When Neil Armstrong stepped out on the Moon, I was in an Air Force dining hall in Shemya Alaska. I listened to the description and heard Armstrong’s words on a radio, probably through the Armed Forces Radio Network. The network likely broadcast a television feed too, but there wasn’t a TV in the supply rooms, only a radio owned by a civilian, the guy in charge.
Most of my listening was done in between the tasks of preparing lunch and dinner for the 1200 or so soldiers and civilians on Shemya, almost all male. This was the 1960s, remember, and the possibility that women could do many of the things men did was just beginning to sink in. In the year I spent on the island, the only women were those who worked as stewardesses (not flight attendants, not yet) on Reeves Aleutian Airlines, the main civilian contractor serving the islands. They didn’t stay long and if you wanted to see one, you had to be at the NCO club at a specific time. Wikipedia says a radar station and refueling stop still operate there, but with only about 180 people, so there might still not be too many women.
That’s just the way it was in 1969. Men flew the spying planes, operated the radar and electronic eavesdropping systems, operated the airline refueling systems, ran the base amenities and cooked the food, which was what I was doing on the island. Not out of choice. Although I’d joined the AF to avoid the draft, thousands of other guys had the same idea so the AF had so many recruits it could put us where it needed bodies, so that’s how I ended up flipping eggs instead of being a photographer like I wanted.
And, of course, all the astronauts were men. So far, that’s all who have walked on the lunar surface. Women are said to be 51 percent of the population, but it wasn’t until the moon program was well over that women were even allowed in the space program, and then only in the space-truck and to spend time on the low-orbit-that-eventually-will-fall space station. That’s as far as they’ve gotten and that’s the way it’ll be until the Chinese or some big corporation sends a few into deeper space. There’s a good chance that the first women on the Moon and Mars won’t be Americans.
This didn’t start out to be a critique of gender politics in the American space program. It’s just another old guy reminiscing on the 45th anniversary of the first lunar landing. Thinking about where I was that year, on an island full of men, led to realizing the moon was full of men, too. Women are now such a part of the space programs — not just astronauts, but engineers, scientists, rocket designers, spacecraft operators and whatever other jobs there are in space-related programs — that we often forget that NASA once had pretty much ruled out women having any place in space. (And has it changed that much? Even today, women scientists are complaining of sexual harassment — by other scientists. Progress, you say?)
When I was a kid, 7, 8 years old, I saw a lunchbox with a rocket above the earth painted on it. The caption said “Mars Mission 2000.” (Or 2001, or 2010, I don’t remember the exact date except that it’s already passed.) Space was everywhere — on TV, in our toys, our comic books. Walt Disney produced shows about how we were going to the Moon, compete with scientists, including Werner von Braun. The slick magazines did articles about space missions, car companies put out cars with big fins and names like the Rocket 88 and a movie called Destination Moon gave us the dry, bare-bones details on how to do a mission to the Moon. No aliens, no monsters, no explosions — and no women.
When Russia lofted ol’ Sputnik into orbit, it scared a lot of people, but amazed the rest of us. Slowly, more and more satellites were sent into space, and then men. My mother surprised me as she watched a taped replay of the Alan Shepard sub-orbital launch, saying “What a great thing.” Yeah, I thought it was terrific, but Mom, too? Whoa.
And then it all turned out to be just a Cold War gimmick. That the only Really Important thing was that we beat the Russians to the Moon. To prevent them from setting up a lunar station where they’ll threaten us with nuclear missiles. And then we didn’t even bother to set up a station of our own. It’s just all so expensive, you see. We cannot go the Moon and fight commies everywhere to keep the Earth safe for democracy. (And we all know how that turned out in Vietnam.) So we turned away. Away from the Moon, from Mars (which is where von Braun wanted to go in the end).
Fortunately for us, it might be hard to put humans in space, but easy to send robots. If it hadn’t been for them, we’d barely know anything about the solar system and the universe in general. So why send humans at all? The simple answer is, the robots aren’t us.
I know, it’s easy to scorn the people who lived in the ’50s and ’60s as naive dreamers about space exploration. Reality has pretty well shot them down, eh? Perhaps, but at least they had dreams, hopes, aspirations. Space exploration promised us new things and new ideas (I’m not talking about Teflon, cell phones or drones here). As in all new explorations, there was a spiritual sense, a chance to rediscover oneself, to aim for something outside the norm. In the ’60s, we had some of that.
It would be nice to see some of it come back.