Men are, on average, physically stronger than most women.
This physiological reality is used as a key argument against having women in combat roles or in firefighting. And the people who are making those arguments aren’t always old-fashioned chauvinist pigs – they argue that, when lives are on the line, brute strength is important.
What’s interesting is this argument is almost never used in situations where women have the biological upper hand. Women are generally smaller and lighter than men, yet they had to fight to become professional jockeys.
And while corporations that produce silicon chips hire women for their production lines because of superior female fine motor skills, men are not discouraged from entering prestige occupations like neuro- or ophthalmic surgery, despite their poorer motor abilities.
Which it why was intriguing to see Kate Greene’s Slate article suggesting that any human mission to Mars should be manned (so to speak) solely by women.
In passing, she mentions previous research that suggests that women have stronger hearts and can better withstand vibrations and radiation exposure then men, and that women appear to cope better than men with isolation and sensory deprivation.
Space missions might therefore have less of an impact on women’s wellbeing than on men’s.
But the real reason that sending women into space would be a better deal for NASA is that sending women will cost less.
Greene, who has been living in a geodesic dome in Hawaii designed to simulate life during a Mars mission, did a sleep study of the participants, and quickly realized that women were consuming fewer calories than the men.
Which means that women, who are typically smaller and lighter than men anyway, will need to take far less food with them into space. Less weight on board means less payload means less fuel to launch the craft and power it. A weight reduction of this magnitude could reduce the cost of the mission by many billions of dollars.
Greene says that NASA already knew all this back in the 1960s, and almost considered an all-female astronaut corps. But culture took over:
Despite extensive training and excellent performance, the women in the program were dismissed. Some of the reasons included fears about public relations if female astronauts were killed, as well as NASA’s reliance on military pilots, who at the time were only male.
Now, just imagine if Greene’s article was taken seriously, and biology became the sole criteria for high-risk space missions. Men who wanted to participate would be asked to prove that their bodies worked as efficiently as females: “If you’re a small male who can metabolise calories as efficiently as your female colleagues, or if you can train yourself to live on a restricted diet, feel free to apply for the space program.”
Any male who was successful would then be told: “If you’re lucky enough to be accepted as the token male, don’t whine about the hazing rituals. And make sure you fit quietly into the prevailing female culture, including keeping the toilet seat down, so that you don’t interfere with morale. You must do this even if the difficult accommodations you’re making stop you from performing your job adequately.”
Except it will never happen, and for a good reason. Greene herself gives the real reason NASA wouldn’t want an all-female crew: as plenty of business and military case studies show, diversity improves overall outcomes:
My six crew members and I were chosen out of 700 applicants worldwide. We were a relatively diverse bunch: a Belgian man, a Canadian man, a Russian-American man, a Puerto Rican woman, a black woman who grew up in the Northeast, and me, a white woman from Kansas. We had a range of engineering, science, and creative backgrounds. For half of us, English wasn’t our first language.
Because of our differences, we were often learning and relearning each other’s problem solving approached, personalities, language quirks, and food preferences. But soon we realized that our diversity helped us solve various problems that came up, from designing new scientific experiments and analyzing data to building equipment to finding ingredient substitutions for recipes.
In any case, the question of whether men should be allowed or not is never going to come up. That men will be involved is a certainty so absolute, that to question it is unthinkable.
But kudos to Greene for questioning just why that is.