Women are the future of space travel
Fortunately Valentina Tereshkova was not there to get her hands on a copy of the June 17, 1963 edition of The New York Times. Tereshkova would probably not have been able to read the Times anyway, since Western newspapers did not circulate much in the Soviet Union – or elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc for that matter. But even if they had, Tereshkova would have missed it Times Edit: The day before, she had taken off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in what is now the nation of Kazakhstan, aboard her Vostok 6 spacecraft, becoming the 12th person and the first woman in space.
SOVIET ORBIT ASTRONAUT WOMAN, the Times title read, respectfully enough. The first paragraph kept the tone pragmatic, identifying him as a junior lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force. Just like the following paragraph, describing how Tereshkova communicated by radio with fellow cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky, who was also in the air in his Vostok 5 spacecraft. But then things turned bad.
There was a reference to her in the third paragraph as “a heavy paratrooper”. There was later this case about the “elegant blue linen dress and stiletto heels” she wore when she met the Soviet press – without any corresponding mention of Bykovsky’s ensemble. There were quotes from everyday New Yorkers who were asked to respond to Tereshkova’s accomplishment.
“That only proves one thing – that you can’t get away from women wherever you go,” said a passenger – glamorously described as an “air traveler” – at New York International Airport, before JFK.
“They shouldn’t be sending a woman over there alone,” said a woman in Times Square. “She should have a man with her.”
History will note that Tereshkova didn’t really need a man to circle the Earth 28 times in her own spacecraft, staying in the air for almost three days. But that hasn’t stopped tongues from flailing and people frowning on the very idea of a female astronaut. History will also note that it will take another 20 years, almost to the day, before the United States follows the example of the USSR, when Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space.
But that was then and it is now – sort of. Just under 600 humans flew into space, but this spring only 65 of them were women, according to NASA. It’s not nothing. Women have commanded the space shuttle, commanded the space station; in 2020, astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch performed the first all-female spacewalk. Additionally, NASA’s Artemis lunar program is very explicit in its goal of landing “the first woman and the next man” on the moon by the mid-2020s. What if NASA knows what’s smart – And NASA generally knows what’s smart – the bet here is that this woman will command the mission as well.
While the past of space exploration has been largely a male enterprise – especially in the early days, defined by rocket test pilots with their sports cars and groupies and their taste for alcohol – l he future is likely to be female. NASA selected 18 astronauts as candidates for the Artemis program and took care to evenly divide them between nine men and nine women. Some of the best-known astronauts of the age of shuttles and space stations have been women: American Peggy Whitson, who accumulated 665 days in space during her three missions, the equivalent of one go -return to Mars; Chiaki Mukai, the first Japanese woman in space; Yi So-yeon, the first Korean woman; Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman.
It should not be said – although in some circles it may be a necessary reminder – that these and the five dozen other women in space are quite the cosmic equivalent of their male counterparts. But could they be better in some ways? Could they bring qualities that men lack?
I thought so (and still do) when I was writing my new novel Holdout, about Walli Beckwith, an American astronaut who refuses to return from the International Space Station when an emergency forces his teammates to evacuate. Beckwith risks her career – and her life – to take a stand in space to right a grievous wrong unfolding on Earth. For the first chapter of the book, Walli was Wally, she was a he. But when I finished writing this chapter, I felt strangely dissatisfied, strangely limited; my main character wanted to be a woman, I needed to be a woman, I felt to myself.
I wanted a character that reminded me of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, women who stood up for human rights, without the structural benefits of access to power and influence that men have. always benefited. When Wally became Walli, she became richer, more complex, more nuanced, more human. His provocative stance has become more courageous, so to speak against a system that remains much more patriarchal than matriarchal. And I found – right or wrong – that his relationships with the other characters became more layered.
These same characteristics might even make women a better choice than men for long-duration space missions. Emotional intelligence is not the exclusive preserve of women, but it is often expressed more fully, more consistently by them than by men. And it’s a quality that will be badly needed as humans try out the difficult and collaborative work of owning the moon or, even more remote and more difficult, Mars.
There is a certain type of reverse bias in portraying women as the most compassionate, intuitive, and interpersonal capable gender. There are obtuse women and empathetic men; selfish women and altruistic men. There is cowardice in both sexes and courage in both. And all of this is just a sex assigned at birth. None of this even takes into consideration the rainbow of strokes found across the arc of the more fluid genres.
Yet, as with so many other things, space has long been a predominantly male game. It was a men’s match this summer in the bro-billionaire competition between Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos to be the first to make their suborbital escapades. It was a man’s game when space was a proxy war between the United States and the USSR, fighting for the heavenly heights. It was a man’s game in the decades that followed. Neil Armstrong, bless him, gave us his historic but stilted “One Small Step” statement. Could there have been something more lyrical from a woman? Twenty-four men saw the moon up close and came back to tell us about it. What different perspective – on the nature of humanity, the imperative to explore – could a woman have taken home?
We are slowly finding out, and we will know more as more women take their place in space and claim their rights. From my little down to earth point of view, I can only say I’m glad I made Wally a Walli. I had more to give to the character than I would otherwise – and I also learned more from her.
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