"Daddy, why is it only mens?"

For some reason, me and the PalKid were watching Apollo 13 this morning. She was fascinated by the story, especially because it's a true story. During the lift off, the camera panned around the control room, and she said, "Daddy, how come there's only mens? Are girls not allowed in space?"

Those of us who advocate diversity in science are often asked, "how could it matter what faces are in the crowd?"

Here's your answer.


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Yes. Yes he is. ; )

Very true... I suppose you could point her to the NASA homepage and find more recent crews with women, and talk about how she's still part of the pioneering front of gender equality. If all else fails, Brandi Chastain had that amazing World Cup clip that got me all choked up :)

What a perceptive little girl. All the more reason I think it really makes a different if children can see themselves in a career.

Awesome observation from the kidlet. Time to teach her about Sally Ride -- not only the first American woman but also the youngest (at the time) American in space!

NASA has tons of clips on YouTube (not to mention NASA TV itself). Show her some of the ISS press conferences (They're a riot in general... people ask such silly questions!) Let her see the astronaut bios and crew photos at the NASA website. Apollo 13 was a LOOOOOOOOOOONG time ago, and things are WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY different now. Spacewomen ROCK!

p.s. Hey PalKid - see you on NASA TV some day! =^..^=

By The Mad LOLSci… (not verified) on 24 Oct 2009 #permalink

Never too young to start twitter! My son checks my NASA twitters, there are astronauts on it, you can follow the various telescopes and see new images, follow the ISS! We watch NASA tv, too!

My son taught himself to google last year in order to look up all the NASA missions. We collect all the patches! A trip to the Smithsonian in DC is well worth it!

PalMD may have a little Sally Ride in his house.

When I'm running my lab, I want to turn on the news and say 'Wow, Pal's daughter is in space!'

By Katharine (not verified) on 24 Oct 2009 #permalink

We decided to write an email to Sally Ride. We'll see what happens.

If you ever get over to Seattle go the Museum of Flight. The president and CEO is Bonnie Dunbar (minor note, after I switched from oceanography to engineering went to the monthly campus meeting of the student section Society of Women Engineers. She dropped by to say hello on her way to a new job with a program for her to get her PhD, this was after her first attempt to become an astronaut).

Also, women were considered for the space program in the early days. A couple of books on this are (sorry, these are from my spreadsheet of books I have read, I cut and paste from the library email telling they are available for pickup): The Mercury 13 : the untold story of thirteen American women and the dream of space, by Ackmann, Martha and Promised the moon : the untold story of the first women in the space race / by Nolen, Stephanie (storkdok, I will check out the book you referenced!).

There is a book about Maria Mitchell, one of the earliest American female astronomers. But it is for adults (I also ran out of time to read it, so I had to return it to the library, I think I will check it out over winter break). Though I think there might be a kid's book about her. The family featured in the book and movie Cheaper By the Dozen vacationed near there and went to the observatory that a visitor to Nantucket can still visit (the mother, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, was an engineer and member of the Society of Women Engineers, her struggles of being a woman engineer was chronicled in a book and movie called Bells on Their Toes).

I also once read a book about women in physics. I cannot remember its name, and somehow it did not end up in my spreadsheet, but with a power of Google I found http://cwp.library.ucla.edu/index.html .

I have seen books that show women in the sciences at my local independent children's bookstore. But alas, my children are mostly grown and that local store is gone... but do go to your local independent children's bookstore and see what you can find. (by the way, I was the evil mom who went to that local store to find gifts for my children to take to birthday parties... I was the evil mom who only gave books --- one effect, my teenage daughter now volunteers at the library!)

Oh, wait!!! You are near Wayne State University. That is where the archives of the Society of Women Engineers is kept. They ought to have a display there (by the way, I went through their archive photos and found one with me!... and not one I sent in, since I scanned thirty years of stuff from our local chapter's archives and sent it to them).

There have been issues with women in science and technology (the guys in the control center were mostly engineers). There are lots of stories, and some I have read... which you can read about if PalMD approves my previous message!

Sally Ride is not the only one... there is also Donna Shirley who wrote a book on Managing Martians. And Eugenie Clark who studied sharks. And Ada, Countess of Lovelace... and on and on. All one has to do is look, remember and reflect on the struggles (many were not allowed to study with men, or work at the same universities as their husbands, or even get paid for their labor).

So, how did PalMD explain this to PalKID?

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 25 Oct 2009 #permalink

I remember reading somewhere (sorry about the poor sourcing) that one of the common factors that women who were successful in science and engineering before it was acceptable for women to be in these fields was parents, particularly FATHERS, who believed in them, encouraged them, and talked science with them. So take your little astronaut to a natural history or science museum, work on projects with her, remind her that even if there are no women doing X right now she can be the first one.

When she said it, after I stopped myself from crying, I said, "Isn't that weird? And look, they're all smoking too! In the old days, a lot of things were different. There weren't as many women doing some things, but that changed. I remember the first time an American woman went into space! And now they go all the time."

Kid: "Cool!"
Me: "Wanna write her a letter?"
Kid: "Yeah!"

Maybe you could tell her that girls are too smart to waste time and money on a mere stunt, like sending humans into space (to beat the USSR). (Astronauts merely survive in the safety of low Earth orbit, or the plain, outstanding luck of going to the Moon when the Sun is not belching lethal radiation.) There is nothing humans have done in space that could not be done more cheaply, and safer, with robots.

How many lost Mars Probes do you mourn?

The very little information we have garnered on the effects of living in low-gravity environments has been obtained. If it ever improved the lives of people on Earth, that time is done.

PalKid is right; but one could hope for teaching her the bigger picture.

Also, I remember the birth of NASA: Ham's (a chimp) flight before Shepherd's (sp?).

Yes, most fields were dominated by men in those days. For the most part, we got over it. It just needs a little education of the Kid.

Maybe you could tell her that girls are too smart to waste time and money on a mere stunt, like sending humans into space

Ick! Please DON'T tell her this. I'm sure Joe meant well and the idea that we should be spending our limited resources sending robots deep into the solar system rather than humans into low earth orbit is a very reasonable position, but...

I hate the "girls are to superior to do X" form of argument. It's just another variant of the old "Women are too etherial and unworldly for business" or "Women are too intuitive for the hard, cold, limited world of science" or any other of a number of arguments designed to limit women's options while pretending that it's because the speaker believes women are somehow "better."

and i hate the "let's send robots instead" argument. it's just the first step on the slippery slope of cutting out all basic science research, because --- to be in equal measures brutally frank and brutally honest --- there'll always be one more life we could use the money to save instead. arguing that we ought to slide a ways down that slope might seem reasonable, but every single last step down it is equally as reasonable, and the bottom of the slope is no place i wish to live.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 25 Oct 2009 #permalink

@Dianne- point taken.

@Nomen- point not understood. Humans in space do not do research, they try to come home alive. They keep the life-support systems working, and the toilet flushing. The experiments they "perform" are little more than throwing a switch when they arrive in orbit and the reverse before returning. Ninety percent of the cost of space flight is life-maintenance. Imagine what we could accomplish if we spent all the money on research.

BTW, the life-support systems and movement of people actually interfere with low gravity research because the shuttle/space station cannot be held perfectly still.

Humans in space do not do research

and the technology to put humans in space is derived through divination, you think?

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 26 Oct 2009 #permalink

Joe, you just pushed my hot-button (spaceflight doesn't matter). I feel compelled to respond. ;-)

Maybe you could tell her that girls are too smart to waste time and money on a mere stunt, like sending humans into space (to beat the USSR). (Astronauts merely survive in the safety of low Earth orbit, or the plain, outstanding luck of going to the Moon when the Sun is not belching lethal radiation.) There is nothing humans have done in space that could not be done more cheaply, and safer, with robots.

The manned spaceflight versus robotics flight is an old one -- but given the enormous return offered by robotic spaceflight, what is the problem with PalMD wanting to encourage his daughter to appreciate that sort of stuff? If she gets interested in spaceflight, that doesn't just mean Shuttle jockeys. Look at Carolyn Porco -- a famous woman in planetary science. She's the principle investigator on Cassini's Imaging Science Subsystem, continuing a legacy that she started on the Voyager program. She's studied tons of stuff on the gas giants, but her greatest legacy is probably her work on ring systems. That's not just science for its own sake; understanding ring systems gives us huge insights into the complexities of orbital mechanics in the real world, and that's vital if we want to manage our own homemade ring system -- the satellites that circle the Earth, providing us with instant telecommunications (among other things).

BTW, it wasn't just luck that the Sun wasn't "belching lethal radiation" during Apollo. They knew what they were doing.

How many lost Mars Probes do you mourn?

Well, I'm not that sentimental, personally. But interplanetary travel is tricky. Of course, we won't get any better if we just sit on our butts, but fortunately, we aren't sitting on our butts. NASA and many other agencies are working on it. I think it's about a 60% failure rate. Mind you, most of those failures were in the early days, when the engineering expertise really wasn't there yet. Six attempts (5 Soviet, 1 American) failed before the first successful Mars flyby (Mariner 4, in 1964). So the statistics don't really show you how pointless Mars research is; they show how much work it takes to build up the neccesary engineering expertise.

And what did we gain for that engineering expertise? Lots. At first, the payout was mostly scientific (planetary research) and military (better ICBMs, better warhead reentry systems, better navigation, etc), but today we benefit hugely from it on a commercial level. Our modern society is dependent on the instant communciations we get from our commsats, and these commsats have the capabilities they do because the government invested so much money in creating the technology in the first place.

Now, you *can* decide that's enough, that you don't feel that we need any better technology. But you would be wrong, and you will see the United States left behind technologically if we cease to invest in it. Maybe you're okay with that; maybe you want the US to remain important internationally mostly because of our vast grain production capability rather than because of our technological prowess. Me, I'm not satisfied with that.

Oh, and there is one rather important thing that *manned* spaceflight has given us, besides stuff like certain drugs and new avenues for tumor research. I'll warn you that it's not very friendly, but it should give you an insight into why China was so hot to get a manned space program. Being able to put humans into space and return them safely to the Earth gives you more than bragging rights: it shows that, assuming you can build a nuke as well, you have all the technology you need to rain distant death upon your enemies.


The very little information we have garnered on the effects of living in low-gravity environments has been obtained. If it ever improved the lives of people on Earth, that time is done.

PalKid is right; but one could hope for teaching her the bigger picture.

What, that people will crush your dreams? That there is no sense trying to make things better? That curiosity is worthless?

Also, I remember the birth of NASA: Ham's (a chimp) flight before Shepherd's (sp?).

Your memory is far too short. Ham flew on a suborbital flight on January 21, 1960, clearing the way for Alan Shepard to make his suborbital flight on Freedom 7. But NASA started out as NACA (the National Advisory Committe for Aeronautics), which was born on March 3, 1915 out of the fires of World War I (and the rise of military aeronautics as something more than just balloon or kite reconnaissance).

Most people don't know that NASA's roots go back so far, nor acknowledge what the first "A" in NASA stands for.

Yes, most fields were dominated by men in those days. For the most part, we got over it. It just needs a little education of the Kid.

We "got over it"? Not really. I'd say we got better. Women still face stiff competition, moreso on the science side than the engineering side. In astronautics, things have gotten better, but there are still issues. To date, only two Shuttle commanders have ever been women, and even in the ground support, the ratio is still strongly male. Given that humanity is slightly more than 50% female, why is this?

Truth be told, there were attempts at changing this status quo. An interesting study for PalKid when she gets older would be the story of the Mercury 13. We all know the Mercury 7; the Mercury 13 was all women. They actually did much better in the physical and mental tests than the Mercury 7 did. But nobody was interested in even considering putting women into space. It's not just that they thought women were unqualified; it's that the very idea never even entered anyone's minds.

Did society get over it? No. For one thing, that perception does still exist. For another, "getting over it" suggests coming to terms with and accepting it, as if it wasn't really important. It was important. It was very important. We didn't come to terms with it; we realized it was wrong and began the long process of growing out of it.

Manned spaceflight is important. A century ago, people were talking about heavier-than-air flight the same way you're talking about spaceflight. It's important, and if we give up on it now just because it lacks the short-term returns, we will forfeit any long-term returns to those who actually have some patience. By that I mean Europe, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and, yes, even Iran.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 26 Oct 2009 #permalink

BTW, if you want to raise the profile of women in space science and engineering for your daughter, here are a few resources:

How I Am Becoming An Astronaut by Damaris Sarria, an astronaut candidate

The Planetary Society Blog by Emily Lakdawalla

CICLOPS: Official Source of Cassini Images with "Captain's Log" entries by Carolyn Porco, who is both clear and passionate as she expounds on various images and what Cassini is now up to. Updates are not frequent, but always good; the most recent is a post from Saturn's recent equinox, which produced some really mind-blowing imagery

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 26 Oct 2009 #permalink

Oh, one more thing....

It's not true that astronauts simply throw switches on experiments and then ignore them until its time to go home. If this were true, it would not be necessary to get six crewmen aboard the ISS to perform real science; three would be more than sufficient. They also probably wouldn't need that big ol' glovebox if they were just throwing switches on self-contained experiments.

It's also not true that microgravity research cannot be performed aboard ISS and Shuttle because they aren't kept "perfectly still". The vibration environment is a problem for some experiments, though less with ISS than with Shuttle. But microgravity experiments can and are still done. It's certainly preferable to the terrestrial alternatives (ballistic sounding rockets, aircraft flying parabolas, freefall towers). And it's a lot cheaper than flying dedicated satellites, which frankly would be totally impractical for many of these experiments, especially since with ISS/Shuttle research, you're getting the reentry tech practically free. (So if you want your specimens back afterwards, it's the best option available.) Certainly for biological experiments, ISS offers the best option currently available.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 26 Oct 2009 #permalink

What a coincidence - my daughter and I watched Apollo 13 over the weekend! Great movie - I love the way the suspense plays out.
However, she is 12 and well aware of the difference in male and female opportunities in most fields of public endeavor (um, how many Supreme Court Justices have been women?) Part of her training as a junior skeptic:) is to see these discrepancies for what they are: manifestations of social, not inherent, norms.

I took a friend's child to the Portrait Gallery in DC before Obama was inaugerated. In the hall of presidents she asked me why they were all white men.

By katydid13 (not verified) on 27 Oct 2009 #permalink

Gotta comment again; I'm watching the coverage of the Ares 1X launch on NASA TV. The launch weather officer today is Kathy Winters. ;-) Alas, today she is the only one polling no-go, although she did say "go" a little bit ago -- the weather very briefly went "go" on triboelectrification, which has been the boogeyman of this flight.

Aw, and now she said there's no chance of making the 1508 GMT time, so it'll be delayed further. They lose their opportunities starting at 1600 (noon in Florida), and the weather is worse for tomorrow. *pouts* (Ah, new official time is NET 1520 GMT.)

Oh, and another good opportunity for seeing ladies in space science is to watch NASA TV a lot. There are generally some ladies in Mission Control, for both ISS and Shuttle, and the usual Russian translator for NASA TV is a woman.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 28 Oct 2009 #permalink