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'Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier'

The comics format of Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks' Astronauts is ideally suited for telling the story of how women fought and overcame sexism in the US Space Program, given the US government and military's ridiculous resistance to female astronauts.

Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier
Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

First Second

February 2020


This year, 2020, is frenetic. Our attention is torn myriad ways: the Covid-19 pandemic; the epidemic of police violence and racist murders of Black and Indigenous people; the global chaos being sown by US President Donald Trump and his administration. Amid all the darkness, however, many of us turned at least some of our attention in a more hopeful direction in May: up to the skies, where for the first time in nine years a next generation spacecraft launched astronauts from American soil into space.

The Dragon spacecraft itself, a partnership between NASA and privately owned SpaceX, generates mixed feelings. The heightened role of corporate private industry in spaceflight is to be viewed with suspicion, especially from a company headed by the increasingly erratic tycoon Elon Musk. The fickle prevarications of Trump – threatening NASA with defunding on the one hand; waxing poetic about plans to return humans to the moon on the other – make it difficult for a coherent space program to move forward, secure in the long-term support that is a vital prerequisite for multi-year space missions. Trump's daydreams of militarizing space with his Space Force are cause for further concern.

Nevertheless, the launch marked an important milestone, and hopefully presages a renewed era of space exploration.

Blue Painting by Mondschwinge (Pixabay License / Pixabay

One of the big pitches NASA has been making for its nascent lunar mission – the Artemis Project – has been the goal of landing the first woman on the moon. It's a worthy goal, and an important reminder of space exploration's checkered past. It's ironic that the men who were pioneers in a field so visionary and rooted in making the seemingly impossible possible, should have had such difficulty in wrapping their heads around the concept of women in space. Yet the early days of American space exploration and NASA are a sorry reflection of a forward-looking institution mired in backward social attitudes and antiquated gender and race politics.

Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks are veteran comics artists who have devoted years of work to popularizing scientific history through graphic novels (Ottaviani's previous books, often marketed as children's books but superb for all ages, have included biographies of Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Niels Bohrs, Alan Turing, and group biographies of paleontologists, primatologists, women scientists, and more). They turn their gaze on the history of women in space in their latest graphic history Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier. It's a fascinating story, much of which is probably unknown to the broad public.

The history of space flight is often portrayed as a male-centred one, from the carefully cultivated machismo of Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (1983) to more recent blockbusters like Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995) and Damien Chazelle's First Man (2018) which struggle awkwardly with the gender politics of America's deeply sexist recent past. Not often addressed is the fact that women have been working hard to get into space since the earliest days of spaceflight.

When the US Air Force began recruiting pilots for its nascent astronaut corps (a job continued by NASA when it was founded in 1958, succeeding the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics), it only sought to recruit men. But women pilots who were aware of the new project, and who yearned to travel into space as well, organized themselves to fight for the right to train as astronauts. The Women In Space Earliest (WISE) program was established in 1960, headed up by female pilots like Jerrie Cobb and Jackie Cochran.

Some of NASA's male scientists supported the push to train female astronauts – supporters included pioneering NASA astronaut trainer Dr. Randy Lovelace, as well as German space engineer Dr. Wernher von Braun (who essentially kickstarted America's space program, and who publicly endorsed the idea of training "astronettes") – but they were a minority. The US military refused to fund training for women astronauts, and so the women set up and funded their own training program.

Thirteen women -- 'the Mercury 13' -- eventually passed astronaut training (carried on with the support of Dr. Lovelace, who was also training NASA's male astronaut candidates). Some of the women quit their jobs, and at least one got a divorce, in order to undertake the training, but despite their dedication and proven performance the US military still refused to consider them. They appealed to President Lyndon B. Johnson (who was unsympathetic), and lobbied other elected officials. They made some headway: congressional hearings on the subject were scheduled for 1962, but the hearings were stacked with opponents of the idea and shut down prematurely.

Meanwhile of course, the Soviet Union, which had already launched the first human into space, had already recruited and trained a corps of female cosmonauts, with the express intent of making 'first woman in space' another of the USSR's achievements. While America's women astronauts were still fighting for the right to train in the space program, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, flying the Vostok 6 solo mission in 1963.

In the US, the struggle continued and intensified as plans coalesced for the US space shuttle program. By this point, the broader American civil rights struggle had advanced significantly and NASA found itself under increasing pressure over its poor representation along all lines of identity and diversity: there were neither women nor Black Americans (or indeed anyone who wasn't white) in the astronaut corps.

Interestingly, Nichelle Nichols – who played Lt. Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series – was a strong advocate for space exploration and emerged as a vocal champion of diversity in space. She partnered her Women In Motion program with NASA, and took on the official role of NASA recruiter – on the condition that NASA make diversity a key priority. She travelled the country recruiting for NASA, and her work generated over 8,500 applications for the space shuttle program, including 1,500 from women and 1,000 from minorities. Thanks in part to her work, NASA finally admitted the first women astronaut trainees in 1978.

One of America's early female astronauts to actually travel into space was Mary Cleave (she was not the first: that distinction goes to Sally Ride, who flew on America's seventh space shuttle mission in 1983, a full two decades after Russia first sent a woman into space). The second half of Astronauts zeroes in on Cleave's story, using it as a window to demonstrate what it's like to train and work as an astronaut (and the various microaggressions and sexism that still entailed). It offers an in-depth, day-by-day account of her first spaceflight, which is fascinating on several levels.

The focus of Astronauts is primarily American women astronauts (although it provides a good snapshot of Tereshkova's life and work); the story it tells of how women fought and overcame sexism in the US Space Program is a fascinating and important one. The comics format is ideally suited for telling this story, given the absolute ridiculousness of the resistance to female astronauts from US government and military.

If anything, women are more naturally suited for spaceflight than men, given their smaller average body size and mass, and their lesser (average) oxygen and food requirements, all of which are essential considerations for space travel. As one of the scientists in the book observes, NASA might have saved nearly half a million dollars in costs had Apollo 11 (the first mission to land on the moon) been crewed by women instead of men.

Naturally, the resistance to women in space was rooted in antiquated social attitudes, not science. This was reflected in numerous incidents – an early version of the 'personal care kit' for space shuttle crews included makeup for female crew members, and male scientists made bewildering assumptions about how many tampons female astronauts would require during a single mission – which are depicted with a light and entertaining touch by the authors.

The struggle for equality in space continues. Only 65 out of the 565 people who have travelled into space have been women; less than 12 percent. The Washington Post recently reported on NASA's lingering gender inequity: only about a third of NASA's workforce are women, and only 16 percent of its senior scientific employees. It wasn't until 2013 that NASA graduated an astronaut class comprised of equal numbers of men and women. There's still a long way to go. But Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier is an important reminder that women have been shooting for the moon since the earliest days of space exploration.

Hopefully this decade, they'll finally make it.

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