When NASA’s Perseverance rover gently touched down on the surface of Mars last week after seven months in space, the news was first confirmed by Indian-American Swati Mohan. What’s important here is that this NASA female scientist made history yet again as a successful leader—spearheading the development of attitude control and landing system for the rover—among the team of scientists behind the historic mission.
Recently, European Space Agency (ESA), the European equivalent of NASA, also announced plans to recruit more female astronauts and people with disabilities, giving those of them who have always dreamt of going into space a good chance to fulfill their dreams. Clearly, there’s a focus now on making crewed space missions more diverse.
According to a news report in Associated Press, only 65 of the more than 560 people who have ever gone into space have been women. Of those 65 women, 51 were American. ESA has sent only two women into space: Claudie Haigneré and Samantha Cristoforetti. As of March 2020, the NASA website suggests 65 women have flown to space, including cosmonauts, astronauts, payload specialists and space station participants.
ESA, which is holding its first astronaut recruitment drive in over a decade, says greater diversity is one of its goals. “We are looking towards the moon… and Mars. We need very excellent astronauts for the future,” ESA director general Jan Woerner told AP. Interestingly, it is also opening a vacancy in the frame of the “Parastronaut” feasibility study to select an astronaut with a certain degree of physical disability.
Not only this, in 2016, ESA proposed a ‘Moon Village’ to promote international harmony with a vision to unite nations and create an environment where both international cooperation and commercialisation of space could thrive.
It’s true that diversity of voice and perspective allows great connection, learning and understanding among people from all walks of life. Plus, this sort of inclusion gives women equal opportunities to pursue—and thrive in—STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
Over the years, space missions have seen a diverse next-generation of explorers when it comes to gender and ethnicity. For instance, in 1978, NASA selected a group of astronaut candidates with a wide variety of backgrounds that brought a wealth of knowledge and experience. Guion Bluford became NASA’s first African-American astronaut to fly in space on the STS-8 mission in 1983, the first of his four spaceflights. Then, on the STS-47 mission of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992, Mae C Jemison became the first African-American female in space. As more and more women flew to space, NASA and the International Space Station in 2020, in fact, celebrated women who conducted science aboard the orbiting lab. Now, there’s incredible excitement about NASA’s Artemis programme that includes the latest Phase 1 plan to land the first woman and the next man on the surface of the moon in 2024.
The first woman in space was Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova who flew on Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. The first American woman in space, Sally Ride, flew aboard the Space Shuttle STS-7 in June of 1983. Other notable firsts: Roscosmos cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya participated in a spacewalk in July 1984 and NASA astronaut Susan Helms was the first female crew member aboard the space station and a member of Expedition 2 from March to August 2001. Kalpana Chawla became the first woman of Indian origin in 1997 to travel in space as the mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator aboard the US space shuttle Columbia. In December 2006, Sunita Williams became the second woman of Indian origin to venture into space on a 12-day repair mission to the International Space Station (ISS). But it was the 2013 astronaut class which was the first with an equal number of women and men.