Women Are the Future of Space Travel

19th August, 2021.      //   Space Travel  // 

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It’s a good thing Valentina Tereshkova wasn’t around to get her hands on a copy of The New York Times on June 17, 1963. Tereshkova would have been unable to read the Times anyhow, as Western newspapers were not widely circulated in the Soviet Union—or elsewhere in the Eastern bloc for that matter. Even if they did, Tereshkova would have missed that Times issue: the day before, she had launched aboard her Vostok 6 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in what is now Kazakhstan, becoming the 12th person—and the first woman—in space.

The Times headline read, politely enough, SOVIET ORBITS WOMAN ASTRONAUT. The first paragraph kept the formal tone, identifying her as a Soviet Air Force Junior Lieutenant. The next line, which described Tereshkova’s radio communication with fellow cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky, who was also aloft in his Vostok 5 spacecraft, did the same. But then things started to go wrong.

In the third paragraph, she was referred to as “a heavyset parachutist.” Later on, there was the whole thing about her wearing a “beautiful blue linen dress and stiletto heels” when she addressed the Soviet reporters, with no mention of Bykovsky’s outfit. There were the remarks from ordinary New Yorkers who were asked how they felt about Tereshkova’s achievement.

“It only proves one thing—that you can’t get away from women no matter where you go,” said one passenger at New York International Airport, in the days before it was JFK,  who referred to himself as a “air traveler.”

“They shouldn’t send a woman up there alone,” one woman in Times Square said. “She should have a man with her.”

Tereshkova did not require a man to circle the Earth 28 times in her own spaceship, remaining aloft for over three days, according to history. However, this did not stop some from sneering and dismissing the concept of a female astronaut. History would also record that the United States would not follow the Soviet Union’s lead for another 20 years, nearly to the day, when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.

But that was then, and this is now, in a sense. According to NASA, less than 600 people have been in space, with just 65 of them being women as of this spring. That’s not insignificant. Women have piloted space shuttles and space stations, and astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch completed the first all-female spacewalk in 2020. Furthermore, NASA’s Artemis lunar program makes it clear that by the mid-2020s, it wants to place “the first woman and the next man” on the moon. And if NASA understands what’s smart—and it generally does—the odds are that that woman will also be in charge of the expedition.

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While space exploration has traditionally been dominated by men—especially in the early days, when it was dominated by rocket-jock test pilots with their sports cars, groupies, and a penchant for strong liquor—the future is likely to be dominated by women. NASA chose 18 astronauts as candidates for the Artemis program, ensuring that nine men and nine women were equally represented. Women have been among the most well-known astronauts of the shuttle and space station era: Peggy Whitson of the United States—who has spent 665 days in space over the course of her three trips, the equivalent of a round-trip to Mars; Chiaki Mukai of Japan; Yi So-yeon of Korea; and Mae Jemison of the United States.

It should go without saying—though it may be required in certain quarters—that these and the other five dozen women in space are the cosmic equivalents of their male counterparts. But, in some respects, may they be better? Could they provide characteristics that males lack?

“I thought so (and still think so) when I was writing my new novel Holdout, about Walli Beckwith, an American astronaut who refuses to come home from the International Space Station when an emergency forces her crewmates to evacuate. Beckwith risks her career—and her life—to make a stand in space in order to right a grievous wrong taking place on Earth. For the first chapter of the book, Walli was Wally, she was a he. But when I finished writing that chapter I felt oddly dissatisfied, oddly limited; my lead character wanted to be a woman—needed to be a woman, I felt.

I wanted a character who reminded me of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, women who stood up for human rights—and did so without the structural advantages of access to power and influence that men have historically enjoyed. When Wally became Walli, she became richer, more complex, more nuanced, more humane. Her defiant stand became braver—made, as it was, against a system that remains far more patriarchal than matriarchal. And I found—fair or not—that her relationships with the other characters became more layered.

These same traits might even make women a better choice for long-duration space missions than men are. Emotional intelligence is not the exclusive province of females, but it is often expressed more fully, more consistently by them than it is by men. And that’s a quality that will be in deep need as humans try the hard and collaborative business of homesteading the moon or, even more remotely and challengingly, Mars.

There is a certain kind of reverse bias in framing women as the more compassionate, intuitive, interpersonally adept gender. There are obtuse women and empathic men; selfish women and selfless men. There is cowardice in both genders and courage in both. And all of this is just assigned-at-birth gender. None of it even takes into consideration the rainbow of traits found across the arc of more fluid genders.

Still, as with so many other things, space has been an overwhelmingly men’s game long enough. It was a men’s game this summer in the bro-billionaire competition between Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos to be the first to make their suborbital jaunts. It was a man’s game when space was a proxy war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., fighting for the celestial high ground. It was a man’s game in the decades after. Neil Armstrong, bless him, gave us his historic but stilted “One small step” statement. Might there have been something more lyrical from a woman? Twenty-four men have seen the moon up close and came back to tell us about it. What different perspective—about the nature of humanity, the imperative to explore—might a woman have carried home with her?

We’re finding out slowly, and we’ll find out more as ever greater numbers of women take their place in—and stake their claim to—space. From my small earthbound perspective, I can only say I’m glad I made Wally a Walli. I had more to give the character than I otherwise would have—and I learned more from her, too.”