Boldly going where few women have been before
Think of an astronaut and you’ll probably think of a man, but as Philippa Sillis of the King’s Lynn and District Astronomy Society explains, women have been going into space for the last five decades
On July 20th 1969 Neil Armstrong became the first human being to step on the moon, giving us one of the most famous quotes of all time - “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
And the operative word was man.
Six years before Armstrong put his 9½ size boot on the surface of the moon, the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova had become the first woman in space - but despite becoming a national heroine her pioneering journey (she orbited the Earth 48 times in three days) didn’t exactly result in a flood of women reaching for the sky. In fact it would take another 20 years.
Since 1961, more animals have been into space than women. And of the 556 people who have managed to travel beyond the Earth only 11% have been female. A number of American women successfully underwent the astronaut selection process in the early 1960s, but going into space required an engineering degree and experience as a military jet test pilot - a career not available to women at the time.
All of which is rather odd, because women may actually be better suited to space travel than men.
Women tend to be smaller and lighter than men, and consume up to 25% less calories (and less oxygen) - a vital factor to consider given the huge costs involved with space travel.
“Some of us have speculated for years that having an all-female crew would be advantageous,” says former NASA engineer and space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale. “At least certainly from the total mission-weight standpoint.”
Women also seem to suffer less from some of the more problematic physical effects of spaceflight. Research suggests that men are much quicker to experience the diminished hearing and deteriorating vision associated with going into space.
In addition women have some personality traits more suited for long-duration missions, and you can’t avoid the fact that any baby born in space would need the physical presence of a woman - whereas a man’s contribution could (to put it delicately) be put on ice.
It’s strange that the Americans didn’t put a woman into space until 1983 (two decades after Tereshkova) when Sally Ride joined the crew of the seventh space shuttle mission and became only the third woman to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.
Since then women from around the world have been into space - women from Canada, France, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and even the United Kingdom.
In May 1991 chemist Helen Sharman (who was only 27 at the time) became the first British woman in space when she visited the Mir space station, three years after beating 13,000 applicants who replied to a radio advertisement.
“People often describe me as the first British woman in space, but I was actually the first British person,” she once said. “It’s telling that we’d otherwise assume it would be a man. When Tim Peake went into space in 2015, some people simply forgot about me. A man going first would be the norm, so I’m thrilled I got to upset that order.”
Philippa Sillis is Vice-Chair of the King’s Lynn and District Astronomy Society, which promotes astronomy for all ages across west Norfolk and she recently gave an online talk on the subject of women in space.
“Originally it was thought women could only be of use in space as secretaries and telephonists,” she says, “but we’ve come a long way since then. Women have made significant contributions in space - as scientists, as astronauts and as mission leaders.”
She points to Peggy Whitson, who conducted fuel tests that will inform plans for Mars missions, Sunita Williams, who ran a marathon in space, Eileen Collins, chosen to lead the 2005 Return to Space mission after the loss of Columbia in 2003, and Kathryn Sullivan, who was part of the team that launched the Hubble Space Telescope.
“These women have proved that the sky isn’t the limit,” says Philippa. “It’s only the start.”
Returning to Neil Armstrong’s most famous moment, the first woman to go to the moon is planned to arrive there in 2024 as part of NASA’s Artemis program.
To coin a phrase, it will be a small step for a woman, and a giant leap for womankind.
And that’s a quote we can all look forward to.
If you are interested in stargazing Norfolk is perfect, having some of the darkest skies in the UK - especially around the coast. You can find more details and information on the King’s Lynn and District Astronomy Society at www.westnorfolkastro.co.uk. The group generally meets twice a month, and membership is only £16 a year. For more information and details, please contact Secretary Alan Gosling on 01553 774394 or Membership Secretary Leon Askew on firstname.lastname@example.org