“I don’t remember being so excited about the future”: Rethinking space travel for women | Guardian careers


“Remember when Nasa sent a woman into space for only six days and they gave her 100 tampons and asked her if that would be enough?” So goes last year’s viral TikTok referring to astronaut Sally Ride who NASA engineers asked in 1983 if 100 pads would be enough for her week-long stay in space (she didn’t not sent with them).

Recalling the incident a few years later, Ride, America’s first female astronaut, said: “There were probably other similar issues just because they had never thought about what kind of personal equipment a woman had. female astronaut would prevail.

TikTok’s satirical clips may be a reminder that, 38 years later, oversights can still occur when women are underrepresented. After all, only 11% of astronauts who have ever been in space were women.

But things seem likely to change. In February, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched its first recruitment drive for new astronauts in 11 years, with a focus on female applicants and people with disabilities (it recently extended the deadline). NASA reportedly intends to change the rules on astronaut radiation limits, which currently prevent female astronauts from doing as many missions as their male counterparts. And as the US space agency prepares for its historic Artemis mission to the moon, which aims to see the first woman and person of color land on the moon, now is a good time to understand how diversity affects the planet. ‘innovation.

Tara Rutley, Associate Chief Scientist for Microgravity Research and Advisor to the Office of the Chief Scientist at NASA, has witnessed a culture shift in the world’s largest space agency. When she started 20 years ago, she was one of only three women in her engineering group. Today, women make up about a third of employees and account for 24% of science and engineering positions. “I think we’re all aware of all the important things that come out of various teams. When at least one team member has characteristics in common with the end user for whom they are designing, then of course the product will have better innovation. It is common sense. But how many teams of men have been put together to design something for use by women?

Data collection has led to improvements, for example, it has led to a recent modification of the toilets on the International Space Station to be more comfortable for female users (“they offer… let’s just say, better suction”, explains Rutley). But when the data sets for female astronauts are so small – of the 566 people who have been in space, only 65 were women, and far fewer were people of color – how can they help inform conception. and the modifications?

Fortunately, Rutley explains that even small datasets can tell us a lot. “It’s small, but we have enough data to tell us that women have more problems with what’s called ‘orthostatic intolerance’, which refers to questions of why women tend to lose more. more blood plasma in space than men. “

Now that the data has revealed this discrepancy, more research will be conducted and, ultimately, countermeasures will be designed to support women in this situation.

To improve the data sets, NASA can also recreate the space conditions here on Earth. She explains how studies like bed rest, used to monitor bedridden volunteers for a month to several months, help simulate long-term microgravity. This allows data to be drawn – which sometimes examines gender differences. Other studies also tell us what appear to be benefits for women in space – women have consistently outperformed men in situations requiring prolonged isolation, while a 2014 NASA report noted that the hearing sensitivity decreased more rapidly over time in male astronauts.

It is perhaps worth noting that this data can also serve humans better, making space technology work better for everyone. Rutley says they are studying “changes in the brain and eyeball and the flow of fluids in space”, comparing men and women, because so far “women tend to do better with it. their vision in space “.

Over the years, initiatives and campaigns have attempted to encourage more women in the space industry. For example, the Rocket Women organization aims to inspire women to pursue careers in space and other Stem sectors, while the Space4Women project, led by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, promotes the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Stem Areas. Last year, Olay launched a Super Bowl ad campaign, Make Space for Women, starring retired astronaut Nicole Stott.

Rutley explains that at NASA, training now takes the form of teaching “how to have those conversations about recruiting more women and underrepresented minorities, providing education and training to all team members ”.

One area of ​​space design that has proven to be problematic for women is that of space suits. Emily Calandrelli, 34, is an MIT aerospace engineer best known for her Netflix show Emily’s Wonder Lab and social media presence. Her Instagram account, @thespacegal, covered science experiments with Cardi B, for example, as well as facts and tantalizing access to rocket designs. In an episode of her show, she tries on a cosmonaut costume while on a trip to Russia. “It was horribly big for me,” she laughs, “and they had no other option. This is because in Russia there are practically no female cosmonauts. Most of their space suits are designed for the average male body, which is just a lot larger than the average female body. “

In March 2019, NASA canceled an all-female spacewalk because it did not have enough space suits of the right size (it took place later in the year). As he prepares for his Artemis mission, he also develops the exploration space suit and states that the strategy guiding the design is to welcome the “first female percentile to the 99th male percentile.”

Regarding the need for greater diversity, Calandrelli says Stem careers need to be more accessible for marginalized low-income communities, but thinks it’s still a long way off. “Online, it really feels like there is a community,” she says. “But when you go to a conference, it’s very different. You will see a sea of ​​white old men. As a woman, and of course, a white woman, I think it’s probably even more exclusive if you’re not white.

Still, she is convinced that the sector is changing and argues that in addition to the will of more women, there should be pressure for more inclusion in all areas (after all, Sally Ride was more that the failure of the nasa buffershe was the first astronaut recognized as part of the LGBTQ + community) which will lead to new ideas on everything from tackling the gender pay gap in the industry to decolonizing space travel, bridging the racial tech divide and even food sent to orbit. As Calandrelli says: “I don’t remember being as excited about the future of the industry as I am now.


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