Women are less supportive of space exploration, but putting a woman on the Moon might change that

Women are less supportive of space exploration – getting a woman on the Moon might change that
NASA is making a new effort to encourage women to pursue STEM careers. Credit: Khakimullin Aleksandr/Shutterstock.com

In March 2019, Vice President Mike Pence stated that the goal of NASA should be to return humans to the Moon by 2024. While the cost of such a venture isn't known yet, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has supported the effort and gone as far as naming the 2024 Moon mission, Artemis.

The selection of Artemis is no mistake. In Greek mythology, Artemis was the sister of Apollo as well as goddess of the Moon. The name also signals a new focus on the role of women in .

From my perspective as a space policy analyst, this is an important message for NASA to send. Women have been historically excluded from the space program, especially early on. While women have made inroads both as astronauts and more generally within the NASA ranks since, there remains a significant gender gap in support for space exploration.

And for Artemis to succeed in getting the first woman to the Moon by 2024, a lot of political and public support will be required. But a recent AP-NORC poll found there is not a lot of enthusiasm for going back to the Moon. Only 42% of the 1,137 respondents supported the idea, 20% opposed it, and 38% didn't care either way. NASA's efforts to reach out to women should help them garner support, but it is by no means guaranteed.

Women in space and STEM

There is a long-recognized gap in the number of men and women who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, with women lagging far behind. Research into this phenomenon has ruled out differences in mental ability. Rather it attributes the gap to the power of stereotypes on young children.

Women are less supportive of space exploration – getting a woman on the Moon might change that
Gathering of female astronauts and Johnson Space Center’s former director and its first female director. Seated (from left): Carolyn Huntoon, Ellen Baker, Mary Cleave, Rhea Seddon, Anna Fisher, Shannon Lucid, Ellen Ochoa, Sandy Magnus. Standing (from left): Jeanette Epps, Mary Ellen Weber, Marsha Ivins, Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Bonnie Dunbar, Tammy Jernigan, Cady Coleman, Janet Kavandi, Serena Aunon, Kate Rubins, Stephanie Wilson, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, Megan McArthur, Karen Nyberg, Lisa Nowak. Credit: NASA-JSC

One need look no further than the early space program for evidence of this. The astronauts of the 1950s and 1960s were all men, a natural result of the requirements for astronauts to have a military and test-piloting background. Given that women were not allowed in these fields to begin with, they were excluded.

Some people, like pioneering female pilot Jerrie Cobb and NASA flight surgeon William Lovelace, believed that women were just as capable and perhaps better suited to be astronauts than men. During a House hearing on gender discrimination in NASA, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, testified to Congress that women didn't belong in the space program, stating: "The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order."

Though 13 women eventually passed medical tests given by Lovelace, the same tests given to NASA astronauts, they were completely excluded. It wasn't until 1983 when the first American woman, Sally Ride, earned her astronaut wings.

Considerable effort has been made to increase both the engagement of women and girls in STEM as well as pathways to their involvement. NASA, for its part, has retroactively recognized the women who supported the early . The 2016 film "Hidden Figures" (itself based on a book) highlighted the role of African American computer specialists in supporting the Mercury missions. One of the featured women, Katherine Johnson, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015, and in 2019, a NASA testing facility was named after her.

More recently, NASA renamed the street in front of their Washington, D.C. headquarters "Hidden Figures Way." A Lego set featuring the women of NASA was released in 2017 with Margaret Hamilton, Nancy G. Roman, Mae Jemison and Sally Ride. NASA Administrator Bridenstine has repeatedly emphasized that Artemis will feature the first woman on the Moon.

Women are less supportive of space exploration – getting a woman on the Moon might change that
Credit: The Conversation

Growing gap

Despite these efforts, there continues to be a gender gap in support for space exploration. Since 1973, the General Social Survey, a now biannual, representative public opinion survey of Americans, has asked respondents whether they believe spending on the space exploration program is too much, about right, or too little. Looking at the percentages of people who respond "too little," we can assume that if they would like to see more funding, they also support a more expansive space exploration program. The data shows that there is an average gap of over 10 points between the percentages of men and women who support more funding. The gap has fluctuated over time: In 1974, there was only a 6.8 percentage point difference while in 1988, the gap reached 19.7 percentage points. In 2016, the gap sat at 9.7.

These data show that the support of women for an expanded space exploration program will not be easy to come by and women-friendly rhetoric may not fix the problem. Despite years of effort to stimulate interest in space and STEM by NASA and others, the gender gap in support for space exploration is growing.

While my current research project is examining this phenomenon, previous research shows that the influence of stereotypes begins when children quite young. The result might be that today's young girls will be influenced by Artemis, but they will not contribute the political and needed to fund Artemis in the first place.

Solving societal problems like perceptions of in science is a long game that will not be easily solved by turning something pink. It is admirable of NASA to make these efforts, but more work and time will be needed if the gender gap in is to be fully closed.

Explore further

NASA dubs 2024 Moon mission 'Artemis,' asks for $1.6 billion

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User comments

Jul 09, 2019
Or. maybe the article is trying to masquerade an obvious boondoggle to be a gender issue.

Even the first time around, putting a man on the moon was simply political posturing. The Soviets gave up and sent a rover instead. Today, robotics is more advanced, and the moon is close enough, so you can control a rover in real time and do much more science remotely than what a crewed mission could manage in the short time their supplies last.

Jul 09, 2019
The first man on the Moon planted an American Flag.

Jul 09, 2019
Who says women are not for space exploration...they obviously don't know women very well.

Jul 09, 2019
So science and exploration aren't important, just whether or not women get to participate. Sounds like women are as shallow as the kiddie pool.

Jul 09, 2019
NOW really cant, you need to stop peeing in the kiddie pool then lying face down doing motorboat noises

since you misogynists are by definition as incompetent at math as the racists?

whom are contributing half the tax funding for these projects?

whose votes will you need to impress the congresscritters with funding your favorite projects?

well, aside from fuhrer putin's permission of course.

Jul 09, 2019
Ralph Kramden sent his wife Alice to the moon many times.

Well they could send a woman to the moon if they put a Coach outlet there. Otherwise women don't really care about space travel.

Jul 10, 2019
oh my, ms666
before you command women as to the opinions they are permitted to voice?

you need to find at least one
who will not recoil from you
in revulsion!

Jul 10, 2019
RR they can express all the opinions that they want but I reserve the right to make fun of stupidity. What is next, pink pussy hats for female astronauts?

Jul 10, 2019
The selection of someone going to the moon should be based on their abilities and qualifications. Race and gender should never enter into the decision!!!!

Jul 10, 2019
There is a long-recognized gap in the number of men and women who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, with women lagging far behind. Research into this phenomenon has ruled out differences in mental ability.

This is a lie. No such claim is mentioned in the linked source. And it cannot be, as the cause for this gap is mostly unkown and genetic difference in mental ability and interests is still on the table. No matter how much some people would like to pretend otherwise for purely ideological reasons.

Jul 10, 2019
well ms666, the color pink frightens you?
yeah? color me not surprised at your cowardice
the color pink has an interesting his_tory
expensive & flamboyant
it was usually exclusive for the uniforms of elite military units
when the general & staff on a hill watching a battle
saw the "Pinks" going forward?
They knew it was safe to follow their Army

when, the noble leaders saw their "Pinks" in retreat?
they knew it was time to return to their hq for a commiserate keg of brandy

starting about the mid-nineteenth century
the average army realized all those shells & bullets were targeting their colorful uniforms.

up until WWI, valued boy-childs were dressed in pink petticoats to display their family's status
the girls got whatever was readily available
then the Great War, shortages in everything including pink dyes
with all the war propaganda for
the manufacturers began to market blue colors for boy's clothing
after the Armistice, leaving the pink to be sold for girl's clothes

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