Edge of Innovation

One Giant Step for Womankind

astronaut on the moon

For the first time ever, half of NASA’s astronaut grads are women, and they’re preparing to go where no man has gone before: Mars.

Between the documentaries and movies chronicling the brave men who first ventured into space and the grainy footage of Neil Armstrong taking mankind’s first step on the moon, there are far too many scenes of women waiting at home, eyes glued to TV screens with phones close at hand, waiting for news of their husbands’ fates in the great void.

Today, however, 50 percent of NASA’s latest astronaut class is female. It’s clear that women have earned a seat in the rocket, and one of them could very well be the first person to set foot on Mars.

NASA newest grads weren’t picked because of their gender. They beat out 6,100 applicants because they were the best people for the job.

“We never determine how many people of each gender we’re going to take, but these were the most qualified people of the ones that we interviewed,” said Janet Kavandi, NASA’s deputy director at the Glenn Research Centre about the latest astronaut class.

OneGreatStep_v1
Christina Hammock Koch, Nicole Aunapu Mann, Jessica Meir and Anne McClain

Though the Mars mission is at least 15 years away, preparations are already underway. Women will play a role in all aspects of that journey, whether behind the scenes, building the equipment to get there, or front and center, readying themselves to explore the red planet.

“If we go to Mars, we’ll be representing our entire species in a place we’ve never been before,” said Anne McClain, 36, a decorated war vet who flew on the frontlines of Iraqi Freedom. “To me, it’s the highest thing a human being can achieve.”

Space Trailblazers

Current data show that there is no evidence of differences between the genders when examining behavioral or psychological responses during spaceflight.

Women are, however, more likely to experience orthostatic intolerance — the inability to stand for long periods without fainting — after landing. Men are more likely to experience visual impairment after time in space.

NASA researchers acknowledge that there is a disparity between available data for spacefaring men and women, since far fewer women have had the opportunity to travel in space. To date, 543 humans have done so, but a mere 11 percent have been women.

It’s not that some haven’t made it into the ranks already. There’s Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel in space, for example, and Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti, the first woman to spend 200 consecutive days living in the International Space Station. Still, given the fact that the field has been previously dominated by men, this recent shift is seismic.

NASA women astronauts_Mars

Getting to NASA, let alone Mars, is a giant step in itself.

“I had always set my sights on working with NASA, but I didn’t want to get there by checking the usual boxes, like learning to fly and scuba dive,” said Christina Hammock Koch, 37. “I wanted to get there because I was passionate about science and the next frontier.” She spent 3.5 years working on Earth’s “frontiers,” working in Antarctica (including the South Pole) and the Arctic.

Koch also worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory’s Space Department, where she helped develop scientific instruments already used on multiple NASA missions.

Koch and McClain are joined by Jessica Meir and Nicole Aunapu Mann, both 38. Meir, a biologist, studied the effects of microgravity and space flight on the human body at the Johnson Space Center before becoming an astronaut.  Mann is a mechanical engineer who served two tours of duty with the Marine Corps, flying fighter jets in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

Making it to Mars

The trip to Mars will be arduous. It is 35 million miles away, and the commute to get there will take six to nine months. A round trip mission would take two to three years. Conditions are harsh, with months-long dust storms and temperatures that drop as low as -284 in winter.

But the astronauts are already acquiring the necessary skills for the ride.

During their two years of astronaut training, the women piloted T-38 supersonic jets (capable of traversing 20 miles per minute), experienced zero-gravity in the “vomit comet” and put on 400-pound space suits to perform tasks under 40 feet of water in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, complete with an underwater mock-up of the International Space Station.

NASA women astronauts_International Space Station

McClain compares wearing the space suit to piloting an aircraft.

“It’s an extremely technical piece of equipment,” she said. “You have to know all of the details about the suit. You’ve got to know the emergency procedures. You’ve got to know the different systems. You have to learn kind of different way of adapting your body movements to accomplish the mission.”

The astronauts will continue to train as they progress through the three-tiered Mars mission plan: Earth Reliant Exploration focuses on research aboard the International Space Station. Proving Ground is where NASA will conduct complex operations in a deep — but not too deep — space environment. Earth Independent activities include human missions in deep space, and eventually, on Mars itself.

Along the way, NASA will continue to gather data on the physiological effects space travel has on the human body, as well as the differences in how men and women respond to space.

Having already taken on extreme challenges here on Earth, Mann, McClain, Koch and Meir are ready to tackle the next frontier.

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