The International Space Station is perhaps the most visual success in the world of space exploration. It is one of the few locations in space where we, as a specie, are represented with both men and women. More precisely, the story of women working in the International Space Station is a rich and interesting one. As of the ASCAN Class of 2009, out of the 330 who have been accepted into the astronaut candidate program, 48 were females. While the number is still relatively low, it is much better compared to the progression rate of other disciplines.
Women in ISS
The ISS took many years to construct and was finally fully functional in 1986. By then several women had already been into space: the first one was Valentina Tereshkova, flying on Vostok6 with the Soviet/Russian nation. In March 2001, the American Susan Jane Helms was the first woman to stay at the International Space Station. She was part of the ISS Expedition 2, the second crew to inhabit the International Space Station. From March to August, she and her fellow astronauts conducted tests with the Canadian-made Space Station Robotic arm – SSRMS – such as internal and external maintenance tasks as well as medical ones. Helms had a successful career in the military (Air Force) and a strong engineering orientation. She took part in five missions, combining a total of 5064 hours in space, and achieved a world record for Extra-Vehicular Activity, commonly known as a spacewalk, of 8 hours and 56 minutes.
In January 2008, Peggy Whitson, Expedition 16 commander was the first female commander in the ISS. Her first mission was a seven hour shift with a colleague to replace an engine at the base of one of the station’s solar wings. In September 2017, she returned from an expedition during which she conducted a 288-day mission, travelled 122.2 million miles and carried out 4,623 orbits of the Earth – breaking several world records. Aged 57, she became the world’s oldest spacewoman as well as the most experienced female spacewalker with 10 outings. Whitson also stayed the longest in space, with a record of 665 days compared to other women astronauts. The “American Space Ninja”, is a biochemist who conducted research on the physical changes on human body in space as well as stem cell research. There is no doubt that the number of women in ISS in years to come will grow as a consquence of her success and the example she set not only women but also men.
Future of women in ISS
Since Lieutenant General Helms, over 60 women have been part of the NASA program and space expeditions, holding high risk and challenging positions. Sunita Williams was the second woman commander for Expedition 33. Eileen Collins, Susan Still and Pamela Ann Melroy were pilots of several STS and missions now include more women. The record for women in ISS at any one time is four which occured during space flight STS-131: Dorothy Metcalf-Lindeburger, Stephanie Wilson, Naoko Yamazaki and Tracy Caldwell Dyson were present on the ISS for the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) transfer, EVA and maintenance tasks.
Classes of 2009, 2013 and 2017 account for many women trained and ready to be part of the next expedition. By now, the impact of space exploration over the physical body is no longer a cause of concern, which was the main issue when NASA launched its first call for candidates. A perception that women might bleed to death or become infertile due to spaceflights had initially influenced the agency for decades, before this myth was eventually dismantled. In fact, China’s space program welcomed married women who had given birth, on one hand accounting to the maturity and psychological resilience wives have, as well as dealing with the risk of infertility. Many astronauts have gone on to have children of their own and lead a normal life.
Life in space
Fertility in space is something that needs to be addressed as soon as possible, regardless of the cost. If humankind as a race is to move between planets then survival, immediate and through procreation, will need to be planned ahead in great detail.