie Wilson who was the second black woman astronaut to fly (in 2006), and Tracy Caldwell Dyson (no, not related: but kindred spirits!)who is the sole woman on the current expedition crew.

This milestone occurs ironically at a time when the number of opportunities for women (and minorities) to fly is about to be cut drastically. Though I hope I'm wrong, the record may not even be repeated or broken in my lifetime (unless the shuttle is extended).

After the shuttle is retired, a crew of 6 will be maintained on ISS. I expect mostly all-male crews with a max of 2 women at once, and almost no minorities. As far as I know, there are no minorities or women in training to be cosmonauts. No American class of astronauts has ever had more than 20 percent women and even less of minorities. ESA has one woman and 13 men. Japan has had 2 women out of 8 of its astronauts. Canada has had 2 out of 11.

Years ago I asked "why aren't there equal numbers of men and women in the astronaut corps?" I was told by someone who had served on a selection committee that the 20 percent "quota" was established based on the number of female applicants.

Why aren't more women applying to be astronauts?

I can't speak for other women, but I quit applying once I got to NASA and saw what the astronaut job was like: 70-hour weeks to prove you can compete with the others for assignment; then 70-hour weeks of training and travel and PR. Being a flight controller was exciting enough for me--and once I had children, the juggling act was too much, and I switched to consulting with a less demanding work schedule.

The astronaut job will always be demanding, but I doubt any more so than other high-level positions in other fields that women aspire to and occupy successfully. Perhaps, despite the Sally Ride festivals, young women still don't see space as a viable career option--or a female-friendly one.

But regardless of the number of women who apply, if the governments of the world wanted to, they could surely find enough interested and qualified women to hire to equal out the number of men in the astronaut corps. So the real question is, why don't they feel a need to do that?

I think it is at least partly because women have not made an issue out of it. We just expect that it will naturally happen. But when it is finally time to choose a crew to go to Mars--unless things change, will women be included? I think not. Why? Because there will not be sufficient medical data on women in long-duration space flight to say that it is safe. No one knows what exposure to deep space will do to the unique cancer risks that women face.

If women want to be equal to men in space, and play an equal role in exploration and science, especially on long voyages to the Moon, asteroids, and Mars, then there is a huge data "gap" that must be addressed.

So, my recommendation (and I'm only speaking for myself, not NSS), is that not only should there be equal numbers of men and women in the astronaut corps, but a priority should be made on flyng women to the ISS to make up for the lack of past data on women in space, to compensate for the lack of women in the Russian corps, and to clear the path for women to Mars. Who knows, we may find that an all-female crew is the best choice for a deep-space mission!

This week, I hope you will join me in offering a toast to those four pioneering women, Stephanie Wilson, Naoko Yamazaki, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, and Tracy Caldwell Dyson who will set a record for the number of women in space.

Congratulations to all of you, and also to the women who helped make this milestone happen. Let's continue to work to get more women in space!

To the stars,

Marianne Dyson
NSS Advisor

Posted by m_dyson at April 5, 2010 12:11 AM



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