22 May How Nasa failed female astronauts and built space travel fo…
In mid-March 2019, astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch were readying themselves to make space history. Later that month, the pair were scheduled to conduct the first ever all-female spacewalk, when they stepped outside the International Space Station to install new batteries on the craft’s solar arrays.
But McClain never made it outside the ISS for her landmark spacewalk. Instead, her place was taken by fellow Nasa astronaut Nick Hague, after it became apparent that there wasn’t a spacesuit in her preferred size that could be made ready in time for the spacewalk.
The suits, which were built in 1978 and have not been updated since, were made at a time when most astronauts were men. The smallest sizes were discontinued in the 1990s, and medium is now the smallest option, of which there is only one suit flight-ready on the space station. McClain had practiced in a large suit and thought that would be okay, until she got into space and realised a medium would fit better. Had more women been involved from the start, the smaller spacesuits may well have been available.
Female astronauts, it seems, have never been high on Nasa’s list of priorities. But now the space agency seems eager to make up for past wrongs. Last week, Nasa announced plans to put the first woman on the Moon by 2024, and secured an extra $1.6 billion (£1.26bn) to help complete the task.
But to get the first woman on the Moon, Nasa will have to start by overturning half a century of failing to accommodate women in the space programme. Decades of overlooking women have left the agency with a lack of data about female astronauts that means we don’t fully understand the impact space has on women’s bodies, and left those women that do make it up to space having to contend with equipment that was built with only men in mind.
Nasa’s disregard of women goes right back to its foundations. The agency was established in 1958, after Russia had sent two satellites into orbit and the US wanted to get ahead in the space race. The first program of missions to send people into space, Project Mercury, began later that year.
At the time, president Eisenhower and Nasa leadership decided, for a number of reasons, that the Mercury astronauts should be selected from the pool of military test pilots. “That choice ensured astronauts with engineering backgrounds and experience flying experimental aircraft, including diagnosing and resolving life-threatening in-flight problems,” says Kevin Rusnak, a historian at the United States Air Force Research Lab, who formerly worked for Nasa.
The side effect of this was that women were excluded. The military did not allow women to be pilots in the first place, so there were no female military test pilots to even consider. “By the later Apollo program astronaut classes, it was more complicated because now men without this experience were allowed in the programme,” says Rusnak. Buzz Aldrin, for example, was not a test pilot but was accepted onto Nasa’s third intake of astronauts in 1963.
Although women were now technically allowed in the space programme, they would have to contend with spacecraft built for men. “Functionally, it was much too late to redesign Apollo equipment to accommodate female astronauts,” says Rusnak. There was no accommodation for a mixed-gender crew on the Apollo spacecraft, and there was very little privacy on the spacecraft. The crew had no place to go to use the bathroom. The equipment was not designed for female anatomy either – the urine collection and disposal device used a tube hooked up to the penis, for example.
Although urine disposal systems have improved a lot since then, things are not totally convenient for women. The toilets on board the International Space Station are designed to recycle water from urine, but won’t recycle any water if any other matter is detected. That means recycled water will not end up with traces of poo. For men, it’s second nature to poo and pee separately, and men can just pee into a funnel on the toilet. However, for women, astronauts have to train themselves to poo and pee separately, otherwise their water supplies will run low. It also causes problems when period blood is involved, and as a result most female astronauts will use contraceptive methods to suppress their periods.
One result of this, however, is a lack of understanding regarding how periods are affected in space. From what we do know, microgravity has little effect on menstrual cycles, but the data is lacking. This is the same for other aspects of women’s bodies in space. In particular we know susceptibility to radiation that causes cancer, and immune system responses are different on Earth for women, and these could be more problematic in space, too.
“Women have a higher estimated susceptibility to cancer from radiation and this is a factor that is likely to limit time spent in deep space on an exploration mission,” says Dorit Donoviel, director of the Nasa-funded Translational Research Institute for Space Health, and professor of space medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. In 2014, Donoviel co-wrote a paper summarising the biggest chunk of research yet into how women and men are affected differently in space. Six papers looked at the differences in behaviour, psychological and physiological effects, dating back as far as women have been venturing into space.
Some differences were small, such as women reporting more motion sickness than men, while others, like men becoming deaf, in the left ear in particular, are more long-lasting. There are still big gaps in our knowledge, too, about things like reproductive health. The 2014 paper called for more research to be done, but for that there need to be more female astronauts. Out of the 562 people who have been into…