"That's one small step for woman, one giant leap for womankind."
At the Women and Mars Conference in Washington D.C. last week, leading women from NASA and other space-related technology giants gathered to make a point. Women had to be present, they agreed, on such an enormous milestone for humanity as the first manned space flight to Mars.
Science fiction writers and scientists have been dreaming of such a voyage for decades. With the end of NASA's 30-year shuttle program this past summer, minds are keenly fixed on taking space flight to the next frontier. In 2010, President Barack Obama predicted a manned space flight to Mars by the mid-2030s -- a goal that was then embedded in NASA's congressionally approved budget.
Space flight, perhaps more than anything, shreds age-old stereotypes about women. There is little a person can do, after all, that is as physically strenuous, dangerous, isolating, claustrophobic, and psychologically stressful as living for a handful of months in space.
A round trip to Mars would take a year and a half.
In 2005, Professor Anatoly Grigory, director of Russia's top space medical institute, told students at Moscow International University that only men should be allowed on the first mission to Mars.
"After all," he said to reporters afterward, "women are fragile and delicate creatures; that is why men should lead the way to distant planets and carry women there in their strong hands."
As soon as women began donning spacesuits in the late 1970s, men have expressed their discomfort, often cloaked in a language of gentlemanly concern. The cosmonaut husband of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, said in 1976: "Nowadays we keep our women here on earth. We love our women very much; we spare them as much as possible."
In 1975, Alexey Leonov, the first person to ever conduct a space walk, told journalists that a woman, after training for space flight, "will be 28 or 29, and if she is a good woman she will have a family by then. Now, you don't subject a mother to such severe physical loads that go with the training, aside from physical tensions."
Space voyage of course comes with great earthly sacrifice, and it remains much harder for people to accept women's willingness to make them.
"How does it feel to be away from your son for all this time?" Catherine "Cady" Coleman, who has logged 159 days in space, is often asked. "Do you ask the guys these questions?" she inquired in her keynote address at last week's conference.
The first full-length simulated mission to Mars just ended in Moscow. Six volunteers were isolated in a mock-up spacecraft for 520 days. All were men.
Coleman admitted that she wasn't sure if she would rehearse a year-and-a-half space voyage with another year and a half of her life. "It's like practicing bleeding," she said.
There are also limited numbers of women with the qualifications to leave our atmosphere. The number of women in the U.S. who have doctorates in planetary science is 350, and 39 are employed by NASA. When NASA swallowed its budget cuts, the small-size spacesuits had to go, which made it just that much harder for Coleman, and other petite space explorers to do their jobs.
Coleman urges preteen girls to pursue science, math, engineering and technology (known as the STEM curriculum). To dream big. They'll be the ones, after all, to board that craft and zoom farther across the solar system than any humans yet.
Women remain seriously underrepresented in STEM fields. The lack of female role models and mentors make it more difficult for women to succeed, and stereotypes stubbornly remain. Math and science are seen by many as "masculine," compared to more "ladylike" subjects of English or anthropology.
And while few today would publicly doubt women's aptitude in these subjects, there is also much more to being an astronaut than a grasp of geology and nanotech.
"Doing something like Mars, which is so hard -- it takes passion," Coleman told the conference crowd. "It takes romance almost. It takes really wanting to do things for emotional reasons."
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