Now Reading
Why It Shouldn’t Be so Difficult for a Woman to Fly Gaganyaan First – But Is

Why It Shouldn’t Be so Difficult for a Woman to Fly Gaganyaan First – But Is

Rakesh Sharma, Valentina Tereshkova, Ram Rajya, Bharatiya Janata Party, Gaganyaan, vyomanaut, K Sivan, Indian Space Research Organisation, Sally Ride, Department of Space, Yuri Gagarin, women in STEM, Vostok 6,

Next year, India is to launch Indians into space. Critics in the science policy community may argue that six decades after Yuri Gagarin first orbited Earth, the scientific and technical objectives of such a mission are questionable. Nevertheless, even if they are right, it is entirely appropriate to launch a mission just to test one’s capabilities. It is also appropriate to use that test to prove that capability to the world. Space travel makes for good propaganda. Better cutting edge science than gigantic statues standing on environmentally devastating reservoirs, mocking those whose homes it submerged.

But we must ensure that we get the maximum propaganda bang for the Big Science buck. Cynics will tell you that the easiest way to do this today is to be seen to be doing something about two issues, one of which is the environment. But the odd solar panel notwithstanding, space travel’s significant but still uncertain impact on the environment will not be easy to mitigate.

Token action on the question of gender may make for an easier win. If the first Indian to travel in an Indian spacecraft were to be a woman, Gaganyaan would assume global historical significance. For the briefest of moments, we could forget the appallingly low female representation in parliament, legislative assemblies, cabinets and corporate boards, and bask in woke glory. So the fact that no woman has been selected to be the first ‘vyomanaut’, as ISRO chairman K. Sivan recently reiterated, is disappointing.

Perhaps no female candidate was deemed fit to withstand the physical demands of space travel. The authors got a sense of just how physically gruelling space travel could be at the ‘Cosmonauts’ exhibition at the Science Museum in London, where the cramped seat of the Vostok 6, in which Valentina Tereshkova had spent long hours during her maiden voyage in 1963, was on display.

In the popular imagination, the Soviets were particularly good at propaganda. This is why Tereshkova was not only a woman but also a ‘mere’ textile worker. Orphaned by war of a working-class father, she had been raised by her mother who worked in a factory. But Soviet women in all sections of the workforce made real gains, especially in science and technology.

In contrast, the Americans, who replicated every single Soviet achievement within months during the early space race, only sent Sally Ride into space in 1983. Astonishingly, this was barely a year before Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian in space, with his voyage on a Soyuz T-11, undertaken while a woman was India’s prime minister. Victory in the space race was clearly not important enough for the Americans to make a one-off exception in the postwar reimposition of motherhood and domesticity on its women, who lost the meagre gains they had made by entering the workforce in large numbers during the Second World War. As Sophie Pinkham wrote in The New York Times, with the large number of women and members of disadvantaged racial groups it had sent into space, the Soviets won the space race for equality.

Despite promises of induction of women into combat, the number of trained female pilots in the Indian Air Force are still low. In 2015, when it allowed women to become fighter pilots, the force had 94 female pilots. In response to a parliamentary question, the government revealed that the force had 1,905 female officers of which only eight were fighter pilots, in July 2019. But only military test pilots were to be chosen for the mission, as a senior ISRO official said in August, and there were no women in such roles.

Thus, one reason women weren’t selected for Gaganyaan was the low population of qualified applicants in the pool due to systematic discrimination at the lower levels, which is a problem in many sectors. This is undoubtedly where policy intervention must focus most strongly.

However, we must also ask whether the Department of Space could have undertaken more efforts to accommodate women in the first Gaganyaan flight. According to the ISRO official, they decided to open the pool only to test pilots because “most maiden missions undertaken by different countries in the past had test pilots.”

ISRO has been known as the world’s leader in frugal engineering and for building space applications suited for developing countries, and has always blazed its own path. So in the wake of the national need for a symbolic victory in the battle for gender equality, ISRO should arguably have strayed from the well-trodden path to yet again test the limits of its technological development capabilities and achieve a world first.

Just how easy it may be to attain this flight of fancy emerges if we look at Tereshkova’s qualifications for the role. In 1959, at the age of 22, she made her first amateur skydive at the local aeroclub. She became a member of the Communist Party in 1962, and was selected that year along with four other women to be trained as cosmonauts. After less than a year of pilot training, she was deemed fit to fly. Tereshkova’s achievement was astounding. On her voyage, she spent three days in space – compared to Gagarin’s 108 minutes – and logged more flight time in that single flight than all the American astronauts before her combined.

But of course, only the people at the very top of the national political leadership, rather than those at ISRO or the air force, could ever decide to tailor a crewed mission around the skills of the best qualified women. This is unlikely to happen given how the establishment – even some parts of the science establishment – has tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, condoned the recent brutal assaults on young women studying science and other disciplines at our finest universities. It is not merely that this government is blind to the gender question that its otherwise aggressive PR machinery has failed to seize the possibilities of a female astronaut. Its policy failings may well be deliberate. For this is Ram Rajya 2.0, and Ram always goes first.

The morale of female astronauts as well as of the millions of little girls who dream of voyaging to the stars is at a low point. NASA finally got on the wokeness bandwagon and announced the first all-female spacewalk only to call it off in May 2019 for want of an appropriately sized space suit. And by selecting an all-male crew, India has lost a crucial opportunity to boost the spirits of female science and technology workers all over the world.

Indian women privileged enough to have the choice are often forced to make the decision to move abroad to even be able to pursue their passions. It is sad that the India of 2022 seemingly only justifies Kalpana Chawla’s 1984 decision to move to the US.

Virjana Dwarkan is a radical feminist. She tweets at @BahutFeminist. Kapil Subramanian is a historian of science.

Scroll To Top