NASA Mulls All-Female Shuttle Crew
By MARCIA DUNN
AP Aerospace Writer
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Come 2001, women may have an inside track in the macho world of space. Within the next two years, NASA may be flying all-female space shuttle crews _ for science. With a new space station on the horizon and increasing talk of trips to Mars, NASA wants to make sure it protects the health of all its astronauts, male and female. But just as with Earth-bound medical research, most of what it knows has been gleaned from men, and projecting results onto women could be dangerous. Weightlessness, for instance, is known to cause bone loss in both sexes, and because women are at greater risk of osteoporosis, theory might suggest women in space load up on calcium. But that could create kidney stones, points out Dr. Arnauld Nicogossian, the space agency's top doctor. Other areas of concern, for both sexes, include radiation and the weakening of the immune system in weightlessness. Millie Hughes-Fulford, a University of California professor who flew on the space shuttle in 1991, would love to see an all-female crew. As an osteoporosis researcher, she'd be especially interested in whether women lose bone and calcium at the same rate in space as men. ``That would probably be the biggest argument against women going to Mars. `Oh, my dear, you're getting much too close to menopause and you're going to lose all that bone when you're gone,''' she said. NASA is seeking multiple second opinions to determine whether more gender-specific research is needed. The study should be completed by the end of June. After reviewing the findings, ``then we'll decide if it makes sense to have a mission dedicated specifically to fly women and how often we have to continue that type of mission,'' Nicogossian said. ``It will not be a one-time deal,'' he promised. It wasn't until the last few years that NASA could even consider putting together an all-female crew. Every shuttle mission requires two pilots, and NASA only recently added its second and third female shuttle pilots. The 119 current astronauts include 29 women. ``Sooner or later it's going to happen'' whether it's deliberate or not, said shuttle program director William Readdy. Men have dominated space flight _ and consequently space medical research _ since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin opened the frontier 38 years ago this Monday. Of the 278 people who have flown on U.S. spacecraft since Alan Shepard's 15-minute hop May 5, 1961, only 31 have been women. This official roster excludes Christa McAuliffe and the two other rookies who were killed aboard Challenger. Women were not admitted to NASA's astronaut corps until 1978 and did not fly on a space shuttle until 1983. No woman piloted a shuttle until 1995. And women will not command a shuttle flight until Eileen Collins takes the left front seat aboard Columbia in July. For now, the space station era seems to be shaping up the same way _ mostly male. Of the six U.S. astronauts and six Russian cosmonauts training to live on the international space station, only one, American Susan Helms, is female. And only one woman was among the seven NASA astronauts who lived on Mir. It was only because her ride home was delayed that Shannon Lucid ended up staying six months in 1996, a record for women worldwide and for Americans of either sex. Because they've worked so hard to get where they are, many of NASA's women dislike the idea of all-female crews, says an agency insider. They're insulted, in fact, by anything that smacks of gimmickry or implies their skills somehow don't measure up. Former astronaut Kathryn Thornton, one of the few women to walk in space, wonders why NASA doesn't simply collect the scientific data by assigning more women to more space shuttle flights. ``I don't know why it would be necessary to have them all on the same flight,'' said Thornton, a physicist now teaching at the University of Virginia. ``I would worry about the privacy issues. Everybody would know these seven women on all these different tests. And if the issues have to deal with how the crews get along, I'd be really upset.'' A crew of all women could certainly be perceived as a gimmick, especially with John Glenn's trumpeted return to orbit last fall still resonating. Curtis Brown Jr., the astronaut who commanded the Glenn mission and who will lead an all-male crew to the Hubble Space Telescope this fall, complains the proposed all-female mission has turned into ``a media thing and I don't know why.'' Brown said he was under the impression that only the four payload crew members would have to be women for the proposed testing. The two pilots and one flight engineer generally forgo blood draws and other invasive testing in case they have to deal with emergencies aloft. But Nicogossian contends the more women, the better, regardless of limitations on their testing status. Nicogossian refuses to speculate on whether an all-female crew might include a geriatric volunteer, a la the 77-year-old Glenn. ``It depends on the experiments,'' he said. And he doesn't want to guess what might happen if it turns out women make better space travelers. Might it be onward, women only, to Mars? ``I'll leave that question open,'' he said.
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