Birthday Post: Let's Talk About Astronauts 2017 / by Adeene Denton

I want to be an astronaut.

I want to be an astronaut, which I am told very often is a goal that is too bold.  I'm told to have other plans so that I can overcome my slow but inevitable failure.  It is a goal so vast that it took me years to understand what it was I really wanted out of life.  And I'm pretty sure part of that is because for years I internalized the subtle rules and regulations of the society in which I found myself, which taught me that Sally Ride, the first female astronaut, was a special case.  Sally Ride was untouchable for me, a kid terrified to admit to liking science because saying so would open my scientific abilities up to criticism and I was sure that I would be found wanting.  As I was growing up, what I learned about the space program was that it was full of brilliant (white) men and Sally Ride, and sometimes they mentioned the first mother to be in space - Anna Lee Fisher.  There were other female astronauts, my mother assured me, but they never seemed to be in the media. Or at least, not in what I was watching.  To learn about female astronauts, you had to go digging.

When I was younger, the way they talked about female astronauts made me super uncomfortable but I couldn’t articulate why.  Why did it bother me that it seemed like women made it to space in spite of what they were rather than because of it?  What I learned based on the words and body language used to teach it to me was that Sally Ride could become an astronaut because she was the best of us (the whole gender), and Anna Lee Fisher was an astronaut in spite of her other job  - as a mother.  The pressure for me to live up to these women was frightening and frustrating at the same time, this weird dichotomy of women showing how far we've come and how far we have to go.  Anna Lee Fisher was also married to an astronaut, and I never understood why they didn’t talk about how Bill Fisher going to space affected his job as a dad.

We believe women might... be no worse than men at performing certain tasks in space.
— Sergei Pomarev

How long have I wanted to be an astronaut? I don’t know, because it was something that I was too afraid to articulate for many, many years out of fear.  It's easy to hold a great ambition in your head, where you can keep it safe; to publicly voice your dream is to open it up to criticism. I was sure that once I told someone I wanted to be an astronaut they would laugh, and then tell me I would never be qualified.  This is not what they do - well, they do laugh, because the odds are astronomical (ha).  If they’re being nice, people tell me I’d better have a plan B and also probably a plan C.  If they're not being nice? Well...

I'm lucky in that I get to meet more and more astronauts in my journey to becoming a planetary scientist.  Each time I meet them, my ambition seems bigger and smaller at the same time.  I have the worries a lot of aspiring astronauts have as we think about how to present ourselves to NASA so that we stand out in the midst a sea of talented people.  Astronauts are the American everyman - they could be anyone (which is why so many apply), but they are also the best of us in both talent and personality.  We look at the women and men that we will send into the void of space and think, yes.  This is indeed who should go, these are the people who can do it.  The scientist-astronauts were amazing scientists, who left a gulf in the field in their wake when they went to fly among the stars.  How can one grad student compare?

For me, I often see myself as not smart enough, not science-y enough, not hypercapable – it has often seemed that to be an astronaut meant either leaving the quirky parts (the flaws) behind or being very, very lucky.  How much of my fears are imposter syndrome?  That's definitely some of it.  On the other hand, how much of that fear is a very real and measured reaction to societal forces, to those that may claim that there is no conspiracy to keep women out of the space program, but does not actively help them in, either?  Of course women are allowed to apply and become astronauts.  All they have to do is overcome a lot of internal and external messaging telling them they shouldn't.

The scariest thing I can imagine is applying to be an astronaut as the self I am now, and having to argue why NASA needs me in their program.  I'm working hard, I'd tell them. I'm doing science, except for the times when I don't, because I have to look up and breathe. Sometimes, I'm doing things that aren't very astronaut-y at all - all the dancing and history research and RuPaul's Drag Race watching.  Sometimes, I don't feel at all like a scientist, let alone an aspiring astronaut.

Therein lies the answer: in many ways the problem of what a female astronaut candidate looks like is connected to the problem of what a female scientist looks like. (I'm leaving out the candidates from the U.S. air force and other military branches, as they have their own problems that I am not prepared to articulate).  In literature, media, and real life scientists are expected to present themselves in certain ways - ways that many women, people of color, and other marginalized groups find difficult at best and compromising at worst. What does a female scientist look like?  Many of us know intellectually that there is more than one way of being a scientist; there are as many different ways to be a scientist as there are subdisciplines to populate with researchers. But change happens slowly, and it's still difficult to be a woman in science.  To succeed, we are (we have to be) flawless.  We don't (we can't) make mistakes, because one mistake will reflect badly on us all.  For astronauts, like so many other fields, the challenges are the same.  Sally Ride was made by NASA PR to look like the best of us (of all women), but she couldn't be the person she truly was and succeed at what she did.  She couldn’t love her partner openly and be an astronaut at the same time, which is a crappy way to live.  When there are so few women who are astronauts they must shoulder the burden for us all, to show those watching that we can do it. From Sally Ride to Peggy Whitson, the women who are astronauts have gone above and beyond.

I’ve seen a lot of thinkpieces lately about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts – how they have aged, how some of them have drunk too deep from the well of fame, how some of them were terrible people who were enlisted by this country to do great things.  They are allowed to be complicated.  We are allowed to dislike them and still admire what they did for us and for humanity.  Sally Ride, the best of our gender, has not been allowed to do the same.  This is also true for the astronauts that have followed her.  Women who are astronauts measure their public image delicately, because they have no choice.  Because men on the Internet will tell them they can’t do their jobs, and men in real life will tell them in so many words that they are different from their male colleagues.

Without a doubt I think the worst question... was whether I cried when we got malfunctions in the simulator.
— Sally Ride

537 people have traveled in space. Of those 537, 60 have been women, a mere 11% of the total.  Scientists complain about the lack of data concerning women in space, the dearth of medical and psychological information that exists because there are simply not enough data points.  This is the kind of information that we need to go to Mars, and it simply isn't there right now.  It’s going to take a lot of women going to space to fix this problem, meaning a lot of female astronauts in the upcoming classes. The most recent astronaut class is full of incredible people, including five amazing women. I am so excited to see what they will accomplish. I am so excited for the classes that will follow.

There are so many nuances, of course. To those of us on the outside looking in, we might forget that the astronauts are just as quirky and weird as the rest of us; in addition to being smart, capable individuals, most of them are undeniably nerds.  In the end, that's why we're still sending humans instead of relying solely on robots - humans are full of surprises, mistakes, and learning curves.  As we move forward into the future with better and better technology, it's our job to make sure that we encourage and enable anyone and everyone who wants to be involved in planetary science, whether that's as an engineer, a professor, or maybe even an astronaut. It may sound silly or trite, but I'm out here just to say that even in our most stressful times, I advocate excitement and support.  Especially for those who might not have had it in the past.

In conclusion, humans are full of crazy ambitions, and here's mine: my name is Adeene Denton. I'm twenty-three years old today, and I still want to grow up to be an astronaut.  And it would be really cool if that actually happened, so I'm doing my best to get there.