In the summer of 1962, the House Committee on Science and Astronautics held a hearing to debate the role of women in the nation’s space program. The three astronauts who testified, all men, warned members of Congress that if NASA trained women in the space mission, “we would have to slow down on our national goal of landing a man on the moon in this decade.”
“I couldn’t care less who’s over there [in the next seat] as long as it’s the most qualified person,” the astronaut John Glenn said.
Which sounds reasonable, if a little terse, until Glenn continued with this apparent contradiction: “I wouldn’t oppose a women’s astronaut training program; I just see no requirement for it.”
Glenn’s message, as he went on, seemed to be that, sure, a qualified woman could be an astronaut—except a woman like that probably didn’t exist. “As an analogy,” Glenn said, “My mother could probably pass the preseason physical examination given [by] the Washington Redskins, but I don't think she could play many games.”
Glenn and his fellow astronauts were rankled by having to talk about the possibility of women joining them in space at all, according to news reports at the time. The New York Times described Glenn as “ill at ease and more than a little annoyed.”
“The failure to include women in the NASA pilot program to date appears primarily due to the simple fact that this is, by and large, a man’s world,” wrote the columnist Louis Lasagna. The debate was deemed the “astronaut-astronautte question.” And eventually it was resolved: Women did make it to space, including American women, dozens of them.
Today, of course, people call women who are astronauts just that: astronauts, not “astronauttes”—an unnecessarily gendered term that sounds vaguely French at best and flat-out absurd at worst. But changes in language often lag behind progress in the real world. Decades after the astronaut-astronautte debate, that delay is evident again in an ongoing push from space scientists who want to abandon the term “manned” to describe a spacecraft driven by a human. Because, quite simply, it’s not just men who drive them.
NASA has already adopted this change. “All references referring to the space program should be non-gender specific (e.g. human, piloted, un-piloted, robotic),” the agency wrote in a style guide for editors in 2006.
“It’s ‘crewed’ or ‘human’ or ‘piloted’ spaceflight,” the astrophysicist Katie Mack wrote in a recent tweet. “Because it’s 2015 and sometimes you just gotta move forward.”
Mack went on: “You protest: ‘But in my head “man” refers to all humans!’ I’m not in your head and don’t want to be. If you mean ‘human’ say ‘human.’”
Perhaps not surprisingly, at least one response to Mack came from someone who suggested her priorities are misplaced. “Is this really where your energy is best directed?” the person wrote, “Couldn't you think of more pressing ‘feminist’ issues?” That reaction is as typical as it is infuriating. Women are accustomed to advocating for their inclusion, and then being chastised or ridiculed, often by men, for speaking out in the first place. The irony is, if inclusion were the norm, everyone would be able to focus on other things.
“It’s too bad this is such a big deal,” the trail-blazing astronaut Sally Ride once said in a NASA news conference, responding to the intense scrutiny about her gender. As the first American woman in space, in 1983, Ride endured much ridicule related to her gender. The comedian Johnny Carson joked that a launch was delayed because she couldn’t find a purse to match her shoes. One reporter, from Time magazine, asked Ride if engineering problems ever made her weep.
“It’s too bad,” Ride said, “our society isn’t further along.”