NASA’s recently announced Artemis mission will seek to bring astronauts back to the moon by 2024 including the first woman to walk on the moon. But for the women of NASA–especially its recent class that had the most women ever–what will that mean when spaceflight has been designed almost entirely to cater to men? We saw just this year that the first planned all-female spacewalk was derailed because NASA didn’t have enough small suits to fit female astronauts. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in how gender bias has affected female astronauts.
From the Beginning: When NASA first created its space program and was assessing astronaut candidates for the Mercury mission, 19 women were tested. As Mary Robinette Kowal wrote for the New York Times, female candidates fared better in their assessments and probably would have made better astronauts because 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. But sadly, NASA didn’t allow female astronauts until the late 1970s.
Going Forward: Neither NASA, nor the privately operated SpaceX have stated that they will design rockets and gear to accommodate female astronauts. Everything from space suits to the cooling mechanisms used to regulate the body temperatures of astronauts are still from designs developed in the 1950s and 60s–this means that women are often very cold in space because their metabolic rates have been vastly overstated. Additionally, as the New York Times explained,
“Without conscious thought, the design of the ship and the lunar platform for the Artemis missions is likely to reproduce design choices made in the Apollo era when astronauts were all men. Ladder rungs are set at the optimum distance for the average man. The pistol-grip tool, or cordless drill, is sized for a man’s hand. The distance from the seats to the control panels in SpaceX’s Dragon Crew capsule is being tested and optimized for an all-male crew.”
Why This Matters: The era of the Space Race was a very different time for women yet if we don’t want women to be overlooked and undervalued in future space missions we must examine gender bias in the space program and commercial space travel and design tools made with women in mind. Diversity leads to better science and we want as many women and people of color to become astronauts as possible so that we can make better discoveries and learn more about our solar system and beyond.
Go Deeper: Read our interview with the amazing Kathy Sullivan, the first woman to walk in space!
Go Even Deeper: Read, How NASA Women Made Their Mark on the Space Program.