Amy Shira Teitel: Why is Space Such a Boys' Club?

Historians in the News
tags: NASA, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, astronauts, space, Space Flight, Sally Ride

ONE HUNDRED TAMPONS.

In the late 1970s, when Sally Ride was preparing to become the first American woman in space, that was the number NASA engineers estimated for something that was, apparently, more complex than rocket science: when sending a woman into outer space, how many tampons did she require? The number they settled on was 100 for a one-week flight.

The incident has retroactively gone somewhat viral (including inspiring a TikTok I can’t stop watching and continues to blow minds many decades later. It has such staying power, in part, because it’s hilariously absurd. But it’s also a particularly striking example of the institutional sexism women have long experienced in the space industry — a long history of alienation, the repercussions of which are still being felt.

The feelings women today have toward space travel are, of course, diverse and nuanced, but out of the people in my orbit, it’s my male friends who seemed to have the most interest in the latest space travel news.

And it was male-helmed mega-companies that spurred this surge in space travel. In July, Richard Branson launched himself into suborbital flight on a Virgin Galactic spacecraft. A week later, Jeff Bezos followed suit on a Blue Origin rocket. Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched the first all-civilian space flight in mid-September. Then, Bezos brought sci-fi to life by sending Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, on a suborbital flight in October.

While women made their own history — as members of the first all-civilian space flight in September, and when Wang Yaping became the first Chinese woman astronaut to do a spacewalk on November 8 — men seemingly remain light years ahead in the gender space race.

Space, inherently, should interest all of us. We are literally made of stardust. There is, very likely, intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Yet, while space feels deeply compelling to some, for many others it is unrelatable, inaccessible, and irrelevant.

To understand how the history of space flight may have contributed to this dynamic, Inverse spoke with Amy Shira Teitel, a spaceflight historian, and author of Fighting For Space: Two Pilots and Their Historic Battle for Female Spaceflight, a dual biography of two female aviators and their respective quests to become the first woman in space in the 1950s.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

When billionaires began launching themselves towards the edge of space, I noticed a big gender divide in the upper echelons of space travel down to interest in my own friendship circle. As a space historian who is a woman, are you in the minority among your colleagues?

I am definitely in the minority. Space skews predominantly male, especially Apollo-era space history because that was the era when little boys growing up were being told, “You can be an astronaut, too!” Meanwhile, little girls were being told, “Well, you can be a secretary to the astronauts.” They didn’t have the same opportunities, because for a whole lot of reasons women weren’t qualified for the astronaut corps in the 1960s. So this generation of boys that grew up into men loving space kind of retained that, but women didn’t have that same experience and so didn’t have that same fascination.

What were some of the barriers preventing women from going into space during the Apollo era?

When NASA started looking at astronauts and the type of people that fly in space, they were asking themselves, “Who is this person? Are they a daredevil, are they a stuntman, are they a risk-taker?” And the closest earthly job to flying in space was a military test pilot. Because, at the time, no one knew what was going to happen to the human body in space, everything was new and experimental. The astronaut had to be someone who could tell the engineers on the ground what they were experiencing, so the engineers could interpret that and help make the plane better every time. So that was just a thing that, for NASA’s sake, was the safest, best thing it could do, and at the time, women couldn’t qualify to fly as military test pilots.

The thing that we always want to ignore is that we were in the middle of the Cold War. If the U.S. was going to beat the Soviet Union in this massive technological display of might, NASA had to do what was best for the program. They ultimately decided this was the best skill set, and there were no women who had the skill set. It’s not that it was discriminating against women, it was discriminating against 99.9% of Americans. There were great test pilots who didn’t have the right jet test experience who couldn’t qualify. They eventually became astronauts, but they couldn’t qualify in that era.

It wasn’t a matter of sexism, it was a matter of, “We’re in a war, you can’t react the way we need you to react.” It was less discriminatory, it was more that there were so many systemic barriers. So then the question is, could women have been military test pilots? Absolutely [if the military’s rules were different]. But the way the air force was structured at the time, they didn’t meet that basic requirement that NASA needed.

Read entire article at Inverse