Mars Needs Moms

I had the privilege of speaking to the brilliant and amazing women at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Rice University January 14. Photo by Rice Professor Marj Corcoran who sadly died in a bike/train accident Feb. 3.

Marianne Dyson February 2017

Space enthusiasts imagine Martian moms and dads happily raising families on the Red Planet. This dream future will not happen if something about the trip to Mars or the environment on Mars causes adults to become infertile or children conceived or born on Mars to have serious birth defects.

Though there is currently no reason to expect such a dire outcome, maybe we ought to reassure ourselves of a bright future in space by flying more women. Not surprisingly, this is the top recommendation that came out of a study conducted by NASA and the National Science Biomedical Research Institute, “The Impact of Sex and Gender on Adaptation to Space: A NASA Decadal Review,” which was published in November 2014.

Key differences between men and women in space. Image from Journal of Women’s Health, Vol. 23, #11, 2014. © Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. Page 943.

Flying more women might reduce cost (because women weigh less and require fewer supplies), but even implementing that recommendation is bound to encounter political barriers. Let’s start with astronaut selection. To make up for decades of hiring 20 percent women, NASA increased the last selection to 50/50. But even so, those 4 women are only 4 of 14 available for flight assignments versus 30 men. NASA spent a lot of money training those guys: should they be forced off flight status to make room for more women? Should an “only-fly-once” policy apply to men from now on?

Since the shuttle retired, six women have flown to the station: an average of one per year. (And usually only ONE woman isolated with five guys for six months: I’d like to see how ONE man handles that stress!)

So if this rate continues, we might get 12 new data points before we select the first human crew for Mars.

Will our international partners fly more women? Not in the near future. Currently, the Russians have one woman and 33 men on their roster. The Japanese have seven men, the Canadians two men, and the Europeans have one woman out of 13 astronauts. Combined with the U.S., the total available talent pool is then 98 men and 16 women. The Chinese have flown two women, but their current roster is all male.

Will the commercial sector fly some women? The new crew capsules are scheduled for first test flights at the end of 2018, so the first commercial flights aren’t likely until the 2020s. The pilots are likely to be all male because they will probably follow NASA’s lead on requiring flight test/jet experience and/or use retired astronaut pilots—all but two of them male. As for the passengers, unfortunately, the price is likely to be sky high and there are few female billionaires. Let’s hope that whatever women do fly, someone signs them up to be medical test subjects!

What can space settlement advocates do about this situation? At the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics last month, I suggested that if women want to be part of settling Mars, they need to let their politicians know that space research is important to them, and then be the ones to propose and do that research, find sponsors to fund the research, participate as subjects, and get ready to be the mothers of those first beautiful baby Martians. Because Mars Needs Moms!

Writing about Space

Inspire some future Martian scientists with a copy of The Callahan Kids: Tales of Life on Mars or Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet.

My novelette, “Europa’s Survivors,” with a strong female lead character, is in the March/April issue of Analog Science Fiction magazine.

My article “Terraforming Mars: Could We? Should We?” is in the spring issue of Ad Astra magazine published by the National Space Society.

Speaking about Space

I’d love to share space with you! Invite me to speak to your school, conference, or library. I offer short programs and STEM workshops for adults, kids, and mixed audiences. Dyson Author Visits.

March 19-23. Got some exciting new research to share? I’m attending the Lunar & Planetary Science Conference to gather data for articles for Ad Astra magazine and settings for new science fiction stories. Contact me to schedule an interview or meetup (best days Sunday/Tuesday).

Thursday, April 27, 7PM Deer Park Public Library. “Mission Control: Solving Problems in Realtime.” Free, open to the public.