Mercury Rising: The New Frontier

Mercury, the nearest planet to the Sun, recently made the headlines again due to the success of the robotic Messenger mission. For this post however, I’d like to look at another great “Mercury” adventure.

A great deal of debate still rages on in U.S politics at the moment. The candidates, of which there are two, are separated not only by their political affiliations, one Republican, one Democrat, but also by gender. It seems strange that in 2016 we still need to refer to this point, but a lot of fuss has been made of the fact that Hillary Clinton is the first female candidate in American History to run for the Presidency. It reminds me so much of the “debates” in the early days of human spaceflight. An often overlooked story is that 13 women were once selected for extensive trials to become astronauts. This is very well documented in many fine books, and soon an upcoming film and documentary on the “Mercury 13” women.

Jerrie Cobb - One of the original Mercury 13
Jerrie Cobb – One of the original Mercury 13

In the early 1960s, at the height of the space race, the USSR and United States were engaged in very real attempts at leap-frogging each other in technical achievements. From the first person to walk in space, through to docking, and ultimately the goal of reaching the Moon. Yet the Russians held a 20+ year achievement over the United States, in that until the early 1980s, no American woman had flown in space. Sally Ride eventually taking that accolade in 1983 on the Space Shuttle, firstly on STS-7, and then flying more than 340 combined hours in space.

We have to ask why it took so long? With the forthcoming movie “Hidden Figures” telling the story of African American women and their role in the computing of orbital trajectories from Mercury right the way through to Apollo, it shows us that NASA wasn’t against employing female engineers, but again, it seems to have been something that was almost dismissed or buried for so many years, much like the full story of the Mercury 13.

Today, NASA, like all of the major space agencies, employ vast armies of people from all backgrounds, genders, creeds, and so on… and rightly so, for a person’s worth should only ever be measured on their ability to do the job at hand, rather than any of these redundant factors. Many said that women made and still make to this day vastly better astronauts than their male counterparts due to factors such as women requiring less consumables as well their general physical characteristics, which arguably make them more suited to long duration spaceflight. But again, that’s not really painting the full picture.

If we are to return to the Moon, and then go onwards to Mars, the people chosen to fly and support those missions should not be chosen based on anything other than “Can they do the job, do it well and come back safely?” Whilst hundreds of thousands of support staff and engineers will work tirelessly on the ground to make their part of these missions happen flawlessly, when NASA, ESA or China eventually do decide on which human crew will venture beyond low Earth Orbit, we can only hope that they select the best people for the task.

Never again should a person’s colour, gender, or otherwise, be a deciding factor.



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