Bringing Men and Women Down to Earth

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Jun 12, 2015
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On June 11, 2015 at 13:44 UTC, a Soyuz capsule containing astronauts Terry Virts and Samantha Cristoforetti, and cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, touched down in Kazakhstan, bringing them back to Earth from the International Space Station.

Virts took a lot of fantastic images and videos from space, and you can get a taste of them on Flickr and Vine. On Twitter, he was a prolific poster and you can also find his camera work there. I urge you to. It’s fantastic stuff.

I want to take a moment, though, and talk about Cristoforetti. I think she’s terrific; she seized the chance of being in space to do a lot of public outreach, including being in a Smarter Every Day video, giving a great tour of the space station’s toilet, and capitalizing on her Italian nationality to tout the first espresso maker in space.

And, as I’ve pointed out before, she’s a scifi fan— she loves Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Star Trek… and she may even start watching Futurama due to the exhortations of a certain science blogger (whose book (cough cough) she has too).

While she was in space, a fluke worked in her favor: Problems with the Russian Soyuz rocket and capsules meant her return to Earth was delayed; she and her compatriots were originally scheduled to come back in May. Because of that delay, she wound up being in space for 200 consecutive days.

That broke a couple of interesting records. For one, that’s the longest uninterrupted spaceflight for a European Space Agency astronaut. Many different space agencies have been sending astronauts into space, and a duration record is a technological achievement to be proud of.

The other record she broke is for longest single spaceflight by a woman. She just edged out Sunita Williams, who was on ISS for 195 days.

This is, of course, not a technological achievement in the usual sense, since the emphasis here is on her sex. Putting a woman in space for a long time isn’t in most ways that much different than doing so for a man. There are some actual differences (the bathroom facilities, for example, either need to be specially designed for either sex, or made generic for use by both), but these were accomplished a while back.

And I’ll note that women, on average, are far less resource-intensive in space than men are. That means, technologically speaking, it’s actually harder to keep a man in space for as long as a woman.

But this isn’t about that. It’s not about her being a woman in a biological sense, it’s about her being a woman in the sociological sense.

I’m torn about these things. One part of me wants to downplay it, and say that how long she stays in space has nothing to do with her sex, and even mentioning it helps promote the dichotomy between the sexes when we think about achievement in science and tech.

But that’s an idealization. In reality we absolutely 100% have a serious problem with people who segregate someone else’s ability to do their job based on their sex. When a Nobel Laureate feels comfortable mocking and demeaning women in science at a luncheon sponsored by women science journalists, when a reviewer tells women scientists to add a man to their paper, when a science advice columnist tells a woman to grin and bear it when her male advisor looks down her shirt, then yeah, it’s pretty clear the problem is serious.

There may come a day when women and men are not just treated equally in STEM, which would be great, but there may also come a day when even the thought to treat them differently never occurs to people.

That’ll be a fantastic day. But that day is not yet here.

So for now, today, I’ll praise Sam Cristoforetti on her achievement that will extend her reach as such a terrific role model for girls and women around the planet. I hope she gets a chance to return to space and continue her wonderful work.

And I hope even more that her record is soon broken… and that we bring a future where we won’t even notice.