Makers: Women in Space

I’m typically terrible when it comes to keeping up with television. I slept on The Sopranos, never caught The Wire, and have only managed one episode of Breaking Bad. Maybe my track record will change once it gets cold outside, but I doubt it. I find it very difficult to commit to a full run of a series.

However, Makers might change that. (Thanks to my mom and J. Jalandoni for the tip.) This six-part series on PBS is in the middle of its second season, but I eventually want to see it from the beginning. Last night, I picked an episode that would appeal to me and my partner in crime, Hotswag. Since he’s obsessed with all things astronomical, I chose “Women in Space.”

At the advent of the space program, it was argued that women were an obvious choice. Women typically weighed less, ate less food, and used less oxygen; these small savings at the top trickled down into serious fuel savings. But because no one knew how the human body would react in space, additional testing was required. Researcher Randy Loveless spearheaded the testing and created a comprehensive physical exam. However, most of his test subjects were jet pilots in the Air Force and Navy. Since the military didn’t allow women to fly, he had to look elsewhere for women with pilot’s licenses.

Out of the nineteen women tested, thirteen passed, many with scores higher than the selected Mercury astronauts. In the sensory deprivation tank test, for example, men grew anxious for stimulation while women relaxed into the environment. Subject Wally Funk, first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, lasted the longest with a time of 10 hours and 35 minutes. Eager to clear the last hurdle, many of the women quit their jobs and made arrangements for their families in preparation for the last round of testing.

But at the last minute, the government cut the program’s funding. For years, women could only participate from ground control. Poppy Northcutt, a 25 year-old systems engineer, was the only woman in the room during the Apollo 8 mission, the first mission to successfully orbit the moon. She painstakingly picked apart each line of code for the return to Earth trajectory, all the while remaining aware of her outsider stance in the office. She explained, “You do have to worry that people are going to say, ‘Well, she couldn’t cut it, so other women can’t cut it.’”

Poppy Northcut

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With the women’s movement in the 1960s and new legislation in the 1970s, NASA had no choice but to admit women astronauts. The development of the shuttle meant that staff members could be mission specialists without holding a pilot’s license. To recruit more women and people of color, the space program turned to Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. She traveled around the country coming the best engineering and science programs to find top talent.

First Six

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L to R: Margaret R. (Rhea) Seddon, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Judith A. Resnick, Sally K. Ride, Anna L. Fisher, Shannon W. Lucid

Just because women were allowed to go to space didn’t mean that NASA knew what to do with them. The media pummeled them with the same trite questions: did they plan to get married? Were they going to have children? How would they balance family life? Engineers were also completely flummoxed by the intricacies of the female anatomy. Without an extra appendage, how would women pee in space? Periods? Sweet merciful Jesus! The astronauts laughed as they recalled opening lockers stuffed to the brim with tampons and thinking, “Guys, we’re going on a 7 day mission.”


Sally Ride

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The show wraps by interviewing a new crop of women itching to go to space. Firsts like Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Mae Jemison, the first woman of color in space, and Peggy Whitson, the first woman Commander on the International Space Station, inspired today’s generation of aspiring astronauts. Engineer Marleen Martinez writes the scripts that test Orion, a spacecraft designed to take manned missions all the way to Mars. Growing up, this daughter of migrant workers learned that “engineering wasn’t really a girl’s field” but, she added, she felt as though “space was wide open and waiting for me!” She later became the first in her family to go to college.

My favorite quote of the episode comes from Mae Jemison. Jemison made her first journey to space in 1992 but, she believed, there should have been many people of color ahead of her. Yet once she was in orbit, she explained, “I learned that I am as much a part of this universe as any speck of stardust. That sense of belonging was so important.” Although the NASA space program’s funding has been cut, I hope organizations like SpaceX can fulfill Martinez’s dream and reinforce that sense of belonging for women everywhere.

Mae Jamison

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The best part? You can watch it all right here. Or, if you prefer, tune in tonight at 9 to catch the latest installment, “Women in War.”


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