On April 12, 1961 Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first person to travel into space. Just two years later another Soviet cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, became the first woman to travel into space. However it would be almost two decades before another woman would follow in her footsteps.
In 1982, 19 years after Tereshkova’s flight and 21 years after Gagarin’s, Svetlana Savitskaya became the second woman in space. Over in The United States, their first astronaut, Alan Shepard, took flight just 23 days after Gagarin in May 1961, but it wouldn’t be until 1983 that Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut, would make her voyage.
As of July 2016 only just over 10% of all people (more than 500) who have travelled to space have been women. So why this initial show of parity in the world of space travel – with just 2 years between the first man and first woman in space – only for it to stall straight out of the starting blocks?
In the 1950’s an American aerospace researcher, Randy Lovelace, developed the medical test for NASA’s first astronauts. Curious about how women would fare in the same tests he began a privately funded programme, called the Women in Space Program, to find out. Lovelace’s reasons were in part sensible: women are typically smaller than men and therefore lighter, require less food, less water and less oxygen and would be perhaps better suited for cramped space travel. But Lovelace also had other ideas for what women might be useful for when space travel began in earnest. Margaret Weitekamp, Historian and curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, tells us what he had in mind:
“Lovelace was thinking that if you’re going to have such a large installation in space, you’re going to need secretaries, you’re going to need lab assistants, you’re going to need telephone operators, you’re going to need nurses, and that means we need to know whether women can survive being in space physically”.
After months of gruelling testing the project was terminated, as it was not officially endorsed by NASA so the US Navy would not allow the use of their facilities for testing to continue. The 13 women that passed the original series of tests would never make it to space. Later, in 1962, NASA would have to face up to claims that they were discriminating on the basis of sex, and some of those 13 women testified in the hearing. NASA’s response and reason for denying women the opportunity was that its astronaut candidates had to be jet test pilots, and women were explicitly excluded from becoming jet test pilots at that time. This was deemed reason enough so claims were ultimately dismissed.
When Tereshkova made her flight a year later, Life magazine published a scathing article by Clare Booth, in which she said “The US could have been first to put a woman up in space merely by deciding to do so.” But it wouldn’t be until 1978 that the first female astronaut candidates were admitted into NASA’s program. When NASA received a letter from an aspirational young girl, sometime in the 1960s, telling them of her dreams to become an astronaut they replied with “Sorry, little girl, we don’t accept women into the space program.” That little girl was Hilary Rodham, who would go on to marry William Clinton and almost become the first female president of the United States.
In Britain the bias is slightly more subtle; we all remember Tim Peake blasting off to the International Space Station in 2015 and many people celebrated him as the first Brit in space. But he wasn’t. The very first British astronaut was Helen Sharman who made her journey, 24 years before Peake’s, in 1991. But The UK Space Agency appear to be writing her out of history by referring to Peake as “Britain’s First Official astronaut” – meaning, purely, that he is the first publicly funded Briton in space – and this phrase has been latched onto by the press. In a rare interview with the Guardian last year, Sharman expressed her dismay at the Space Agency’s choice of wording: “I asked what ‘official’ even meant” she told Guardian writer Colin Drury, “and reminded them my mission was part of the Soviet Union space programme. The British government didn’t fund it but it was still official.”
What is possibly even more telling about how society views female astronauts is the reasons that Sharman gives for eventually shying away from the spot light, after spending a large proportion of the 1990’s touring the country making appearances and giving countless interviews and talks. “I’m a scientist, but I found myself in interviews being asked where I bought my clothes,” she said. “Irrelevant. And I always felt I had to be photo-ready.” Needless to say I have not yet come across a single interview with Tim Peake which tells me where he buys his clothes.
But over in Germany things are looking up: two women are currently being trained for a potential mission to the International Space station when one of them will become Germany’s first female astronaut to fly to space. That’s right: First. In a drive by aerospace recruiting company HE Space (a somewhat ironic name given the equality issues Germany obviously has in this area) CEO Claudia Kessler launched a private initiative to recruit female astronauts called Die Astronautin, funded entirely through sponsors and crowdfunding. One of the two women, fighter pilot Nicola Baumann, hopes that she will be the one to blaze the trail for other women. “Many more women could have applied. Many do not dare. There is a lot of unused potential,” she says. “Young women are supposed to think, ‘If she can do this, I can.’”
Sharman is also an advocate for more women in aerospace and Britain as a space faring nation in general, calling for our Government to commit to more flights or be seen as a “just another backward nation” if we do not begin actively participating. She said “when an organism stops pushing its boundaries forward, it starts to die. We should be pushing our boundaries. After all, we Britons are explorers and adventurers.” And this statement is very much true of both space travel and equality. We have long way to go to close the gender gap in aerospace, but we’re not asking for the moon on a stick just for more opportunities for women to travel closer to it.