Women astronauts poised to break record

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. | Space is about to have a female population explosion.

One woman already is circling Earth in a Russian capsule, bound for the International Space Station. Early Monday morning, NASA will attempt to launch three more women to the orbiting outpost — along with four men — aboard shuttle Discovery.

It will be the most women in space at the same time.

Men still will outnumber the women by more than 2-to-1 aboard the shuttle and station, but that won’t take away from the remarkable achievement, coming 27 years after America’s first female astronaut, Sally Ride, rocketed into space.

A former schoolteacher is among the four female astronauts about to make history, as well as a chemist who once worked as an electrician, and two aerospace engineers. Three are American; one is Japanese.

But it makes no difference to educator-astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger’s 3-year-old daughter, Cambria.

“To her, flying is cool. … There aren’t a lot of distinctions, and that’s how I want it to be,” said Mrs. Metcalf-Lindenburger, 34, who used to teach high school science in Vancouver, Wash.

Indeed, the head of NASA’s space operations was unaware of the imminent women-in-space record until a reporter brought it up last week. Three women have flown together in space before, but only a few times.

“Maybe that’s a credit to the system, right? That I don’t think of it as male or female,” said space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier. “I just think of it as a talented group of people.”

Discovery’s crew of seven will spend 13 days in space, hauling up big spare parts, experiments and other supplies to the nearly completed space station. It’s one of four shuttle flights remaining. Monday’s liftoff time is 6:21 a.m.

Mrs. Metcalf-Lindenburger and Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, both rookies, will become the 53rd and 54th women to fly in space — and the 516th and 517th space farers, overall. The Soviet Union had the world’s first spacewoman in 1963: Valentina Tereshkova.

“I’d love to have those numbers be higher,” said astronaut Stephanie Wilson, 43, who will be making her third shuttle flight. “But I think that we have made a great start and have paved the way with women now being able to perform the same duties as men in spaceflight.”

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