Women astronauts? How ridiculous!
In building off-world communities, diversity and inclusiveness are not optional
My first role model was my shy and quiet grandmother. She was a woman of few but very compelling words. Back in the 1950’s when nation building was of paramount importance for a newly independent India, my grandmother believed true nation building required citizens to have education, equal rights, and a fair perspective. She was one of the very few women of her time who went to University. With Masters in Sanskrit, Economics, and Political Science under her belt, she was an educator and the chairperson of an all-girls school for many years. Three of her daughters (including my mother) got their PhDs and her fourth daughter went on to become a doctor. From a very young age, I realized the women in my life were truly incredible and inspiring in all possible ways.
Growing up, I was in awe of yet another woman — Kalpana Chawla. She was the first female astronaut of Indian origin and her unconventional choice of career amazed me. I could not help but wonder what stereotypes she must have had to break to achieve what she did. A woman from India going through one of the most arduous selection processes to become a NASA astronaut?
Women astronauts? What a ridiculous idea!
“Women astronauts? What a ridiculous idea!” These few words reverberated for a long time after I finished watching the 2018 documentary Mercury 13 on Netflix. Mercury 13 is the story of 13 inspiring pilots who underwent a privately funded astronaut training program during the 60’s. What was unusual for the time was that they were female pilots.
When the United States of America was preparing to send humans to space, Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II was in charge of designing and conducting the physical and psychological examinations for selecting NASA’s all-white male astronaut candidates. Curious about the performance and capabilities of women, he recruited female pilots to take these rigorous tests at his clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Thus commenced the Woman in Space program.
In Lovelace’s and many scientists’ opinion, the smaller and lighter frame of women made them better suited for human spaceflight. Women performed notably better in isolation and sensory deprivation tests. 13 out of 25 women test subjects were successful, and these thirteen women were the Mercury 13.
But they never had the chance to be astronauts.
In the end, it was Valentina Tereshkova (a Russian cosmonaut) who went on to become the first woman in space, in 1963. Two decades later, in 1983, Sally Ride became the first American female astronaut in space. Dr. Mae Jemison was the first woman of color in space in 1992.
After many such firsts and breakthroughs, as of July 2017 (according to NASA), 59 different women have been to space. There is still some way to go before women in space reach parity with men. The first all-female spacewalk would have been carried out as I write this article, by astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch. But it was cancelled due to safety concerns — in part driven by the lack of a correctly fitting space suit.
In 1992, when Eileen Collins was the first female astronaut to pilot a space shuttle, she invited the Mercury 13 to the launch. It was a long-due tribute to the women who dared to dream and were brave enough to follow their dreams, shattering stereotypes of the time. Their small steps paved the path for giant leaps for women and womenkind.
But there are many more steps that are needed to ensure that the communities we build in space are diverse and equitable. Any qualified individual should have a fair and equal opportunity to be part of human space exploration.
In writing this article, I was inspired by the question “what would you put in a ‘community-in-a-box’ to kick-start a vibrant, sustainable community in space?” Of course we will need food, oxygen, technology, humans, animals, amongst other things while populating other bodies in space. But we also need to think about the people we enable to go into space as well.
And this is why the most important ‘thing’ in the box, in my opinion, should be the idea or sense of diversity and inclusiveness. We have a chance to start a brand new community devoid of discrimination. A chance we should not let go.
This article is part of the Arizona State University Interplanetary Community in a Box Project — read more on Medium.