Science fiction enthusiasts recognize that as long as we have “all our eggs in one basket” on Earth, even if there are no evil aliens out there, we remain vulnerable to destruction by human and natural causes including war, terminators, pollution, nearby supernovas, wayward asteroids, and eventually, total annihilation via the sun’s menopausal hot flashes.
Thus, to insure survival of our species, humans must learn to live in a sustainable manner independent of Earth’s resources. To do so requires knowledge of how the space environment (variable gravity, radiation, pressure, air/water/soil quality, microbial ecosystems, etc.) affects the health of both men and women since both are needed to propagate the species.
But though the science fiction genre has a history of challenging gender stereotypes and promoting the paradigm of strong, capable, female leaders, if current trends continue, the final frontier may look more like the mae-dominated Wild West than Star Wars.
As of March 2018, only 59 of 533 people to reach orbit were female. There are currently only 16 women (and 90 men) designated as active astronauts. Fourteen of these are Americans, one is Canadian, and the other is European. The Russians, Chinese, and Japanese have no women on their current rosters.1
Because men have dominated and continue to dominate the exploration of space, comparatively little data is available on how space affects women compared with men. However, early research shows that there are indeed differences. Women have more potent immune responses than men and are less likely to suffer visual impairment or hearing losses after trips to space. But women are also more susceptible to urinary tract infections, cancer, and kidney stones. Both genders have large individual variabilities in muscle and bone loss that might be explained with more test subjects.
Understanding gender differences and ways to prevent or mitigate negative health outcomes of long exposures to the space environment, including the ability of women to successfully conceive and bear children upon their return, requires much more research. Not surprisingly, flying more women to obtain the necessary data was the top recommendation that came out of a study conducted by NASA and the National Science Biomedical Research Institute published in November 2014.2
The International Space Station (ISS) is an ideal facility for long-duration biological and medical studies with each expedition crewmember spending about six months in space. But the ISS is scheduled for retirement in 2024 with no replacement currently planned or funded. If this opportunity for data collection and research on women is missed, the first women to travel to the Moon and Mars may suffer preventable loss of fertility or permanent health consequences.
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Yet since the shuttle retired in 2011, only six women have flown to the ISS, averaging one woman per year. About 14 men flew for every woman flown.
All of the women were the sole female of the six-member crews for their six-month expeditions. Based on my own experience as one of a handful of women in Mission Control in the 1980s, women are not likely to complain about any awkward sexual or operational issues that arise. If they did, they might be labeled as “weak” for not handling the stress or “ungrateful” for their opportunity. They may also feel the pressure to prove that NASA was right to hire them individually and should hire more women like them in the future.3 So, when asked (by me or others) at a press conference or at some public forum if it was stressful to be the only woman on the team, they always say it was not a problem. Having a baby is not a problem, either. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult or stressful.
Although female astronauts are not likely to complain about being the token representative of their gender on a crew, I’d bet most of them would welcome more women to the team. If nothing else, it would reduce the inevitable glare of the spotlight on them. Increasing the number of women on crews to a minimum of two would also double the number of test subjects available for medical studies necessary to our long-term prospects in space.
By adjusting the next few astronaut selections, the United States can get beyond tokenism to flying two or more women per crew.
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Moving Towards Parity
From 1978 to 2013, new classes of astronauts were limited to about 20 percent female. A third to half of the crew slots went to pilots with flight text experience. Because the pool of military test pilots has few women, only two have ever been selected as pilot astronauts: Eileen Collins and Pam Melroy. All other women were forced to compete for the few available mission specialist slots. After the shuttles retired and there were no vehicles to pilot, NASA selected an historic equal number of men and women for the class of 2013. This selection was widely praised and headlined in the news media. Yet, in 2017, despite a record of 18,353 applicants, NASA selected five women and seven men. Because of previous biased selections, male astronauts continue to outnumber women by two to one.
When I blogged about this lack of gender parity, I received email from men saying that NASA should be able to hire the best people for the job regardless of gender. While I agree with that sentiment, I find it hard to believe that out of 18,000 applicants, they could not find one more woman that was as qualified as any of the seven men they selected. If they couldn’t, then I suggest it would have been better to have selected only five of each gender. The reason is the message that selecting more men than women sends to girls everywhere: that women are not as capable or as valued as men. This sentiment was aptly expressed in the Audi 2017 Super Bowl ad where the dad watches his daughter compete in a cart race. He says, “What do I tell my daughter? Do I tell her that her grandpa’s worth more than her grandma? That her dad is worth more than her mom? Do I tell her that despite her education, her drive, her skills, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets?”4
Also, continuing this practice will only exacerbate the problem of gathering the data necessary to spread the human species beyond our one fragile planet.
Selecting equal numbers of men and women in all future classes would gradually achieve gender parity. But if attrition is low and the budget constrains the total number of astronauts to current levels (around 55), it could take 25 years to reach parity. The first human trips to Mars will hopefully be underway by then, probably with a token one or two women onboard.
One thing NASA could do to help make room for more women in the corps is to offer retirement bonuses to older astronauts and those who have already flown multiple times. Since there are more male than female astronauts, this could increase the attrition rate of male astronauts. Then if NASA selected equal numbers of men and women, parity could be achieved sooner because more total astronauts would be needed to replace those that left. This might also help NASA’s budget since new astronauts generally have lower salaries. NASA already has a practice of offering such “buyouts” to encourage civil servants to retire early and make room for new hires.
Another thing NASA could do is select 80 percent female and 20 percent male (the reverse of what they did from 1978 to 2013) for the next two selections. In this way, parity could be achieved in five to eight years assuming the selection is every three years and training takes two years. The new recruits would be available for assignment to early deep-space missions, though the space station may be retired by then.
To increase the number of women in time to take advantage of the space station’s research opportunities, NASA would need to take more drastic actions such as limiting male astronauts to no more than one per expedition crew or selecting a special class of all-female astronaut “test subjects” in the next few years. Neither of these options seem likely to be approved unless there is massive public support.
Rather than depending on the government, it might be easier to have the commercial sector fly more women in the near term through some contest or sponsorship program. This could be made part of the justification of a private space station such as the one proposed by Bigelow Aerospace.5 Bigelow already tested and now operates a small module that is attached to the ISS.
Another way more women might fly is if they buy their way onto a future SpaceX or Boeing Starliner flight. SpaceX has already announced plans to send two people around the Moon. The gender of these people has not been revealed, and one of them could become the first woman to orbit the Moon. But the odds remain low for women buying tickets because the price is likely to remain sky high and women comprise only about 12 percent of billionaires.6 Let’s hope that any women who do fly, sign up to be medical test subjects.
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Making Space Female Friendly
But even if more women don’t get the opportunity to fly in space in the near term, for the science fiction paradigm of both genders living and working (and fighting the forces of evil) together throughout the galaxy to happen, more women must want to become astronauts.
It is well known within NASA that the percentage of female applicants to become astronauts is way less than that of men. I’ve been told that this is a primary reason why fewer women are selected than men. Why don’t more women apply?
Consider that the average age of astronauts at selection is 34. This is the age of many professional women who have recently completed their PhDs and MDs and acquired the minimum three years of qualifying experience. It is also just past the age at which most women are starting families. Not many new mothers will even consider a job that requires six or more months away from home and family in addition to the risks of spaceflight on their lives and health.
So to encourage more women in STEM careers to apply, NASA might require less work experience so they can apply at younger ages and still earn advanced degrees. This would benefit the men as well. NASA might also follow Silicon Valley’s lead and offer an egg-freezing benefit as a recruitment and retention incentive.7 Though Johnson Space Center has onsite daycare, offering this service 24-hours a day would be helpful to astronauts as well as flight controllers who must often work graveyard shifts.
However, Asian and Hispanic women may be excluded from space no matter how qualified they are otherwise because, on average, they are too short to meet the minimum height requirement of 62 inches. The average American woman (white or black) is 64 inches tall, but the average Hispanic woman is 62 inches tall.8 But women in India, Southeast Asia, and China are five feet tall or less, and the average has changed little for decades.9
The height requirement for Space Shuttle astronauts was 58.5 to 76 inches, and as new American vehicles are ready for use, these less narrow limits may once again apply. But until then, the only way to and from the space station has been the Russian Soyuz which requires crew to be between 59 and 74.8 inches tall.
Also, Russian spacesuits require a minimum height of 65 inches. For this reason, in July 1997, Wendy Lawrence, at 5’3”, was pulled from her flight to the Russian Mir space station. Though American spacesuits can be adjusted for height, this issue is just one example of how space equipment designed for men becomes a barrier to women. Finding ways to do more difficult jobs remotely with or using robots will make life safer and easier for both genders living on the space frontier. It should be noted that in general, women perform better than men at jobs requiring fine-motor skills such as piloting.10 (Go Rey!)
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Women Researchers Needed
What else can be done to create the gender balanced future that science fiction readers envision?
At the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Rice University in 2017, I suggested that if women want to be part of settling Mars, they need to let their politicians know that space research is important to them, and then be the ones to propose and do that research. They need to find sponsors to fund research on women’s health, participate as test or control subjects, and encourage their daughters and granddaughters to consider STEM careers by introducing them to science (and science fiction!) early.
By selecting an equal number of women and men for astronaut duties and putting a priority on researching women’s health in space, we can show the world that women are valued equally to men in the United States of America now, and will continue to be valued equally in the United Federation of Planets of the future.
1. Space Facts. “Active Astronauts.” Last Update: March 21, 2018. http://www.spacefacts.de/english/e_active.htm
2. NASA and National Science Biomedical Research Institute. “The Impact of Sex and Gender on Adaptation to Space: A NASA Decadal Review.” November 2014. http://online.liebertpub.com/toc/jwh/23/11
3. Marianne Dyson. A Passion for Space. Springer, 2015. http://www.mDyson.com
4. Audi Super Bowl advertisement—Daughter. January 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iksaFG6wqM
5. Mike Wall. “Bigelow Aerospace Launches New Company to Operate Private Space Stations. Space.com, February 20, 2018. https://www.space.com/39752-bigelow-space-operations-private-space-stations.html
6. Valentine Zarya. “The Percentage of Women Billionaires Compared to Men is Shrinking.” Fortune, August 8, 2016. http://fortune.com/2016/08/08/female-billionaires-entrepreneurs/.
7. Laura Sydell. “Silicon Valley Companies Add New Benefit for Women: Egg-Freezing.” October 17, 2014. https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2014/10/17/356765423/silicon-valley-companies-add-new-benefit-for-women-egg-freezing%20October%2017
8. Dr. Adam Cloe. “Average American Woman’s Weight and Height.” July 18, 2017. https://www.livestrong.com/article/357769-weight-height-for-the-average-american-woman/
9. Vincent Iannelli, MD. “What is the Average Height for an Adult Woman?” March 12, 2018. https://www.verywellfit.com/average-height-for-a-woman-statistics-2632136
10. Kareem Negem. “Women in Military Uniforms: Looking Beyond the Numbers.” Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 16. No 2. Spring 2016. http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vol16/no2/PDF/CMJ162Ep15.pdf