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We’re Ignoring Women Astronauts’ Health At Our Peril

Image: Peggy Whitson/NASA Johnson by way of Flickr

WASHINGTON, D.C.—It’s 7pm, and the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University, which was full of buyers, aerospace tycoons, and scientists simply hours in the past, has dwindled to a devoted few. It’s a really totally different crowd than the parents who got here earlier within the day to observe Buzz Aldrin and different area veterans converse—for one factor, a gaggle of Girl Scouts has crowded the entrance row. For the primary time all day, two women have taken the stage on the Humans to Mars summit in Washington, D.C.

And that’s a part of the issue.

In 59 years, NASA has flown more than 50 women into area. That may look like an inexpensive quantity, however when you think about the area company has flown hundreds of men over the identical time interval, it’s a tad unsettling. If we ever need to truly colonize a planet like Mars, we’re going to have convey a whole lot of women, or hundreds. Which is why women on the Human to Mars convention gathered in a sparse auditorium on the finish of the day to debate how important it’s to fly extra feminine astronauts, and research how they reply bodily and mentally to the challenges of zero gravity.

“We don’t have as big of a database of women [astronauts], so it’s always a little harder to get statistical data, but we do see differences” in how males and women are affected by spaceflight, Ellen Stofan, former chief scientists at NASA, informed Gizmodo on the summit. “It’s important not just to have a woman spend an extended time in space, but to have multiple more subjects.”

At this level, we’re simply beginning to find out how lengthy period spaceflight impacts the human physique. Numerous research affirm that folks expertise bone mass loss and muscle wasting in area, for instance. That’s why astronauts train for about two hours a day, which nonetheless will not be sufficient to counteract the inevitable effects of microgravity. Researchers on the University of Michigan are investigating why astronauts’ brains change shape during spaceflight—they’ve already discovered that the quantity of grey matter fluctuates throughout brief and lengthy period missions.

Photo: NASA by way of AP

One of our richest sources of knowledge to date comes from NASA’s Twin Study, which analyzed astronaut Scott Kelly throughout a yr in area, evaluating his health to that of his brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly, again on Earth. So far, the Twin Study has taught us that in depth journey impacts the physique in sudden methods. For instance, the protecting caps on Scott’s chromosomes, referred to as telomeres, grew whereas he was in area, returning to pre-flight ranges shortly after he returned to Earth. Scientists are nonetheless making an attempt to know what this implies, as there’s some concern that telomere lengthening is associated with disease. Other scientists in NASA’s Human Research Program are analyzing fluid and tissue samples collected earlier than, throughout and after Kelly’s Year in Space, to tease out potential modifications in his immune system, intestine micro organism, and cardiovascular perform.

There’s no Twin Study for women. But from what we do know, we will’t assume what applies to males all the time applies to women. One research published within the Journal of Women’s Health in 2014 notes that women attain a maximal variety of protected days in area sooner than males as a result of they’ve a “higher incidence of radiation-induced cancers” like lung, thyroid, breast and ovarian. At a Humans to Mars convention panel on intercourse and gender in area, researchers reiterated that women’s reproductive organs could also be extra delicate to the radiation publicity of spaceflight than males’s.

The little knowledge we’ve from women astronauts factors to different sudden variations between the sexes—as an example, a mysterious eye condition referred to as visible impairment intracranial strain syndrome (VIIP) seems to be extra prevalent in male astronauts, Stofan advised Gizmodo. Preliminary analysis means that feminine astronauts could also be extra prone to urinary tract infections whereas in area, and orthostatic intolerance following their return to Earth, in contrast with their male counterparts.

It’s onerous to say simply how necessary these variations are. Some, even some women astronauts, assume they aren’t. “We study astronauts as a population, and we certainly have a number of women in that population, and while there may be small differences, there really are not large, driving differences there,” NASA astronaut Kate Rubins advised Gizmodo.

Others would contend that these variations are very important, however the actuality is, we gained’t know for positive till we get extra women on crews. Frustratingly, that’s been a problem from day one.

On June 16, 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova turned the primary lady in area. Her three-day sojourn was brief however profound, orbiting the planet 48 occasions earlier than lastly returning to Earth. Despite quite a few journeys into orbit and even to the Moon, it took the United States one other 20 years to ship its first lady into area. Even then, Sally Ride needed to navigate by way of the boys’ membership NASA was on the time—in a now-infamous incident, engineers as soon as provided her 100 tampons for a seven-day journey.

Today, the gender ratio stays fairly skewed—Of NASA’s 44 active astronauts, simply 14 are women. Of the 5 astronauts at present aboard the ISS, only one—Peggy Whitson—is a lady. This is even though more women than ever are making use of to develop into astronauts.

To date, not a single lady astronaut has traveled past low Earth orbit.


While there’s no conspiracy retaining women out, implicit bias poses an actual barrier for women pursuing careers in STEM. Research suggests that as early as elementary faculty, women are discouraged of their math and science courses. Even in the event that they’re capable of clear hurdles of their early educational careers, women scientists are more likely to be discriminated against by professors and employers. Sound acquainted?

“It’s a big frustration of mine, in terms of it being a pipeline problem,” Stofan informed the viewers at Humans to Mars. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, let’s have programs where we encourage girls and people of color to go into STEM,’ but then if they go into a STEM environment…we see the numbers decline again. It’s not enough to open the door, you have to make people feel welcome.” The reality that only a few women have been discovered on panels at Humans to Mars solely served to strengthen her level.

Luckily, the subsequent era of women in area exploration is eager on going additional than their predecessors, each actually and figuratively. Some aspiring astronauts, like Abigail Harrison, have been publicly advocating the necessity to fly extra women. In Harrison’s thoughts, the psychological results of area journey on women are as understudied—and necessary—because the bodily results.

Sally Ride (proper) stands amongst different members of NASA’s first all-women astronaut class. Image: NASA

“One of the ways we could really benefit from having a woman in space long-term—multiple men and multiple women—is looking at mental health,” Harrison advised Gizmodo. “We know women and men are socialized differently in society, and that does affect the way they react to things like separation anxiety, being in confined spaces, and ability to work in teams.” NASA’s Hi-SEAS experiment is taking a primary step towards understanding the psychological results of a visit to Mars, by isolating teams of males and women in a sealed dome on the slopes of a barren Hawaiian volcano to see how they work and stay collectively. So far, the results have been promising.

Ultimately, the best way ahead is to fly extra women astronauts, and research them. Of course, there’s one other critically essential purpose for sending extra women into area, past increasing our understanding of human biology.

“If we don’t include women in the equation, we’re taking away 50 percent of the brainpower and the creativity and everything you need in order to continue innovation forward,” Harrison stated.

NASA scientist Robert Moses echoed this sentiment extra bluntly.

“On a missions to Mars? We’re going to have our Apollo 13,” he advised Gizmodo. “Who do you want in the room—room full of middle aged white men? You want women and women. You want as many heads together solving that problem.”

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