Space Exploration And The Invisible Women

Yesterday being a snow day in New York City–for school-going children and college professors alike–I spent it with my daughter at home. Diversion was necessary, and so I turned to an old friend–the growing stock of quite excellent documentaries on Netflix–for aid. My recent conversations with my daughter have touched on the topic of space exploration–itself prompted by a discussion of the Man on the Moon, which had led me to point out that actual men had been to the moon, by rocket, and indeed, had walked on it. A space exploration documentary it would be. We settled on the BBC’s ‘Rocket Men’ and off we went; I wanted to show my daughter the Apollo 11 mission in particular, as I have fond memories of watching a documentary on its flight with my parents when I was a five-year old myself.

As the documentary began, I experienced a familiar sinking feeling: my daughter and I were going to be watching something ‘notable,’ ‘historical,’ a human achievement of some repute, and yet again, we would find few women featured prominently. Indeed, as the title itself suggests, the documentary is about men: the astronauts, the rocket scientists, the mission control specialists. The only women visible are those watching rockets blast off or worrying about the fates of their family members in them. This used to happen in our watching of music videos too as I introduced my daughter to ‘guitar heroes’ as a spur to her guitar lessons. After a couple of weeks of watching the likes of Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page et al, my daughter asked me, “Don’t girls play the guitar?” Well, of course they do, and so off we went, to check out Joan Jett, Nancy Wilson, Lita Ford, Chrissie Hynde, the Deal sisters, and many others.

It had been an easy trap to fall into. In the case of music, I had a blind spot myself. In the case of space exploration the problem lay elsewhere: there were no women pilots qualified for the astronaut program as the initial selection of the astronaut corps came from the armed forces. Both instances though, were united by their embedding in a culture in which women were women were less visible, less recognized, less likely to be promoted to the relevant pantheon. After all, as in literature and art and philosophy, women have been present in numbers that speak to their ability to surmount the social barriers placed in their paths, and yet still rendered invisible because of the failure to see them and their contributions to their chosen field of artistic endeavor.

As I watched a video of the first seven American astronauts being introduced at a press conference, I felt I had to say something to my daughter, to explain to her why no women were to be seen in this cavalcade of handsome crew cut men wearing aviator sunglasses. So I launched into a brief digression, explaining the selection process and why women couldn’t have been selected. My daughter listened with some bemusement and asked if things were still that way now. I said, no, but there’s work to be done. And then we returned to watching the Gemini and Apollo missions. Afterwards, I walked over to my computer and pulled up the Wikipedia entries for Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride and Kalpana Chawla and showed them to my daughter, promising her that we would watch documentaries on them too. She seemed suitably enthused.

RIP Sally Ride

Like many other schoolboys in the 1980s, transfixed by the awesome sight of the space shuttle lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center, by the legend of the moon landings, and by the culturally enforced vision of the astronaut as our era’s most intrepid pioneer, I had a thing for those that went into space. Needless to say, I wanted to be like the men, those dashing, crew-cut, sunglasses-wearing types, piloting jets and shuttles. But that didn’t mean that women astronauts couldn’t make me admire them, especially if their credentials for spaceflight included degrees in physics like Sally Ride‘s did. I was a physics nerd too–one inordinately proud of explaining to anyone that cared to listen what pions had to do with the relationship between a proton and a neutron–and found the idea of civilian scientists and not just military pilots heading into space incredibly inspiring. If I ever dreamed being an astronaut, it was as a Mission Specialist and not as a Pilot  Commander that I imagined myself; I didn’t think I would join the military. And I also dreamed about a career as an astrophysicist, so a physicist-astronaut seemed wonderfully cool.

When Ride’s selection for STS-7 was announced, I took notice.  It didn’t matter she was a woman. Physics just made everyone that studied it cool, and besides, she was an astronaut. What was not to like? I studied shuttle flights closely in those days, diligently making trips to the American Library in New Delhi to watch videotapes of reports on each mission; STS-7’s details–its satellite deployments, for instance–received a great deal of wide-eyed attention from me. (It helped that the mission was led by the dashing Bob Crippen.)  Later, I saw Ride on television handing interviewers with aplomb and grace. I do not remember if any of them asked those sexist questions that were so often directed at her but it is entirely possible that I might have heard and seen a few and not realized just how offensive that line of questioning was. I do remember Carl Sagan being paired up with her for a television interview, and on being asked if he was envious of astronauts like Ride, saying he didn’t consider ‘puttering around in low earth orbit to be space travel.’ In the neighboring television window, Ride just smiled, refusing to fall for the bait. She seemed graceful, smart, and tough, a winning combination at all times.

One thing I didn’t know about Sally Ride then was that she was a lesbian. I wonder what I would have thought then as a seventeen-year-old schoolboy, one relatively unsophisticated in his understanding of human sexuality and its diverse forms of expression. My guess is that while I might have had some puerile curiosity about her sexual orientation and would have jumped at the opportunity to crack a crude joke or two in juvenile company, I think that in the end, the combination of astrophysics and manned space flight would have trumped it all. It still does.

RIP Sally.