Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Women on "Mars"

In the modern age of gender rights and equality, it might be surprising to learn there is much disagreement over the ratio of men to women, or even the presence of women at all in a Mars bound crew.

Initially space exploration, and indeed exploration in general, was considered primarily a "man's sport." Ernest Shakelton is commonly believed to have advertised his Antarctic expedition as:
"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success." 1

The most women ever in space at same time. Image: NASA
Yet even in our modern era, the Shuttle was regularly crewed with entirely men. The most women to crew a Space Shuttle at the same time was during Discovery's last flight with 3 women.

Discovery also set the record for the most women in space as there was one women already on the ISS crew. As for the ISS, at any given time there is only ever one woman in the ISS crew, and it is frequently all male.

This seems to carry over, at least at first glance, into international Mars missions, as both of the long duration Mars500 crews were entirely male.
 One woman served on the earlier 15 day simulation, but was not allowed to apply for the 100 or 500 day.

Why is this?

Officially the Russian Space Agency representatives said:
"There was a suitable woman... But we did not want to jeopardize the experiment with tension between the sexes. This might have happened with five men and one woman." 2
While it may be understandable that 5:1 gender odds would cause conflict, I highly doubt there was only one qualified woman in all of the Russian or European space agencies who could have gone on this mission.

The answer likely lies in an earlier Mars simulation in Moscow in 2000.

This mission consisted of 2 crews. One crew was 4 Russian men. The second crew was one Japanese man, one Austrian man, one Canadian woman, and one Russian woman. Crew 1 went into simulation first, then several months later were joined by Crew 2.

What happened next is a convoluted mess of accusations, counter accusations, and diffusion of responsibility.

Spanish cartoon of the confrontation. 3

It is generally accepted that during a New Years Eve celebration one of the Russian crew members tried to kiss the Canadian woman, and a short while later a fist fight broke out between two of the Russians that was bad enough that blood was spattered on the walls of the habitat.

Over the past decade I've heard this story from several people close to the mission, read excerpts from the Canadian's account, and dozens of articles and press releases. All of the stories are contradictory.

Some articles on the situation:

- http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/journey-into-the-unknown-simulating-a--trip-to-mars-2012095.html 
- http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6955149/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/does-mars-need-women-russians-say-no/#.T0xx-PWjki8
- http://www.jamesoberg.com/04142000assualt_rus.html

What is undisputed is that a short time later the Japanese participant left the simulation, the other crew members chose to remain, and on returning to Canada the Canadian woman sued the Canadian Space Agency.

Several of the simulation managers at the Russian Space Agency blame the woman for "ruining the experiment". Others contend the problems lay in the selection committee and management for not selecting compatible crew members. Some of the crew members blame it solely on one out of control participant.

The Russians are already notorious for not having flown any female cosmonauts since the height of the Cold War. Needless to say this "disaster" from the perspective of the Russian Space Agency seems to have made them even more hesitant to allow women in international missions, and likely lead to the all male Mars500.

MDRS Crews 86 and 87. Photo credit: Author.
Analogous missions in Europe and the United States have usually had healthy female participation. Missions at the MDRS have ranged the full gambit from all male crews to all female crews, though most have representation from each gender. The 2 year Biosphere 2 Mission 1 had a 50/50 male to female ratio, though the follow up Mission 2 only had a single woman (and ironically, failed).

Regarding HiSEAS, the head of the program, Kim Binsted assures me that there is no preconceived ratio of male/female for this mission, and the number of men / women will only be decided once they've reviewed all of the applications.

With an international applicant pool of both men and women, we will likely see both intercultural and gender issues in the habitat. 

Above all the key to our ability to work together will be open communication. In an isolated environment we cannot assume that someone "knows what we're feeling". To do so would be inviting disaster. Frank and open discussion of issues will help diffuse tensions and misunderstandings before they can develop into a more dangerous situation.

But even frank and open discussion can be difficult in international settings. Americans tend to be more willing to talk openly about issues, while some Eastern cultures consider it bad manners to "air dirty laundry in public".

Personally I find a healthy gender ratio serves as a calming influence over the crew. Missions with higher ratios of women to men had less personality conflicts in my experience, and that factor alone is incredibly valuable during long duration isolation.

What do you think? Should analog crews be split evenly 50/50? All male? All female? Some other ratio?

 1 Fun fact, this famous quote is becoming controversial as no one can find direct evidence Shakelton ever ran such an advertisement. The only evidence is testimony from family and friends of expedition members. Some organizations are even offering prizes if someone can find produce a copy of the original http://www.antarctic-circle.org/advert.htm
 3 http://www.quimica.urv.es/~w3siiq/DALUMNES/04/siiq1/PROBADORES%20DE%20C%C1MARAS%20DE%20AISLAMIENTO.htm


  1. Love this post.

    While constructing my application and essays I wondered how much of an emphasis I should place on my gender. Generally, the phrase "as a woman in science" is GUARANTEED utterance in at least my personal statement. However, for this program, I felt that the 'minority' card is going to be trumped by the 'laid-back, congenial, eager participant' card. Luckily, I have that card as well.

    As for the analog crew ratio, I'm definitely against all male! All female would also be stressful. Any of the other options left (2/4, 3/3, 4/2) don't strike me as problematic. I'm actually more curious how the age range might affect the group dynamic. 21-65 is quite the gap.

    1. Age range is certainly another interesting balancing factor. I would guess the applications are slewed towards the younger side given graduate students / early career professionals would have an easier time taking 4 months off (the stipend Hi-Seas provides is almost equivalent to a grad student salary, greater than that when you take into account the free room and board).

      But large age gaps can be problematic in a whole slew of ways such as:
      - Daily habits: As you age the time you naturally get up and go to bed change significantly.
      - Physical endurance: While there are some very spry 65 year olds, on average a 21 year old will be in much better shape than a 65 year old. Do you exclude any EVAs or projects the older participants can't endure? Or perform them with the younger participants and have the older participants serve a support role from the habitat such as HabCom?
      - Authority: Perhaps the biggest challenge in selecting a crew is choosing a commander who will carry respect and authority with all crew members. If a commander is much younger than the crew they serve, their job will be much harder, though not impossible.


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