Women Astronauts Struggle To Break Earth’s Glass Ceiling

Interstellar progress is slow to come

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Gender imbalance isn’t something limited to earthly realms such as computer science, physics and aviation. Its nefarious reach also extends into outer space. Just look at the stats: of the 540 people who have journeyed out of this world, only a measly 11 percent were women. Nearly all of them—50 of 59—were in NASA (USA! USA!). But don’t get too excited—that’s still less than 20 percent of the total number of people that the agency has sent to space since 1961.

That’s bad news for equal rights, bad news for science and safety. Because we’ve sent so few women into space, we know little about how they may respond differently to that environment than their male colleagues. Differences could include risk of developing cancer or cardiovascular disease, or frequency and severity of urinary tract infections. As the possibility of sending men and women to Mars begins to look more and more likely, “it’s critically important that we understand how [women respond physically and mentally to life in space,” Motherboard writes. “Otherwise, a female astronaut might get halfway to Mars only to develop the world’s worst UTI (or something even more awful), but be unable to turn the ship home.”

In many ways, women are ideal space travellers—it’s only societal factors that have kept them grounded for so long. Even in the 1950s, aerospace researchers recognized that women were lighter and smaller than men—an asset in cramped spaceship quarters—and from the beginning many women were outperforming their male counterparts in rigorous physical trials meant to select the best possible candidates for space travel. Yet sexism was rife. In 1962, commenting on the fact that male astronauts might want nookie over the course of long missions, German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun noted that NASA was “reserving 110 pounds of payload for recreational equipment.”

In the end, this kind of backward thinking likely cost NASA a world record. In 1963, the Soviet Union became the first nation to put a woman into space—a whopping two decades before NASA’s Sally Ride took to the stars. Indeed, in some ways, the Soviets trumped the U.S. on women’s rights. By the end of the 1960s, 80 percent of Russian women held jobs outside of the family household, according to a paper published in Feminist Review. Compare that to the U.S., in which just 22 percent held jobs at that time (Bureau of Labor Statistics data).

But as anyone who watches “Mad Men” knows, the 1960s and 70s were a fraught time for women generally, full of cocktail dress-wearing airhead secretaries, ads endorsing domestic abuse and commercials depicting female airline stewardesses imploring customers to “Fly me.” (Not that women are depicted much better in ads today.) One might reasonably argue that the lack of female astronauts in those early days was just a reflection of the times. Indeed, by the end of the 1970s—amid second-wave feminism and equal rights activism—NASA finally got around to appointing its first female astronauts, including Sally Ride, who ended up being the first woman to go into space. And despite statistics weighed down by years of boys-club mentality, NASA is doing much better today: its most recent class, selected in 2013, is half women. NASA has also appointed two female Space Shuttle Commanders, in 1999 and 2007.

That’s not to say that female astronauts have completely escaped the mires of sexism, however. In an experiment simulating the environment on Mars, for example, a male participant made unwanted sexual advances to a female in another group. This prompted the woman and her colleagues—as if in a dystopian sci-fi thriller—to shut the hatch between the two groups, as Suzanne Bell, a psychologist researching group dynamics on extended missions for NASA, described to Glamour.

Female astronauts also routinely face more insidious sexism, with frequent questions from reporters and others about how they’ll take care of hair and makeup in space; what they’ll do without men for a week; and how they plan to be good mothers in space. Female physiology also continues to be overlooked by clueless males: the International Space Station, for example, still doesn’t have a system for disposing of menstrual blood, the Atlantic graphically notes.

Additionally, Motherboard points out that female astronauts have yet to visit the moon; yet to spend a year in space; and yet to travel beyond low Earth orbit.

So while we have made tremendous strides toward gender equality in space, we’re surely not there yet. Until then, badass female astronauts will no doubt continue provide inspiration, not only for women, but for all earthlings. To quote NASA astronaut Anna McClain: “If we go to Mars, we’ll be representing our entire species in a place we’ve never been. To me it’s the highest thing a human being can achieve.”