Gender equality in space? Russia's all-female practice mission to the moon

A group of Russian women embarked on an all-female mock moon mission on Wednesday, and officials say the experiment is a step toward correcting gender imbalance in Russia's space missions. 

Sergei Remezov/Reuters
Russian cosmonaut Elena Serova takes part in a survival training exercise near the Russian cosmonaut training facility. Serova became Russia's first female representative to the International Space Station in October 2014.

The six Russian women in red jumpsuits at a pre-space mission press conference kept having to field questions about makeup and men. 

"We are doing work," Anna Kussmaul, one of the women, responded according to the AFP. "When you're doing your work, you don't think about men and women."

On Wednesday an all-female Russian space crew started an eight-day mock moon mission, which researchers say will help Russian women catch up after four decades of male-dominated aeronautics. 

"There's never been an all-female crew on the ISS," Sergei Ponomaryov, the experiment's supervisor, told the AFP. "We consider the future of space belongs equally to men and women and unfortunately we need to catch up a bit after a period when unfortunately there haven't been too many women in space."

The Russian space agency Roscosmos released the preparatory video of the women in the mock space shuttle the same week it announced a planned moon landing in 2029, the Guardian reported. 

Russian women have been well represented in the workplace for decades, but they are still working toward more active leadership roles throughout society. The Soviet Union pushed women into the workplace at a rate of 90 percent, but when it collapsed, so did the systems, such as state childcare, that had made it possible for women to more fully participate in the workforce, The Christian Science Monitor reported. 

Today, no less now than in the Soviet era, Russian women complain of a "double burden," in which they have taken on the demands of working full-time without shedding any of the traditionally female responsibilities of homemaking. This has made advancement difficult on a practical level, even if workplace policies themselves are open to women.

"I'm married with two children," Svetlana Golubeva, a colonel in Russia's MVD, a semi-militarized national police force, told The Christian Science Monitor. "As it is, my work day lasts from morning to night. If I go for a promotion, I know my workload will only grow. So, in practice, you have to make a choice between career and family."

Only four Russian women have gone to space, compared with 49 from the US, according to Quartz.  The lack of attention to women in biological space research was a "big omission," the supervisor of this all-women experiment said, according to the Moscow Times. 

"It will be interesting to see how well they get on with each other, and how well they are able to perform tasks," Mr. Ponomaryov said, according to the Moscow Times. "We believe women might not only be no worse than men at performing certain tasks in space, but actually better."

The project has not been free of a few gender-related comments, and it's not just the media asking about makeup. 

"I'd like to wish you a lack of conflicts, even though they say that in one kitchen, two housewives find it hard to live together," said Igor Ushakov, director of Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems, which is sponsoring the research, according to the AFP.

The six female team members all have backgrounds in medicine or biophysics and underwent weeks of tests to qualify for the mock moon mission.

"I'm sure we all have the education, personal qualities and the upbringing, at the end of the day," team leader Yelena Luchnitskaya said, according to the AFP. "So far I can't imagine what would rattle us."

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