Women in Space: The Sky’s the Limit—or Is It?

Issue 14, Volume 113

By Aarya Balakrishnan, Tashfia Diha 

Cover Image

In 1962, a young Linda Halpern expressed her interest in becoming an astronaut in a letter to NASA executives. However, NASA rejected her ambitions because of her gender: “We have no present plans to employ women on space flights because of the degree of scientific and flight training, and the physical characteristics, which are required.” Since the beginning of NASA’s program, women have aspired to help mankind extend their reach beyond Earth’s surface. Yet women have been limited by their gender; even the word “mankind” embodies the sexism that has barred capable women like Halpern from contributing to space exploration, subsequently creating a male-dominated aerospace field.

However, looking at the contributions of women in the Artemis missions reveals a remarkable progression toward gender equality in the aerospace industry. NASA’s Artemis missions aim to regularly send human crews on and around the moon from 2022 to 2025. The Artemis program is split into three phases. During Artemis I in 2022, NASA was able to send an uncrewed flight test around the moon. Artemis II, on the other hand, plans to launch the first crewed flight test around the moon. In 2024, NASA will send Commander Rise Wideman, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialists Christina Hammock Koch and Jeremy Hansen for this 10-day test trip around the moon. Lastly, Artemis III will land the first woman on the Moon—a milestone for the historically exclusionary aerospace industry and women in STEM around the globe.

Despite this goal, the NASA space program itself has shown an undeniable gender bias over the years. During the Space Race (1955-1975)the Cold War competition for space advancement between the United States and the Soviet Union—NASA implemented policies to prevent women from becoming astronauts. For instance, NASA required all potential astronauts to graduate from military test piloting schools, an impossible qualification for women to meet after the Women Airforce Service Pilots organization closed in 1944. NASA was further disincentivized from hiring female astronauts because the Soviet Union had already beaten them to it with cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go to space.

Women were not allowed in the space program until the late 1970s; as a result, the space program developed, tailoring to the needs of men. For instance, today’s extravehicular mobility units are based on designs of large suits from 40 years ago when all astronauts were male. So when Christina Koch and Anne McClain were getting ready for their all-female spacewalk in April of 2019, they only found one suit fitted for women, and McClain had to be replaced by astronaut Nick Hague. However, in response to pressure from the media and protests from prominent figures like Hilary Clinton, NASA rescheduled its first all-female space walk with Koch and fellow astronaut Jessica Meir. This recent example displays how historical misogyny continues to delay gender equality in the modern space program.

Twelve of the first astronauts—all of whom were men—set foot on the moon almost 50 years ago through the Apollo program; Artemis II aims to break this pattern by selecting Koch to be the first woman on a lunar mission. Koch is a highly experienced astronaut who served on the International Space Station (ISS) for Expedition 59, 60, and 61. She spent 328 days on the ISS, setting a world record for a woman’s longest time on a spaceflight. During her time on the ISS, she conducted many scientific experiments, from observing how fire combusts in microgravity to monitoring how protein crystals grow in space. The data collected by these experiments will help experts explore the possibility of humans inhabiting space permanently. On the Artemis II mission, she will lead further trials and pave the way for future female-led lunar missions.

Another important woman behind the Artemis missions is Diane Davis, who leads the Gateway Mission Design Integrated Systems. The Gateway is a spaceport designed to support sustained exploration and is the first space station in lunar orbit. Davis is in charge of planning the Gateway’s trajectory, orbit time, fuel supply, altitude control, and cargo delivery. The Gateway allows for the increased duration of the crew’s experiments, vastly expanding opportunities for human research in space.

Despite the persisting gender gap in space missions, female NASA employees occupy many critical positions on the ground. In late 2022, women comprised 30 percent of the Kennedy Launch Control Center team that sent the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket around the moon and back. At the time of its launch, the SLS was the most powerful rocket in the world. Though a 30 percent female staff is still unsatisfactory, this number is a significant improvement when compared to that of Apollo 11’s 1969 launch; at the time, JoAnn Morgan was the only woman working in the firing room, where rockets were prepared for the launch.

Koch and Davis’s work may seem like small steps for women in the aerospace industry after decades of inequality, but fostering gender inclusivity on space missions is critical for current and future generations. Increasing female representation fosters a broader diversity of ideas to the missions, encouraging innovation and advancement. After all, the sky should not be the limit for women, and neither should the moon or the rest of the universe that is waiting to be explored.