Nasa announces giant step for womankind

Space cadets: Six of this year’s graduate astronauts are women. © NASA

Does a woman on the moon really matter? Nasa has announced plans for the first female lunar explorer. For some, it is a potent statement of equality, but others call it a token gesture.

It is 2024. Most people in the world are glued to their immersive media-walls. Wide-eyed, they are so quiet that you could hear a silicone chip drop. Suddenly from the screen, a crackling voice: “That’s one small step for woman, one giant leap for womankind.”

In four years, this could be reality. This week, Nasa announced plans to send the first woman to the Moon. She will share her mission, Artemis-3, with the 13th man to attempt a lunar landing.

This could be a totemic moment for gender equality. Placing a woman on the Moon broadcasts the message that women are as capable as men on the global stage.

“I think,” says Nasa chief Jim Brindenstine, “this could be transformational for young women all across, not just the country, but all across the world.”

Critics, however, detect tokenism. The move may look good, but it provides no real advance for women’s rights. In America alone, women face lower wages, disproportionate household labour and barriers to their reproductive rights.

Over 21m US women currently live in poverty. One woman being sent to space does not change that. It might even deflect attention and resources from their struggle, and that of other disadvantaged groups.

The Artemis scheme will cost $28bn – only $2bn less than UN estimates for ending world hunger for a year. In that context, this might seem a lunatic extravagance.

This humanitarian critique of space travel predates Neil Armstrong’s historic 1969 moon landing. “There is a striking absurdity,” said civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr in 1967, “in committing billions to reach the Moon” while spending “a fraction” to alleviate poverty in slums.

Supporters of the mission, however, point out the importance of symbolic interventions. Winston Churchill’s speeches didn’t win a war, but they sent a message of unity and perseverance to Britain. In a polarised time, the new landing could bring the US together.

It could also affirm the country’s status as the world’s superpower, capable of feats that would stump lesser nations – especially as its rival China has embarked on its own moon missions.

“We’re in a space race today,” proclaimed US Vice President Mike Pence, “just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher. If the US doesn’t seize the initiative, it risks being regulated to second best.”

So, does a woman on the moon really matter?

The final frontier

Lift off, say some. A woman on the Moon would be a highly visible sign of gender parity, able to inspire women everywhere. It could serve as a balm in divided times. And by reaffirming the nation’s role as both a pioneer in space travel and in gender equality, the mission will help preserve the US status as a global leader. These symbolic victories outweigh the financial loss.

Abort mission, caution others. Women face many problems today, and placing a representative on the moon is hardly a priority. With over 201,000 US citizens dead from Covid-19, the nation in uproar over racial violence and the looming climate catastrophe, to rekindle 1969 is a wasteful frivolity. We should work to protect and improve lives here before reaching for the stars.

You Decide

  1. Should countries have a monopoly on space exploration, or should companies and individuals also take part?
  2. Is the desire to explore new places an integral part of human nature?

Activities

  1. You have been selected to embark on a mission to the Moon. Write a letter back home to your family, explaining how it feels to be chosen and what you hope to achieve on your mission.
  2. Imagine you are the head of your country’s space agency. Write a speech justifying why space travel is important, and why your government should support it.

Some People Say...

“Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), French feminist philosopher and activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that space exploration has enhanced human knowledge and advanced technologies. It has led to advances in astronomy, biological science, telecommunications and renewable energy. Some technologies developed on space missions have significantly influenced life on Earth. They include GPS, weather prediction, solar power cells, water purification systems and medical monitoring systems.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate concerns whether the successes accrued through space programmes are worth their financial cost to the countries that run them. Some argue that the benefits brought by space exploration could have been achieved through less expensive and dangerous methods. Others counter that the unique conditions of space travel cannot be replicated.

Word Watch

Woman
Neil Armstrong – the first man on the moon – uttered the words “man” and “mankind” while on a walk there. He later maintained that he actually said “a man” rather than simply “man”.
Nasa
The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, founded in 1958. It's more terrestrial inventions include the stealth bomber and the Super Soaker.
Artemis-3
Named after Artemis, ancient Greek goddess of the Moon and hunting, who was worshipped as the protector of young women. In one myth, she transformed a man who had caught her bathing into a deer – who was then torn apart by hounds.
Totemic
Of symbolic importance. Totems are animal or natural objects considered as the emblem of a family, derived from a Native American word for kin or group.
Tokenism
A perfunctory gesture to give the appearance that people of different gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation are being treated fairly.
Reproductive rights
The right of a woman to decide whether to reproduce, including the right to an abortion. The latter, although legally mandated across the US since 1973, has been increasingly difficult to access in several areas.
Lunatic
Extremely foolish – from a medieval belief that phases of the moon caused insanity.
Humanitarian
People or views that advocate for human welfare
1969 moon landing
The occasion of Neil Armstrong’s famous words, as watched by 650 million viewers worldwide. The next year, the US cancelled other scheduled moon missions because of their exorbitant expense.
Space race
During the 1960s, the US and the USSR competed to be the first to achieve hallmarks in space flight. The USSR scored numerous early feats – including sending the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. In 1969 the US claimed victory for its Moon Landing.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.