Q: Where Is The Great Woman Space Communicator? A: She’s Always Been Here

Heather Couper, pioneering British astronomer. Photo Credit: British Astronomical Association (https://britastro.org/journal_item/22503)

For decades, science and space enthusiasts have clamored to televisions, newspapers, radio, and now, Internet and podcasts to receive news and information from voices they trust. A majority of the voices, however, aren’t fully relatable to everyone in these communities, as they are largely comprised of white men (before anyone takes umbrage with that statement, women make up half of the world’s population). It’s 2021, and there still is no popular female analog to, say, Carl Sagan, or Arthur C. Clarke; it definitely bears mentioning that these opportunities are even less plentiful for BIPOC women populations.

Some will probably say, “That’s because there’s no woman who is qualified to fill their shoes.” The answer doesn’t lie in qualifications whatsoever. A casual glance at modern television — say, The Discovery Channel or The Science Channel — shows predominantly male personalities and hosts. Why is this happening in 2021? The answer is rooted in the history of mass communications.

The Ubiquity of the Male Space Communicator: A Capsule History

The dawning of the Space Age changed mass communications forever. Television networks such as ABC, CBS, NBC, and across the Atlantic, the BBC each had their own teams of reporters dedicated to spaceflight news, and space missions were often multi-day TV extravaganzas with drawings, schematics, models, and sometimes limited footage from space. During the 1960s, the faces of Walter Cronkite, Jules Bergman, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, Reginald Turnill, and James Burke became just as identifiable — if not more identifiable — than those of the astronauts and cosmonauts flying early space missions. The ubiquity of these anchors and reporters thus set the template for “the space communicator”: businesslike, authoritative, and always male.

A woman’s perspective on national TV didn’t really arrive until 1968, when Rene Carpenter — a gifted writer whose marriage to Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter didn’t stop her from making her own mark upon the space world — covered Apollo 7 on NBC alongside Huntley and Brinkley. Carpenter showed early on that space coverage didn’t have to be limited to the perspective of the fedora-wearing male reporter. While she would go on to have her own local TV show called Everywoman dedicated to women’s issues, the idea of a woman space reporter didn’t catch on after her successful NBC appearance.

David Brinkley, Rene Carpenter, and Chet Huntley prepare for NBC’s Apollo 7 coverage, 1968. Photo Credit: LIFE magazine

The 1970s proved to be a watershed moment not only for women’s rights, but also for women in mass communications. One example of a 1970s woman television pioneer is Jessica Savitch, who got her start in television at KHOU, occasionally covering Houston-oriented space stories. Her glamorous appearance often overshadowed her very real talent; for example, when dispatched to cover 1972’s Skylab Medical Experiment Altitude Test at Johnson Space Center, she visibly showed displeasure when a photographer started snapping photos of her instead of the project’s astronauts. Savitch would go on to KYW in Philadelphia, and then landed at NBC in 1977, feted as the network’s “Golden Girl.”

Jessica Savitch, circa late 1970s. Photo Credit: Houston Chronicle (https://www.chron.com/culture/tv/article/Jessica-Savitch-s-legacy-30-years-after-her-death-4919603.php)

When asked in several interviews why it had taken so long to see women sitting in the anchor’s chair, she touched upon the fact that viewers — both men and women — tended to view women’s voices as being less commanding and authoritative (sometimes the misogyny comes from inside the house). Indeed, earlier in her career, she had been the recipient of hate mail and angry phone calls just for being at the anchor’s desk. Unfortunately, Savitch is not largely remembered for her incredible career and pioneering spirit. She was frequently the target of rumors about alleged drug abuse (even though some of her male counterparts undoubtedly had similar issues), and by the end of her all-too-short life, her TV work had been largely cut. When she died tragically at age 36 in a car accident in 1983, the tribute on her own network ran less than two minutes.

The late 1970s and 1980s, too, also saw the emergence of a new kind of male space communicator. Two working scientists from that era, Carl Sagan and Gerard K. O’Neill, gained mass popularity: Sagan through his appearances on The Tonight Show alongside self-admitted space nut Johnny Carson and on his PBS show, Cosmos, and O’Neill via many TV appearances, magazine articles, and newspaper articles. These two men expanded upon the template set by Arthur C. Clarke during the 1950s and 1960s — the subject matter expert. However, there seemed to be no woman subject matter expert during that time (at least, one that was allowed to be on television, or was asked to do interviews). While there were women associated with Sagan and women in the space settlement community associated with O’Neill, they did not possess the same level of popularity, or appear on TV.

Lynn Sherr didn’t just break the glass ceiling, but she rocketed right through it starting in 1981, when she began covering space shuttle missions on ABC in the United States. Finally, there was a space reporter who provided a template for us. (The other networks didn’t follow suit.) Another “exception” during that time was Heather Couper, a brilliant astronomer whose first television appearances were on the BBC’s Sky at Night, a show more associated with Sir Patrick Moore, the great male, monocled, decades-long mainstay of British astronomy TV programming. Couper had superb academic credentials, and was talented at making astronomy understandable for both children and adults, not an easy feat when you realize much of astronomy is higher math. However, if you look on Wikipedia, Couper is described as “an astronomer, broadcaster, and science popularizer.”

While being called a “science popularizer” isn’t a bad thing, in the space world, it has sort of the same connotation as “influencer” does on Instagram. According to a tribute by the British Astronomical Association, in college “[s]he was deeply shocked by a professor who told her that she should not be involved in [popularizing] as this was ‘prostituting your astronomy!’” When she died in 2020, many of us across the pond had never heard of her, but we had heard of Sir Patrick Moore, whose Wikipedia article glowingly lists his many awards and describes him as an “English amateur astronomer who attained prominence in that field as a writer, researcher, radio commentator and television presenter.” Couper could have been described the same exact way, and should have received the same accolades.

Fast forward to more recent years, and there thankfully has been more representation of women space communicators on television and other forms of media. Emily Calandrelli has hosted several shows, including her own Netflix series for kids, Emily’s Wonder Lab, and Xploration Outer Space. Dr. Sian Proctor, who recently returned to Earth from the successful Inspiration4 mission and is the first black woman to pilot a spacecraft, has made several appearances on The Science Channel. Space historian Amy Shira Teitel has been a regular on The Science Channel and The Discovery Channel, and has her own YouTube channel, which nets thousands of views.

But many of the current space shows on television still carry the feeling of 1960s media, when programming was dominated by male voices. This has been dictated by history. I won’t name the show or channel, but a while back I was watching a show centered around spaceflight near-misses and calamities; not a single woman space history expert was featured, and much of the show’s testimony was centered around a famous male space historian who is nearing 80 years old — not much in the way of new, refreshing, or different perspectives. I watched a little more of the series, and found the same thing throughout it. There was even an advertisement for the show during its breaks, with the male space historian’s face all over the promos. I don’t see women hosts or personalities getting this kind of relentless promotion, unless we do it ourselves.

Podcasting follows a similar pattern. One of the top space podcasts is StarTalk, hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the famous male astrophysicist who hosted a popular television revival of Sagan’s Cosmos. The science podcast charts are currently dominated by male-hosted shows, with very little diversity within the titles. There doesn’t seem to be a woman at the top of the podcasting charts who is seen as an “equal” to Tyson, even though there are undoubtedly women astrophysicists out there who could write, perform, and produce a show as good as or better than StarTalk, if allotted the funds and promotion.

*****

As humanity reaches out further into the Universe, it’s indisputable that all kinds of people will become space enthusiasts, and will want to discuss what they know and think about spaceflight. There have been — and there will be — women space chroniclers and storytellers. Now as the Internet brings to light thousands of new voices and faces each day, it’s time that the media — in all its forms — better reflects that.

Maybe it’s time we see more women out front. Not just during one week — this week’s World Space Week is themed “Women In Space” — but always.

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Emily Carney

Emily Carney

Space historian and podcaster. Space Hipster. Named one of the Top Ten Space Influencers by the National Space Society. Co-host of Space and Things podcast.