To Make It to the Moon, Women Have to Escape Earth’s Gender Bias

[Read all Times reporting on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon touchdown. | Sign up for the weekly Science Times electronic mail.]

As we have fun the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon touchdown, NASA has began Artemis, a program that goals “to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, including the first woman and the next man.”

Although each astronauts have huge challenges forward, the first girl will face added hurdles just because all the pieces in area carries the legacy of Apollo. It was designed by males, for males.

Not intentionally for males, maybe, however girls weren’t allowed in the astronaut program till the late 1970s, and none flew till Sally Ride turned the first American girl in area, in 1983. By this level, the area program was constructed round male our bodies.

The suits, known as extravehicular mobility units, were designed more than 40 years ago, based on the designs of the Apollo missions, at a time when all astronauts were men. Only four of the original 18 suits are still rated for spaceflight, and all of those are on the space station.

NASA first planned to have extra-small, small, medium, large and extra-large suits. For budget reasons, the extra-small, small and extra-large suits were cut. However, many of the male astronauts could not fit into the large suits, so the bigger size was brought back.

The smaller sizes never were.

Cady Coleman, an astronaut who has flown on two space shuttles and traveled to the space station, stands 5 feet 4 inches tall and remains the smallest person to ever do a spacewalk. While she was training in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab, she had to improvise padding to wear inside her spacesuit.

Without that, smaller people would have an air bubble inside their suits that would make them spin in the lab’s pool as if a beach ball were strapped to their stomachs. It would not be a problem in space, Ms. Coleman told me. “But the N.B.L. was where people decided if you had what it takes to do a spacewalk,” she said.

And complaints? Well, no one else previously had that problem, so it must just be the person who complained. As a result, this gender bias became a mistake that we did not learn from, because the female astronauts compensated.

We are already aware of this in relation to office temperatures. Temperatures are set for men, which leaves women carrying sweaters to work.

A 2015 study by Dutch researchers found that indoor climate regulations were based on “an empirical thermal comfort model” developed in the 1960s. “Standard values for one of its primary variables — metabolic rate — are based on an average male, and may overestimate female metabolic rate by up to 35 percent,” they concluded.

NASA took pride in advertising the space shuttle as being a shirt-sleeve environment. And yet, if you watch “The Dream Is Alive,” a 1985 documentary made by crews aboard the shuttles, take note of the thick wool slippers on Kathryn Sullivan’s feet.

Women are asked to compromise about seemingly small things in order to participate. Every time we do that, we carry those imprints forward into the future.

It is worth looking back to the 1950s, when it seemed that women might be included in the early space program.

In the 1950s, before we had put anyone into space at all, Dr. Randolph Lovelace wondered how women would fare as space travelers. He had designed the tests for the Mercury astronauts and proceeded to put 19 women through the first round of assessments. Thirteen passed. In fact, from testing the “First Lady Astronaut Trainees,” Dr. Lovelace discovered that women might be better suited to space than men.

They were smaller, which would reduce the weight of payloads. They had better cardiovascular health and lower oxygen consumption. And they tolerated higher G-forces and outperformed men on isolation and stress tests. (One of the women was a mother of eight, and I imagine her looking at the tests and wondering when things would get difficult.)

Despite all this, the tests were stopped. The women, later known as the Mercury 13, went to Congress to try to fight the ruling, but by then, the United States was in a moon race. Putting a woman into space was seen as a distraction, in part because the Soviet Union had already sent the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova, and that was derided as being just a publicity stunt.

This decision meant that by 1962 it was confirmed policy, as one NASA official wrote in a letter to a young girl who was interested in becoming an astronaut, that “we have no present plans to employ women on spaceflights because of the degree of scientific and flight training, and the physical characteristics, which are required.”

The gender bias in this statement is, to a modern reader, unmistakable.

During project Mercury, astronauts did not need scientific training — they simply needed a bachelor’s degree or equivalent. John Glenn did not even have a degree.

And the flight training — what did this mean, exactly? For project Mercury, astronauts needed to be a graduate of test pilot school, with a minimum of 1,500 hours flying time, and a qualified jet pilot.

The requirement to be a test pilot was a logical choice, not so much because of the nerves of steel required to fly experimental aircraft, but because test pilots are trained to take notes while piloting and to deliver clear reports afterward. But this criterion eliminated female pilots, because the only qualified test pilot schools were military and they did not accept women.

Mind you, during World War II, the Women Airforce Service Pilots were responsible for training pilots and towing planes for live-ammunition practice, as well as for ferrying and testing aircraft. In many cases, these women logged more flight hours than their male counterparts. They did not, however, have a certificate from a test pilot school.

Kari Love, a former spacesuit designer, once told me that “while we can look back and understand why women were an afterthought in aerospace to this point, we are at serious risk for that to be reproduced as we move into the commercial spaceflight era.”

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