A recent study in Nature Scientific Reports by Jonathan P. R. Scott and colleagues makes the case for sending exclusively all-female crews on long-duration missions. The reasoning here is simple: women have significant less body mass, with in the US the 50th percentile for women being 59.2 kg and 81.8 kg for men. This directly translates into a low total energy expenditure (TEE), along with a lower need for everything from food to water to oxygen. On a long-duration mission, this could conceivably save a lot of resources, thus increasing the likelihood of success.
With this in mind, it does raise the question of why female astronauts aren’t more commonly seen throughout Western space history, with Sally Ride being the first US astronaut to fly in 1983. This happened decades after the first female Soviet cosmonaut, when Valentina Tereshkova made history in 1963 on Vostok 6, followed by Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982 and again in 1984, when she became the first woman to perform a spacewalk.
With women becoming an increasingly more common sight in space, it does bear looking at what blocked Western women for so long, despite efforts to change this. It all starts with the unofficial parallel female astronaut selection program of the 1950s.
When the Space Age began in the 1950s, Western society was still struggling with emancipation, especially with the Cold War as a clash of cultures reinforcing many stereotypes regarding the role of the woman in society. Even as Soviet women were free to take up jobs even after getting married and manage their own affairs, the ‘nuclear family‘, with the woman as the caretaker of the plentiful offspring was seen as the ultimate counterpoint to this, and a rejection of ‘communist’ ideals.
One result of this was the corresponding drop in women following higher education, with the share of women college students falling from about 47% in 1920 to 38% by 1958 in the US. Although more financial aid was available via the government for education, societal pressures fed into most households being single-income, with the husband making money and the wife taking care of the family and household matters. This pattern didn’t begin to change until the 1970s.
In light of all this, there wasn’t so much a single reason why US women did not generally make it into high-up places – including the skies and space – but rather the fallout from a complex patchwork of societal expectations, poor scientific practices and an astounding amount of cognitive biases that led to this widespread discrimination. This was a practice that was reflected in the US military, with the Women’s Army Corps (WAC, established as the WAAC in 1942) as well as the 1948 established Women in the Air Force (WAF) heavily limiting the duties that could be performed by the women in either.
Ultimately, when it came to selecting the first US astronauts, these would be selected from ideally the most fit candidates, preferably from the Air Force and similar extreme fitness backgrounds. That only male candidates were considered was in light of all this therefore both a logical result and par for the course. This did not mean that it was an absolute, however, with William Randolph Lovelace II‘s efforts while working as head of NASA’s Life Sciences being instrumental in unofficially qualifying female astronaut candidates alongside the male candidates for Project Mercury.
The name for the group of thirteen women who went through this selection process, ‘the Mercury 13‘, was coined in 1995 by Hollywood producer James Cross as a comparison with the Mercury 7. Even so, it essentially captures the parallel nature of this program within Project Mercury. Even as the male astronaut candidates went through the rigorous testing program, so did the female candidates under guidance of Dr. Lovelace and his team, starting with Jerrie Cobb, a highly accomplished aviator.
Although Jerrie Cobb and twelve others with similar qualifications as her passed the tests with flying colors, NASA’s requirement for the Project Mercury astronauts was that the candidates were all military test pilots, experienced with high-speed flight and with an engineering background. This precluded all of the potential female candidates and despite lobbying attempts by Lovelace, Cobb and others, ultimately only male astronauts would fly.
After Valentina Tereshkova’s solo space flight in 1962, she would ridicule the US and its purported freedoms, where a woman was denied the opportunity to compete equally with men. It would still take twenty-one years after that comment before the first female US astronaut would make it to space. Ultimately none of the ‘Mercury 13’ would fly to space, although Wally Funk would fly on a suborbital flight with Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle at the age of 82, making her the only one of the thirteen women to make it nearly to space.
It’s The Biology, Silly
Although the logic of the modeling performed by Jonathan P. R. Scott and colleagues in their paper on the benefits of a female crew makes objectively sense, it’s important to consider the main concerns that were raised despite these female candidates passing the same tests as their male counterparts, as summarized in a 1964 paper by J. R. Betson & R. R. Secrest titled Prospective women astronauts selection program in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (doi:10.1016/0002-9378(64)90446-6).
Essentially the concern raised was about the suitability of a woman in the operating of complex machinery while she would be on her period, and the effect this might have on her mental faculties, as well as the complications of having to deal with the menstrual flow. Males would be more optimal in this regard, with a stable endocrine system and no complications to consider.
As we have found since the 1960s, women can most definitely function in space, and there are a number of ways to deal with a period while in space, including not having periods at all. The latter is accomplished with contraceptives that suppress ovulation, where instead of having an ‘off week’ each month the contraceptive is constantly supplied, possibly as a subdermal system for flights to Mars. Although on the ISS dealing with waste and having sanitary products shuttled up from Earth’s surface is doable, for long-term missions it’s obvious that it is an aspect that has to be considered as well.
As for the emotional stability and similar aspects, none of these were found to be valid concerns over the decades that female astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts have spent time in space. There is after all no fundamental difference between men and women beyond their biological sex and the associated endocrine system. As demonstrated by e.g. Daphne Joel et al. in a 2015 study involving fMRI scans of male and female volunteers, despite the physical (size) differences between male and female brains, they are not sexually dimorphic. Rather than personality being determined by the biological sex, it is a purely unique, individualistic pattern.
What this means is that the typical selection procedures for astronauts involving not only physical challenges but also psychological tests apply equally, regardless of the candidate’s biological sex.
Considering the scientific evidence, it is in a sense rather tragic that a headline like ‘all-female Mars mission crew’ should even make the headlines. Many decades after the ‘Mercury 13’ tried to make their case, and after a few decades now of both male and female astronauts working side by side, it should be clear that the goal for any mission is to pick the right crew for the job. If that means picking the astronauts who have the lowest body mass and resulting lowest energy, water and oxygen requirements, and they also happen to be overwhelmingly female, then that is good mission design.
Especially when it comes to a highly dangerous mission, such as a long-duration mission to Mars, the primary concern ought to be what would give the crew the highest chances of success. If hundreds of kilograms of supplies could be cut, or be kept back as emergency supplies because the crew is composed solely of individuals slim in stature, then that makes sense in any logical way. Even if the trauma of generations of anti-intellectual and pseudo-scientific nonsense regarding certain groups in society insist that we should discuss it in great length once again.
While it is great to see that things have definitely changed since the 1960s, the struggles of the Mercury 13 women and the countless others like them over the decades should not be forgotten.
(Heading image: Astronaut Tracy Caldwell in the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA) )