The recent all-women’s space walk on Oct. 18 was hailed as a feminist milestone and precursor to NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, which aims to put the first woman on the moon’s surface by 2024. But at the end of the day, it was just two women doing their jobs — in this case, replacing a battery unit on the International Space Station (ISS).
Women’s bodies and minds are uniquely suited for space missions. They’re physically more efficient in many ways, and mentally hearty.
After the 2024 Artemis endeavor comes something even more ambitious: NASA aims to land humans on Mars by 2033. Considering the intense physical and psychological demands that will come with this perilous voyage, an all-women mission could be the ticket. “When I give presentations, we talk about the first man on the moon, and we flip that when we talk about Mars — maybe the first boot print on Mars will be a woman’s,” says Kristin Fabre, PhD, a senior innovation scientist at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, which works with NASA.
And yet, while astronaut training classes today are often 50% female, only 11% of the astronauts who have made it to outer space so far have been women. The reasons for that have nothing to do with women’s qualifications and capabilities.
How women have been kept out of space
In the late 1950s, when the U.S. space program was ramping up, aerospace engineers began using detailed health data from armed services divisions to create physical fitness guidelines for pilots. According to Margaret Weitekamp, chair of the space history department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, women’s health data was ignored during the creation of the guidelines. The “absence of a physiological baseline [for women] shamed no one. Aerospace scientists simultaneously declared women to be too complicated and largely irrelevant,” writes Weitekamp in her book Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program.
Add to this the lack of basic equipment: Back in 1960, aerial acrobatics pilot Betty Skelton…