For the last 17 years, the International Space Station (ISS) has been the great achievement of the United States, Russia, and other nations working together to maintain a human presence in space. People around the world can look up and see the shining star of the ISS crossing the evening or predawn sky. Yet, ISS has a dark shadow that NASA and the other nations involved don’t talk about publicly. Space has a glass ceiling.
International Space Station not above discrimination
Man Cave In Space
Women have spent less than ten percent of the cumulative days on the ISS since the first crew came on board in October of 2000. In over 17 years, only 12 women have served on an expedition crew. One woman, Sunita L. Williams, served twice, and one, Peggy A. Whitson, served three times.
As of today, (1 March 2018,) women have logged only 2,527 days on the International Space Station compared to 23,493 days served by men. Most of those women have been from the United States with only two women serving from other countries. The problem of discrimination against women is bigger with Russia, as cosmonauts have spent the most time on ISS (47% Russia versus 40% USA) but only have allowed one woman to be part of the crew.
The irony is that women make up 63% of the population of Russia and yet women have had less than 7% of the days served on ISS compared to their male counterparts. The United States has also failed to utilize women as crew members, but at least in the case of the U.S., women have been 21% of the Expedition crew.
Jeanette Epps barred from ISS
The problem with the crew discrimination goes beyond gender. ISS has yet to have an African American crew member. Last year NASA announced that Dr. Jeanette Epps would be the first African American crew member before Donald Trump was sworn into office. This January NASA rescinded that decision without explanation. They replaced her with another woman, Serena Auñón-Chancellor, who was scheduled to fly in November.
Epps has been completely removed from the ISS crew rotation even though NASA claims she is still under consideration. It has been confirmed that she was not ill, nor were family issues a reason for removal. NASA has not explained whether Trump’s administration was involved in the decision, nor whether Russia has demanded that the African American woman be barred from serving as a crew member.
However, it is clear that women and minorities are shockingly underrepresented on the space station. The unexplained removal of the first African American crewmember, who also is a woman, reflects a continuation of the ongoing discriminatory behavior of the program.
Gender-Based Crew Selection
NASA has demonstrated that it has a plan for the crew assignment based on gender assignment. Jeannette Epps has a Ph.D in engineering. She was replaced by Serena Auñón-Chancellor who is a physician. Dr. Aunon-Chancellor was pulled off an ISS Expedition scheduled to begin in November 2018, and she was replaced by Anne McClain who is a West Point graduate, Major in the Army, and a pilot with Master’s degrees in Aerospace Engineering and International Relations.
It is obvious that these three women were not shuffled around on the basis of skills, education, nor experience. Epps, and Dr. Aunon-Chancellor were selected to be an astronaut in 2009. McClain was selected in 2013, and completed her training in 2015. None of them have been in space. The only rational explanation is that NASA was replacing a woman with another woman. NASA’s 90% male to 10% female crew assignment is intentional.
Five Versus One
Another issue is the male dominated crew Expeditions. Typically only one woman is assigned to be with five men for six months on ISS. Only twice have two women served at the same time on ISS. For three months in 2010, and three and a half months in 2014-5, two women were on board at the same time. For the rest of the 200 months of occupation, ISS has either had an all-male crew, or only one woman on board.
Lack of Qualified People?
Is it possible that NASA can’t find enough qualified women or minorities? The number of people who dream to be an astronaut may have diminished since Apollo, but the dream hasn’t died.
When less than ten percent of the ISS crew time is served by women, and no African Americans have served in over 17 years of operation it’s clear there is a problem. ISS shouldn’t be the icon of white male discrimination.