No Astronaut Gender Parity

Marianne Dyson July/August 2017

When NASA announced a new group of twelve astronauts in June, I was disappointed to hear that only five of the twelve candidates selected are female, and only one is black. I had expected NASA to select an equal number of men and women like they did in 2013. I even dared to hope they might boldly select MORE women than men and several blacks to compensate for there being twice as many men as women and only one black woman in the current astronaut corps.

L to R, back row: Jonny Kim (Doctor, CA), Warren Hoburg (MIT Professor, PA), Frank Rubio (Major US Army, FL), Kayla Barron (Lt. Navy, WA), Bob Hines (NASA Pilot, PA), Matthew Dominick (Lt. Cdr, Navy, CO), Raja Chari (Lt. Col. USAF, IA). Front row: Robb Kulin (SpaceX Engineer, AK), Zena Cardman (Research Fellow, VA), Jasmin Moghbeli (Major, Marines, NY), Jessica Watkins (Research Fellow, CO), Loral O’Hara (Engineer, TX). Photo Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

With 18,353 applicants to choose from, it is simply not believable that they couldn’t find an equal number of men and women who meet their qualifications. Oddly, I didn’t hear a single news media outlet mention or question this lack of gender parity even though the 50/50 male/female astronaut selection was widely lauded and made headlines in 2013.

The lack of gender parity in the 2017 astronaut selection thus feels like a step backwards at a time when we are finally making plans to venture beyond Earth orbit. It seems these new female astronauts are destined to be isolated for six months on the International Space Station with two to five men (at least two of them Russian) or assigned as the sole female on a test flight of Orion. (And NASA wonders why more women don’t apply?!)

Speaking from my own experience as one of a handful of women in Mission Control in the 1980s, these women will not be in a position to complain about any awkward social or operational issues that arise. If they do, they will be labeled “weak” for not handling the stress or “ungrateful” for their “opportunity.” If any of them are asked in a public forum if it was stressful to be the only woman on the team, they are sure to say that it was not a problem. Neither is having a baby. That doesn’t make it easy.

Actions speak louder than words. The lack of gender parity in NASA’s selection sends the same message we heard in the Super Bowl ad where the dad watches his daughter compete in a cart race:

What do I tell my daughter? Do I tell her that her grandpa’s worth more than her grandma? That her dad is worth more than her mom? Do I tell her that despite her education, her drive, her skills, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets?”

The daughter wins the race, and the father hopes for a future where he will be able to tell her something different. Me, too. But if we continue to select fewer women than men and send crews with a token woman on each mission, we’re not only extending gender bias into space, we are forfeiting any right to criticize the Russians or Chinese, who currently have no women on their space rosters, when or if they exclude women from future space jobs or settlements.

At least the Canadians followed gender parity and selected one man (Joshua Kutryk) and one woman (Jennifer Sidey) for their new astronaut class of 2017. The Russians are going to announce their selections at the end of this year. A society known for its chauvinistic ways is not likely to select many, if any, women as cosmonauts.

So, to assure our daughters that they have an equal opportunity to contribute to humanity’s future in space, I suggest that NASA select an all-female astronaut class for 2019. This would serve to balance out the astronaut corps and maybe even turn our space habitats from ugly man caves cluttered with wire bundles into places to call home.

Writing about Space

Read what it was like to be the only woman on a flight control team during STS-4: autographed copies of my shuttle memoir, A Passion for Space, are available for $32 plus tax and shipping.

Speaking about Space

I’d love to encourage some young women to consider STEM careers by sharing my space stories with them! Invite me to speak to your school/university, conference, or library. I’m offering a 20 percent discount for any author visits to Houston area schools or events scheduled in October (International Space Week is October 4-10). I offer short programs and STEM workshops for adults, kids, and mixed audiences. For programs and prices, visit: Dyson Author Visits.