A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Part of VL’s celebration of The International Year of Astronomy
Subtitled The History of Women in Space, this book is both fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating, because we get a lot of behind the scenes info on the space programs and frustrating, due to the slow progress of women’s participation in them.
Not only does it provide a nice overview of space exploration, but we learn the background of events and personalities involved. The focus is on the bumpy journey women have had in becoming astronauts. Long after women had broken into male dominated fields in other businesses, the space program remained full of obstacles. Even in the USSR, where women made up 20% of engineers and physicians, they were scarce in aeronautics, despite sending the first woman into space in 1963.
The main reason given for keeping women out was menstruation. Strange, but true. This dates back to WW2, when women piloting cargo planes were grounded at that time of the month. NASA had an almost superstitious view of it, fearing zero gravity would disrupt the blood flow and damage health. Of course, they also wondered if women could swallow in space, so perhaps they see females as a separate species? Chauvinism was the actual cause for resistance and even after women were finally allowed into space, it reared its ugly head in large and small ways. In the early 1980’s, when a female cosmonaut arrived on the Salyut 7, she was handed an apron. After Rhea Seddons repaired a satellite sail in 1985, NASA Ground Control praised her, calling it “the skill of a good housewife”. This was the general mindset of the various space organizations.
While the book concentrates on the major players, the US and Soviets/Russia, there were also women astronauts from Canada, Japan, France and the UK. The Englishwoman, dubbed “the girl from Mars” was a chemist for the Mars Candy Co. While the French woman prepared a fancy French dinner for her fellow crew members. It goes without saying that all of the women were highly skilled in their fields, which included engineering, physicians, astronomers, scientists of all types. In many cases, they were more educated than their male peers, often with multiple degrees. Tests revealed that women were calmer, less bored and depressed in space. And they had a stabilizing influence on mixed gender crews, the men shaving everyday and better mannered when women were on board.
The author, who has years of experience in the field, writes with such clarity that the many missions, people and locations are easily kept straight by the reader. Though there are lots of names thrown out, there’s enough background stories that they don’t become a jumble. That takes a certain talent. The chauvinism made me cringe, but the author admirably showed no bitterness. I learned a lot from this book, not only about women’s accomplishments, but about science, sociology and the challenge of exploring the universe.
Basic Books 2003 274 pp. ISBN 0-7382-0209-6