The Ladies Who Launch

| November 1, 2010

America likes sending things into space and why shouldn’t we? Space is awesome. I’m of the mind that NASA should have all the money they require regardless of how many small miscalculations they make that devolve into costly explosions.  (I am a former proud member of the Facebook group, “If you say anything bad about NASA, I will punch you in the face”) Loving space and explosions is fairly far removed from actually wanting to go there, especially considering this MIT article detailing the most common space injury: having your fingernails ripped off by astronaut gloves.  But I digress; I was curious about the kind of women who do go to space and how they get there.

Sally Ride, first American woman in space, actually answered a newspaper add calling for astronauts, but despite her weird recruitment she was actually legit. She went to Stanford.  Stanford’s crazy about astronauts too, having educated a pile of them.  In fact, the state of California has educated a surprising number of female astronauts and it’s even still a little surprising when you consider its size, abundance of good hard science programs and proximity to the heart of the aerospace industry. California is the home of the alma maters of almost a quarter of US female astronauts, claiming 10.

The states in the bracket below are Maryland (home of the United States Naval Academy) and Massachusetts (MIT/Harvard) with four apiece. In addition to the first US woman to have her fingernails ripped off by astronaut gloves, Stanford’s roster includes “the first African-American woman in space, Mae Jemison; the first Hispanic woman in space, Ellen Ochoa; the first American military woman in space, Susan Helms; and the first woman shuttle pilot, Eileen Collins.”¹

So what makes Stanford so special? I did some snooping around their website to find out.  The site claims 17 alumni astronauts that “have collectively orbited the earth 5,831 times and traveled more than 151 million miles in space — enough to get to the sun and halfway home again.” ² One of the stories on the website suggests that the combination of science and athletics is the key to Stanford’s space success.  Ride was especially athletic, a nationally ranked athlete in Tennis she also played basketball and field hockey. NASA’s website only gives four hobbies for Tamara E. Jernigan, “volleyball, racquetball, softball, and flying” and in addition to playing the flute and reading, Barbara Morgan is described as enjoying skiing, swimming and hiking.

While having a well-rounded resume is a plus for interstellar travel, a few articles on the website pay special attention to the psychological burdens of the job and the need for astronauts to work cooperatively with many types of people from all over the world.  Indeed the pic roll on Stanford’s website demonstrates these values, showing students listening attentively, cooperating with colleagues of many nations, relaxing in palm tree’d tableaux and dining al fresco.  Perhaps Californians are well-suited to space because they are a state that enjoys a high incidence of bizarre diet trends, one article on Stanford’s website suggests that astronaut food is disgusting and potentially scurvy-inducing.

So what makes a good astronaut? Is it education? Diplomacy? Ability to eat almost anything? We may never know. In any case Stanford seems to have the astronaut cocktail pretty well worked out.  If you or your kinfolk have a burning passion to test your fingernails against space gloves, California may be the place you ought to be.

¹  http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/1998/marapr/articles/small_step_sidebar.html

²  http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/1998/marapr/articles/astrograds_main.html