Visible Women

NASA engineers genuinely thought women astronauts would need make-up in space

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Moya Crockett
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“You can just imagine the discussions among the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a make-up kit.”

Imagine that you’re an astronaut preparing to go into space. What essential things are on your packing list? A camera, perhaps, to take photos of the Earth from 380,000 feet. A toothbrush. A couple of changes of comfortable clothes (because you’ve got to have something on under that spacesuit).

What you probably won’t bother packing is your make-up bag, given that you’re about to go on an incredibly physically and mentally demanding mission that in no way depends on whether you’ve filled in your eyebrows. But apparently, NASA engineers in the Seventies had rather different ideas about what women astronauts would need in space.

The NASA History Office shared a photo on its official Twitter feed this week, showing a space make-up bag that engineers designed for female astronauts in 1978. It’s not a million miles away from a roll-up toiletry bag that you might take on holiday today, with sections inside to hold powder blush, mascara, a few pencils, a lipstick and eye make-up remover.

The overall effect is rather Glossier-chic. But it’s also – you know – ridiculous. 

The tweet included a quote from Sally Ride, who became the first American woman to go into space in 1983.

“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’s quote reads. (According to the Smithsonian Museum, this make-up bag never actually made it into space.) 

Ride herself was a fascinating character. The third woman to fly in space overall (after USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya), she earned her PhD in physics from Stanford University in 1978. That same year, she was chosen to join NASA after answering an advert in her student newspaper for applicants to its space programme.

Sally Ride in 2004

Aged 32 when she went into space for the first time, Ride had to contend with significant gender stereotyping. According to a 1983 profile of the astronaut published in People magazine, journalists asked her if the flight would affect her reproductive organs, whether she wept when things went wrong, and if she planned to become a mother. Before the mission itself, which was to last only a week, NASA engineers asked Ride if 100 tampons would last her the whole trip. 

Ride left NASA in 1987 after spending more than 340 hours in space over two missions. She became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, and then the director of the California Space Institute. In 2001, she launched Sally Ride Science, a company focused on inspiring children and adolescents – particularly girls – to study STEM subjects.

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Ride died in 2012. When asked in 2006 what she hoped her legacy would be, she said: “I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to do what she wanted to do, and as someone who took risks along the way in order to achieve her goals.”

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. Find out more about Visible Women here.

Images: Rex Features