The role of women in space is one that is too often overlooked. In 2012 NASA’s Sunita Williams was only the second woman in history to command an ISS expedition and was barely mentioned in the media. These are important steps in the diversification of the space industry. Women play an important role in space, they have the same training as men, and have the same responsibilities on the ISS. While there is no doubt that women can do all the same things as men, especially in space, it is only recently that women have had the same opportunities.
The beginnings of women in space
NASA is one of the most influential space agencies in the world. At the start of the space program in 1958, it was one of the first of its kind. The only one that could compare was the Soviet Space Program (today known as Roscosmos). The others followed a couple of decades later, although they play a very important role in today’s space industry. The first Mercury astronaut class was comprised solely of military men. While their work is undeniable, and they are rightly recognised as American heroes, women were sidelined.
In the USA, it was in 1961 that women are first thought to have joined the space program. They were known as the Mercury 13, and they were all top pilots. They endured gruelling testing but nothing ever came of the initiative. In the Soviet Union, Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, in 1963. Apart from proving that women were just as capable as men to take part in spaceflight, it achieved nothing else. Women were not regarded as fit to take part in the space race, and they were not allowed to even apply.
It was already hard enough for them to be taken seriously as engineers on the ground, but it was not until the early 80’s that they were selected as official astronauts. Women were kept out of the space industry for far too long.
The developments of women in space
It was not until 1978 – over 13 years after the start of NASA and the space program – that the first women were selected for the space program. Even though the Mercury 13 women were fully qualified to be astronauts, it took NASA over a decade to admit them into the space program. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space in 1983, and she was only the third woman ever to go. Dr Ride was a pioneer for women in space. She is truly an American hero and her pioneering work will be remembered for generations. She paved the way for girls to be interested in STEM and never gave up on her dream of going to space.
In 1995, Eileen Collins became the first American woman to pilot a spaceship and she would go on to be the first female to ever command a space mission in 1999. These women in space proved to young girls around the world that they can do it too. Something that had not been possible before.
Women are only today getting the opportunities of going into space that they have deserved for over five decades. The 2013 astronaut class was the first with an equal number of women and men. As of March 2021, only 38 women have been in space. This reflects that the role of women is still relatively small. The Axiom Space mission which will fly to the ISS on 30th March 2022, is an all male crew. While women have been given more responsibilities to make a difference in space, there is still a long way to go. Only 11% of all astronauts have been women. The ladies from Mercury 13 desperately wanted the same opportunities. There have been developments in that area, but women are still under-represented.
The future is female
Women are undoubtedly the future of space, either as engineers on Earth, astronauts on the ISS or in the future on Lunar missions and someday missions to Mars. However, STEM needs to be introduced to girls at a primary and secondary education level. They need to know that women before them have paved the way for girls to be recognised as true astronauts.
There are a number of TV shows that feature women in space (AWAY on Netflix, and For All Mankind on Apple TV are just two examples). In these representations, women are shown to be strong and capable of leading missions. While these series are works of fiction, it would be nice to see women as empowered in real life situations. One can only hope that, with the developments of the SLS, women will be next to walk on the moon.
Read next: Can the weather really cause depression