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Females Have the Right Stuff

October 09, 2019

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For 58 years, 89% of the astronauts have been men. And for 192 years, there were no women justices on the Supreme Court until Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981. In light of where we are today – these numbers are shocking.

Female astronauts – Artwork is courtesy of National Geographic magazine

My interest in this subject peaked when I came across an article in the National Geographic of July 2019 with the headline, “Let’s Send Only Women to Space.” This piece, written by Nadia Drake has an equally arresting subhead that reads, “Physically and psychologically, females have the right stuff for lengthy sessions in space. So why send males at all?

Wow! I’ve got to read this I thought to myself. The arguments set forth by the author in this three-page report are intriguing and thought provoking so I’ve focused on the salient points to give ADEA readers a quick overview.

 “IT SEEMS LIKE A STUNT”

This quote is from Margaret Weitekamp, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, who says, “An all-female mission tends to be something that NASA has avoided in assignments because it seems like a stunt.” But, in some ways, women are potentially better suited for space travel than men. Let’s focus on three factors:

The National Air and Space Museum is located at 600 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20560 – admission is free, no tickets required

NUMBER ONE: Women are generally smaller than men so this is a weight advantage. Sending lighter humans into space is just plain smart because rocketing weight into space and maneuvering once you’re there requires fuel, which costs money.

Sending six smaller women into space for months or years could be significantly less expensive than sending six burly dudes – and lower body weights are just a small part of it. The rest of the difference comes from the amount of food, oxygen and other resources needed to keep smaller humans alive. On average, men require 15 to 25% more calories than women. 

NUMBER TWO: Females suffer less from some problematic physical effects of spaceflight. In 2014 NASA released an in-depth report compiled from decades of data and found that men seem to be less affected by space motion sickness, but quicker to experience diminished hearing. More significantly, men tend to have problems with deteriorating vision, which women don’t experience as often or as severely. Astronaut Scott Kelly who has spent 520 days in space – and has the eye problems to prove it – half-jokingly wrote in his autobiography that if scientists can’t figure out what’s causing these eye issues, “we just might have to send an all-women crew to Mars.” Not a bad idea.

NUMBER THREE: Females have some personality traits more innately suited for long-duration missions. How well would an all-female crew get along? It turns out (surprise!) that scientists know little about how all-female crews might fare in an intense and monotonous space environment.

In the few studies that have been done (such as desert survival treks, polar expeditions and Antarctic winter trips) scientists found that men tend to excel in shorter-term, goal-oriented situations, while women are better in longer-term habitation-type circumstances.

WHAT’S THE CONCLUSION?

Data on group dynamics suggest that in team endeavors, MIXED GENDER TEAMS are the most successful overall. So there you have it – I’ll leave you with this: when asked when there’d be enough women on the Supreme Court the answer from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a definitive “When there are nine.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR, NADIA DRAKE

She is a young, pretty female (no raised eyebrows, please – this is my blog and I want to say it) science journalist who is a National Geographic contributing writer with a particular fondness for moons, spiders and jungle cats. Yikes!

Shaun Nelson-Henrick


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