It's Time to Take One Giant Step for Womankind

Sunday, August 1, 1999 - 12:00pm

This Op-ed appeared in the Sunday Republican on August 1, 1999 and in the Chicago Tribune on August 4, 1999.

NASA has landed into the history books again, thirty years since the day Neil Armstrong took that "one small step for man." The space agency's most recent accomplishment reminds us that when those famous words were recorded in 1969, men were indeed the only ones allowed the adventure and challenge of space flight. Not until a decade later would NASA accept women astronauts into its ranks.

In 1985 Sally Ride shattered for American women the glass ceiling in space, and since then Shannon Lucid, Kathryn Sullivan, the late Judith Resnik, Mae Jemison and others have added to the catalogue of laudable accomplishments. Now Eileen Collins has extended that record one significant step further, becoming the first woman ever to command and lead a NASA mission. Although it's taken NASA until the last year of the twentieth century, it can finally be said that--when it comes to space--at last a woman is in the driver's seat.

Collins' history-making flight, as significant as it is, did not command the public attention it deserved. With the exception of John Glenn's return to space last fall, NASA missions in general--not just those including women--have not succeeded in grabbing the American psyche to the degree that the early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions once did.

Certainly outer space has not become less exciting than it was in the 1960s. NASA, however, has not found compelling strategies to translate that inspiration to the public in ways that have meaning, value, and magnetism.

The lack of interest among women and girls in the space program is particularly striking. Seldom do the names of women astronauts make the list of "most admired American women." Few college women can retrieve the name of Sally Ride when listing female firsts. And it's the rare girl who wears a T-shirt emblazoned with rockets and the strong confident faces of Collins and her crewmate Cady Coleman.

The indifference is troubling. Coupled with persistent and pervasive cultural messages that math and science are the domain of boys, talented young women continue to be diverted from making a contribution to scientific knowledge. While NASA has made great strides in employing women over the last thirty years, one startling statistic remains. Only 17% of last year's applicants to the astronaut program were women. Obviously NASA needs to develop more effective ways to interest women in space exploration and recruit them into its program.

Part of the problem is invisibility and cultural amnesia. Among our greatest national resources for imparting understanding of the space program is the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The most-visited museum in the world, Air and Space attracts 10,000,000 visitors annually. While the museum is wildly popular, its exhibits are woefully out-of-date. The Apollo Gallery that chronicles the race to the moon remains virtually unchanged since the mid-seventies and captures nothing of women's early struggles to secure equal opportunity and far too little on their current contributions.

At present, the museum is undergoing extensive renovation and new exhibits are not likely to be added immediately. But the occasion of Collins' historic mission provides an auspicious moment to correct these failings.

The museum should honor the achievement of Collins and the formidable women who have gone before her in pledging now to place new and just emphasis on the role women have played in our national space story.

Still, we must deal with the matter of some unfinished business for the nation itself.

In an Oval Office ceremony last year that announced her appointment as shuttle commander, Collins seized the moment to remind us that she stands on the shoulders of many unacknowledged women in aviation, including the Mercury 13.

Largely unknown to the public, the Mercury 13 were accomplished women pilots who were tested in the 1960s for their mental and physical aptitude to become astronauts. In tests conducted by Dr. Randolph Lovelace II, chairman of NASA's special advisory committee on life sciences, the women scored as well as the famed Mercury 7 astronauts and, in some cases, better. Yet in the eleventh hour, as the women were to enter final testing in Pensacola, NASA got cold feet caused-by a bad case of sexism-and backed away from the project. The women were told simply to go home.

Mercury 13 member Jerri Sloan Truhill remembers that summer of 1961.

"I bought a ticket to Pensacola and had my bags packed," she recalled, her voice still filled with exasperation and anger. "I was a mother. It wasn't easy to get things ready to go, but I was eager to do it. I wanted a chance."

Truhill and the others did not get their chance even after forcing a Congressional hearing to review their case. In the 1960s, they had the right stuff, but it was the wrong time.

On the occasion of Collins' history mission the time is right to acknowledge the contributions of these early pioneers in America's space program. Recognition of their accomplishments will serve to inspire and recruit the next generation of women astronauts. It's time President Clinton conveyed the nation's thanks to Myrtle "K" Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Jan Dietrich, Wally Funk, Jane Hart, Irene Leverton, Sarah Gorelick Ratley, Bernice "B" Steadman, Jerri Sloan Truhill, Rhea Allison Woltman and to the families of the late Marion Dietrich and Jean Hixson.

Women who struggle to open doors that have been closed to them know that the fight for equal rights takes many steps, not a single small one.

Martha Ackmann is a women's studies professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.