Women of Space
by Dwayne A. Day
|Along the way it also bluntly addresses two subjects not often discussed in polite company, but that certainly came up once women were about to fly in space: going to the bathroom and menstruation.|
The title might be bland, but the documentary is fascinating. It covers the subject primarily chronologically, from the original 1950s proposals to fly women in space because they were lighter and smaller than men, up to an interview with a young engineer currently working on NASA’s Orion spacecraft who wants to someday be an astronaut. Along the way it touches on a lot of important issues, such as the Lovelace Clinic tests that demonstrated that women could survive all the rigorous medical torture that NASA was then throwing at its male astronauts.
It also discusses the early 1960s congressional hearings about women astronauts, Lyndon Johnson’s hand-written statement “Lets stop this now!” when the issue reached his desk, the first woman in Mission Control, and how NASA got actress Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Uhura, to recruit women and minorities into the astronaut corps in the 1970s. Of course there are numerous interviews with the first NASA female astronauts and some discussion of their most famous member, Sally Ride, who died before this documentary was produced. The documentary also features the first female Space Shuttle pilot and later commander, Eileen Collins, as well as the first female International Space Station commander, Peggy Whitson.
Along the way it also bluntly addresses two subjects not often discussed in polite company, but that certainly came up once women were about to fly in space: going to the bathroom and menstruation. In both cases the men responsible for the personal hygiene equipment were clueless, as demonstrated by the time that astronaut Judy Resnik got into orbit and discovered that somebody—she was certain it was a man—had packed dozens of tampons for her one-week mission. Something that the documentary misses is that eventually women astronauts with engineering backgrounds—and a better knowledge of their own anatomy than the men they were working with—designed a solution to the bathroom problem. As one female NASA astronaut once explained to me, it was a pretty simple task for an engineer like herself.
“Women in Space” is comprehensive and engaging, but it has two important omissions. The first is complicated and remains largely unanswered even in the voluminous written histories of the NASA space program: who exactly made the decision in the 1970s to finally include women astronauts at NASA and why? One person in the documentary states that NASA officials believed they would be sued if they didn’t include women, but there were a lot of things happening in American society at large that led up to NASA’s change of policy.
|Some men at NASA believed that women should still be excluded. But other men at NASA changed the rules. Who were they, why did they do that, and was there any resistance?|
According to space historian Michael Cassutt, Johnson Space Center director Chris Kraft wanted the astronaut selection process opened soon after the shuttle was approved in 1972. It was clear that there would be more spacecraft seats to fill and NASA would therefore need a much larger astronaut corps. However, for the first half of the decade NASA already had too many astronauts and did not need to hold a new selection process until closer to the time that the shuttle would begin operation. If Kraft’s views are accurate, then at least some people at NASA were thinking far ahead of where the country was culturally.
But NASA also certainly reacted to what happened with the military academies a few years later. In 1975, Congress passed a bill signed into law by President Ford that allowed women into the military academies. In early 1976, NASA began planning for a new astronaut class and decided to include women in that class as well. But the law did not mention NASA and the agency could have excluded women from spaceflight just as the military continued for many years to exclude women from flying jets in combat, which statistically is far less dangerous than spaceflight. Some men at NASA believed that women should still be excluded. But other men at NASA changed the rules. Who were they, why did they do that, and was there any resistance?
Astronaut Mike Mullane wrote a biography in 2007 where he admitted that he, and other unnamed male shuttle astronauts, did not think women should be astronauts. Mullane’s attitude changed. But did any of the male astronauts at NASA, particularly the leaders in the astronaut corps like Deke Slayton, express those opinions within the halls of the Johnson Space Center and Headquarters in 1976 when accepting women as astronauts was first proposed?
According to Cassutt, who wrote Deke Slayton’s biography, Slayton was not opposed to women astronauts, although he was opposed to “outreach” to attract them to the program, and any lowering of standards to accept them. But an agency that had rejected women repeatedly—and that certainly included many men with attitudes like the ones that Mike Mullane admitted to—would have to make an appeal to women and try to convince them that they really would have a shot. As to the thorny issue of “lowering standards,” up to that point the standards for astronauts had been established by men, for men, and so they had to be changed to give women a fair shot.
A related, and sensitive, issue is the establishment of quotas. Simply put, unless NASA established a quota for choosing a certain number of women astronauts (as well as minorities), there was little chance that any would be selected. After all, the numbers of male astronaut applicants far outweighed the number of female applicants, and they could have taken all the available slots on merit alone unless somebody established a rule that some women would be selected even if there were men who were better qualified. Who did that?
Whenever a social movement makes progress there are always people who are not part of the movement who either aid it, or oppose it, and understanding their positions and motivations is necessary for fully understanding the history. Unfortunately, “Women in Space” skips over that part of the story.
The other problem with the documentary is simpler and a bit more bizarre: it completely fails to mention Valentina Tereshkova’s 1963 spaceflight. Tereshkova’s flight was a blatant Soviet propaganda stunt that doesn’t fit easily into the documentary’s narrative of American women gradually gaining acceptance in the male-dominated space profession. But reality is convoluted and full of plot holes and inconsistencies, and Tereshkova’s flight, and later flights by female cosmonauts, deserved at least a brief discussion if only to demonstrate the contrast with NASA—once NASA accepted women into its program, they were relatively quickly treated as equals. Russian women never were.
|Tereshkova’s flight, and later flights by female cosmonauts, deserved at least a brief discussion if only to demonstrate the contrast with NASA—once NASA accepted women into its program, they were relatively quickly treated as equals.|
Recently, Russia launched Yelena Serova into orbit, only the fifth female cosmonaut and the first to fly in twenty years. She is currently aboard the International Space Station. Her flight stands in stark contrast to the United States, which has had 45 women astronauts so far and whose latest group of astronaut candidates is evenly balanced between four men and four women. The position of many of Russia’s space leadership, as well as many people in the Russian population, is that women do not belong in space and therefore should not even apply for cosmonaut training. This Russian attitude, which today seems almost bizarre from an American point of view, was in essence the American viewpoint three decades ago when Sally Ride was asked by a reporter if she would cry in space, and other female astronauts were asked who would cook and take care of their children when they were orbiting the Earth.
My hope is that this documentary will be released in longer format than its short 52 minutes, and will also include those subjects. Ideally, it would be fascinating to see a sequel about the history of female cosmonauts, the role of political pawns that some of them played, and how they were treated in their own country before, during, and after their flights. “Women in Space” tells a great story and does so quite effectively, but it also illustrates just how much more there is to tell.