NASA astronaut Jessica Meir spent International Women’s Day in a strange position.
The 42-year-old, who completed her training in 2015, celebrated the March 8th holiday as the only woman currently in space, according to Space.com. That position is nothing new though. Of the approximately 550 people who have ever made their way beyond the earth’s atmosphere, only 65 have been women.
But despite those statistics, there’s plenty of research showing that, in fact, women may be more suited for space travel. Here’s what the science has to say about it.
Why women may be better suited for space travel
One of the most simple — but important — reasons women are believed to be better space travelers is sheer size. Men, on average, weigh more than women, and firing lighter, smaller people into space requires less space and less fuel, according to National Geographic.
Also, based on a 2013 study simulating survival conditions on Mars, women may require fewer calories, and therefore less food supplies. That research found that even when both men and women had similar activity levels, female test subjects only needed around half of the same caloric intake.
There’s also the issue of how space affects the body. Both men and women experience a series of negative responses to space travel — but those responses can differ based on gender.
For example, women who return to earth from space are more likely to faint when standing up, and they’re also more prone to radiation-induced cancers, according to the Journal of Women’s Health.
But men in space are more prone to disease, and tend to experience hearing loss more quickly. Additionally, they also suffer from vision loss more often, according to National Geographic. That last fact led NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who has suffered from eye problems following extensive space travel, to write in his autobiography that, “we just might have to send an all-women crew to Mars.”
The history of women in space
The first woman to ever enter space was Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian cosmonaut who was launched beyond the atmosphere on June 16, 1963. Tereshkova, who was just 26 at the time, orbited around the earth 48 times in 71 hours — despite having no formal training as a pilot.
It was nearly 20 more years before another woman, the Russian cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, made that trip. Savitskaya, who first made it to space in 1982, was also the first female to perform a spacewalk.
Several women from other countries followed from there — including American astronaut Sally Ride in 1983, Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar in 1992 and Japanese astronaut Chiaki Mukai, who also made the trip in 1992. That series of firsts continued all the way through 2019, when a group of NASA astronauts completed the first all-female spacewalk.
Of course, there were also countless women who impacted space travel without ever setting foot on a shuttle. One of the most famous was Katherine Johnson, the African American NASA mathematician whose work was chronicled in the 2016 movie, “Hidden Figures,” and who died at the age of 101 in February 2020.
Recording from the International Space Station, Meir addressed the representation — for women, and for diverse astronauts overall — during a video shared to her Twitter account as she celebrated International Women’s Day above the earth.
“It takes all sorts of people from diverse backgrounds to explore the unknown and to make things that are seemingly impossible, possible,” Meir said. “When we all work together, there is no limit to what we can accomplish.”
In honor of yesterday being #InternationalWomensDay, we at @NASA honor those that came before us, paving our path to the @Space_Station and beyond. Next stop, the Moon. #Artemis pic.twitter.com/e9BcFOumcF— Jessica Meir (@Astro_Jessica) March 9, 2020
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