A Woman's Place

Apr 16, 2009
*Special to asia!
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America’s lunar programme has always been a male-dominated affair. Even its name, Apollo, is that of a male deity, the Greek god of the sun.

Apollo was the successor to the Mercury programme, named after another male deity. Mercury is the Roman version of Hermes, the Greek god of speed, though many Americans thought it was named after a popular sedan, the Lincoln Mercury made by Ford!

Mercury was set up in a rush by the Eisenhower administration in 1959. It was a reaction to Russia, which in 1957 launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth. Mercury’s mandate was to send astronauts around earth. Apollo’s was to send them to the moon.

It was Abe Silverstein, a founder of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who coined the name Apollo during a lunch. “I was naming the spacecraft like I'd name my baby,” he later explained. A male baby, of course.

As an engineer, Silverstein did not realise the name was incongruous. What was a sun god doing flying to the moon? A better choice would have been Artemis, Apollo’s twin and goddess of the moon. But NASA was full of engineers, and the name stuck.

In NASA’s early days, women did not play much of a role at all. Thirteen of them were chosen for the Mercury programme and passed all the tests with flying colours. They were called FLATS – first lady astronaut trainees. None went to space. Their leader, Geraldine (Jerrie) Cobb, was a talented military pilot who logged 10,000 flying hours. Her flight record was double that of the famous astronaut/senator John Glenn, who once said that women should stay at home where it was safe. Glenn had his wish. Cobb never flew the Mercury capsules.

In 1963 Valentina Tereshkova, a cosmonaut, became the first woman in space. It took NASA another 20 years to put an American woman, Sally Ride, into orbit. It was 1983. A year later, in July, Russia again beat America: its female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to walk in space. She was followed in October by America’s Kathryn Sullivan.

Today, with women running for Congress and a forerunner running for the presidency, NASA is more women-friendly. Last October it sent Pamela Melroy to lead a mission to the International Space Station, controlled by Peggy Whitson. It was the first time two female astronauts held manned space commands simultaneously.

Will NASA send women to the moon? Will it go against tradition and name its revived lunar programme after a female deity? Artemis would be a logical choice. But the British, part of the European space programme, is also said to be keen on the name. Artemis, after all, has another name in Greek legend: Diana.



lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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