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Historic mission will inspire new generation, space veterans say
As China is set to send its first female astronaut into space this weekend, American women who have made the journey will be tracking her historic trip.
Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, said she believes the inclusion of women in the space program is highly significant for young Chinese women.
Growing up during NASA's high-profile Apollo era of human space travel, Jemison was both irritated and confused by the program's lack of women.
"If I had seen someone like me involved in NASA when I was a little girl, it would have given me a great big grin and made things a whole lot easier when I was starting out," she said. "It's not just that you can see yourself in that position, but also the fact that then other people understand that there is a wide range of talent to draw from.
"Including female astronauts on the Chinese launch is a very conscious and important decision," said Jemison, who served as a mission specialist aboard space shuttle Endeavour on its second trip into orbit in September 1992.
NASA, the US space agency, suffered as a result of its gender exclusion during the early years of space travel, said Howard McCurdy, a professor of public affairs at the American University in Washington, and the author of several books about space.
"If humans are going to travel in space, it's important to include both men and women," he said. "Having women in space helps build public support for the endeavor."
For China, leaving out women would be cutting the potential for progress in half, Jemison said.
"China has tremendous talent and resources, but if you don't bring all your best players in, you're not going to have the best opportunities to understand how things can be better, and how to make stuff happen more effectively. I'm very excited that women will be included on this flight."
Pamela Melroy, a former astronaut and air force pilot who served both as pilot and commander on US space shuttle missions before retiring in 2009, pointed to China's requirement that its taikonauts be trained as military pilots. She said this ensures Liu Yang - the likelier of the two women to be on board the Shenzhou IX craft when it docks with the orbiting Tiangong-1 module - will be of a special breed.
"I feel a special kinship with her, because there are so few women pilots in space," Melroy said in an interview with China Daily. There have only been three American women pilots, all during the shuttle program; most female astronauts have been scientists and engineers.
"I am so excited and pleased," she said.
Melroy, a veteran of three shuttle missions - she piloted Discovery in 2000 and Atlantis in 2002 and was commander aboard Discovery in 2007 - hasn't met Liu or Wang Yaping, the other woman being considered for this weekend's mission, but she has spent time with other taikonauts at international conferences.
"In this field, you have to learn to work together with different people because your lives depend on it," Melroy said. "When you become a pilot you cannot allow yourself to be distracted; you have to continue to maintain control of the aircraft in all situations. It requires a certain personality type and mental toughness, so I am 100 percent sure that the woman selected will handle herself well, based on her military flying background."
China's first women in space should expect their lives to change as a result of their achievement, Melroy said.
"Life will never be the same," she said. "It's such a unique and rare opportunity, and what happens is that people feel that they have a piece of space through you, so for the rest of your life, it will be a big part of your identity.
"It's 99 percent a blessing and 1 percent a curse - people only want to talk about that experience with you, because they are so fascinated. It tends to dominate conversations and relationships. Particularly if you are the first of your kind, the level of celebrity and intensity is very high. But of course, the potential to be a role model for kids is also very, very inspiring."
Jemison said she takes that responsibility very seriously.
"The biggest question I asked myself was what difference I could bring to the equation," she said. "Celebrity comes with it, and it's a question of what you do with it. I think that the Chinese astronauts should look inside themselves and not be afraid to bring their own perspective, and not be afraid to use their place at the table. It's a simple statement, but sometimes it's hard to do."
Jemison, who leads 100 Year Starship, a venture between NASA and the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to promote research toward the goal of human interstellar flight, traveled to China in 2005 to tour the Chinese space agency. She met several young Chinese women who were also in training to potentially become taikonauts.
"I was very impressed by the technology that was being developed in China, and for the energy and enthusiasm for space travel," she said. "All I had to do was mention (first Chinese astronaut) Yang Liwei, and the kids would scream and shout.
"I think space represents the future, and hope and aspiration. When I see that investment in China, I think it's an investment in the future. That's the reason it's really important that we have full representation of all the talent we have, and that's why space travel has to include women."
Henry Hertzfeld, a research professor of space policy at George Washington University in the US capital, said space travel remains highly symbolic for nations.
"It represents technological capability, and in terms of strategic thinking and world presence, it ensures a seat at the table. To have women in space is a further type of symbolism because it represents the same acknowledgment of women that you see in other nations."
As for reports that Chinese female astronauts should be mothers, in case radiation damages fertility, McCurdy believes women are no less equipped than men for space flight.
Although long-duration missions in space may involve radiation exposure, both genders are susceptible to reproductive dangers, he said.
"Instead of asking whether female astronauts face disadvantages, why don't you ask whether males face disadvantages?" Jemison said. "One can always find a particular thing that will pose disadvantages for someone. The most important issue is full representation."
(China Daily 06/15/2012 page1)