|Nasa astronaut Christina Koch. Only 11% of astronauts who made it to space have been women. Photograph: Nasa Handout/EPA|
“Remember when Nasa sent a woman to space for only six days and they gave her 100 tampons and asked will that be enough?” So goes last year’s viral TikTok referring to astronaut Sally Ride being asked by Nasa engineers in 1983 whether 100 tampons would be sufficient for her week-long stay in space (she was not actually sent with them).
Recalling the incident some years later, Ride, America’s first woman astronaut, said: “There were probably some other, similar sorts of issues, just because they had never thought about what kind of personal equipment a female astronaut would take.”
The satirical TikTok clips perhaps serve as a reminder that, 38 years on, oversights can still happen when women are underrepresented. After all, only 11% of the astronauts who have ever made it into space have been women.
But things look likely to change. In February, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched its first recruitment drive for new astronauts in 11 years, emphasising women applicants and those with disabilities (it recently extended the deadline). Nasa is reportedly planning to change rules on astronaut radiation limits, which are currently preventing female astronauts doing as many missions as their male counterparts. And as the US space agency gears up for its historic Artemis moon mission, which aims to see the first woman and person of colour land on the moon, it is a good time to understand just how much diversity affects innovation.
Tara Ruttley, associate chief scientist for microgravity research and adviser to the chief scientist’s office at Nasa, has witnessed a culture change at the biggest space agency in the world. When she started 20 years ago, she was one of only three women in her engineering group. Today, women make up around a third of employees, and represent 24% of those in science and engineering roles. “I think we all are aware of all the important stuff that comes out of diverse teams. When at least one team member has traits in common with the end user they’re designing for, then of course the product will have better innovation. It’s common sense. But how many teams of men have been put together to design something for women’s use?”
Data collection has resulted in improvements, for example, it has led to a recent modification to the toilets on the International Space Station to be more comfortable for women users (“they provide … let’s just say, a better suction,” says Ruttley). But when the datasets for female astronauts are so tiny – of the 566 people who have been into space, only 65 have been women, and much fewer have been people of colour – how can they help inform design and modifications?
Luckily, Ruttley explains that even small datasets can tell us a lot. “It’s small, but we do have enough data that tell us things like women have more challenges with something called ‘orthostatic intolerance’, which refers to the questions of why women tend to lose more blood plasma volume in space than men.”
Now data has revealed this discrepancy, more research will be carried out and ultimately countermeasures will be designed to support women in this situation.
To enhance the datasets, Nasa can also recreate space conditions here on Earth. She explains how studies like bed-rest, used to monitor volunteers who lie in bed from anywhere from a month to several months, help to simulate long-term microgravity. This allows data to be drawn – which sometimes looks at gender differences. Other studies also tell us of what appear to be advantages for women in space – women regularly outperformed men in situations that required withstanding prolonged isolation, while a 2014 Nasa report noted that hearing sensitivity declined more rapidly over time in male astronauts.
It might be worth noting that this data can also better serve men, making space technology work better for everyone. Ruttley says they are studying “changes in the brain and the eyeball and the fluid flow in space”, comparing males and females, as so far “women tend to do better with their vision in space”.
Over the years, initiatives and campaigns have attempted to encourage more women into the space sector. For example, the organisation Rocket Women aims to inspire women to pursue a career in space and other Stem sectors, while the Space4Women project, run by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, promotes gender equality and women’s empowerment in Stem fields. Last year, Olay ran a Super Bowl ad campaign Make Space for Women, featuring retired astronaut Nicole Stott.
Ruttley explains that at Nasa, training now takes the form of teaching “how to have these conversations about recruiting more women and underrepresented minorities, by providing education and training across team members”.
One area of space design that has proved problematic for women is spacesuits. Emily Calandrelli, 34, is an MIT aerospace engineer, known for her Netflix show Emily’s Wonder Lab and social media presence. Her Instagram account, @thespacegal, has covered science experiments with Cardi B, for example, as well as providing facts and tantalising access into rocket designs. In one episode of her show, she tries on a cosmonaut suit while travelling in Russia. “It was obnoxiously large on me,” she laughs, “and they didn’t have any other option. That’s because in Russia they barely have any female cosmonauts at all. Most of their spacesuits are designed for the average male body, which is just way, way larger than the average female body.”
In March 2019, Nasa cancelled an all-female spacewalk because it didn’t have enough spacesuits in the right size (it went ahead later that year). As it prepares for its Artemis mission, it is also developing the exploration spacesuit and says the strategy guiding the design is for it to accommodate the “first percentile female to the 99th percentile male”.
On the need for greater diversity, Calandrelli says Stem careers need to be more accessible for low-income marginalised communities, but believes it is still a way off. “Online, it feels very much like there’s a community,” she says. “But when you go to a conference, it feels very different. You go and see a sea of white, old men. As someone who’s a woman, and of course, a white woman, I think that’s probably even more exclusionary if you are not white.”
Still, she feels confident the sector is changing, and argues that as well as the drive for more women, there should be a push for more inclusion across the board (after all, Sally Ride was more than Nasa’s tampon failing – she was the first astronaut acknowledged as part of the LGBTQ+ community) which will lead to new ideas around everything from tackling the gender pay gap in the industry to decolonising space travel, closing the racial technology gap and even what food is sent into orbit. As Calandrelli puts it, “I can’t remember feeling as excited about the future of the industry as right now.”