“I Have as Much Right to be Here”: Women of Colour in Space

A Black child in an astronaut Halloween costume holds a sign that read 'I have as much to read here.' At the bottom is the title of this post: Women of colour in space

I wrote this post below for STEM Women on G+ about the MAKERS documentary focused on women in the American space program. I wanted to add some notes about two women of colour featured in the program.

Latina Engineer Marleen Martinez wanted to be an astronaut from the age of five. She writes the scripts and procedures to test the Orion spacecraft. She is the daughter of migrant farmers and says she overcame a lack of role models to reach her goal:

“I do remember that engineer wasn’t really a girls’ field. There was other things you could do. When people found out I was becoming an engineer, a lot of people were taken aback. Especially being a Hispanic female, it’s not something that you really run into very often, it’s actually very rare.”

Physician and peace-corps worker, Dr Mae Jameson was also featured. She is celebrated as the first Black woman in space, a title she says frustrates her:

“I was really irritated that I was the first African-American woman in space, or the first woman of colour in space in the world. I was irritated because there should have been many more before me…  One of these things that people talk about nowadays is the overview effect [astronaut’s overwhelming experience of seeing the Earth from orbit, as a ‘pale blue dot’ without national boundaries]. But that wasn’t the part that struck me. The perspective that stuck with me is that I am as much a part of this universe as any speck of stardust. I have as much right to be here. It connected me with this greater universe. That perspective of belonging was what was important to me. “

Wanted: ‘Women and minorities’

The MAKERS documentary features footage and interviews with the women who joined the early American space program including the inspirational Dr Sally Ride, the first queer woman in space. There are many interesting tidbits about the practical issues that helped make the case for gender equality. For example given that weight is an important concern to space flight, and the fact that women generally weigh and eat less than men, this helped rationalise the idea of allowing women into the space program.

Dr Randy Lovelace was the American physician who led aerospace medicine and he tested and passed the first 13 women for inclusion into the space program. He found that women performed better than men in the stress tests, and they also complained less during their physical tests. Having passed the training program, these women had to make their case to the USA congress because the law did not allow women to become jet pilots for the military, and that was a prerequisite for astronauts. Their request was rejected and the program was stopped almost two decades.

The documentary notes that women’s eventual inclusion was not due to progressive views per se, but because women activists increased political pressure and there were economic concerns of lawsuits. Technological innovations also ushered in equality. With better design and safety provided by shuttles, astronauts were no longer required to be jet pilots and could instead qualify as mission specialists (researchers and physicians for example). In 1977, for the first time in a decade, NASA put out an advertisement for a new recruitment drive, adding: “Astronauts wanted: Women, minorities are urged to apply.” Women and people of colour did not apply because they’d been excluded for so long, which is why NASA recruited Star Trek icon Nichelle Nichols to help make their message of inclusion clear.

Women’s Endless Frontier

The documentary provides a fascinating insight on women’s space history, including the unique challenges faced by these women in their education and addressing bodily practices in space! A couple of stand out quotes:

On equality:

“Women have lived in space, and women have died in space. And there is probably no greater equaliser than that.”

On recruiting more women in future:

“I don’t particularly think the ‘first’ part matters so much except to the spectator crowd. It’s the work. Come be part of this adventure. Look what you can do. I don’t want someone saying, ‘Well the first has already gone, so there’s no reason.’ It’s not about the first. The first is a moment in time. It’s an artefact in the history books. It’s an artefact on the TV shows. The exploration, the discovery, the scientific opportunities the chance to make such a difference in the world is still all there. You are still a part of it. You can be a part of it. An endless frontier. Your endless frontier. Go after that endless frontier.”

Featured in the image above is Poppy Northcutt who, at 25 years of age, was one of the first women to support NASA’s mission control. 

Watch the documentary.

Learn More

As the MAKERS documentary is focused on America, of course it does not cover the first woman in space, Dr Valentina Tereshkova, who orbited Earth in 1963, two decades before Sally Ride flew into space.  

Want to know more about other women of colour who supported the early NASA space program? Check out our STEM Women website for an interview we did with Candy Torres, a Latina software engineer who helped code for missions by NASA and the International Space Station. 

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