“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” These are the famous words from Apollo 11 astronaut and first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Although Armstrong would later go on to say that he really meant to say “One small step for a man,” most people reading or hearing the now famous catchphrase know what Armstrong was saying: His, (a man’s), first step on the moon may have been physically small, but the cultural significance was huge and impacted all of mankind.
Although it’s clear that mankind means all of humanity, what space exploration has largely been about is in fact man’s impact and influence on the final frontier … but what about the women?
Historically, women have largely been excluded from the world of science. Think of Rosalind Franklin, the woman whose work was critical in the discovery of DNA, but who was snubbed and credit was awarded to her male counterparts instead. Sadly, Franklin’s story is a common one. Gender discrimination has wrought inequality in the world of science for centuries. Why? Historically, women have been viewed as lesser than their male counterparts. Simply put, sexism has plagued women in many professions, science being one of them.
How has this issue translated to space exploration? Take, for example, the amount of women in space in comparison to their male counterparts. A grand total of 59 women have flown into space, while a whopping 481 men have.
It has been noted that women’s bodies in comparison to their male counterparts differ in ways that could be beneficial to space travel and exploration. According to Astronaut.com, “The typical woman is lighter and smaller than the typical man. On average, she does not require as much food or water as her male counterpart in order to maintain a well-balanced diet. She breathes in less oxygen, and tends to have better cardiopulmonary health.”
Now, someone’s X or Y chromosomes shouldn’t determine their qualifications for a job. Given that historically women were excluded from space exploration because they were not deemed physically capable seems ironic given that studies have shown them to be just as competent.
Space exploration in particular is an incredibly grueling occupation, and it’s one that men and women should both be able to participate in.
The simple answer is education — exposing more young girls and women to the possibility of becoming scientists, engineers, mathematicians and even astronauts. Encouraging them to participate in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs is the key to getting more women in space.
There is a growing presence of women in engineering-related fields, and that’s a good thing. Historically, women have been largely excluded from this field, and although more women are pursuing careers in STEM, they still only make 14 percent of the engineering workforce.
The first woman in space was a 26-year-old Russian woman named Valentina Tereshkova. She was launched into space on June 16, 1963 and spent roughly three days in orbit.
The first American woman to launch into space was Sally Ride. She launched into space two decades after Tereshkova on June 18, 1983. Her mission lasted six days and was spent alongside four other crew members. Before her space launch, Ride faced criticism and sexism from reporters asking about her ability to maintain composure on the job.
Undeterred, Ride completed her mission and went on to complete a second mission a year later.
Although notably it took NASA two decades after Tereshkova’s mission to allow a woman into space, NASA has been leading the way for women to participate in space missions. For example, nine of the 20 astronauts from the past two astronaut classes have been women.
Though sexism still exists today, women’s chances of going to space have improved. Girls are being encouraged to join STEM programs, and women now make up nearly half of the working world. The Johnson Space Center is now being directed by a woman, and the most time spent in space by an American was an astronaut named Peggy Whitson. And that is no small step.