On October 19th, 2019, NASA held its first all-female spacewalk, but just how revolutionary was this moment?
On Friday, October 18th of 2019, NASA conducted its first all-female space walk. News stations from both sides of the political spectrum lauded this as a momentous occasion for women’s history, especially given that, for decades, NASA had only recruited all-male crews to fly in space. In the past 61 years that humanity has been exploring space, only 11 percent of astronauts have been women. CNN celebrated this occasion as a turning point for women’s history in space, and FOX news called the two women an “inspiration”.
The two women on the space walk, Jessica Meir and Christina Koch, both graduated from NASA’s largest class of women. In an interview with CNN, Koch reflected on the importance for younger generations of women to have role models that they can look up to.
After all, one of the major deterrents keeping women out of STEM has been the fact that women are often negatively impacted by the stereotype that they are worse at science and math subjects, regardless of whether or not they believe such stereotypes. When taking a math or science exam, women carry the extra cognitive and emotional burden of worrying they will actively fulfill this stereotype (a process known as stereotype threat), resulting in poorer performance. Having a visible role model that actively subverts these stereotypes is thus clearly important for creating an inclusive and accepting environment for women within the scientific and engineering fields.
Gender equality at NASA has undeniably come a long way since NASA was first founded in 1958. Three of the women essential to the iconic Apollo space mission—engineers JoAnn Hardin Morgan and Frances Northcutt and researcher Carolyn Leech Huntoon—have acknowledged in interviews that NASA has evolved into a better working environment for women.
However, they also pointed out that although there are now significantly more women working at NASA and in positions of power, this progress was not made easily. The women describe an incident in 1973 in which the highest ranking woman at NASA was fired for criticizing the many shortcomings of NASA’s department dedicated to diversity and equal opportunity. It is important to recognize that although there have been strides made towards equality, there is still much to do. It was only in 1983 that Sally Ride became the first woman from the US to be launched into space aboard the mission of the space shuttle Challenger. As recent as 2008, Peggy Whitson, an American biochemistry researcher and astronaut, became the first woman to command the International Space Station.
Even with the spacewalk celebrated as a momentous occasion for Women’s History in space, the first all-female space walk was not specifically planned as such. In fact, an all-female space walk was scheduled in March of 2019, but was forcibly canceled due to the fact that the women had no properly fitting space suits, emphasizing the androcentrism within the field of space exploration. Not only were the space suits improperly sized, but due to the lack of research done on the biological reactions of long term space travel on the human body for individuals other than cisgender men, the suits have yet to be as highly tailored to the female body’s reactions and processes as they need to be.
Additionally, it is important to note that women of color are especially underrepresented in the field. It was only in 2008 that NASA astronaut Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to be sent into space. In fact, women of color in STEM fields face an alarmingly high rate of gender and racial discrimination. Research conducted by Katherine B. H. Clancy through the American Geophysical Union has found that women going into astronomy or planetary science encounter the highest degree of racial discrimination within STEM fields. In this study, it was found that 40 percent of women of color in STEM felt unsafe in their workplace just in the last few years, either due to outright discrimination or microaggressions. In 2016, women of color earned the smallest percentage of STEM degrees, making up only roughly 11.7%. The two women who participated in the first all-female space walk were not women of color.
For the first time in six decades since the United States has been sending people into space, NASA has conducted its first ever all-female spacewalk, providing an important and positive example for young women everywhere. However, women, particularly women of color, still face significant discrimination in STEM fields. Today, NASA hasn’t even completed its research on the non-cisgender male body in space. Though the first all-female space walk is undeniably a significant moment in history, there is still much to be done to make STEM fields more inclusive.
Illustrator: Melina Lawrence is a Design Editor for F-Word Magazine. She is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences at Penn studying Architecture and Urban Studies.