Monday, July 25, 2011

All Women Mission to Mars?

"Optical Illusion" of woman on Mars
All Women Mission to Mars?

Location: Fourth planet from the sun

Founded/Ended: Between 2000 and 2004--and then only in the imagination?

NASA's 30-year Space Shuttle program ended last week.

Which got me thinking about space travel and its relationship to gendered "space" in space. Though NASA hosted many all-male missions going all the way back to the beginnings of the Mercury program, they never launched an all-female mission. In fact, it was a huge struggle to get women included in the space program at all.

As space historians will readily recall, the first man in space was Yuri Gugarin in 1961. The first woman was Valentina Tereshkova in 1963, just two years later. But opportunities for women in space flight went rapidly downhill from there. Four other women were admitted into the USSR's female cosmonaut corp at the same time as Tereshkova, but none of them was ever granted the chance to fly--especially after the pioneering female cosmonaut group was dissolved in 1969. The second Soviet woman to go into space was 19 years after Tereshkova. That was Svetlana Savitskaya, who flew aboard Soyuz T-7 in 1982. In 1984, while on the Salyut 7 space station, Savitskaya became the first woman to do a space walk. Of the 57 Soviet/Russian spacewalkers, Savitskaya was the only woman. All together, only 6 women cosmonauts ever flew in the Soviet/Russian space program. 

We see a similar theme in the United States. Sally Ride, as we all know, was the first American woman in space. But that didn't happen till 1983--twenty years after Tereshkova. 

Three women join the International Space Station (2010)
As of April 2011, a total of 54 women had flown in space. This is out of total of nearly 530 persons--so you do the math. Of all the space shuttle missions, only 32 had included more than one woman. The highest number of women to ever be in space together? Four. That was in 2010, at the International Space Station. But even then, men outnumbered women at the Station by more than two to one.

The irony in all this is that research over nearly sixty years demonstrates that, if anything, women as a group are BETTER suited to space flight than men. Back in the mid 1950s, Dr. William R. Lovelace (a physician, surgeon, and aeromedical physiologist) and General Donald Flickinger (who was then the Air Force chief of bioastronautics) suspected that women's bodies might be better suited for space travel. Their hypothesis wasn't rooted in any sort of feminist ideology, but was strictly pragmatic:

Their proposition was based purely on physiology and practicality. They recognized that women's lighter weights would reduce the amount of propulsion fuel being used by the rocket's load and that women would require less auxiliary oxygen than men. They knew that women had fewer heart attacks than men and their reproductive system was thought to be less susceptible to radiation than a male's. Finally, preliminary data suggested that women could outperform men in enduring cramped spaces and prolonged isolation.

So in 1959, Flickinger established the Women in Space Earliest (WISE) program at the Air Force Air Research and Development Command (ARDC). But WISE quickly got quashed by the top brass:

Before WISE testing could begin the Air Force announced that it would no longer pursue the program. In response, Lovelace established a privately funded effort, the Woman in Space Program, in 1959. A total of 19 women were enrolled, most of whom had been selected from flight schools.

The women underwent the identical tests that the male candidates had undergone. In the end, 68% of the women passed with "no medical reservations" compared to 56% of the men. The 13 females who passed were known as the Mercury 13. They were Bernice "Bea" Steadman, Janey Hart, Geraldine "Jerri" Sloan Truhill, Rhea Allison Woltman, Sarah Lee Gorelick Ratley, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, Wally Funk and Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb.

But of course, none of these women ever got the chance to fly. NASA made sure of that by making male-only space flight an official policy.

This is a roundabout way of getting to the topic of Mars. Will we ever see any mission to Mars get off the ground, given the current budget woes at NASA? Who knows. And even though space flight has a long history of being male-only, is there a chance that there might be female-only space flight this time around? (Of course, a women-only mission would be roundly denounced as "discriminatory" and "sexist" even though male-only missions are accepted without comment.) In that vein, it's interesting that such a "radical" proposal was made back in 2000:

An all-woman crew to Mars: a radical proposal

Geoffrey A. Landis
Ohio Aerospace Institute, NASA Glenn mailstop 302-1, 21000 Brookpark Road, Cleveland, OH 44135, USA


It is logical to propose that if a human mission is flown to Mars, it should be composed of an entirely female crew. On the average, women have lower mass and take less volume than males, and use proportionately less consumables. In addition, sociological research indicates that a female crew may have a preferable interpersonal dynamic, and be likely to choose non-confrontational approaches to solve interpersonal problems. 

1. Introduction

Recently, a proposal has been made that a NASA space-shuttle mission should be flown with a entirely female crew. This proposal has attracted an unexpected amount of opposition.
In this article, I would like to suggest that this opposition may in fact be counter to logic; that in fact, the American and Russian space programs made an error right from the beginning: women are more logical candidates for space missions. I suggest that the proposal should be taken seriously that a Mars mission should be flown with a entirely female crew.
The concept of a single-sex space mission is hardly new – after all, Americans have sent 27 humans to the moon, all of them male, and the vast majority of the flight experience on the Russian Mir space station is with crews that were entirely male. In fact, out of the 278 astronauts who have flown on NASA missions (as of April 1999), only 31 have been female.
It is therefore apparently not the idea of a single-sex crew, but the idea of a specifically female crew that incites opposition.
If I were to suggest that the crew of a Mars mission be entirely male, the suggestion might be considered ‘politically incorrect,’ but it would hardly be considered impossible – after all, there have been dozens, probably even hundreds, of proposals for all-male missions to Mars.
Right now, 32 of NASA's 144 active-duty astronauts are women. So why not an all woman crew for a Mars mission?

2. Advantages of female crews

In the human species, women are on the average smaller than males: women use less oxygen, consume less consumables, produce less carbon dioxide. They have lower mass and take up less volume. The argument for an all-female crew is simple: such a crew would require considerably less support in the way of consumables, and allow a smaller spacecraft. This would produce a considerable savings in cost.
The reduction in body mass and the associated reduction in spacecraft mass and consumables is not the only argument for an all-female crew to Mars. For such an extended mission, which in many scenarios has a duration of up to three years, psychological compatibility and crew dynamics become critical issues in the crew selection.
It is difficult to quantify the interpersonal and crew-dynamic issues, and to separate out the effects of biology from culture. Statistics show that all-woman groups are far more likely to choose non-confrontational approaches to solve interpersonal problems, and most definitely are more likely to deal with a situation without resorting to violence – which could be a big problem on a Mars journey, where the crew must live in close quarters for 2–3 years. For example, in America, a male is about eight times more likely to commit a violent crime than a woman. This difference is remarkably consistent across different cultures. Statistics from three dozen human communities around the world, from Denmark to Zaïre, show that, with a single exception, the probability that a single-sex murder has been committed by a man instead of by a woman ranges from 85–100%.
Numerous sociological studies have shown that women, in general, are more cooperative, and less given to hierarchical social structures – all properties which may very well be highly desirable on a long-duration space mission. (Lest it appear that I am advocating some sort of genetic determinism, let me hasten to add that there is no evidence that the behavioral differences between groups of men and groups of women are based on intrinsic genetic differences, and not due to the different cultural expectations and training of men compared with women.)
In an article in Space Policy, Sykorá et al. also argue that women tolerate long-duration exposure to stress better, and have better patterns of coping with it. As they point out, this factor also suggests that a female crew would be preferred for a long duration mission.
The NASA experience on the Russian Mir spacecraft seems to confirm this: of all the American-born astronauts sent to Mir, the sole female astronaut, Shannon Lucid, despite having the longest stay on Mir, apparently had the least difficulty interacting with the Russian crew or adapting to the return to a gravity environment.

3. Osteoporosis

A possible counterargument to the otherwise persuasive arguments for a female crew is the supposed increased susceptibility of females to osteoporosis. Since bone calcium loss is a significant effect of microgravity, might not a male crew be preferred on these grounds alone?
Humans typically lose from 1 to 2% of their calcium (depending on the person, countermeasures, etc.) per month in space. There are indications that the rate of loss slows down with mission duration. Exercise and other countermeasures can help to decrease the loss.
Generally speaking, women are more susceptible to osteoporosis than men. They are at a higher risk because by the time women achieve their peak bone mass (mid–30's) they end up having 10 to 30% less bone mass than men have at their peak bone mass. After this peak, men and women both lose bone. For a period of a few years during menopause, women lose bone at a faster rate than men; however, this difference in bone loss rate can be treated with estrogen-replacement therapy.
It is not all clear that bone calcium loss in microgravity and bone loss due to osteoporosis are similar effects, and no difference in bone loss between men and women has yet been confirmed in spaceflight data. The longest duration space flight by a woman, Shannon Lucid seems to have had, in fact, a lower bone loss than long duration flights by men. Since Lucid's total flight time of 233 days in space included a duration comparable to that required for a mission to Mars, it is very likely that differences in bone-loss rate between males and females is a non-issue.
It is also plausible to suggest that the same methods used to mitigate post-menopausal osteoporosis in women on the ground may very well be applicable to bone-loss in space; in this case, a female crew would actually be preferred, because of the considerably wider base of experience on the effects of these chemical countermeasures.
In any case, a mission to Mars is very likely to use an artificial-gravity spacecraft, such as a tether, in which case the purported problem will not be relevant. For these reasons, I suggest that the argument against an all-female crew based on the supposed hazard of osteoporosis lacks credible support.

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, a Mars mission is unlikely to require raw physical strength, the one characteristic for which human males are, on the average, more highly endowed than females. The quantifiable advantages of lower body mass and decreased use of consumables alone would suggest that a female crew would be preferred to a male crew in any long duration mission; the issues of interpersonal dynamic, although difficult to quantify, at a minimum suggest that an all-female crew would in no way be worse than an all-male crew, and very likely may be better.
So: would an all-women crew be the ideal personnel for a Mars mission?

In 2004, Dr. William J. Rowe made a similar pitch for an all-female crew to Mars.

But that doesn't mean male entitlement won't raise it's ugly head again. Just last year, the Russians "banned" women from an 18-month mock mission to Mars. Their (bizarre) rationale? "Russian scientists made clear they did not want 'sexual tension' to disrupt an experiment in human endurance, and instead selected an all-male crew."

History repeats itself?

 Photos: "Optical illusion" of woman on Mars, sent from Mars explorer Spirit.
Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson and Naoko Yamazaki will join Tracy Caldwell Dyson at the International Space Station, between them becoming the most women ever in orbit at the same time. Photograph: Gary I Rothstein/EPA

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