National Geographic : 2019 Jul
EMBARK | THE BIG IDEA PHOTO: NASA that men tend to excel in shorter-term, goal-oriented situations, while women are better in longer-term, habitation-type circumstances. “People in habitation situations have to be more interpersonally sensitive. You have to notice, be more communicative,” says Sheryl Bishop, a Uni- versity of Texas Medical Branch psychologist who specializes in studying group behavior. “Women are acculturated to have a lot of those skills to begin with.” That doesn’t mean men can’t get along well on long-duration space missions; it just means that the traits crucial for success on those missions are more typically associated with women. FINALLY, THERE’S THE ISSUE that may be the least immediate and most provocative: populating a far- away planet. You could send a crew of three women and three men, and tell them to go have fun and make more humans. But again, looking at costs: Why send men when you can send just their contributions to the next generation, collected and cryopreserved in tiny vials? Sending an all-female crew and a sperm bank lets a space program economize while also increasing the genetic diversity of the parental pool. Let’s review. In terms of value per pound, tolerance of physical effects, psychosocial skills, and ability to bear astro-babies, women seem well suited to lengthy space voyages. Does this mean, conversely, that there’s no reason to send men on these missions? Not quite. Data on group dynamics suggest that in team endeavors, mixed-gender teams are the most successful overall. We can specify why females would do well on long-term space adventures—but we can’t say flatly that an all-female crew would do the best. (However, it would almost certainly be better than a crew of hefty, squinting, inflexible, barren guys.) For 192 years, all U.S. Supreme Court justices were men. Asked when there’d be enough women on the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shocked some people with her answer: “When there are nine.” There’s never been an all-female crew of astronauts in flight—but decades of all-male crews. When will there be enough women in the spacecraft? When everyone who’s qualified has an equal shot at a seat. j Nadia Drake is a National Geo- graphic contributing writer with a particular fondness for moons, spiders, and jungle cats. which direction is up or down. Fluids shift, immune responses decline, a handful of genes substantially change their expression patterns, and, problemati- cally, eyesight enigmatically deteriorates. Since the earliest days of the Mercury program, NASA has been gleaning medical data from its astro- nauts by studying their physiological responses to spaceflight. In 2014 the space agency released a large report compiled from decades of data. “It’s only been recently that we’ve had multiple women flying on missions,” so the findings on sex-based disparities are preliminary, says Virginia Wotring of the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. Men seem to be less affected by space motion sickness but quicker to experience diminished hearing. Women appear to have a higher incidence of urinary tract infections (an issue not unique to spaceflight, as any woman will tell you). More significantly, men tend to have problems with deteriorating vision, which women don’t expe- rience as often or as severely. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly—who has spent a cumulative 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 those eye issues, “we just might have to send an all-women crew to Mars.” NOT A BAD IDEA. But there are considerations beyond the physical. While cooped up in a cramped spaceship for months or years, 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 to identify factors in long-duration missions’ success or failure, scientists observed teams that experienced stressful Earth analogs such as desert survival treks, polar expeditions, and Antarctic winter-overs. They found MEN TEND TO EXCEL IN SHORTER-TERM, GOAL- ORIENTED SITUATIONS, WHILE WOMEN ARE BETTER IN LONGER-TERM, HABITATION- TYPE CIRCUMSTANCES. JUNE 16-19, 1963 Valentina Tereshkova The Soviet cosmonaut was the first woman in space. She spent about 70 hours in the spacecraft Vostok 6, complet- ing 48 Earth orbits. JUNE 18-24, 1983 Sally Ride The NASA astronaut became the first U.S. woman in space, as well as the third woman there, when she flew the Chal- lenger space shuttle mission. JULY 25, 1984 Svetlana Savitskaya The Soviet cosmonaut was the first woman to take a space walk, performing tasks outside the Salyut 7 space station for about 3.5 hours. Firsts for females in space OCTOBER 10, 2008 Peggy Whitson The NASA astronaut became the first female International Space Station commander on a 2008 expedition; she held command there again in 2017.