As excitement goes, there are few things more thrilling than a space race. In fact the very idea of competing to conquer galaxies unknown is literally out of this world. Shuttle test flights, televised launches, never-before-seen technology — it’s a sci-fi movie unfolding before our eyes.
And now, 52 years after man first set foot on the Moon, a new chapter is to be written into the history book of space travel.
On Tuesday 20 July 2021, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (along with his brother and two other crew members) will be launching into space aboard his company’s debut shuttle New Shepard, and in doing so staking his claim as one of space tourism’s major players.
The maiden flight comes eight days after Sir Richard Branson and his brainchild Virgin Galactic had a voyage of their own, providing more competition to what has become known as the ‘billionaire space race’.
Historically, the challenge of exploring beyond our atmosphere has been a state-run operation, with significant amounts of government (and taxpayer’s) money going to space organisations, and scientific motives at the forefront of priority.
This new space race, however, is an entirely different affair.
For the likes of Jeff Bezos, Sir Branson and Elon Musk (the third contender in the mix), the goal is purely commercial.
Society has come a long way from the days of the USA and Soviet Union battling it out for space supremacy, with three billionaires (and titans of industry in their own right) now competing to convert outer-Earth travel into a tourist attraction.
According to Branson, Virgin Galactic has already seen nearly 600 pre-order tickets for ‘trips to space’, with each ticket priced at $250,000 and celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Leonardo Di Caprio reportedly signed up to launch.
However, while the idea of space tourism and some of the world’s richest people fighting to pioneer it is an undoubtedly exciting prospect, a fundamental problem has been overlooked in the whirl of anticipation — gender inequality.
Of the 566 people that have gone to space, only 65 of them (around 11.5%) have been women, and this is a major issue not just for the current industry and modern society, but for future generations.
A reason for this inequality is largely down to the fact women were unable to become astronauts during the initial prevalence of space flight, with NASA not having a female crew member aboard any spacecraft/mission until June 1983. Fast forward almost 40 years, and there has been nowhere near enough of a significant difference in the matter of gender disparity.
Even in the case of Bezos’ Blue Origin launch, 82-year-old female American aviator Wally Funk being part of the crew is hard not to see as a tokenistic publicity stunt.
While some progress has of course been made in tackling issues regarding diversity (the amount of female astronauts is on a gradual increase), the need to solve the problem is as important as ever.
As has been the case since the inception of space exploration, astronauts and those involved with the operations have been role models in the society, on both a domestic and global level. Therefore this platform must be used to inspire the next generation of explorers, scientists and other jobs alike.
The lack of female astronauts (and consequently role models) means less young girls are wanting to pursue a career in the STEM field, thus weakening our society as a whole.
Space4Women, a program part of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, says that the reason for the gender gap in the sciences is because girls have “limited exposure to the creativity and contributions” of female workers in the industry, “making it difficult to picture themselves in STEM roles”.
As mentioned, the ripple effect on the wider community could see devastating consequences, such as young people having less confidence in finding careers and one of the most valuable industries in the world being plagued by a lack of inclusivity.
Additionally, microgravity and weightlessness environments means there are no physical barriers between the two genders, so there is no viable reason that further equality shouldn’t be achieved.
With that said, let’s take the opportunity while we can and get more women into space. Let’s create a new generation of Sharmans, Jemisons and Tereshkovas, defying gender stereotypes in the industry. And crucially, let’s make the exploration of space about the size of one’s spirit, as opposed to their wallet.
Words by Tom Carter