Last Friday, two NASA astronauts made history by partaking in the first ever all-female spacewalk. The team of Christina Koch and Jessica Meir embarked on a mission to replace lithium-ion batteries for a solar power system located at the space station after a recent failure of a power controller. Koch and Meir became two of only fourteen women ever to participate in a spacewalk since NASA’s first in 1965.
“I think it’s symbolic. It represents another step of seeing women in a traditionally male world having their presence. It’s encouraging,” said Chih-Ping Chen, professor of English and coordinator of women’s and gender studies.
In order for Koch and Meir to perform this momentous feat, they overcame many boundaries of systematic sexism. The first all-female spacewalk was scheduled to occur earlier in the year, but was cancelled due to a lack of two medium-sized women’s spacesuits at NASA. In spite of this, many feel that opportunities in the STEM fields are becoming more gender-inclusive.
“I really don’t think men and women have equal opportunities to work in science industries, but it’s getting better. You definitely see a lot more female representation coming into play nowadays than you used to see,” said Sarah Sheathelm (’22).
Many argue that there is an unproportionate representation of female participants in the STEM careers such as those at NASA due to a lack of opportunities provided to school-aged girls.
“I think opportunity should always be equal,” said Chen. “It just depends on what kind of work women might be interested in and also how we encourage women to look at those different roles that they can take.”
In addition, many feel that STEM careers fail to provide equal opportunities to both men and women due to bias about which gender proves better-suited for tasks such as space travel. Stereotypes portraying men as the smarter, stronger sex harm women’s chances of filling physically demanding careers as astronauts.
“I feel like the majority of astronauts are men, and they discriminate by thinking that only men can explore space and that they’re a better fit,” said Emily West (’22).
Many feel that the first all-female spacewalk came too late, but others argue that different fields progress at different paces for many different reasons.
“I believe that in different fields, we are seeing some changes, but maybe at different paces because maybe they have different considerations,” said Chen.
In spite of the adversity Koch and Meir faced in order to perform the first all-female spacewalk, many are so glad they did because their act inspired young girls and women all over the world. The first all-female spacewalk set an optimistic tone for more gender-inclusive opportunities at NASA in the future.
“It shows that women can do anything men do. I think it would be cool if there was a space mission where men and women were both equal on the mission to show we can work together and there’s no fear of one gender being superior to the other,” said Chloe Sandborn (’22).
Although many argue that all-female space missions fail to represent true gender equality among the space program, many believe they are important in empowering females to aim for the stars and shoot for the moon.
“I think there were always all-male space explorations, so there is definitely a need for all-female space explorations. We want equal representation. We can do it too,” said Sheathelm.