Dr Cassandra Steer. Photo: Jack Fox 

One giant leap for humankind

Without the voices and views of women, our journey through the stars will be held back. That’s why Dr Cassandra Steer is calling for a more feminist approach to the final frontier. James Giggacher reports. 

As NASA was preparing to launch the first American woman into space in 1983, Sally Ride, there was one question they couldn’t answer. It wasn’t how to keep her alive in the harsh vacuum of space. It wasn’t the complex algorithms plotting her journey from Earth into the heavens above. It was how many tampons she would need.   

The men at mission control — and that was pretty much all of mission control — thought she would need hundreds for a seven-day voyage.  “The engineers had no idea,” says space law expert Dr Cassandra Steer from the ANU College of Law. “They didn’t even ask if she was going to menstruate, let alone how many tampons she might use!”    

Fast forward 30 years and sadly things haven’t improved. Sally Ride has been joined by 49 other female compatriots who have been to space. But, it’s a short list globally. Just 65 women in six decades. That’s 10 per cent of all space travellers. Like the blue sphere we call home, the cold dark above is still very much a man’s world.  

For Steer, who is also a mission specialist at the ANU Institute for Space, diversity is one key to helping unlock the full potential of space for humanity.  “Diversity is what solves problems and brings new perspectives,” she says. “More importantly, diversity can actually prevent problems.” Problems like NASA planning the first ever all-female space walk with two women astronauts to celebrate International Women’s Day in 2019 — but only packing one suitably sized spacesuit. Had there been more women engineers, space suit designers, operations planners, decision-makers and overseers, there would have been multiple opportunities to foresee this risk. “It was a PR disaster!” Steer laments.   

Space remains the province of mankind, not humankind at all.

That scene from the man cave that was mission control in 1983 and NASA’s most recent cockup are just some of the reasons why Steer is urging us to “see space through a feminist lens”, especially space law which governs more and more of our lives every day. That includes how we get cash from the bank, find our way from A to B and even logging on to the Internet.  

But, the rules governing space are a relic of a more heated past, written by the Soviets and the US at the height of the Cold War. And it was men who sat down at the negotiating table, not women. “The 1967 Outer Space Treaty says all activities in space must be for the benefit of all nations and that space is the province of all mankind,” Steer says. “But at the outset of the American space program women could not be astronauts and were not at the negotiating table drafting the treaty or coming to international agreements about access to space.   

“In a lot of countries women are still not in government or corporate leadership positions, so their voices and expertise remain absent at negotiating tables — to the detriment of all. Sadly, this means space remains the province of mankind, not humankind at all.”   

According to Steer, the suffragette movement from the early 20th century offers useful lessons for how we can take the feminist fight to space. “The suffragettes had to fight when women were locked out of public life and politics by the law,” Steer explains. “When the doors are not opened for us women, we shouldn’t be afraid to shove them a little.” 

But this also puts the onus back on women. It’s essential men do the heavy lifting as well if we are to make sure women’s access to space goes from ‘failure to launch’ to ‘blast off’.   

Steer believes a simple but powerful solution lies in the way we speak. “It seems a bit trivial, but words really matter and we need to correct the gendered language used in the media. Quite often we hear about manned missions or unmanned missions. Those should be piloted or automated.”  

While Steer is frustrated such a giant leap for women is still required in the space sector, she knows the more we draw on their talents and perspectives, the more we will make progress for all of humanity in the heavens.  

“If we don’t have more diversity and equality in every aspect of the space sector — from language, law and policy to engineering and all STEM fields — women will never feel welcome or that we have an equal place in humanity’s future in space.”