Women in space: for female astronauts and engineers, the push for gender equality on and off Earth isn’t rocket science

This is a preliminary version of the article published here in the South China Morning Post, 6 October 2020

Women have played crucial roles in space flight, as mathematicians, engineers and astronauts
They have mostly taken second place to men, but the advent of space tourism could change that

“Naturally you needed a man with the courage to ride on top of a rocket, and you were grateful that such men existed,” wrote Tom Wolfe in his exposé of the astronauts behind Project Mercury, America’s first spaceflight programme; men who, as Wolfe put it, had “the right stuff.”

But some of the unsung heroes in humanity’s quest for space at that time were women. Dana Ulery became the first female engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1961, crucial to the success of John Glenn’s full-orbital space flight in 1962. The biographical drama Hidden Figures (2016) highlighted the roles of Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, three mathematicians also crucial to the success of Glenn’s mission.

For ex-NASA engineer Beth Moses growing up in Chicago’s suburbs a decade or so after Project Mercury, posters in libraries and televised shuttle launches turned space exploration into a personal goal.

“I was really fortunate to grow up when there was a robust international human space effort,” says Beth. “NASA astronauts and even Russian cosmonauts were part of everyday culture. The latest Pepsi commercial had a space shuttle launching. I just always knew I wanted to build and fly space craft. And that’s probably because I was a little bit of a tom-boy and tinkerer even when I was a very young girl.”

Hard on the heels of cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin – the first human to orbit the earth in 1961 – cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first women to travel into space.

Tereshkova’s space flight both made history for women and expanded the boundaries of what was possible for a single human travelling in space. By the time of her flight in June 1963, the US had launched six Project Mercury astronauts logging a cumulative 34 earth orbits and 51 hours in space. In her own continuous flight, Tereshkova logged 48 orbits over 71 hours, eclipsing US efforts until that point almost single-handedly.

A dazzling 19 years after Tereshkova’s record-setting flight, Svetlana Savitskaya was the first woman to walk in space. A year later, Sally Ride became the first US woman to travel into space. The number of women working in space agencies was rising internationally, not only in the US.

“I certainly did have heroes,” Moses reflected. “When I became aware of astronauts as a profession, the contemporary working astronauts were the early space shuttle astronauts. So, Sally Ride is a classic example as is her whole astronaut class. But also, the whole era of early shuttle astronauts like John Young and Bob Crippen.”

Even so, the history of space travel shows an imbalanced trend. Like many earthbound fields, space exploration has become a frontier dominated by men. Only 11% of the total number of people to have travelled into space have been women.

The effect being that women have come second to orbit the earth, second to travel into space, second to walk in space, second to possibly walk on the moon, and potentially second to land on Mars.

Moses achieved a Bachelor and a Master’s degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from Purdue University, the pre-eminent aerospace university in America without military affiliation. While at Perdue, Moses was also accepted into a NASA student employment programme at Johnson Space Centre.

After a demanding seven years of study and work, Moses joined NASA as a full-time engineer, the only student accepted by the Johnson Space Centre that year. “I worked on the International Space Station (ISS),” says Moses. “I started when the ISS was on the drawing board. And then when it was finally built, I tried to figure out what was next.”

During her career in the trenches of designing a station built to serve the international space community, Moses had very little time to consider the relatively nuanced idea of gender roles at NASA.

“The space station programme was so complicated that all of those immaterial factors immediately became irrelevant,” admitted Moses. “The space station was built across the entire globe and we had to find out how to integrate across cultures and languages and time zones. Even across metric and imperial units.

“We were facing so many integration challenges that, honestly, no one ever cared what colour you were, what gender you were, what country you came from, or what language you spoke. All anybody really ever cared about was if you showed up at the table with solutions and could translate everybody else’s input at the table.

“I can honestly say, I’ve never experienced a gender related challenge other than people asking me to describe gender related challenges!” says Moses.

Moses’ experience of being part of the global effort to build the ISS reveals the equality required in space. Not only does Moses suggest that NASA executes technical projects based solely on merit and technical solutions, but it is forced to accommodate the needs of a global community.

“There were design requirements for the space station that did explicitly call out gender, but only in a technical sense,” says Moses. “The design requirements were literally to accommodate everyone from the fifth percentile Japanese female to the ninety-fifth percentile American male.”

As humanity journeys towards habitable environments in space, and companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic work towards commercial space travel, space itself as the potential to level the bumpy field of gender inequality. Despite issues surrounding female inclusion in STEM fields, life in space has been, and will continue to be, built for everyone. However, will the trend of men first, women second, continue?

The successful return test flight of SpaceX’s all-male Dragon Crew Demo-2 to the ISS heralded a “turning point for America’s future in space exploration,” according to SpaceX. Indeed, the historic journey changed what travelling into space means for humanity.

As a federal agency, NASA cannot give interviews for news outlets based in China, even in Hong Kong. However, their webpage Women at NASA celebrates the roles of women at the agency, including astronauts, engineers, analysts and interns. Jeanette Epps is one too watch as she joins the first operational Boeing Crew mission to the ISS.

Vice President of Communications at Virgin Galactic Aleanna Crane joined the company as an opportunity to “be part of something that was breaking new ground.”

“We’ve been lucky to attract talented women who are in a variety of leadership roles and individual contributor roles,” says Crane. “We have many great women in communications, sales and marketing roles, as well as across the various technical, engineering and business roles around the company.”

One of the many women now working at Virgin Galactic is Beth Moses. She joined Virgin Galactic as Chief Astronaut Instructor in 2013. Her lateral move to the first publicly traded spaceflight company sent her career skywards. In February 2019, Moses was the first woman to make a spaceflight on a commercially launched vehicle. More importantly, she was the first person to have unstrapped from her seat during a suborbital mission.

“All of my experience leading up to that point was perfectly tuned and uniquely suited to the mission. And if you’re going to train others to fly, it’s best if you’ve done it yourself,” says Moses. “In my years at NASA, I had completed close to a thousand parabolas of zero-gravity research. So, the idea of going in and out of weightlessness rapidly, and performing very complex, potentially dangerous tasks was well within my background.”

Moses unstrapping at the point of apogee – where a spacecraft reaches the pinnacle of a suborbital flight – was a crucial test for establishing how commercial passengers would handle navigating weightlessness on future Virgin Galactic flights. Considering the spacecraft returns to Earth ballistically, the time and ease at which tourists can leave their seat, go to a window to see earth and return to their seats in zero-gravity is an important safety requirement.

The notion that the world’s middle-class population could experience seeing the ‘blue marble’ before 2100 is not insignificant. In Moses’ opinion as the 571st human being and the 63rd woman to travel into space, whose test made her commercial astronaut 007, the ability to do so would be a giant leap for mankind.

“The sight of earth from space, especially if you are completely still and weightless like I was, is a life changing event,” says Moses. “I don’t say that because I’m a space geek, I say that because every human being that has ever been to space comes back and says the same thing. The more people that can see earth from space, the better we will take care of each other. It’s just inevitable. It would be a global awakening. It’s incredibly meaningful that we see ourselves as humans first and any dividing labels, like gender, second.” 

Approximately 600 customers have booked the $250,000 seat to travel with Virgin Galactic into space – more than the total number of people to travel into space to date. A further 700 people have put down $1,000 deposits as part of Virgin Galactic’s One Small Step programme to cope with demand, which guarantees first right of refusal for a seat.

“We have thousands and thousands of people who want to go,” says Crane. “A lot of our customers are of an era who watched the moon landing. So, they’ve wanted to go since they were kids, which is also a big part of where Sir Richard Branson’s dream began. The ultimate dream is to democratise space travel, providing that transformative experience of space to all.” 

Perhaps the idea of counting the firsts and the seconds of spaceflight is unnecessarily competitive – irrelevant in a world looking for gender equality. But we would do well to remember the Tereshkovas, the Rides and the Moses’ when we look back and consider how it was all possible, especially while floating weightless in a cabin overlooking the Earth from space.