On Wednesday, Hugo Award-winning science fiction author Mary Robinette Kowal described in the New York Times how the 1969 moon mission was “designed by men, for men,” leading to a long legacy of gender exclusion NASA will have to overcome in order to send the first woman to the moon—a stated goal of the space administration’s Project Artemis, which will “return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.”
“If we do not acknowledge the gender bias of the early space program, it becomes difficult to move past it,” Kowal wrote. “What are the lessons to be learned from NASA’s failure to fly women during the Apollo era?”
Despite multiple women applicants passing astronaut assessment protocols during Project Mercury, by 1962, NASA explicitly discouraged women from becoming astronauts, citing not just “physical characteristics,” but also “the degree of scientific and flight training” required.
It’s a legacy that continues into the modern space program. Kowal offers a number of design considerations NASA will need to make to take more women into space in the future, including tools, ladder rungs and climate control. She also offered a more recent example of the problem, from this year, when NASA scheduled two women astronauts for a spacewalk from the International Space Station, but had to reassign because they had only one spacesuit in the right size. Suits designed for male frames and physiology are just one of many systematic ways in which the space program is tailored to men.
“This is not an indictment of NASA in 2019,” Kowal wrote. “But it does demonstrate a causal chain that begins with the Apollo program and leads through to present-day.”
But after publication, Kowal encountered a response that defended the NASA of the 1960s by claiming the technology simply wasn’t advanced enough for women to pee in space.
It turned out to be an argument with a long pedigree. The social media account for a companion book to the PBS documentary series Chasing the Moon shared with Kowal a question read on-air during the original Apollo 11 moon coverage on ABC: “Why aren’t women allowed to participate in these historic events? If there is some specific reason, I would like to know it. And if not, I would like to know where to get an application.”
The on-air broadcaster Jules Bergman offered a tepid response. “I don’t know anyone in the space program or any astronauts who are against having women aboard their spacecraft,” Bergman said, citing “basic biological problems that have not yet been met and conquered.”
But Kowal offers a compelling, fact-filled and funny response in a lengthy Twitter thread, beginning by pointing out that urination wasn’t in any of the original provisions for space travel, an oversight that lead to the first American astronaut in space, Alan Shepherd, urinating directly into the suit while waiting on the launchpad.
From there, Kowal goes into detail about how the provisions NASA made for astronauts peeing in space reflected gendered design, rather than technological impediments. Particularly hilarious were the urine sheaths, which had to be sized “Extra-large,” “Immense” and “Unbelievable” after male astronauts refused to pick the small or medium sizes. But sometimes NASA’s imperfect plans for urination and defecation lead to some dangerous consequences, like how astronaut Fred Haise contracted a kidney infection from urine backed up in his suit during the Apollo 13 rescue mission.
While NASA may have found assuaging the male ego preferable to allowing women in the program, it didn’t require massive technological jumps when it finally recruited women astronauts decades later. Kowal documents how the Maximum Absorbency Garment, essentially a diaper, became standard issue for both women and men.
By elucidating how modern astronauts pee, poop and fart in space, Kowal reveals how the imperfect technology of evacuation has never been a gendered issue, but a practical problem for which NASA has developed multiple solutions over time (though, to be honest, none of them sound very pleasant). Check out the full thread for more amazing stories from the bathrooms of the Space Race and into NASA’s modern era, including a Russian urine ritual started by Yuri Gagarin and that time NASA tried to send 100 tampons to space for Sally Ride’s one week mission.
Kowal’s applied some of what she’s learned to her fiction as well. An entire chapter in The Fated Sky, her sequel to the Nebula Award winning novel The Calculating Stars, is about fixing a toilet in zero gravity. “Alas,” Kowal said, of the book’s floating globe of urine. “I had not yet learned that it should be bright purple so it is merely amber.”
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