On June 13th China launched Major Liu Yang, its first female astronaut, into Earth’s outer atmosphere. Major Liu and her fellow crew members returned safely landing their vessel, the Shenzhou, on June 29th at 10:01:16 CST, in Mongolia. China is the third country to successfully launch people into space, and including a female so early in the process marks a momentous occasion for both China and equality.
Only a handful, about 10%, of astronauts have been women. The percentage of women being sent up has been improving in the past few decades, but the beginning showed a noticeable lack of females. Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman astronaut, was launched by the Russians exactly 49 years before Major Liu. She was praised across Russia for her heroic act, but it was over 20 years before Russia decided to send another woman. NASA was equally negligent. When they first decided to compete with the Russians they had to figure out how to choose their first explorers. Due to the enormity of the project, and their relative inexperience they eventually decided to draw their astronauts from a group of people who were participating in tests similar to those that they would have to use: Air Force pilots. This spared them from the necessity of having to create their own testing system, but left them with one pointed problem: the Air Force didn’t accept women, and would not do so until the 1970’s. This left huge gap of time was further extended by the fact that once women were allowed to join the Air Force they needed to be trained and prepped for the rigors of space. These many poor choices made by NASA meant that women didn’t become regular astronauts until the early 1990’s.
With technology advancing at the rate it is many great minds are considering the financial and environmental benefits of exploration outside our little corner of the solar system. Filmmaker James Cameron and Google CEO Larry Page have recently announced that they will back a mission to mine an asteroid.
This is the stuff that science fiction novels are made of. Some day people may live on the moon, we may build space stations that circle the galaxy. This huge step will help us to create sustainable methods of exploring the galaxy. But as exciting as all of this sound, none of it will be possible if both sexes are not allowed to participate. Women must be just as involved in this process as the men.
Women haven’t been common in the space programs of the three major space powers, but space enthusiast William Rowe argues in a 2004 issue of The Journal of Men’s health and Gender that women may in fact be better suited to long term space travel. Some of his many reasons are that that women produce estrogen than men, and not as much epinephrine, which limits their chances of having at heart attack at one of those pivotal moments, and they are generally smaller and thus can consume less resources.
Men may have gotten a head start in the space race, but women could have no better modern day representative than Major Liu. She joined the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in 1997 at the age of 18. There she trained as a fighter pilot, and eventually accrued over 1600 flying hours. Major Liu is extremely brave, she is known for her nerves of steel, which is likely why she won out over her closest competitor Captain Wang Yaping.
China did have one small hitch when former Zhang Jianqi former deputy commander of China’s human spaceflight stated that women had to be married to be allowed to go into space, because they believed it made the women more “physically and psychologically mature”. He was not wise in excluding women for choosing not to have children, but he quickly denied ever having made the statement, as close to a retraction as we are likely to hear. He did give some great praise to China’s female pilots when he said that women tend to be more “keen and sensitive with better communication skills than their male counterparts.”
China intends to catch up with America and Russia in the space race, and eventually build their own space station. The successful journey of the Shenzhou 9 means that many more missions will be sent. China is making brave steps to involve women in this grand adventure, and with any luck Major Liu may just get to experience zero gravity again.
By Matthew Ariss