Whenever the topics of space exploration, rocketry or astronomy are mentioned, a host of ideas come to mind. Images of engineers creating spacecraft at NASA, dogs being launched into the unknown and Neil Armstrong saying his iconic line “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, are just a few of these thoughts.
At first glance, the space industry appears a predominantly male one, but there are a range of leading women who contributed to make space what it is now. They are just as important as the men who have worked on space exploration, yet they are rarely mentioned.
With the 50 year anniversary of the first Moon landing having just passed, discussion about space exploration is especially relevant. Stories about people like Margaret Hamilton, who saved the Apollo mission when the computer system failed and there was the possibility that the astronauts on the Moon would be unable to return, are being shared, highlighting women who were invisible before.
When the space race began in the 1950s, the Soviets and the Americans competed against each other to send the first people into space. The Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin as the first man in space in 1961, and after 10 more flights, he was closely followed by the first woman in space – Valentina Tereshkova. In 1963 Tereshkova completed 48 Earth orbits, spending 70 hours in space.
After Tereshkova came Sally Ride (the first American female in space), Svetlana Savitskaya (the first woman to take a spacewalk) and Mae C. Jemison (the first African-American woman in space).
These women are just a few of the leading females who’ve made achievements in the field. There are 63 women who have been launched into orbit. That may seem like quite a few people, but is only about 11 percent of the 560 who have been in space.
The fact is that space and its resources belong to all of us, not to any one group - Mae C. Jemison
In the future it is likely that there will be a significant rise in the number of women in space, as more are becoming qualified and the number of expeditions are increasing. As Nadia Drake mentioned in her recent article for National Geographic, women are potentially better suited for space than men.
Women are generally lighter than men, meaning they require less resources and produce less waste than men. On average men “require 15 to 25 percent more calories than women” and the weight of those extra calories as food could make all the difference in a journey to space.
From the few women who have been in space, it has been reported that they tended to have less problems with their eyesight than men, according to a study by Virginia Wotring of the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
There hasn’t been a crew without men in space, so not much is known about how “all-female crews might fare in an intense and monotonous space environment”, however on desert treks and polar expeditions women cope in “longer-term, habitation-type circumstances” better than men. What this means is that for long-duration space missions women have the “traits crucial for success”.
This doesn’t mean that we should stop sending men into space, because data shows that group dynamics are most successful when they are mixed-gender. Women may be well suited to space adventures, but it cannot be said that an all-female team would be best. Nadia Drake concludes the article by asking “When will there be enough women in the spacecraft? When everyone who’s qualified has an equal shot at a seat.”
Aspiring astronaut Abby Harrison aims to be the first person to set foot on Mars – a huge leap for womankind. You can watch her inspirational video here: