The first all-woman spacewalk took place on October 18, 2019, and it was historic for a number of reasons. For those writing speculative fiction set in space, many have assumed the presence of women in their novels, and this is a good thing. Whether the purpose is exploration, settlement, or pure adventure, women must be present as representatives of humanity among the stars.
It’s important, however, to understand the problematic history of women in the space program to give context and deeper meaning to your story, even if it’s set hundreds, or even thousands of years in the future, when these difficulties are behind us.
Here are five ways NASA’s all-woman space walk can inspire your work in progress, or a future creative project.
1) We have always been here
On April 9, 1959, twenty-five women were selected to undergo the same psychological screening tests as the seven male astronauts in the Mercury Program. The women who passed all these tests became known as the Mercury 13, though they were never part of the astronaut program, per se, and none of them went to space, or even met as a group.
All of the Mercury 13 were accomplished pilots with at least 1,000 hours of flight time. Some of the candidates, including Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, went on to complete the phase II and even phase III testing (and, in some cases, performed better than the male astronauts). Despite their success, NASA continued to exclude women from the space program.
Jerrie Cobb and fellow Mercury 13 member Janey Hart went so far as to write President Kennedy and testify at the House Committee on Science and Aeronautics hearing on sex discrimination in July 1962. Despite a concerted effort and the sympathy of many committee members, no action resulted.
2) Space technology was made for men
In her July 17 article in the New York Times, Mary Robinette Kowal, author of the incredible Lady Astronaut series, argued passionately and persuasively against the gender bias endemic to the space program. Even after women formally joined the program, rockets, capsules, suits, and even the International Space Station, have continued to be designed for the typical male astronaut.
This continues to cause problems for women in the program. The first all-woman spacewalk had been scheduled for March 29, and then for April 8, but astronaut Anne McClain opted out as the suits in the ISS did not fit her properly. Safety is always the top priority.
Other examples of gender-biased design include the placement of foot anchors in the ISS. In order to have a line of sight out the observation window, shorter women astronauts are forced to float, unanchored, and to account for the way any movement will tend to displace them as they work in a zero-gravity environment. Even minor inconveniences carry forward the legacy of gender bias, but as Kowal points out in her article, there are more serious problems facing women astronauts.
3) The first woman astronaut
Valentina Tereshkova holds the distinction of being the first (and youngest) woman in space. In June of 1963, she flew a solo mission on the Vostok 6 during which she orbited Earth 48 times, spending three days in space. Tereshkova also holds the distinction of being the only woman to fly a solo mission.
While Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, she didn’t join the space program until 1978 and went on her first space flight in 1983.
4) The first woman to spacewalk
Svetlana Savitskaya was the first woman to perform a spacewalk. When the Soviet cosmonaut program became aware that American astronaut Kathy Sullivan was assigned to an extravehicular activity (EVA or spacewalk) in December of 1983, Savitskaya was scheduled for her own spacewalk, which took place on July 17, 1984.
It was Savitskaya’s second time in space. She flew in a Soyuz T-12 to the Salyut 7 station where she and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Dzhanibekov spent three and a half hours outside the station to repair a fuel line.
5) The importance of fact-checking
Astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch conducted a live interview during which President Trump congratulated them on being the first women to perform a spacewalk. With grace and tact, Meir and Koch corrected the president, who was wrong on several counts.
As noted above, Svetlana Savitskaya was the first woman spacewalker. There have been 15 women who have successfully performed an EVA altogether, Meir and Koch among them. While it was Meir’s first spacewalk, it was Koch’s fourth.
The first all-woman spacewalk is significant because it is a next necessary step to NASA’s Artemis program, which will put the first woman on the Moon. In Koch’s words, “In the end, I do think it’s important, and I think it’s important because of the historical nature of what we’re doing. In the past women haven’t always been at the table. It’s wonderful to be contributing to the space program at a time when all contributions are being accepted, when everyone has a role. That can lead in turn to increased chance for success. There are a lot of people who derive motivation from inspiring stories of people who look like them, and I think it’s an important story to tell.”
Taking it to the page
There’s a lot of fertile ground for storytelling here, past, present, and future. What if Cobb and Hart’s testimony had successfully moved the committee to include women in the space program as early as 1962? What might it have been like for Tereshkova to spend three days alone in space? What might she have done if something had gone wrong? In the days of the “space race,” what might the scramble have been to get Savitskaya to spacewalk first? What if NASA had gotten wind of Savitskaya’s mission and escalated Sullivan’s timetable? Do you think a story about the challenges faced by early or current women astronauts would be something your readers would enjoy? What about the future, the Artemis program and beyond? If colonies are the ultimate goal, wouldn’t women be an important part of the equation?
You can take any of these as a jumping-off point to craft your own fictional creation.
Until next time, keep speculating and see where it leads you!
Melanie Marttila creates worlds from whole cloth. She’s a dreamsinger, an ink alchemist, and an unabashed learning mutt. Her speculative short fiction has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, On Spec Magazine, and Sudbury Ink. She lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, where she spends her days working as a corporate trainer. She blogs at http://www.melaniemarttila.ca and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.