Let's make some space

The race to outer space needs to be more than a boys’ club

mansplaining Illustration: Rajesh Angira

Last month, two of the world’s richest men realised the ultimate travel fantasy — to boldly go where no untrained astronaut had gone before. The exhilaration of space travel — that final frontier once reserved for the brightest and the pluckiest — finally fell under the grasp of the wealthiest. 

Unlike those before them who had been sent into space by state-funded missions, these men forked out billions from their own deep pockets and did it not for the advancement of science, but for leisure. To the profiles of billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos (the latter richer by $173 billion), which had for decades been festooned with the words ‘entrepreneur’, ‘tycoon’ and ‘magnate’, was added the term ‘commercial astronaut.’ 

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Both camps indulged in some ‘mine is bigger than yours’ banter. The spacecraft New Shepard, carrying Bezos and three fellow-passengers, flew a little over 107km into space. Branson and crew, aboard the VSS Unity passenger rocket plane, shot to an altitude of 86km. Camp Bezos argued that it wasn’t a true spaceflight unless the Kármán line, the internationally recognised boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space at 100km above mean sea level, had been crossed. 

The global space race, born during the Cold War, skyrocketed after the erstwhile Soviet Union put Yuri Gagarin in orbit in April 1961. Not to be outdone, the United States put men on the moon in July 1969. Although the Russians drew first blood by sending a woman — 26-year-old cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova — on a solo spaceflight in 1963, space remained a male preserve until two decades later. 

When Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was interviewed ahead of her NASA space flight in 1983, she had to contend with boorishly sexist jibes, then cloaked under the rather gentle admonishment of ‘male chauvinism’. Reporters popped inane questions on what space flight would do to her reproductive organs. One famous television show host quipped that she’d be ready to fly when she found a matching purse to go with her shoes. Ride kept a straight face during the pressers.

The world has since celebrated and mourned women who went into space. In 1986, American schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe was killed along with the entire crew aboard Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded minutes after liftoff. 

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She was memorialised in movies, songs and contemporary folklore. Libraries on earth were named after her, as was a crater on the moon. 

Indian-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla, along with American Laurel Clark, perished on board the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia when it disintegrated during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere in 2003. Chawla became an icon for women and was commemorated in textbooks, novels, and had buildings named after her in India and the United States. One of a row of hills on Mars bears her name.

Pathbreakers in their time, these women inspired others to aim for the stars, and their success influenced institutions to offer women roles once reserved for men. Today, a woman astronaut doesn’t raise eyebrows though she still makes headlines. 

Yet, one wonders what might have become of them had they not been martyred, as it were, in pursuit of their lofty dreams. In death, they were mythologised into figures larger than life. In life, they didn’t have it as easy. 

And that brings us down to earth. 

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It took years before women workers at NASA, which sent men to space in sophisticated flying machines, had access to an inclusive restroom. The 2016 Hollywood film Hidden Figures (based on a nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly) traces the travails and eventual triumphs of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three African-American women who worked as ‘human computers’ at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, an institution engaged in much of the aeronautical research that helps fly NASA spacecraft. Johnson’s prowess at analytical geometry played a vital role in putting astronauts safely in space, so much so that astronaut John Glenn refused to fly until she had verified the calculations output by a digital computer.

Closer home, the women behind ISRO’s journey to Mars, Mangalyaan, have stirred up jingoism, but STEM education in our country needs to make huge, inclusive strides before these success stories are not treated as one-off novelties.  

Modern-day PR is a science nearly as evolved as aeronautics, and both recent private space missions ensured that women were included in the human payload. Riding with Branson aboard Virgin Galactic were Beth Moses and India-born Sirisha Bandla. Team Bezos, though, had the last laugh. With them was white-haired Wally Funk, who had nursed a childhood dream to go into space but had been rejected by NASA for not having an engineering degree. At 82, she became the oldest person to go into space. 

It was one small step for a woman. 

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