Women in space; Comparing their roles on US and Soviet space flights
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The same goes for the other US women astronauts: They are doctors, engineers, biochemists, and representatives of other specialities needed on space missions.Skip to next paragraph
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Since the women are there because of their skills, Dr. Ride's selection for STS-7 doesn't imply that she is the ''best'' of the women astronauts. Her skills were most needed on this particular mission. Her attributes of calmness, sound judgment, and cooperation - which were praised by crew commander Crippen - are also exhibited by the other women. And they all will have a chance to prove this in orbit.
This difference in selection criteria can be illustrated another way. By examining technical qualifications and previous experience alone, the Soviet women cosmonauts can easily be picked out. They would never have had a chance at selection if they had not been women and if Moscow had not twice decided to fly a woman to ''show the world.'' But the qualifications of the American women are no different from those of men in the US astronaut group.
American women, competing on their own merits, continue to achieve success and recognition in space careers. NASA now has a total of eight women in the ''Mission Specialist'' category of astronauts and two more women scientists have been selected as candidate-astronauts in the ''Payload Specialist'' category for Spacelab missions. Meanwhile, the US Air Force has recently selected a cadre of ''Manned Spaceflight Engineers'' from which to draw astronauts for duty with special Defense Department payloads to be carried on the space shuttle; reportedly, two of these astronauts are women as well.
However, one category of American astronauts remains all male: the pilots who actually fly the spacecraft. Here, NASA faces the same problem that prevented a fair selection of women astronauts in earlier years. Groups from which NASA selects astronauts, such as test pilot school graduates, have excluded women, often arbitrarily and unfairly. That situation has gradually changed and women pilots can be expected to be selected as astronauts in the future. But this does remain a last unachieved goal of gender-free selection for space flight.
As such, it offers the Soviets a propaganda opportunity they may be unable to pass up. Just as it was easy to predict correctly that there would be another Soviet woman cosmonaut shortly prior to America's first woman astronaut, or that the Cuban ''guest cosmonaut'' who flew in 1980 would be selected on blatantly racial grounds as the ''first black man in space,'' so too is it possible to anticipate the next Soviet space spectacular. That will be when the first woman cosmonaut - probably Mrs. Savitskaya herself - is placed in command of a mission.
The mission need not be a particularly important one, since the people to be impressed aren't likely to notice the difference. A routine week-long resupply mission to a long space station expedition (such as the mission Mrs. Savitskaya flew on last summer) would be an excellent opportunity. In the past, such simple missions have been commanded by about-to-be-retired oldtimers, or by nonpilot civilian engineers, or on occasion by nobody at all since they can be flown on autopilot alone. Mrs. Savitskaya is a good pilot and is capable of carrying out such a flight plan.
For added glamour, the rest of the crew could be female, too: a woman engineer and a woman doctor, perhaps. That would certainly be a feat unlikely ever to be duplicated in the American space program.
How soon could this happen? To stay ahead of the game, it should be before too many more American women have ventured into space. Most certainly it should be before Dr. Ride makes a second (and therefore record-setting) space flight, which could be within two years.
That would make the next Soviet woman-in-space spectacular likely sometime before the end of 1984. It could, of course, occur much sooner.
These differences in approach to sending women into space are more than a matter of style. They seem to reflect the status of women in the two societies. The flights of the Russian space women were meant to paint a false picture of Soviet womanhood, a counterfeit image all too eagerly accepted in many Western circles concerned with the valid struggle for women's rights. Dr. Ride's flight, and the flights of other American women who will follow her, represents a genuine across-the-board social phenomenon of hard-fought women's gains, however incomplete these gains may be. Dr. Ride's preflight comment that it is a pity that her flight ''really is such a big deal'' is on target because soon such flights by US women will no longer be made into a big deal.
In America today, a woman can finally earn her own way into space. In the Soviet Union, an occasional token woman can be picked to go for men's reasons, when it is expedient for propaganda. That's all the difference in the world - or out of it.