How Barbie got there first

Almost Heaven
May 14, 2004

This tale of women in orbit hides high drama between unassuming covers. The cold war, the rise of feminism and the tale of what used to be called manned spaceflight are each gripping topics in their own right. Put them together and a piece of history emerges that deserves to be widely noticed.

Edward Teller, the US physicist, famously remarked in 1957 that all astronauts should be women, as they weigh less than men and have more sense. Early in the US space programme, it also turned out that they were better at the tests for potential astronauts than men.

Despite this success, and the fact that the iconic US girls' doll Barbie got her first space suit in 1965, 22 years elapsed between Alan Shepherd, the first US man in space and Sally Ride, the first woman. The excuses that accompanied their exclusion seem feeble to the modern reader. But Kevles points out that the US decision to allow only military pilots to fly was a desperate measure deriving from the urgency of the space race.

Mainly because of the slaughter of men in the Second World War, the Soviet Union was more used than the US to having female engineers, scientists and aviators, and Valentina Tereshkova, who went into space in 1963, was the prime beneficiary. But her performance in space was denigrated after the flight, by a society where women were regarded as objects more worthy of protection than of promotion. The second Soviet woman in space, Svetlana Savitskaia, did not fly until 1982.

Kevles' book is rich in interviews with female astronauts and in insights into their motivation. Some were inspired by the early, all-male, years of spaceflight, but others cite Star Trek and even Jane Fonda in the 1968 film Barbarella as their muses. As she points out, most female astronauts today are the types who were in the science laboratory while their sisters were out demanding women's rights. They are mainly scientists, doctors and engineers, although there are also pilots and mission commanders in increasing numbers. Some regard space more as a place to carry out work they were doing anyway than as an ambition in its own right.

This seems to apply to European astronauts in particular. Most of them are men. But the European Space Agency has been consistent in talking about "crewed" rather than "manned" spaceflight. Its female astronaut roster has included notable figures such as Claudie Haignere, now French science minister.

Almost Heaven 's account of the past few years in space is forced to mention so many female astronauts that it becomes something of a list, which shows that things must be going in the right direction. But Kevles ends by pointing out that, once in orbit, astronauts are still asked to take part in experiments that are painful to the participant, have not been selected by proper peer review and might well have problems with ethical approval back on earth. So steps are still needed to make space a proper setting for men and women to live and work.

Martin Ince is contributing editor, The Times Higher.

Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space

Author - Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles
Publisher - Basic Books
Pages - 4
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 7382 0209 6

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