“It was kind of a boys’ club”

Last week, Nicole Aunapu Mann became the first Native American woman to travel in space. While it was a big step forward in terms of representation in the space industry, it comes 20 years after the first Native American received the same honor.

Despite 60 years of female space travel internationally, only 12 percent of the nearly 600 people who have gone into space have been women, and many of the obstacles these women have faced have been within the space agencies themselves.

Karen Nyberg, a retired NASA astronaut, artist and engineer, became the 50th woman in space in 2008. Speaking at Newsweekshe recalled her experiences before that first space flight.

“Starting in college engineering, I was one of very few women,” she said. “Nobody was telling me I couldn’t do it.” It wasn’t until she started working for NASA and was delivered her first space suit that she started to feel any kind of disability.

“They had medium, large and extra large sizes,” he said. “They made this conscious decision not to make a small spacesuit, and most women would wear a size small… And that prevented a lot of people from doing spacewalks. Not because the women weren’t capable, but because the space suit didn’t fit them properly… No one made this concerted effort to try to get a suit that would fit smaller people.

“I think with the whole spacewalk suit it was kind of a boys’ club.”

Former NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg floats in the Unity hub of the International Space Station. “You see a lot of representation at NASA,” he told Newsweek. “It’s really more of a meritocracy where people have earned their positions, where women have earned their positions.”

Undeterred by this wardrobe problem, Nyberg and her female colleagues persevered. “Most women got over it and did the spacewalks anyway, but it was a struggle. If your spacesuit fits right, you can get there and do your job, but if it doesn’t…you can’t get there. reach.”

NASA recently unveiled next-generation spacesuits that fit a wider range of body types, including women, and we hope the suits will make space travel more accessible to a wider range of people.

NASA astronaut in space suit
Astronaut Michael Gernhardt takes a spacewalk. Until recently, non-automotive spacesuits only came in sizes that fit men.

“You see a lot of representation at NASA,” Nyberg said. “It’s really more of a meritocracy where people have earned their positions, where women have earned their positions.”

NASA’s diversity and inclusion strategy reflects this. “NASA Headquarters has an unwavering commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive environment where employees are valued for their unique contributions to our shared goal,” she said in a statement.

Nyberg’s next hurdle was one that affected the careers of many women in almost every profession. “My only next hurdle came when I got pregnant,” she said. “That’s a hurdle that a lot of women face in a lot of careers, especially active careers. There’s some training that you can’t physically do when you’re pregnant.”

She continued: “They actually put me on my second space shuttle flight when I got pregnant and I was going to have the baby a few months before the flight. Well, they decided to take me off the flight. They just didn’t want to take that risk. .. Now obviously that would never happen to a man who had a baby.’

Karen Nyberg on the ISS dome
Karen Nyberg appears in the International Space Station’s dome module. “Once you see the Earth from space, you realize how precious it is,” he told Newsweek.

Pregnancy isn’t the only biological condition that can make things more difficult for female astronauts. “On the space station we have the toilet in the US section and the toilet in the Russian section,” Nyberg said.

He continued: “Urine in the US department is treated – it’s actually turned into drinking water – and the filtration system and the mechanism that goes through it can’t accept blood particles. When a woman has her period, she has to go and use the toilet of the Russian section…so it’s not necessarily a private thing.’

Thanks to advances in health care, many women are able to control this cyclic regression. “I suppressed [my menstrual cycle] so I never had it during the six months I was in space,” he said. “But there are women who choose not to or can’t for some medical reason.”

Even without periods of restlessness, simple daily tasks can be more difficult in space. “It takes longer to go to the bathroom in space than on Earth because there are more steps to take and sometimes a mess to clean up. Keeping clean in general is difficult because you can’t stand down running water,” Nyberg said.

In 2013, a now-famous video of her washing her hair in space was released and was viewed nearly 6 million times.

“I had people saying ‘women should shave their heads, women should have short hair,’ all that stuff,” she said. “They have no idea what it’s like in space. I had one of my colleagues who shaved his head. He used more water, more soap, razors, which are disposable, and he made a mess of the ceiling because he shaved his head every day.”

While female astronauts still face some obstacles, the industry has come a long way since the first women went into space. One of the most important aspects of this is representation.

“A lot of people talk about representation and seeing themselves in other people,” Nyberg said. “When I first decided to be an astronaut, I was 8 or 9 years old — around the same time that NASA first selected these female astronauts. I think seeing these women was huge because then it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t. “

Nyberg now sits on NASA’s astronaut selection committee. “We try very hard to make the courses as diverse as possible,” he said. “What you notice is when you look at the applicant pool… We still don’t have as many female candidates as male applicants.

Sally Ride in the flight deck
Astronaut Sally Ride, seen at the controls of the space shuttle Challenger, was the first American woman to go into space.

“The problem is getting women into engineering, into aviation… We have to work harder to get young girls to decide that engineering is good for them,” she said.

For aspiring young astronauts, Nyberg has some advice. “Find that passion and just work towards it and don’t let anything stand in your way. Get out of your comfort zone…and keep at it, even when things look bleak… Just keep at it and follow through the passion.”

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