How has one small step to put a woman on the moon taken forever?

It has been 104 years since the women’s rights movement. It would appear that even after more than a century, women couldn’t simply have it all.

For long, women’s voices have shaped history. But their stories often remain untold. A long time coming, 2023 was the year when NASA realized women should be included as astronauts in lunar missions. In April 2023, NASA announced 4 astronauts (including a woman, finally) for their upcoming lunar mission after more than a 50-year hiatus (since the first moon landing). Astronaut Christina Hammock Koch was chosen for the mission. Koch holds the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, spending a magnificent 328 days in space and completing six spacewalks, including the historic all-female spacewalk on October 18, 2019.

The Artemis program, established by NASA in 2017, aims to venture the first woman along with the first person of colour around the moon by 2025.

When NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine shared that they would move over Apollo and adopt a new name for the mission, he also shared an anecdote:

“It turns out that Apollo had a twin sister, Artemis. She happens to be the goddess of the Moon. Our astronaut office is very diverse and highly qualified. I think it is very beautiful that 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man—and the first woman—to the Moon.”

Putting a man on the moon might have been a logical step for science 54 years ago. Sending a woman and a man of colour to the moon is a critical cultural and sociological step in 2024. Being an astronaut is now far from being a vision to now an actual profession. And professions in this day and age deserve equal representation and contribution.

As Administrator Bridenstine implies, this won’t be the first time women are involved in space exploration.

Although marginalized, women have been integral to space missions for over 50 years. Due to several years of persistent gender bias, you might not have heard of these women who got things running for NASA since the heyday of lunar missions.

1. Meet the woman who coined the term “software engineering”:

Margaret Hamilton was the lead programmer on the Apollo guidance computer program, working on every single manned mission including Apollo 8 and Apollo 11.

2. Meet Katherine Johnson, a Hidden Figure in plain sight:

She was working behind the scenes, analyzing flight test data to calculate the trajectories for the Apollo program—as revealed in Margaret Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures. She was also a driving force in the US-USSR space race.

3. Meet Jamye Flowers Coplin, a one-woman army by herself:

Joining NASA after graduating from school, Jamye became the titular secretary AKA angel in disguise for the Apollo crew. She handled it all—travel orders, liaising with outsiders, Cape trips, keeping the astronauts’ wives informed, and even babysitting their kids.

4. Meet Frances Poppy Northcut, who loved championing a man’s world:

Northcut was the first female engineer in Mission Control, planning Apollo 8’s trajectory. She also played a major role in the heroic efforts to bring Apollo 13 safely back to Earth.

5. Meet JoAnn Morgan—the sole woman in Apollo 11’s launch firing room:

Morgan got her big break at NASA while still in school. She began as an instrumentation controller, responsible for monitoring and troubleshooting the systems. Prior to her retirement in 2003, she held various leadership positions over 40 years in the human space flight programs at NASA. Morgan served as the director of the External Relations and Business Development during her final years at the space center.

“NASA’s new mission brings us closer to imagining an ideal world where an all-feminist-anything won’t be making the headlines because gender won’t be seen as part of the problem.”

Why has NASA not sent a woman to the moon yet?

In 1969, when the first Lunar mission was announced, it made sense to only send the best pilots with prior experience to the moon. Hiring astronauts from the military became the norm. At that time, women of course, were not allowed to become pilots in the military. This naturally cut them off from being selected for the moon mission. In the later stages of the lunar programs, NASA started accepting candidates who weren’t necessarily test pilots or from the military. Unfortunately, women still could not make it to the moon because of male dominance.

All the equipment and the entire spacecraft were designed for an all-male crew. There was hardly any privacy, the urinals had to be redesigned, and menstrual cycles meant ensuring more hygiene and safe disposal. There was not enough time to introduce major updates to the spacecraft. This is why NASA continued with its men-only approach for its moon missions.

Valentina Tereshkova — A legend for women in space travel

The first woman to travel into space was Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet cosmonaut. She made her historic flight aboard Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. Not only did she become the first woman to enter space, but her mission also made her the youngest female space traveler at the time, and she remains the only woman to have been on a solo space mission. She spent more than 70 hours orbiting the Earth, two years after Yuri Gagarin’s first human-crewed flight in space.

Her mission was a critical step in proving that a woman’s anatomy could endure the conditions of space travel just as well as men’s, especially in extended periods of weightlessness. Tereshkova’s achievements paved the way for future generations of women astronauts and remain a significant milestone in the history of space exploration.

The next natural step

According to NASA’s astronauts, historians, and the agency itself, landing a woman on the moon will not be the final or ultimate achievement of diversity and inclusion in space.

It is only the next natural step.

“The Artemis Generation will open up new doors to space exploration. What was only accessible and limited to one group will now be the awakening for countless dreamers.”

Yes, the Artemis program is essential to further NASA’s up-and-coming, highly ambitious missions to Mars. But for the Christina Koches of tomorrow, Artemis will be the gateway to a universe of possibilities, both in and out of the world.

And to thrive in this era of unprecedented challenges, we need equal representation. A six-year-old girl deserves to be inspired by seeing someone who looks like her in such a pioneering role. It makes her dream of space travel feel not only achievable but also within reach. It will give her a sense of belonging and possibility, inspiring her to dare to dream of reaching for the stars.