Who belongs in space?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Women belong in space, whether on the ground or in a precarious metal cylinder thousands of miles above it.”

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“Space is for everyone.” This was the slogan of the recent round of recruitment for the European Space Agency’s astronaut programme, and it is echoed across internet forums by those working in “New Space” as well as the plethora of startups and SMEs that have appeared in the sector over the past few years. You can even get it on a t-shirt. The recent flashy sub-orbital antics of billionaires Branson and Bezos raise the tantalising prospect that one day, human access to space could become as egalitarian as access to the skies.

Putting aside the visible diversity of NASA’s currently active astronauts – and I’m specific about this because no other national space agency yet compares – this simple statement should also be read to acknowledge those who will never physically experience going into space, but who spend their lives and careers enabling humanity’s access to that most unwelcoming environment.

For every human in space, there is a crew of thousands on the ground dedicated to the task of keeping them alive. For every robotic space mission, hundreds more spend decades planning their every move, keeping careful tabs on their systems and fuel, and squeezing every bit of useful data out of them. The intense publicity surrounding astronauts has meant that the diversity in their ranks was obvious from a much earlier stage than amongst the ranks of scientists and engineers who develop the technologies to get them there.

Gender balance in the arena of ground-based support and development of space technologies is an ongoing, and much slower process. It has been my pleasure to watch this change over the course of my career as a space engineer. I joined a specialist space instrument development lab in 2006 as one of three women, in a team of twelve. Twelve years later, half of the team were women, and near-parity had been achieved and maintained for several years.

Women belong in space, whether on the ground or in a precarious metal cylinder thousands of miles above it. We belong in space education and industry, in business suits, lab coats or space suits. In between the astronauts and the billionaires, there is space for everyone who wants to work on space.

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