She entered the Salyut 7 after a one-day solo flight in the Soyuz T-7. She had finally springboarded from piloting in her teens, from winning aerobatic championships and setting parachuting records to conquering the cosmos. The Salyut 7 duo – two men – stepped forward to welcome her. “We’ve got an apron for you, Sveta,” one of them said. “It’s as if you’ve come home. Of course, we have a kitchen too; that’ll be where you work.”
If Svetlana Savitskaya, the second woman to enter the space in 1982, had wished to remain confined to the kitchen and feel inferior to men, she wouldn’t have gone all the way to space; she would’ve just stayed on Earth.
The 1960s were the quintessential mixture of revolution and confusion with regards to women’s rights. While women in certain places still couldn’t get credit cards on their own or dream of an Ivy League education, the second wave of radical feminism and brave new ideas were explosively being birthed behind closed doors and out in the open. With the Equal Pay Act of 1963 in the United States, a swelling number of women stormed into workplaces, shattering the glass doors of gender disparity holding them back.
What added vigour to this shift from the kitchen to the workplace was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published the same year, where she argued that a woman seeking fulfilment from politics, education and work was not any less “feminine” than the woman seeking fulfilment from marriage, children and the household. Four years later, India witnessed its first female Prime Minister coming into power.
But something else happened during the 1960s. The Cold War gained momentum, a momentum that was instigated by the Space Race. While it was a time of astonishing uncertainty, one good thing that emerged from the rivalry was that women finally got to establish a place for themselves in outer space.
In 1963, the cosmos witnessed a female presence for the first time. Valentina Tereshkova gave flight to every aspiring female cosmonaut’s dreams when she flew into space as a determined 26-year-old. From there, Svetlana Savitskaya took the reins. The United States meanwhile sent in their own woman, Sally Ride, to get even with the Soviet Union.
But the American women’s space program has a long history that preceded Ride. Tumultuous changes and revolutionary ideas rang the doorbell and the 1960s let them in, revealing a key player in the women’s space program – Randolph Lovelace. The Space Race between the Soviet Union and the US had gained frenzied momentum and the Americans were desperate to put a man in space.
Lovelace, the doctor who examined astronaut aspirants for NASA’s Mercury program, considered the wild possibility of a woman in a space capsule, which he surprisingly found promising since they were smaller and lighter than men. Women with as much as eight children flocked for testing, enduring much more gruelling exercises than the men – and even exceeding them.
However, NASA refused outright to authorise a woman’s space program, dubbed Mercury 13, which resulted in hearings in the US Congress and subsequent delays for a decision. This powered a plethora of public opinions like, “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order”. They even called out menstruation as a potential hurdle, though it is now treated as a routine part of any female astronaut’s life with little to no bearing on her performance. It took them Tereshkova, sent by the Soviet Union, to change their minds and send Ride. Mercury 13 slipped into the crevices of history, like many other female ventures.
Unsurprisingly, the world’s doubts have been proven wrong. None of the women building a rapport with space has ever failed expectations – they’ve only surpassed it. Eilene Galloway wrote the law that created NASA. Kalpana Chawla became the first Indian born woman to go into space. Peggy Whitson spent 665 days in space – the most by any American. Sunita Williams did the first triathlon in space, setting yet another record. Eileen Collins was the first female shuttle pilot. Samantha Cristoforetti had the longest uninterrupted flight by a European astronaut.
From ample evidence generously strewn in the movie, Hidden Figures, the world comes to know that women played a monumental role behind the scenes as well. However, all these achievements, 109 Women’s Days and four social media movements later, why has no woman ever been on the moon? That may be a possibility four years from now. Artemis, fondly nicknamed “the twin sister of Apollo”, is a United States-funded space program that seeks to land “the first woman and the next man on the moon” by 2024.
Though the pandemic has caused a setback, NASA is determined to continue. The change in the stance of a global space agency from building barriers to breaking them just goes to show the deep imprints left behind by the aforementioned women, the ones who dared to dream at a time when they weren’t allowed to.
Malavika Rajesh is a 16-year-old Indian living in the United Arab Emirates. She is the author of a cybercrime thriller, ‘Watch Out!’ and also holds writing positions at youth-run multimedia outlets Pressing the Future, Afro Puff Chronicles and The Global Eye (which will be released shortly). She believes in bringing to the forefront the kind of stories that aren’t heard always but have the greatest impact aspires to be a journalist covering gender inequality and other civil rights issues. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram.