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April 13, 2010

The Russian President's Good Idea

Every April 12 is a space anniversary, of the first human flight into space in 1961, and also of the first Space Shuttle launch 20 years later.

This year, Russian President Dmitry Mededev called the space station crew to mark the 49th anniversary of Yuri Gargarin's flight. The six-member Expedition 23 crew gathered for the call in the Destiny lab: 3 Russians; Oleg Kotov, Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kornienko; two Americans: Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Timothy Creamer; and one Japanese, Soichi Noguchi. Working nearby were the 7 space shuttle astronauts, including 3 women, one of them Japanese.

The president told the crew, "Space will always remain our priority. This is not just somebody's interpretation, it's our official state position. I am here in my presidential office and when addressing you, I can confirm again the significance of space for the government."

I found these words very encouraging. And I also greatly appreciated his next sentiment:

"No country can develop space alone, we need to combine our efforts and we need to talk about it more often," Menvedev said.

Yes, I thought. Yes! Let's talk about development, not just cooperation in one lab in space. Let's talk about providing power and resources to the world via solar power satellites, lunar and asteroid mining, supply depots, and space manufacturing!

"So maybe we could have some sort of international meeting, maybe at the heads of governments level," Mededev suggested. "Because we talk about various issues, such as tackling all kinds of challenges, dangers and hazards that humanity is facing these days, various disarmament programs, etc., but there is a very important and positive factor that unites us all. So maybe it would be good to have a summit, maybe at the heads of governments level, for the countries that are working in space. So see, I have a very good idea on this holiday. What do you think?"

I think it is always good to talk more about space! And especially about space development. Once more people understand that sunlight can be collected in space and beamed to Earth without clogging the atmosphere with more carbon dioxide or generating nuclear waste, they will push for a demonstration of this new technology.

President Obama is scheduled to address the workers at Kennedy Space Center later this week. He is reportedly going to emphasize some new research programs. NSS has urged that adoption and a clear recitation of a long-term goal will help motivate and drive research, ultimately making it more productive. The ultimate goal is nothing short of the human settlement of space.

But a great short-term goal would be a demonstration of a space-based solar power satellite. Assembling the space station has created a pool of astronauts and cosmonauts and flight control teams in all partner nations with the experience and tools to tackle this kind of engineering challenge. Private industry is gearing up to provide the launch services, and the number of launches required for a project of this magnitude would surely speed the evolution of reusable lower-cost vehicles.

The Moon and asteroids would be back in our sights as a source for oxygen and metals--teams would be dispatched to learn to extract, process, and ship them for orbital construction needs.

Many space enthusiasts participated in the OSTP Open Government online polls: and the winning idea in three categories (OSTP, Energy, and NASA) was to convene a Space Based Solar Power conference. Now the Russian president has suggested an international meeting about space. Let's combine the two!

I hope I'm not dreaming too big when I suggest an anniversary present for next year, the 50th anniversary of Gargarin's flight, and the 30th anniversary of STS-1, be the agreement among many nations, with Russia and the United States taking the lead, to build the first solar power satellite to produce carbon-free energy to the world.

Let's dream big and bold!

Happy anniversary, and thank you President Mededev for your very good idea!

To the stars,

Marianne Dyson
NSS Advisor
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Posted by m_dyson at 12:10 AM

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 12:11 AM


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