Female astronauts push limits

From an early age, Anna Fisher dreamed of being an astronaut, even though female astronauts were excluded from the space program at the time.

“I remember when I was 12 years old I told my friend I wanted to be an astronaut,” Fisher said. “She looked at me like I was crazy.”

Now a mission specialist who has logged 192 hours in space, Fisher was a member of NASA’s first class of women astronauts in 1978.

Fisher, along with two fellow female astronauts, a female cosmonaut and the curator of the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum, spoke Wednesday to a crowd of around 60 at the Yale Law School. The discussion panel, entitled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Women Pioneers in Space,” focused on the changing role of women in space exploration.

The first class of astronauts to include women consisted of 35 people, six of whom were female. Though Cathleen Lewis ’80 GRD ’83, the museum curator, said there is currently a “flourishing number” of women astronauts in the United States, Fisher said today’s classes still have yet to reach gender parity, with only 20 to 30 percent of positions being awarded to females.

Rhea Seddon, also a member of NASA’s first female astronaut class, was a mission specialist who retired from NASA in 1997 after logging over 722 hours in space. As a member of the astronaut selection board later in her career, Seddon said the gender imbalance is a reflection of the relative availability of qualified candidates rather than any discrimination on NASA’s part.

“We looked for the best candidates,” Seddon said. “As more women go into the sciences and have more credentials and experience, parity will be achieved.”

NASA Astronaut Janet Kavandi said she started applying for the astronaut corps in 1986 but was not selected until 1994. She has since served aboard three missions, including the final visit of the shuttle to the Mir Space Station in 1998. She also visited the International Space Station, which she called a “marvel of humankind.” She said her 33 total days in space have allowed her to view global environmental destruction on a large scale.

“You can see easily the damage humans have done to the planet,” Kavandi said. “It is very hard to convey what you see to those who are doing it. In third-world countries it is often for survival.”

The panelists offered different perspectives on how they dealt with the challenge of raising a family. While Kavandi said she has “no down time at all” in juggling her responsibilities as both a mother and an astronaut, Fisher said she chose to take a seven-year leave of absence from the Astronaut Corps in order to avoid such a situation. Seddon said the 1986 Challenger disaster made her rethink her priorities.

“The reality came home to me about what the families went through,” Seddon said. “Having children changes your perspective. You consider the days with your children all the more special.”

Cosmonaut Valentina Ponomareva, who never traveled to space, recalled an occasion when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin objected to mothers traveling into space because of the potential hardships it could create for families.

“[Gagarin said] we can risk the lives of unmarried women, but we cannot risk the life of a mother,” Ponomareva said via a translator.

Vladimir Vladimirov ’05 said he thought the discussion brought out the human side of space exploration.

“Most of the discussion was not surprising to me, but the personal aspect was interesting,” Vladimirov said.

The panel was sponsored by the Jonathan Edwards College Alan S. Tetelman ’58 Fellowship as part of “a celebration of women astronauts,” which will continue through Friday.

Anna L. Fisher (left), Janet Lynn Kavandi (middle), and Cathleen S. Lewis (right) speak about their pioneering experiences in outer space and here on earth in a panel discussion entitled
Alexander White
Anna L. Fisher (left), Janet Lynn Kavandi (middle), and Cathleen S. Lewis (right) speak about their pioneering experiences in outer space and here on earth in a panel discussion entitled "Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Women Pioneers in Space" held Wednesday in the Law School Auditorium. The panel was sponsored by Jonathan Edwards College's 2003 Tetelman Fellowship.

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