NASA Discovery shuttle commander Eileen Collins

(WOMENSENEWS)–As Eileen Collins, the first female commander of a space shuttle, prepares for the Discovery launch, other women–engineers, scientists and geologists–say they are also gaining gender-parity in space exploration.

"When I first came to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration 30 years ago, nearly all of the women were secretaries," says Lynn Cline, a board member of the Washington-based Women in Aerospace, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. "Now, 22 percent of NASA’s senior executives are women. America’s space industry still has a long way to go in terms of gender equity, but we are way ahead of the rest of the world in recognizing the contributions women can make."

NASA veteran Collins has 6,280 hours of flight experience, 537 of them in space. A former test pilot and Air Force colonel, she became NASA’s first female shuttle pilot in 1995 and its first shuttle commander in 1999.

Discovery’s voyage–scheduled for July 13 but postponed for technical difficulties–has been dubbed the "Return to Flight" because it is the first shuttle mission since Columbia erupted in flames in February 2003, downed by a suitcase-sized piece of foam that broke free of the fuel tank during liftoff, ripped a six-inch gash in the left wing and led to the death of the shuttle’s seven astronauts during reentry 16 days later.

Collins and her crew are prepared to spend most of their 13-day mission testing and evaluating new safety and repair equipment. The crew will also deliver supplies to the International Space Station, take three spacewalks and try twists, flips and other flight maneuvers not known to have been attempted in space before.

Working behind the scenes will be female scientists such as Sandy Coleman, an engineer who helped redesign the shuttle’s external fuel tank, and Stephanie Stilson, who will monitor the Discovery orbiter after the shuttle launches.

Progress Since 1962

With Coleman and Stilson on the ground, Collins in command and Wendy Lawrence (another female astronaut) on board, the Discovery mission provides a yardstick to measure the progress women have made in space flight since 1962, when NASA decided not to allow its first female astronauts to join space missions because they might pose a "distraction" to male astronauts and because space flight might "drain" their femininity.

At that time–in the face of research showing that women function better in a weightless environment; are more comfortable living in confined spaces and use less oxygen than men–NASA’s decision to ground the women known as the "Mercury 13" came as a blow to these female astronauts. The following year, 1963, they were forced to watch Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshova became the first woman in space.

It wasn’t until Sally Ride’s flight in 1983 that U.S. women became tried-and-tested astronauts. To date, 36 women have flown with NASA and one-fifth of the agency’s astronauts are female.

If Collins and her crew blast off on-schedule tomorrow–zooming from zero to 1,000 mph in a minute flat and straining every one of Discovery’s 2 million parts to its limit–the surviving members of the Mercury 13 will be at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., invited to the liftoff at Collin’s request.

"My heroes include the women who went through medical testing for the Mercury program," says Collins. "These women are an inspiration to every female and to every scientist."

Women Look to Mars

While Collins and her female colleagues are working toward President Bush’s goal of sending astronauts to the moon by 2020–the first U.S. lunar landing since Apollo 17 touched down in 1972–other female scientists are working on the administration’s second stated goal: a human mission to Mars that will likely come after 2025.

Last January, women played crucial roles in sending NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers to Mars. Overseeing these ventures–and continuing to analyze the data they gathered–women represent 20 percent of the project’s scientists and 10 percent of its engineers.

Now a second group is exploring the intricacies of a potential visit to the red planet. These are women from the Mars Society, an all-volunteer, privately-funded organization that simulates Mars missions in the Arctic and in the Utah desert.

On each of their 49 missions to date, volunteers with the society have spent two weeks taking soil samples and running other experiments while wearing airtight helmets, oxygen tanks and bulbous footwear. At the end of the day, mission members retire to a 1,000 square-foot living space they call the "hab," (short for habitat). There, they peel off their space suits, analyze their data and prepare meals out of freeze-dried and tinned food.

With a third of its membership female (compared to 10 percent for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics), the Boulder, Colo.-based Mars Society decided this year to launch a new experiment: sending its first, all-female crew to the Utah station on the so-called Mona Lisa Mission. The team of female scientists from the United States, Canada, Australia, France, the Netherlands and Italy convened at the hab in early May.

Working under a blazing sun, the six-woman crew pursued four projects: comparing two types of space suits, test driving a space vehicle, taking soil samples and studying group dynamics.

"Some people–mostly men–warned us that our all-female team would fight constantly," says Anne Pacros, the mission’s leader and an aerospace engineer in the Netherlands. "But we proved that stereotypes like these are just cliches."

"There was a certain level of immediate comfort and shared perspective that may not have been present with a mixed-gender crew," says Sheryl Bishop, the mission’s psychologist and a professor of community health at the University of Texas in Galveston. "Perhaps because women are more likely to be compliant with rules and regulations than men, the all-women’s crew was very conscientious about teamwork and about mission elements such as deadlines."

With the success of the Mona Lisa Mission–and Collins’ scheduled Discovery flight tomorrow–women are proving they have the right stuff for space exploration, colleagues say.

"In the past three decades, women have increased their participation in science from 1 to 30 percent, or thirty-fold," says Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society. "Women represent half the U.S. population, and to have their expertise adding to our knowledge is only going to double our progress."

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.



For more information:

NASA Discovery Mission —
Return to Flight:

Women in Space:

The Mars Society:

Women in Aerospace: