Sexism In Space
​Astronauts Sunita L. Williams, and Michael A. Lopez-Alegria in their extravehicular mobility unit space suits. Image: NASA


This story is over 5 years old.


Sexism In Space

Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but in space they live really close together.

This is the third in a three-part series about sex and gender issues in space.

What happens when men and women live together in close proximity and under intense conditions for long stretches of time—like, say, in space? On December 3, 1999, Judith Lapierre, a 32-year-old Canadian health sciences specialist and astronaut candidate, arrived in Moscow to help find out. On the outskirts of the city, researchers from Russian and international space programs had set up the Simulation of Flight of International Crew on Space Station mission, or Sphinx-99: A 60s era three-room chamber mocked up to feel like a spacecraft on a trip to Mars. It was halfway through the experiment, and Lapierre was joining two other prospective astronauts, one from Japan and one from Austria, who planned to spend 110 days in the module, alongside four Russian men who had already been inside for six months. She was the only woman.


Things were fine until December 31—less than one month after Lapierre and her Japanese and Austrian counterparts had arrived at the simulation—when the inhabitants held a small New Year's Eve party. Celebrated in typical Russian fashion with a number of shots of vodka—there were reportedly many bottles of vodka and cognac involved, per local custom—the revelry was interrupted when the Russian mission commander, Vasily Lukyanyuk, approached Lapierre and suggested a make-out session.

"We should try kissing, I haven't been smoking for six months," he told her. "Then we can kiss after the mission and compare it. Let's do the experiment now." Lukyanyuk then attempted to yank her out of the line of sight of the two cameras that kept a constant surveillance on the crew and its activities. He aggressively kissed and manhandled her twice, even as she protested loudly.

This was following a 10 minute brawl which had occurred earlier in the evening, drawing blood from the commander and one of his compatriots. Lapierre would later say it seemed to be the result of both men gunning for her sexual attention. Following the brawl and sexual assault, Lapierre reached out to the Canadian Space Agency for help.

To her surprise, the Canadians were less than enthusiastic in their response. Lapierre was told that such behavior was normal for Russians and that it would be considered taboo within the culture of the host country to complain publicly. Her Japanese counterpart quit in disgust, but Lapierre chose to stay. After ten days of repeatedly requesting assistance from "mission control" to provide more safety inside the simulation, the leaders of the study finally agreed to install locks on the tubular crawl spaces connecting the Russian Mir module and the International Mars module. By this point, Lapierre and her international colleagues had already hidden all the knives in the station.


"I expected to be in better hands," she would later say. "But I'm doubting today what kinds of psychological support [the Russians] are giving to cosmonauts, if they are giving any, because I didn't get any from them."

At the end of the mission, Valery Gushchin, the Russian scientific coordinator, claimed that the brawl was a "friendly fight" and that Lapierre had "ruined the mission, the atmosphere, by refusing to be kissed." He also admitted that perhaps future Russian astronaut candidates could benefit from a little cultural sensitivity training.

The sense of male entitlement Lapierre experienced isn't unique to Earth. The incident in Sphinx-99 highlights just one example of the challenges of combining gender and sexual dynamics with the mission-based life of space travel. When mission crews leave Earth for months or years on end, understanding mixed-gender dynamics in isolation is critical to prevent further instances of sexual harassment or violence.

Before Lapierre entered the habitat in Moscow, Vadim Gushin, one of the government psychologists studying the participants, told ​a Dutch documentarian that women "can improve the situation drastically, they can smooth the relations between men. Or they can ruin it completely. It could be only two things."

In a closed environment, a feminist approach, "the approach of being a partner… that I am equal, I can do what you do"—that doesn't work, Gushin said. "The expectations of mens crew for a woman arriving is different. They want to help her, they want to be knights for her that save her, they could be even children from her. But they don't need one more equal partner."


In space, mission crews will not have recourse to their terrestrial mission control when problems like Lapierre's arise, which can be especially troubling when these instances of sexual violence or harassment are carried out by the leader of the mission, as happened in Lapierre's case.

"Here on Earth we've seen violence against women within the NFL and the Armed Services receiving much needed attention," said Dr. Marjorie Jenkins, a reproductive scientist Texas Tech University, who has advised NASA on sex and gender issues. Increasingly, space is an important venue for these discussions too, she said.

"In any system where violence is a risk or recurring issue, both setting and enforcing societal expectations of gender differences, education, and nonviolence [are important]," said Jenkins. "Consistent and transparent avenues for formally addressing and punishing perpetrators are also paramount to the societal balance and helping the healing process of the victim."

Structure seems to be generally lacking, however. In 2007, astronaut Lisa Nowak drove over 900 miles (allegedly wearing space diapers for the duration of the trip, precluding the need for rest stops) with plans to kidnap US Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, who she believed to be a rival for the affections of fellow astronaut Bill Oefelein. Following Nowak's arrest for attempted kidnapping, NASA instituted an Astronaut Code of Conduct for the first time in 2008, instructing astronauts on proper behavior related to work relationships, both in space and on Earth.


Despite a specific clause in the Code of Conduct pertaining to maintaining "professional standards in relationships [with NASA co-workers] in both work and social environments," these relationships can still become difficult for a variety of reasons.

One factor that's contributed to strained social dynamics between astronauts is the cultural image of the astronaut and the machismo attitude that swirls around it. Astronauts, particularly males, have known that their job description—not unlike that of the test pilots that paved the way to space, or fighter pilots—affords them a certain desirability among the opposite sex, something which can lead to an arrogance in sexual matters.

In his memoir Riding Rockets, former NASA astronaut Mike Mullane recalls that "there was an even more powerful pheromone than jet-jockey wings: the title 'astronaut.' We males found ourselves surrounded by quivering cupcakes. Some were blatantly on the make, wearing spray-on clothes revealing high-beam nipples and smiles that screamed, 'take me.'"

The sort of attitudes described by Mullane can, and often do, end up in space. One example: When Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya—the second woman in space—arrived at Mir in 1982, she was greeted with a floral apron as a welcome present, and mocking words implying that her place on the station would be in the kitchen.

Despite the callousness of her fellow cosmonauts, Savitskaya quickly made it clear immediately that she wasn't going to take any shit, and managed to establish a professional relationship with her four male counterparts for the duration of her weeklong stay at Salyut-7.


Increasingly, though, this hyper-masculine 'space cowboy' attitude among male astronauts is quickly becoming a thing of the past—at least according to one of them.

"I think that stereotype is no longer applicable," said Ron Garan, who last went to space in 2011 and spent a total of six months living on Space Station. "What I think does remain is that the vast majority of people who are astronauts are Type-A personalities. They tend to be overachievers, but they also have to get along with other people. If you have a type-A personality who doesn't know how to work together on a team then it's not going to work out."

Ron Garan on a Spacewalk; Image via NASA

Gay Space

Despite some setbacks in the past, 'working things out' may as well be the unofficial motto for space and its inhabitants.

Microgravity has long been the site of giant leaps across boundaries, whether it was overtures of friendship between USSR astronaut Alexei Leonov and US astronaut Thomas Stafford in 1975, the living symbolism of multinational cooperation that is the International Space Station, or the prime example set by the female astronauts and cosmonauts who have shown that despite their late start in space, they're just as capable as men at performing one of the most technical and dangerous jobs on, and off, the planet.

All things considered, this makes space a prime candidate as a progressive force in the ongoing struggles for equality waged by another marginalized group: the LGBT community.


A large part of bringing equality for all orientations to space begins by fostering an inclusive environment on Earth. In this regard, NASA has made large strides to becoming a more inclusive organization for people of all orientations and goes to great lengths to promote the LGBT cause.

In 2014, the agency established a protocol on fostering a supportive and understanding work environment for its transgender employees and those currently in the process of gender transition, in addition to regularly hosting workshops and panel discussions on topics ranging from how to become an LGBT ally to answering questions employees may have about the transgender community.

The majority of these initiatives are spearheaded by LGBT Employee Resource Groups which have been fostered by NASA at a number of its Space Centers. The first of these groups cropped up at the Johnson Space Center in 2010 and is currently chaired by Leslie Hammond, a Robotics Flight Controller at the center. Hammond is a straight ally but felt compelled to join the organization because she didn't believe that anyone should be discriminated against based on who they love. "I wanted to help," said Hammond. And Johnson Space Center, she said, was more than willing to take up her offer.

At Johnson, Out and Allied is one of nine ERGs representing various affinity groups within the agency.

"This is kind of a business practice that has come up lately in corporate America, and at JSC we're trying to follow some of those same patterns," said Hammond. "The idea is if you have a diverse workforce, you get better ideas."


Making NASA a more inclusive workplace is not a one way street, however. As the world increasingly comes to terms with the idea that sexual orientation and gender are not binaries, where one is either heterosexual or homosexual, male or female, space could also prove to be a bastion of equality for people of all genders and sexual orientations.

"A lot of astronauts who have gone into space and looked down on the Earth talk about how when they go up there and see that, they don't understand why people are fighting in the world," said Hammond. "I can only imagine that from the perspective of saying 'I am who I am and I can do my job just fine,' and because there are so many children in the world who are excited about what we do here, any discussion of [one's orientation] would reflect positively on the community."

There have been over 560 men and women who have served as NASA astronauts, although Sally Ride is the only astronaut to have openly disclosed that she was gay, albeit posthumously through her life partner Tam O'Shaughnessy. Their 27 year relationship was first disclosed in Ride's obituary.

This statistic is proportionately anomalous to the percentage of LGBT individuals in the US population, about 1.6 percent of whom identify as gay or lesbian and another 1.1 percent of whom identify as "something else," according to a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That means that, statistically speaking, there may have been 5-6 astronauts in NASA's program who have chosen not to reveal their true sexual orientation or gender identity.


"I think [coming out] is a very personal decision for the astronauts, although I'm confident the Agency and the Astronaut Office would fully support them if they chose that route," said Steven Riley,the Group Lead of the Maintenance and Mechanisms Systems Group, and one of the founding members of Out & Allied at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC). "You have to remember, just like celebrities and sports figures, these are folks who are in the limelight, and they want to focus on their primary mission of exploring space."

"From my own perspective, I wouldn't want my coming out to be the focus of my mission."

Riley is himself gay and feels that NASA has been an extremely supportive workplace throughout his nearly two decade career at the agency. Despite this support, he still understands the reluctance for astronauts to come out, if for no other reason than they have more important things to worry about hundreds of miles above the Earth. "From my own perspective, I wouldn't want my coming out to be the focus of my mission," he said.

There are a number of additional factors that could potentially have led to an astronaut choosing not to disclose their sexual orientation, particularly the fact that the vast majority of NASA astronauts served in the military, which until 2011 operated according to a Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"Why someone is uncomfortable with coming out is probably the same question you could ask at any place in corporate America," said Hammond. "I personally would be on board with anyone who would want to tell me about their orientation, but I think if you took a survey of the science community you'd probably have a similar percentage of people who said they feel uncomfortable about it."


Despite the continuing reluctance of astronauts to come out publicly, Hammond believes that NASA is doing a great job of continuing to promote LGBT issues within its community. For example, one of the Johnson Out and Allied group's main points of pride is being the first NASA center to be represented in a Pride Parade.

"[Out and Allied's] big thing is Pride Month. Here in Houston we have a great Pride festival and parade—thousands of people come to it," said Hammond. "This year will be our fourth year marching in it. People love it—they'll start clapping and cheering for NASA—it's amazing."

While NASA is doing a good job of keeping in step with the changing times, Hammond thinks things can get even better.

"There's always room for improvement; that's why the ERGs were created," she said. "HR, the Center's Director, the Inclusion and Innovation Council—they want to know how to make this a more inclusive environment, so they contact us and we try to help." Out and Allied is part of NASA's recruitment efforts, which seek "the best and brightest," Hammond said, with the hope of building a culture where incidents like the kind that happened in Moscow don't happen in Houston—or on Mars.

"I think more than anything that is how we're going to become more inclusive. It doesn't matter who you are or how you define yourself. We want you to come share your brain with us."​

Read more about sex and gender issues in space, watch ​our documentary about life on Mars, and explore the weird cosmos in ​our Spaced Out series.