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Melroy and Whitson
ISS commander Peggy Whitson (right) greets arriving STS-120 commander Pam Melroy in orbit last week. (credit: NASA)

Two women spacecraft commanders: the meaning of the meeting

The occasion on October 25 of a female space shuttle commander being greeted in orbit by a female space station commander—both Americans —is more than a mere statistical fluke. It is a worthy occasion to assess the long space orbits that have been traversed by women on their mission towards a full role on the front lines of space exploration. It’s also a fitting occasion to appreciate some of the detours and dead-ends that also marked this progress.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to shuttle commander Pam Melroy and station commander Peggy Whitson, and to their ground-breaking (perhaps we should say space-breaking?) predecessors such as Sally Ride, Kathy Sullivan, Shannon Lucid, Eileen Collins, and three dozen others, is that an examination of their technical credentials—their education, experience, and career achievements—couldn’t give a clue as to their gender. Their ultimate “firsts” were logical step-by-step progressions from their solid professional competence.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to shuttle commander Pam Melroy and station commander Peggy Whitson, and other women astronauts, is that an examination of their technical credentials couldn’t give a clue as to their gender.

Another route had always been possible, and the Soviet Union followed it, much to the applause of shortsighted and easily-fooled people around the world: select and fly women on “first-ever” missions solely because they were female, so that the symbolism could be exploited for political propaganda purposes. Meanwhile, the reality could be allowed to diverge, and women who were simply competent and capable (instead of “special cases” for show) could be essentially locked out of the mainstream Russian human space program, as they always have been, to this day. The image could triumph over reality, and it is sad how successful this gimmick has been in many circles around the world.

After all, the first woman to really “command” a space mission was Valentina Tereshkova, launched solo aboard Vostok-6 in June 1963. But her flight was also the last Soviet woman-in-space mission for almost twenty years, until the impending advent of women astronauts who had earned their way into the space shuttle program once again impelled the Soviets to produce more for-show stunts.

NASA, too, had considered (but wisely rejected) such superficial one-off missions. After resisting political pressure at the dawn of the Space Race to select a civilian female pilot for a show-off space orbit, NASA followed the fair path of gender-free credentials. Then, officials in the late 1990s briefly considered organizing an all-woman shuttle mission that never got beyond the talking stage. Arguments still rage over whether those decisions to forego such missions were correct, but such public debate helps understand the pluses and minuses of such different approaches to gender-neutral space access.

Emotionally, the reality that women have earned their place in space, in the United States if not in Russia, can also be sensed in the public reaction to the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters, on both of which women were among the dead. The Russians expressed horror that America would risk the lives of women on dangerous missions (“We protect our women,” was the boast). But nowhere in the outpouring of emotions in the US, in 1986 or in 2003, was there any expression of the idea that “we shouldn’t have allowed women to fly”. Acceptance of their right to fly was unanimous, a right they had paid for, those times, in blood.

The Svetlana gambit

The best example of such a gimmicky “space stunt” is probably the planned Soviet all-woman Soyuz crew in 1985. Conceived as a propaganda trump for the growing number of American women then flying on space shuttles, the mission would probably have been designated Soyuz T-14 and would have lasted one week. During that time the women would have docked their Soyuz to the Salyut 7 space station (occupied by three male cosmonauts) and then returned to Earth in the men’s older Soyuz, allowing the men to stay in space another six months.

The mission commander was to have been Svetlana Savitskaya, an aerobatics pilot and veteran (by then) of two previous space missions. Chosen both for her flying skills and for her regime loyalty, she remains active today as a leading figure of the post-Soviet communist Party of Russia.

According to an authoritative new book Russia’s Cosmonauts (Praxis, 2005), by European space historians Rex Hall, David Shayler, and Bert Vis, Savitskaya was originally selected in 1980 for cosmonaut training due to “the desire to fly another female before the Americans flew one on the Shuttle (women had been picked in 1978). There was pressure on the Soviet mission planners to upstage the Americans again.”

Several women were selected, but Savitskaya was chosen (“perhaps because her father was a Marshall within the Soviet Army and she had a great deal of very high political support,” writes the new book). She was launched on Soyuz T-7 in August 1982 (ten months before Sally Ride’s flight) for a routine one-week support mission to the Salyut-6 space station. Shortly afterwards, she and the other women were deactivated from the cosmonaut program.

Another route had always been possible, and the Soviet Union followed it: select and fly women on “first-ever” missions solely because they were female, so that the symbolism could be exploited for political propaganda purposes.

Then, a year later, according to her own autobiography, she was called out-of-the-blue by the cosmonaut center with orders to return to training. Officials there had just read an article in Aviation Week magazine that NASA had assigned Kathryn Sullivan to a planned three-and-a-half-hour spacewalk on an upcoming shuttle flight—the first-ever spacewalk for a woman. Moscow officials decreed that the accomplishment must be upstaged by a Soviet woman, and assigned Savitskaya to a compressed training program to upstage Sullivan.

Along with two male cosmonauts, she was launched on Soyuz T-12 in July 1984, and carried out a spacewalk that, with a length of 3 hours and 35 minutes, turned out to be five minutes longer than the announced US woman’s spacewalk. Three months later, Sullivan’s mission occurred as scheduled on STS-41-G in October. Her walk lasted the planned three and a half hours —she could have stayed out longer, but nobody in mission control could recall how long Savitskaya had spent outside, nor thought it important enough to really care. But as the Russians had intended, Savitskaya had been “first” again.

Pleased with the propaganda benefits of her two missions, and anticipating more routine assignments for American women, Moscow decided on the next woman-in-space stunt: Savitskaya would pilot a routine support Soyuz mission the following year. Her backup on Soyuz T-12, engineer Yekaterina Ivanova, was added to the crew, along with Yelena Dobrokvashina, a medical doctor. All three crewmembers, then, would be women.

The flight never occurred. First, it was delayed by major breakdowns on the Salyut-7 space station that required a repair team be sent up—all men—in the Soyuz craft that had been assigned to the all-woman mission. Then one of the crew had to be medevacked back to Earth. By the time the station was again operational, old-guard Soviet leadership had literally died off, and Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge. The no-nonsense administrator was skeptical of pointless, expensive space stunts, and Kremlin support evaporated. The women again received their retirement notices.

Pressure for US atunts

Last May, the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh culminated a special campus-wide reading program in space history with a graduation exercise honoring the “Mercury 13”, a group of women who, according to the project’s website, “trained in secret to be astronauts” before NASA officials cancelled the program in 1961. The goal of the group’s leader, Jerrie Cobb, was to become the first woman in space and score a world record for America, and she campaigned in public and with Congress to set aside the training for the seven male Mercury astronaut and slip a woman’s flight in first. Women were better qualified for going first, she argued, because they were smaller and lighter and could fit into cramped space capsules.

Despite the assertions on the university’s website, the women had never trained as astronauts (and there had been 14 of them, not 13, a number apparently selected by a writer because it sounded neater). NASA had never been involved: it was a private medical experiment by Dr. Randy Lovelace of Albuquerque (who had, in order to get the women to volunteer, misrepresented the effort to them as a step towards becoming a real astronaut). But, so the website claims, “Due to the prejudices of the times, the project was cancelled.” In May 2007, UW awarded them all honorary doctorate degrees in recognition of their pioneering status, anyway.

Reports from the ceremonies appeared to describe a political posturing that took significant liberties with history. One speaker made fun of the opponents of the idea (presumably a male chauvinist pig) who pooh-poohed the idea of recruiting women for space because “we have enough men” to be astronauts (the audience jeered derisively, as no doubt the speaker intended). What the speaker concealed—and let the audience misjudge—was that the source of the quote was Jackie Cochran, founder of the women’s pilot auxiliary in World War 2 and nobody’s patsy or second-class citizen. Her comment was based on her perception of the need to get an American—of any gender—into orbit as soon as possible in the space race with the Soviet Union, not divert resources for an empty gesture that probably wouldn’t work anyway (no matter when the US would have scheduled a woman’s flight, Moscow policy had made it clear to their space managers that they would go first). For this effort, she argued, there already was an adequate supply of fully-qualified astronaut trainees already well along in preparation, with no need for a female supplement, as there had been in World War 2.

The idea of assembling six or seven experienced women astronauts—commanders, pilots, spacewalkers, robot arm operators, and any and all other required specialties—made a certain kind of sense, in that they deserved highly-visible public recognition of what they had already achieved.

Recent interest in the controversy over adding women to the Mercury program appears to be more political than historical, especially considering the highly fictionalized versions that have become so widespread (See “The Mercury 13: setting the story straight”, The Space Review, May 14, 2007). Even some of the arguments used in the debate came from Hollywood, not Cape Canaveral or Houston. For example, the alleged female advantage of lesser weight comes straight from the plot of the B-grade sci-fi movie “Project Moonbase” (1953), in which a woman pilot named Briteis (pronounced “bright eyes”) is chosen for America’s first human orbital flight “because she weighed only ninety pounds and therefore fit in the spacecraft.” (See “Sex and rockets”, The Space Review, July 9, 2007) She later is given command of the first human flight around the Moon.

Nevertheless, almost forty years later, some NASA officials gave serious consideration to designing a space crew based on gender. The idea circulated in Washington in 1999, the year that Eileen Collins made her space flight as commander of a satellite deploy mission, the first woman to command a multi-person spacecraft crew. Some thought was given to what could come next, and the idea of an all-woman shuttle team was bandied about.

The idea was not without merit as an inspirational reminder of actual status in the astronaut program. Not long before, a three-woman crew had taken the Alvin submersible down to the ocean bottom on a routine mission. The US Air Force had assembled an all-woman crew to fly several C-5 transport missions. In both cases, women were already trained and experienced in the required duties, and pulling them together for a specific joint mission involved no shortcuts or special waivers. Instead, the missions were positive demonstrations of the level of access that women had already earned in those professions.

This was opposite the policy followed by the USSR with Tereshkova’s flight (she was a textile factory worker with some sports parachuting experience, not a pilot), and contrary to the policy urged in 1961 by the champions of the “Mercury 13”, that they be given waivers of test pilot experience requirements in order to be “first” with a stunt. In those cases, the “symbolism” was hollow, however spectacular. In stark contrast, for the US all-women crews of the 1990s, the symbolism was a realistic reflection of reality already attained by women.

Under those terms, the idea of assembling six or seven experienced women astronauts—commanders, pilots, spacewalkers, robot arm operators, and any and all other required specialties—made a certain kind of sense, in that they deserved highly-visible public recognition of what they had already achieved. If not a full crew, then perhaps an all-woman spacewalk could be “helped along” by minor adjustments to the crew selection process.

The concept only began running into significant political problems when the idea became attached to flying near the November 2000 presidential election as a gimmick for inspiring special interest groups and constituencies, and for raising more contributions and votes. Even the suspicion that this might happen (arguably a well-founded one, based on previous similar events) was enough to scuttle any hope of going through with the project.

Instead, a few years later, we now are being treated to an even more powerful demonstration of the reality well worth celebrating. Two women have been tested and judged by the harshest standards of all—reality—and have passed. No special favors or behind-the-scenes adjustments will tarnish the well-earned pride of those who have struggled to open full gender-free access to the front lines of space exploration.