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Integrating Women into the Astronaut Corps: Politics and Logistics at NASA, 1972–2004 by Amy E. Foster (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 55, Number 2, April 2014
pp. 507-509 | 10.1353/tech.2014.0038

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Reviewed by
Integrating Women into the Astronaut Corps: Politics and Logistics at NASA, 1972–2004. By Amy E. Foster. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Pp. viii+ 207. $55.

Sally Ride’s 1983 spaceflight represented American women breaking down gender barriers in fields of science and technology. While Ride’s iconic flight is well-known, the journey of American women to enter the astronaut corps is less familiar. Complementing Margaret A. Weitekamp’s Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program (2005) and Betty Ann Kevles’s Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space (2006), Amy Foster provides one of the first thorough accounts of the process of integrating women into the astronaut corps. Foster argues that the reasons the United States did not counter the 1963 Soviet flight of the [End Page 507] first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova, until 1983 are complex, encompassing a political and economic agenda to beat the Soviets to the moon, as well as gender biases present in technology, American culture, and Western society as it struggled with sex, gender difference, and sexuality (p. 7).

Dividing the book chronologically and topically, Foster opens with a discussion of post–World War II women in the military and engineering, as well as science fiction’s dual message of both gender equality and masculine hegemony in space. Next, she examines the failed First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs) fight for spaceflight while portraying NASA as both a masculine space and a harbinger of gender reform. Along the way, Foster makes clear that multiple events led to the integration of women into the astronaut corps as part of Group VIII in 1978, including educational funding after Sputnik, the women’s movement, 1972’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Act, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOTWITS), liberal policies of NASA administrators James Webb and James Fletcher, a new emphasis on space science, and a reusable shuttle. She concludes by detailing the decisions to integrate the shuttle and the subsequent creation of Group VIII as well as highlighting the biological and cultural concerns with the introduction of women astronauts.

The most exciting contribution to the history of technology is that the integration of women into the astronaut corps—first as mission specialists in 1978 and then as pilots in 1990—changed not only the face of who worked in space, but emphasized how the design of space technology previously excluded women and normalized the male body. NASA engineers were faced with fears over privacy, menstruation, and sex aboard the shuttle, not to mention more practical challenges such as designing new space suits, toilets, and locker rooms. Despite the cultural, social, and technological complexities of integrating women into spaceflight, Foster maintains that NASA administrators, engineers, and male astronauts did so “with a positive outlook and strong motivation” (p. 2).

Gendered technology was not the only hurdle for women. Drawing on oral histories, Foster maintains that while the Group VIII women recognized the historically important role they played, they did not wish to be heroes; rather, they “wanted to be treated like one of the guys” (p. 142). The women desired to be identified as “astronauts,” not “women astronauts,” yet their own stories of success in the male-dominated fields of medicine, science, and engineering made them extraordinary heroes for gender equality. Foster concludes that the women’s struggle to create a genderless astronaut, and a collective identity among the women astronauts, all while retaining their own individuality, speaks to the broader issue of complicated social and gender identities in American history (p. 152).

As a largely male-dominated administration until 1978, NASA is an [End Page 508] excellent case study for gender analysis. However, more research into why NASA adopted an EEO policy before 1972 and yet failed to recruit or promote minorities and women into its ranks would be beneficial. Foster’s work also lends itself to further discussion into the case of the agency’s former director of Equal Employment Opportunity, Ruth Bates Harris, fired by NASA in 1973—and rehired in 1974—after she questioned the sincerity of NASA’s EEO policy. Foster’s work also acts as a...