The journey to the first all-female spacewalk has ushered in a new era of diversity in space exploration.
It has also highlighted the discrimination that pursued the women historically linked to NASA. From racial prejudice to bigotry, the journey to the all-female spacewalk has been long and complicated.
Women in NASA
1935 saw the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later NASA) hire five women as “human computers” at the Langley campus. Following the United States’s entrance into WWII, NACA also began recruiting African American women with college degrees, who were paid less and faced discrimination regularly.
Kitty O’Brien Joyner became the first female engineer at NASA in 1939.
Katherine Johnson worked as one of the “human computers” at NACA in 1953. Calculating the trajectories for the first man in space, she was personally asked by John Glenn to confirm the electronic computer’s results. She also received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 honouring her accomplishments in the field of STEM as well as gender and racial equality. Alongside Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, she was the protagonist of Hidden Figures (2016).
NASA’s first African American manager, Dorothy Vaughn oversaw the segregated West Area Computing Unit. Mary Jackson worked under Dorothy Vaughn before working with engineers on NACA’s Supersonic Pressure Tunnel project. She was promoted to NASA’s first black female engineer following her enrolment in graduate classes at the University of Virginia.
NACA then became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, following the Space Act of 1958. Women continued to have a tremendous impact on space exploration.
One of the more well-known being Nancy Roman, referred to as the “Mother of Hubble” for her work on the Hubble telescope. She was also the organization’s first chief astronomer.
Women in Space
At the same time, the Soviet Union recruited five women to become cosmonauts. A year later, one of them did. June 1963 saw Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, orbiting the Earth 48 times.
NASA’s progressive efforts became dormant until 1978 when six women were chosen as candidates for NASA’s next mission. Amongst them was Sally Ride, who became the third woman in space in 1983. Following this, women began to fly more regularly with NASA.
In July 1984, Svetlana Savitskaya, the second woman in space, made history again when she became the first woman to walk and to fly in space twice.
Two of the most notable women to follow in her wake were Eileen Collins and Peggy Whitson. In July 1999, Eileen Collins was the first woman to fly as a space shuttle commander.
Peggy Whitson was the first woman to command the International Space Station, completing her tour in April of 2008. She also holds the US record for most time spent in space, at 665 days.
The First All-Female Spacewalk and Inequality in the Field
October 18th 2019 marked the day that Jessica Meir and Christina Koch performed the first all-female spacewalk, despite over 50 years of space travel. The operation successfully replaced a broken battery charger on the International Space Station.
The historic event was initially scheduled for March but was cancelled due to a lack of spacesuits in the correct size for the women on board.
Though over 560 people have been to space, only 65 have been women. This is following a history of women being overlooked for their biological differences to men. Especially considering the fact that males experience a vision change following extended time in microgravity, something that females do not. The lack of appropriately sized spacesuits serves to highlight the inequality in the field.
Sally Ride experienced this when male NASA engineers asked, “Is 100 the right number?” about the number of tampons she would need for a week’s spaceflight. The agency also created a makeup kit for her flight.
In a 2002 interview, she stated, “It was about the last thing in the world that I wanted to be spending my time in training on.”
Though it is now known that female astronauts perform better in stress tests, a 1960s report raised concerns about women in spacecraft, regarding females as “a temperamental psychophysiological human”. Though incorrect, the report reflected the sentiments of the time, as reflected in NASA’s 1961 cancellation of the women’s program.
These issues are not entirely of the past, as shown by the spacesuit discrepancy earlier this year. Rhea Seddon, one of the first women selected as an astronaut candidate in 1978, worked with NASA to create spacesuits that would work better for women, introducing sizes extra-small to extra-large. Few of the sizes that were not able to accolade males were built, including the medium size suit that both female astronauts needed this March, finally in stock this October.
Looking to the Future
Looking to improve in the future, NASA has already made massive advances from the oppressive mindset of the 1960s.
2009 saw the creation of the Women@NASA website as a way to “celebrate women from across the agency who contribute to NASA’s mission in many ways”. Presently NASA maintains an in-depth website on engagement in STEM fields, as well as outreach programs in the form of children’s clubs and documentation of past and present women in the field.
Moving into the new era of space travel, NASA is looking to rectify the problems that led to the delay of the March spacewalk. Both lead engineers of the Artemis era suits are women: Amy Ross and Kristine Davis. Additionally, of the 38 active astronauts, 12 are women.
NASA is actively seeking to increase these numbers.
Dubbed “Humanity’s Return to the Moon”, the Artemis program will be landing on the moon by 2024. Perhaps inspired by the mission’s namesake, the Artemis program will see the first woman land on the moon.
It is an exciting time for space travel and diversity. Astronaut Jessica Meir is quoted as saying: “You know, originally, all of the astronauts were white male military test pilots. And now the program is much more diverse”.