Let’s have a look at the place of women in the conquest of outer space. The first one hundred percent female extravehicular activity (EVA), any activity done by an astronaut, spationaut or cosmonaut outside a spacecraft beyond the Earth’s appreciable atmosphere, took place last Friday from the International Space Station (ISS). Presented as an event by NASA, this release reminds us that aerospace remains a very masculine world: only ten percent of astronauts are women.
This is the first time that an extravehicular activity (EVA) takes place in a one hundred percent female tandem. The event took place last Friday, four hundred kilometres above our heads, when American astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir left the cocoon of the ISS to perform maintenance work on the station. A first hailed as an event by the U.S. space agency, but which should not make us forget the still very minority place occupied by women in aerospace.
1963, the first woman in outer space
The history of women in outer space had started well: two years after Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to leave the atmosphere. She is the first and youngest woman to have flown in outer space with a solo mission on the Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. She orbited the Earth forty-eight times, spent almost three days in outer space, and remains the only woman to have been on a solo space mission. The 26-year-old girl on her first and only flight was selected for her skills, she was a pilot and a paratrooper, but also for her closeness to the Party: she was the secretary of the Yaroslavl Communist Youth Section at the time of application.
But once the flight was done, Valentina Tereshkova never flew again. Promoted as a figure of equality between men and women supposed to exist within the socialist bloc, she was made “hero of the Soviet Union”, and made dozens of tours abroad in the 1960s and 1970s, before embracing a political career. Member of the State Duma since 2011, she sits in the ranks of the United Russia party of Vladimir Putin, and remains a symbol of pride in her country: she was one of the flag bearers at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sochi (2014).
But here, after the pioneer Valentina Tereshkova, outer space has seen only men for nearly two decades. It was not until 1982 and Svetlana Savitskaya, a Soviet cosmonaut, to see a woman join the stars again, aboard a Soyuz for eight days. During her second mission in 1984, the latter became the first to make an extra-vehicular trip, nineteen years after the first man, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who only recently passed away.
First American woman in 1983, first French woman in 1996
In 1983, she was closely followed by the third woman and first American woman in outer space: Sally Ride. A physics graduate and astrophysics researcher, she was among the eight thousand NASA astronaut candidates selected in 1977. This was the first time that the agency had opened its recruitment to women: out of the thirty-five astronauts selected, six were women. On June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman in outer space as a crew member on Space Shuttle Challenger for STS-7. Many of the people attending the launch wore T-shirts bearing the words “Ride, Sally Ride”, lyrics from Wilson Pickett’s song “Mustang Sally”. Her flight came twenty-one years after that of the first American astronaut, John Glenn.
So the United States of America was not a forerunner, and yet… By 1959, Dr. William R. Lovelace, NASA’s Life Science Officer, had tested the ability of women to perform spaceflight: these tests revealed, among thirteen successful candidates, that they completely fulfilled the physical and physiological conditions to follow the same workouts as their male colleagues. It has been known for a long time that women resist better and longer than men to suffering, heat, cold, monotony, or solitude.
Jerrie Cobb, an American woman aviator part of the “Mercury 13”, was an astronaut candidate at the end of the 1950s. But the idea was abandoned by NASA officials in the summer of 1961: spaceflight being finally considered as the domain reserved for the fighter pilots, which do not count any woman. The Mercury project is seen as too Spartan, with a ballistic flight particularly violent, so the project is postponed, while the Soviets do not let go of the case. To date, the first cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova remains the only woman who has completed a solo flight in outer space.
In France, the first female astronaut was Claudie André-Deshays. Selected in 1985 by the European Space Agency (ESA), she flew twice: aboard the Mir station in 1996, and the ISS in 2001. Married to astronaut Jean-Pierre Haigneré in 2001 (of which she took the name), she held high responsibilities thereafter: French Minister of Research and European Affairs, Advisor to the Director of ESA, and President of Universcience, Parisian renowned science museums.
Few female candidates, few women in outer space
“Of the one thousand candidates who ran for the 1985 selection, only ten percent of candidates were women. And today, on about almost six hundred astronauts who flew, there are only about sixty five women; it is still around ten percent. If we look at the selection conducted by ESA in 2008: there is always ten percent of women candidates. This has not changed between 1985 and 2008. This is a question that must be asked: why women have a representation of certain jobs that are accessible to them or not, it is something that we must work on”.
Historically, the jobs that have served as a breeding ground for astronauts have always been masculine. Moreover, the preparation to be an astronaut presupposes leaving home for a long time and it is sometimes difficult for a young woman to make this choice, when she wants to have children or a family life. We also see this kind of imbalance in other universes that impose the same constraints: on construction sites, on oil platforms…
If the U.S.S.R. was the first country to send a woman into outer space, this is also due to the nature of the Soviet regime, to a more directive mode of recruitment, especially with respect to the United States of America. But why such a late opening to the recruitment of women within NASA? Because the selection opened in 1977 was the first since the previous selections of the early 1960s (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs), and in which in fact, no woman had ever been selected. But then, the situation has changed.
The first human on Mars could be a woman
So, is the woman the future of living beings in outer space? Yes, according to the plans of Donald Trump, who set 2024 as the return of an American on the Moon. Or rather an American woman: “It is likely that the next person on the Moon will be a woman, and the first person on Mars will probably also be a woman”. It was time. For today, the twelve astronauts who walked the lunar ground during the Apollo program, from 1969 to 1972, were all men. Today, things are different: of the thirty-eight American astronauts able to fly, twelve are women. And the latest promotions are even more equal: four women and four men selected in 2013, five women and seven men in 2017.
Continuing with women in outer space, in France, of the ten spationauts who have already flown, there is only one woman: Claudie Haigneré. The first Frenchman was Jean-Loup Chrétien, former fighter pilot and general, who flew in 1982 aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. In early 2019, an unfortunate story had, however, put the subject of gender equality back on the table, when a women’s spacewalk had to be cancelled. There was only one size combination ready for use aboard the ISS.
To be women in outer space, is it complicated? The French spationaut Philippe Perrin also explains that after two extravehicular exits, it is extremely misadvised to the female colleagues to have a child, it is usually too risky for the baby. Due to the solar radiations which damage the gametes. For those who wish to have a child, there is only “self-preservation of eggs”. In terms of intimacy, the ISS is totally mixed and adapted to both men and women, but still… To pee involves using a vacuum tube, as for menstruation, only the toilets of the Russian part of the ISS are adapted. To go to the Russians is to mean to all these gentlemen that a women has her period. To avoid worries, most women opt for the pill. One way to avoid getting pregnant in outer space, because it would then be necessary to embark on a repatriation Soyuz.
For the long trips that will be needed to go to Mars (up to two years), will women finally have an advantage over their male colleagues? Expected expeditions will require astronauts to spend a very long time in a cramped capsule, and therefore, in great promiscuity. According to some psychologists, a crew entirely composed of women would be best suited to such an adventure. Anguish, boredom, depression, loneliness, homesickness… Men and women suffer from the same psychological phenomena in distant expeditions, but everything suggests that the most suitable subjects are women. They tend to be more tolerant and in the crews, competition seems less fierce, and the atmosphere is less tense. Still, the presence of a woman in a group of men also has destabilising effects because of, among other things, sexual tension. A problem which may not be so important because astronauts suffer a significant drop in their production of sex hormones. This is what can be said concerning women in outer space.