STAR WOMEN

We were really pleased to see writers exploring marginalised voices in their pieces for our Uncharted Constellations anthology.  If the world is to be galvanised into a campaign to colonise the Moon and send crewed voyages to Mars, we need to know this venture is for all of us. It’s the human story, or it’s not worth telling. Any successful long-term mission will have to draw upon the skills of a multi-cultural and gendered crew, in order to deal with the challenges, psychological, social and technical, of deep space exploration. And that requires accelerating the involvement of women and people of colour in STEM and humanities programmes. Sometimes it means boosting the visibility of early pioneers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Our writers approached this theme by celebrating space history’s ‘Hidden Figures’, as well as crafting science-fiction that imagines that bold future for all of us.

Credit NASA: ISS Astronaut Cristoforetti poses as Star Trek’s Cptn Janeway

Our STAR WOMEN section starts in the nineteenth century when a young woman defies social constraints with a midnight skinny-dip in the lake:

Cassandra gazed at the reflections on the surface of the lake. Here, before her feet, was a liquid sky, and if only she were brave enough, she could bathe amongst the stars.

Teika Marija Smits conjures up a heroine inspired by the female radicals of the period, as much as the breakthroughs of science and technology:

Cassandra looked up at the stars, which seemed to share in her joy, threw her arms into the air, spun around and laughed… she was living in extraordinary times. It was as though anything could happen in this new century. Not a month passed without some new invention being dreamt up… And since Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous thesis, it seemed as though women were everywhere, doing everything. Perhaps it wasn’t so wild to think that one day men, and women, would be able to somehow travel to the heavens.

Not so wild, and yet it would be a hundred years and more before science caught up with fiction to undertake space exploration. In the 1950s, little enough was known about the Earth’s upper atmosphere, let alone what effects space might have on the human body. Both the Soviet and American space programmes undertook dozens of test flights with animals before they would consider putting a human into space. Fruit-flies, dogs, chimps and yes, even one cat, were shot into these orbital labs. Laika was only the first stand-in but news of her flight aboard Sputnik-2 caused outrage amongst animal rights protesters around the world. They were rightly sceptical about her safety, as the dog expired from heat exhaustion early in the flight. Sarah Doyle mourns her fate:

Moscow street-mutt, unloved

stray. Eleven pounds of bone,

of pelt, of tail. Who can weigh

the heart of dog? …  Brave little

cosmonaut, faithful to a fault;

caught and collared…

Credit NASA: Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova

In the same period, women had been firmly forced back into the kitchen and nursery. But hot on the heels of Yuri Gagarin’s First Man spaceflight, the Soviets saw a chance to score a political goal. In 1963, they recruited a factory worker with a passion for parachuting and Valentina Tereshkova spun into the history books. Mary Byrne’s story has a young British teenager meet Tereshkova on a visit to the Blackpool rock factory where she works. The manager is typically condescending about her feat:

‘Miss Tereshkova flew round the earth forty-eight times over three days. Three days on her own. Imagine that. That little body hurtling through the dark.’

 They all turned to stare at Valentina. Her chubby cheeks glowed with health and she looked as if she could easily throw Mr. Bloomfield across the room.

 ‘It makes you think, doesn’t it, about what you ladies can do if you really set your minds to it.’

The women groaned.

It would be decades before the Americans overcame their aversion to letting women into space. This was despite the fact that early trials with a team of female would-be astronauts showed they outstripped their male rivals. Women, if anything, were better suited to the cramped conditions of Mercury spacecraft. It’s only in recent years that the history of these pioneers has surfaced in NASA commemorations. And one scholar’s diligence brought us the buried story of a whole layer of Afro-American women, the Hidden Figures, whose work on IBM’s earliest computers proved crucial to the spaceflight programme.

Everybody was concerned about them getting there.

We were concerned about getting them back.

She created a one-star observation system

to allow Apollo 13 back safely.

Here, in What Became of the Girl Who Counted, Emma Lee teases out the remarkable career of a black mathematician, Katherine Johnson, who waited forty years to get credit for her contribution:

Aged 97, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Even in her wheelchair, she’d travelled further than most.

Credit NASA: Katherine Johnson

We still have some way to go, even in 2020, before women can take a leading place at the helm of space exploration. However we did see an all-female spacewalk recently from the ISS (see our header picture), even if they had to wait for spacesuits to fit their gender.  If Star Trek can envisage a female captain on the deck, can NASA or global space programmes exercise the same vision? Pleasingly, in Katherine Franklin’s Pathfinder story, humanity’s fate rests not with a lantern-jawed Brad Pitt, but with an elderly female astronaut from India. Her only companion will be the ship’s female AI:

Humanity has measured our resources and distilled them into this form. The cockpit, once the technicians have bundled me into it, is not much bigger than my own body. Cables snake away beneath flame retardant fabric panels, plugging into the capsule’s most important occupant: the computer.

Unlike Laika, Darshana goes willingly, to embrace all the dangers of a deep-space flight to locate a new home for Planet Earth’s beleaguered citizens: ‘I can’t help imagining the thousand ways I could die during the mission, despite the one sure way I will die regardless.’

Are you ready to join the voyage and see what lies beyond Earth’s realm? Uncharted Constellations will be available to buy direct from Space Cat Press as an e-book from 13th September onwards.