NASA Had a Blind Spot for Women: 'It Was Kind of a Boys' Club'

Last week, Nicole Aunapu Mann became the first Native American woman to travel to space. While it was a big step forward in terms of representation in the space industry, it comes 20 years after the first Native American man received the same honor.

Despite 60 years of female space travel internationally, only 12 percent of the nearly 600 people who have been into space have been women, and many of the barriers these women have faced have been in the space agencies themselves.

Karen Nyberg, a retired NASA astronaut, artist and engineer, became the 50th woman in space in 2008. Speaking to Newsweek, she recalled her experiences leading up to that first space flight.

"Starting in engineering in college, I was one of very few women," she said. "There was nobody telling me I couldn't do it." It was only when she started working for NASA and was handed her first space suit that she began to feel any sort of handicap.

"They had sizes medium, large and extra large," she said. "They made that conscious decision to not build a size small space suit, and most women would wear a size small.... And that really kept out a lot of people from doing spacewalks. Not because women weren't capable, but because the spacesuit didn't fit them properly.... Nobody took that concerted effort to try to get a suit that fit smaller people.

"I think with the whole spacewalking suit it was kind of a boys' club."

Karen Nyberg in ISS
Former NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg floats in the Unity node of the International Space Station. "You see a lot of representation in NASA," she told Newsweek. "It really is more of a meritocracy where people have earned their positions, where women have earned their positions." NASA

Undeterred by this wardrobe problem, Nyberg and her female colleagues persevered. "Most women overcame that and did the space walks anyway, but it was a struggle. If the space suit fits you properly, you can reach and do your work, but if it doesn't...you can't get a full reach."

NASA has recently unveiled next-generation space suits that fit a wider range of body types, including women, and hopefully the suits will make space travel more accessible to a wider range of people.

NASA astronaut in space suit
Astronaut Michael Gernhardt does a space walk. Until recently, extravehicular space suits came only in sizes that fit men. NASA

"You see a lot of representation in NASA," Nyberg said. "It really is more of a meritocracy where people have earned their positions, where women have earned their positions."

NASA's diversity and inclusion strategy mirrors this. "NASA HQ has an unwavering commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive environment where employees are valued for their unique contributions to our common goal," it said in a statement.

Nyberg's next obstacle was one that has affected the careers of many women in almost every profession. "My only next obstacle came when I got pregnant," she said. "This is an obstacle that a lot of women face in a lot of careers, especially active careers. There is some training that you cannot physically do when you're pregnant."

She continued: "I was actually assigned to my second space shuttle flight when I got pregnant, and I was going to have the baby a few months before the flight. Well, they decided to take me off the flight. They just didn't want that risk.... Now obviously that would never happen to a man who was having a baby."

Karen Nyberg in Cupola ISS
Karen Nyberg is seen in the Cupola module of the International Space Station. "After seeing Earth from space, you realize how precious it is," she told Newsweek. NASA

Pregnancy isn't the only biological condition that can make things harder for female astronauts. "On the space station we have the toilet on the U.S. segment and the toilet on the Russian segment," Nyberg said.

She continued: "The urine on the U.S. segment is processed—it actually turns into drinking water—and the filtration system and machinery that it goes through cannot accept particles of blood. When a woman is on her period, she has to go and use the Russian segment toilet...so it's not necessarily a private thing."

Thanks to advances in health care, many women are able to control this cyclical setback. "I suppressed [my menstrual cycle] so I never had that during the six months I was in space," she said. "But there are women who choose not to or they can't for some medical reason."

Even without periods to worry about, simple day-to-day tasks can be more difficult in space. "It takes longer to go to the bathroom when you're in space than it does on Earth because there are just more steps to go through and sometimes a mess to clean up. Keeping clean in general is hard because you can't stand under running water," Nyberg said.

In 2013, she released a now famous video about how she washed her hair in space, and it has been viewed nearly 6 million times.

"I had people saying, 'Women should have to shave their head, women should have to have short hair,' all that stuff," she said. "They have no clue what it's like in space. I had one of my crewmates who shaved his head. He used more water, more soap, razors, which are a consumable, and made a mess on the ceiling because he shaved his head every day."

While female astronauts still face some obstacles, the industry has come a long way since the first women went to space. One of the most important aspects of this is representation.

"A lot of people talk about representation and seeing themselves in other people," Nyberg said. "When I first decided to be an astronaut, I was 8 or 9 years old—around the same time when NASA first selected those female astronauts. I think seeing those women was huge because then it never occurred to me that I couldn't."

Nyberg now sits on NASA's astronaut selection board. "We try really hard to make the classes as diverse as possible," she said. "What you notice is when you look at the applicant pool... We still don't have as many female applicants as male applicants.

Sally Ride at flight deck
Astronaut Sally Ride, seen at the controls of the Challenger space shuttle, was the first American woman to go to space. NASA

"The problem lies in getting women into engineering, into aviation.... We need to work harder getting the young girls to decide that engineering is good for them," she said.

For aspiring young astronauts, Nyberg has a few words of advice. "Find that passion and just work towards it and don't let anything step in your way. Step out of your comfort zone...and keep at it, even when things seem bleak.... Just go for it and follow that passion."