Friday, June 14, 2024

Womankind’s giant leap: Who’ll be the first female moonwalker?

More than fifty years after the end of the Apollo program, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to return to the Moon by 2024 as a “proving ground” to test the next generation of spacecraft ahead of an eventual crewed mission to Mars, yet this time women will give the monumental first step.

NASA’s current roster of 12 female astronauts is former military pilots, medical doctors, and scientists who were picked from among thousands of applicants since the late 1990s.

“Now personally, I’d be okay with flying a rookie astronaut to the Moon,” former astronaut Eileen Collins, who flew and commanded Space Shuttles in the 1990s and 2000s said. “But if you have enough astronauts who have already flown, they know how they’re going to react in space.”

When NASA was first established in 1958 it only recruited from the military, which was at the time exclusively male. All 12 moonwalkers between 1969 and 1972 were men, and it wasn’t until 1983 that Sally Ride became the first American woman sent to space.The four women of the 21st class of astronauts, recruited in 2013, represent a good mix of youth and experience. Currently, between the ages of 40 and 41, they will all have made their first space forays between now and 2020.

Anne McClain, an ex-army helicopter pilot, will be in the International Space Station (ISS) until the end of June. Also, currently in the ISS is Christina Koch, an engineer, and a passionate mountain climber. She will soon beat the record for the longest time a woman has been in space, at 11 months.

Back in March, the pair almost conducted the first all-female spacewalk, but a lack of a proper fitting spacesuit meant McClain had to give her place up for her male colleague Nick Hague.

Jessica Meir, a marine biologist who specializes in penguins and geese, and former F/A 18 fighter pilot Nicole Mann, who flew in Iraq and Afghanistan, are also on the roster as highly qualified. They are both in the middle of their training to go to the ISS.

In a 2016 interview, all four declared themselves ready to go to Mars if the opportunity presented itself. So it’s hard to imagine them turning down a trip to the Moon.Highly experienced Sunita Williams is preparing for her third space mission and will be 58 in 2024 – there’s no upper age limit for space. “Suni,” as she’s known, has piloted about thirty different aircraft in her military career.

However, when it comes down to the final call, though, the process is “fairly opaque,” says Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former astronaut who spent 20 years with the agency. So who will give the first step for womankind is still for grabs.


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