How’s the ride?
Chapter 2 addresses how astronauts cope with the confinement of spacecraft, particularly when they’re stuck with several other people from whom they can never escape. What sounds like an introvert’s worst nightmare is a reality for the chosen few who participate in space programs. You’ve got three options: turning the angst, anxiety and anger outwards (towards your crewmates), away (hello ground control!) , or in. Perhaps the most dangerous one is the internal attack; your crew mates may never know just what’s going on or how deeply you’re falling. You become a risk to them as you become less readable and reliable.
But as scary as that prospect seems, what pulled my attention most heavily were the gender politics of space exploration that Roach briefly touches on. Space has always been seen as a man’s world. With the exception of Sigourney Weaver’s incredibly strong heroine, Ripley, in the series of Alien movies, almost every other depiction of humans in space is detailed from the male’s point of view. It’s hardly surprising–women have always been pushed to the background (even despite their key discoveries and inventions) in the fields of math, science, and technology. It’s changing, but even still, the Space Program is dominated by males. The implications for it fall pretty heavily on women. The example of Judith Lapierre’s treatment and experiences of sexual harassment on the SFINCSS mission were dismissed as being her fault. To be fair, Norbert Kraft, the captain, does clarify that Lapierre was unjustly blamed, and that cultural differences made the situation worse. But Roach notes, “Lapierre was less a victim of sexual harassment than of institutional sexism.”
And why should space–which is so foreign to us all, which is distinguished by its strongest quality: the unknown– why should space exploration be dominated in such a way? While I credit Roach for bringing up the topic, it never felt satisfyingly addressed in the chapter. I realize that this wasn’t Roach’s intent; she’s carrying on with a general, sweeping overview of the many issues involved in space travel. But it struck me as a curious and important topic, being a female reader who’s following a female author as she writes about a highly male-oriented industry. Were the men Roach interviewed always receptive to her, or were some dismissive in her quest to break into what still sounds like a men’s club? I could find humor in the discussion of lonely male astronauts wishing for companionship, and the discussion about whether sending married couples or non-monogamous couples (particularly interesting to think about the acceptance of gay couples) was intriguing. But it also served to highlight the lack of female perspectives in the field.
The institutional sexism of space travel and exploration continues: how many little girls grow up saying they want to be an astronaut? How many female astronauts can you name? Is change on the horizon? How does one begin to address the institutional sexism in the space industry?
It’s helpful to remember that there are others asking this question. According to an article from last March on NASA’s website, a third of the workforce at NASA are female. Progress is being made, and there is hope for future change. However, we’ve still got a ways to go.