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NASA is finally ready to send the first woman to the moon – 50 years after the Apollo mission

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Sarah Shaffi
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NASA has announced it plans to send a woman to the moon by 2024.

The astronaut will be part of a larger mission which has its sights set on Mars.

When the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July 1969, it was, as Armstrong famously said, a “giant leap for mankind”.

Armstrong spent more than two hours walking on the moon with fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin. His first step was broadcast live on TV to a worldwide audience, which heard him narrate that it was “one small step for a man”.

And, for 50 years, it has indeed been the case that only a man has taken a step on the moon.

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But now, finally, NASA has announced that it is ready to send the first woman into space. It’s an exciting move, but one that also begs the question: why has it taken so long?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that there haven’t been many more crewed trips to the moon since Armstrong and Aldrin landed there in 1969; the US carried out just five more crewed landings, all between 1969 and 1972.

Space travel isn’t cheap, and spending money on getting to space when there are schools, social services and more to fund can be difficult to justify.

But another part of the reason why NASA hasn’t send any women to the moon until now is likely down to good old-fashioned sexism, and the undervaluing of women.

At the time of the Apollo landings, there were no women astronauts; in fact the only women you were likely to hear about at the time were the wives of astronauts. It isn’t until recently that we’ve started hearing more about women involved in space travel. Women like Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who helped get astronaut John Glenn into space and was one of the subjects of the film Hidden Figures, and Mae Jemison, the first woman of colour in space.

Despite the strides that have been made for women in the space sector – growing numbers are carving out space of their own in the UK sector – there are still problems. NASA had to cancel its all-female spacewalk earlier this year because it didn’t have enough spacesuits for all the women due to take part. It’s the perfect demonstration that getting women to space has been an afterthought.

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Until now. As part of the Artemis mission – named for the twin sister of Apollo and the goddess of the moon in Greek mythology – the first woman will go to the moon by 2024. What’s more, she’ll be going to a part of the moon where no human has been before: the South Pole.

The Artemis mission will also aim to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028, and will be the first step in NASA’s goal to send humans to Mars.

It’s not yet known who the woman selected to go to the moon will be, but there are currently 12 female astronauts on NASA’s roster.

Here are some of the amazing women who could be the first woman on the moon, alongside some of the incredible women who have been a key part of the space industry.

Christina H Koch

Koch was selected for NASA’s astronaut program in 2013, and completed her training in 2015. She is currently at the International Space Station, where she has been since March this year. Before becoming an astronaut, Koch worked as an electrical engineer for NASA, and spent time as a researcher in Antarctica. 

Anne McClain

Born and raised in Washington, McClain went to university in the UK, getting a masters in aerospace engineering from the University of Bath and a masters in international relations from the University of Bristol. She was the astronaut due to accompany Koch on the spacewalk, but had to stay behind because a suit that fit her could not be made in time. McClain is currently at the International Space Station.

The Mercury 13

Myrtle Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Janet Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jane Hart, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrle, Gene Nora Stumbough, Irene Leverton, Jerri Sloan and Bernice Steadman were all professional pilots were rejected from NASA’s space programmes.

The women all passed the same rigorous psychological and physical trials that male astronauts went through in order to gain entrance to the space programme, but weren’t allowed to go into space.

A documentary about the women, Mercury 13, follows the story of their legal battle against NASA for sex discrimination.

Mae Jemison

On 12 September 1992, Endeavour blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre. On board was Mission Specialist Four Mae Jemison, making history as the first woman of colour AND the first African-American woman in space.

Before becoming an astronaut, she worked for the Peace Corps and as a GP, taking engineering courses in her spare time. She was accepted onto NASA’s astronaut program in 1987, and retired in 1993. 

Mae Jemison with the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour 

Sally Ride

Ride was the first American woman to fly in space, and the third overall, after Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya from what was then the USSR. She was a student when NASA began looking for women astronauts in 1977, and was one of only six women picked in the first round. On June 18, 1983, Ride became the first American woman to fly in space, on a space shuttle mission where her job was to work a robotic arm that would help put satellites in space. 

In the run up to her mission, NASA designed a make-up kit for astronauts; Ride has since said: “The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want make-up – so they designed a make-up kit… You can just imagine the discussions among the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a make-up kit.”

Ride retired from NASA in 1987 and went into teaching. She continued to help students, particularly girls, study maths and science until her death in 2012.

Katherine Johnson

John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, but it’s fair to say he wouldn’t have that accolade if it wasn’t for Johnson.

Dubbed the ‘human computer’, Johnson carried out complex mathematics and double-checked computer calculations for NASA. She and other African-American women battled the double whammy of racism and sexism to do their jobs.

Johnson’s contributions to the space industry went largely ignored until the 2016 film Hidden Figures. NASA has now named a research facility after Johnson.

Images: NASA, Getty

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