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Infinity and beyond: A look into the lives of historic space heroines reveals unchanged gender bias

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This was during the 1960s, when space agency’s such as NASA refused to accept recruits who weren’t military test pilots, a profession which was not open to women. But with the recent emphasis on gender equality, has this perception changed?

Valentina Tereshkova shattered the cosmic glass ceiling in 1963 when she became the first woman in space. By some accounts, however, Tereskhova remains a contradictory hero given her selection was met with opposition. And even though many speculate that she only became the first woman in space as part of the “space race”, Tereskhova once explained that “Soviet women have had the same prerogatives and rights as men”. 

“They share the same tasks. They are workers, navigators, chemists, aviators, engineers, and now cosmonauts,” she said.

But just because it’s possible doesn’t mean that women haven’t endured hardships on their way “to the stars”.

Behind the propaganda surrounding her mission, Tereskhova’s failings during the flight were criticised by the male-dominated Soviet space leadership. As a result, the door to space was closed to women for the next two decades. It wasn’t until NASA prepared to let women fly and conduct spacewalks in the 1980s that Russia rushed to beat the US with a spacewalk by Svetlana Savitskaya. Known to the British press under the nickname “Miss Sensation”, Savitskaya was the first woman to fly on a space station and make two spaceflights as well.

Despite being far less known than Tereskhova, Savistskaya outperformed not only Thereskhova, but also many men. But it was suggested that Savitskaya had to “pass certain selections, overcome hardships and men’s prejudice”.

When she arrived at Mir in 1982, she was greeted with a floral apron as a welcome present, and mocking words implied that her place on the station would be in the kitchen.

“Even among our space colleagues there were men wondering why we needed to weld and said that we might burn each other’s space suits or the spaceship’s exterior,” Savitskaya said. “It is a great responsibility. If I listen to their concerns, then people could have said that surely it was not something women should do. But after my spaceflight, everyone had to shut up.”

She stressed: “The sky is the limit. There aren’t jobs specifically for men or for women, nor are there people who are capable or incapable of performing certain tasks. Working in space depends on a person’s training, psychological and physical status, self-command, personal aims, and so on. If a person is a professional, the gender makes no difference.”

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So the argument goes, but what does it say when Russian Elena Serova’s pre-launch interview in September 2013 was filled with make-up queries and questions about how she would wear her hair during the six months in space.

She responded by pointing to her fellow male crew mate: “I have a question for you – why don’t you ask the question about Alexander’s hair?”

It’s concerning that nothing has changed since 1983, when the first American astronaut, Sally Ride, received similar questions. She was asked whether the flight would affect her reproductive organs and whether she intended to “weep when things go wrong on the job?”

Known for keeping her cool, Ride told reporters at a press conference: “It’s too bad this is such as big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”

NASA reportedly made adjustments to accommodate Ride. Rather than force astronauts to use urine-catching devices, NASA added commodes to space vessels. Tampons were also packed with their strings connecting them. Engineers asked Ride, “Is 100 the right number?” She would be in space for a week.

“That would not be the right number,” she told them. At every turn, her difference was made clear to her.

Within Russia’s current social climate, Serova’s road to space may have been rockier than any of her female predecessors.

“We can now say without any doubt that compared to previous years, fewer women are even applying for the cosmonauts group,” Serova said. “In our country, it is considered to be not a woman’s profession.” 

She has emphasised that she applied to become a cosmonaut only after fulfilling the “main purpose of a woman”, which was to bear a child. And she has sometimes had to defend herself against those asking whether she could remain a good mother and wife.

South Korea’s first and only astronaut, biomechanical engineer Yi So-yeon explained: “In pursuing this field, girls should sometimes ‘forget’ that they are women in their field and other times rejoice because we are. Understanding that there is time and place for both is especially important. When is it time to be primarily ‘the professional’ and when should we be ‘the woman’? We can be confident and clear and be able to manage both sides.

“As a cosmonaut once told me, the toughest thing about this job is the waiting. Not just that, but to wait with making a huge effort to achieve something not necessarily well defined, and to get there. Women must be wiser rather than just more intelligent. It’s about knowing when we must wait, when we should speak out and when we need to listen. This is what’s so important for women to manage well in these fields dominated by guys.”

Though dozens of women have now flown on a space shuttle, only two have commanded a spaceship. Those two are NASA astronauts Eileen Collins and Pamela Melroy. 

Collins explained that becoming a shuttle commander required 1,000 hours experience piloting a jet aircarft, including previous spaceflight experience. Due to this fact, few women achieve this position.

Although Collins admitted that she “never really thought that much about” being the first woman to fly as a pilot, yet alone commander, at the time. “The biggest hindrance was the law preventing women from serving on combat aircraft and on combat ships,” she said.

“When I first graduated from pilot training, I wanted to fly fighters,” she said. “That was in 1979. Because of the law against women in combat, however, the Air Force obviously wasn’t going to spend a lot of money training me to fly an airplane that I’d never be able to fly in combat. But, I knew that if I just did my job, and did it well, some day the law would change. It did, in April of 1993. I remember how happy I was because, although it was too late for me, maybe I was part of getting this law lifted.”

How times have changed since Neil Armstrong took one small step for man and Captain Kirk went where no man has gone before. Collins suggested that in NASA’s early days, women in the space program were relegated to support roles mainly as technicians, engineers or mathematicians. 

Read more about the gender gap:

As the first woman shuttle pilot and first commander, Collins was aware of her status. However, she didn’t forget the woman who laid the foundation to her success. She explained that in 1995, during her first shuttle flight, she took along a scarf belonging to Amelia Earhart, as well as keepsakes from female astronauts who never made it to space. 

Collins also credits Ride and Shannon Lucid, who broke the American record for the longest time spent in space, for breaking the mould. “These women set an excellent precedent and made it easy for me and the gals to follow me,” Collins said. 

Read on to find out about the one and only British woman to make it into space.

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