Last summer NASA announced the most recent class of astronauts — the first in four years. It’s a small group of eight that was selected from the largest applicant pool ever, oddly enough. But with the end of the shuttle era NASA’s number of astronauts has dwindled by an astonishing two-thirds — 49, down from 149 at its highest point.
The fact that out of those eight people five have a military background is not unusual — a very large percentage of astronauts have military training and are high achievers in their respective branches. What did make this group special, though, is that half of the astronauts were women.
The members of the selection committees maintain that this was not intentional — one of NASA’s astronaut class of 2009, Kathleen Rubins, says that it’s merely a reflection of how many talented women are working in science and engineering these days.
That wasn’t always the case, of course.
Before Sally Ride made her first spaceflight in 1983 NASA’s astronaut corps was woefully devoid of women. The Russians were way ahead, having flown the first woman in space with Valentina Tereshkova, way back in 1963. Nowadays the flight is seen mostly as a publicity stunt since Tereshkova was not a trained career astronaut but a hobby skydiver who was plucked from textile factory and given a speed training course before her flight - and it took the Russians 19 years before they flew another woman.
While NASA’s percentage of women employees is right around 37 percent these days, much more remains to be done, particularly in the field of engineering. And it all begins with equality in education.
Do you remember the days when boys and girls were split up in school, and the boys got to do woodworking and the girls learned to sew? It shouldn’t be this way today, and in theory it isn’t, but the perception is still that girls should do girly things, and any boy wanting to learn how to sew must be a wimp.
Go to the toys aisle at Walmart. The girls’ toys aisle will choke you with pink glitter and dolls whereas the boys’ toys aisle is brimming with action figures and guns. And from thereon out the tracks have been set, and it’s just easier to go with the general flow of perception instead of doing what you’re truly interested in.
Much effort is being put into attracting girls to the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but the reinforcement has to come from everywhere — at home, at play, and in the toy aisle.
Girls today have a much better chance of succeeding in the STEM fields because of lessening social pressure to stay in traditional areas of study, and those that stick with it demonstrate in spades that they are no different than boys when it comes to these topics.
NASA is making every effort to show young girls and teenagers that their career choice matters and that role models and mentors exist. And role models do matter - anyone working with young people can tell you that.
Check out the work of some of the amazing women working at NASA today at http://women.nasa.gov/
And then pass the URL on to a girl and make a difference in her life!
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at email@example.com