Astronormate: The Image of Ability in the American Space Program

By Anna Reser

Women did not enter the American space program until 1978--two decades and dozens of crewed missions after the formation of NASA in 1958 and the selection of the first astronauts in 1959. New historical scholarship is beginning to address the reasons for this, and it has offered a picture of how forces as various and complex as the gender roles of postwar culture, midcentury professionalization, and a lack of adequate medical data on women’s bodies excluded women from the space program. I want to add another potential axis to the structural morass that women were forced to wade through in order to eventually join the astronaut corps: that of disability.

I would begin, as influential disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson does, by arguing that the Aristotelian idea perception of the female body as merely a disfigured or imperfect male body structures the ways that women are regarded in Western cultures. The female body is seens as inherently disabled because it functions differently from the male body, which is considered the norm--the standard against which all bodies are compared. Disability scholars recognize a distinction between an old ‘medical model’ of disability that treats disability as the physical fact of impairment, and a social model that regards disability as the limits placed on an impaired person by a society designed to meet the needs only of the able-bodied. Both social and physical disability were causes of concern for the planners of the space program. This concern prompted NASA to create new procedures and protocols, and even new disciplines, to mitigate the threat of disability to its most important and visible members, astronauts.

Bodies are absolutely central to human spaceflight. Every part of a crewed mission revolves around the bodies and abilities of the crew, from the shape and size of spacecraft to the design of switches and seats, to the types of science experiments carried out and the programming language used by the spacecraft computers. The space program technology of the 1960s was designed to accommodate an extremely specific type of physical body, while the institutional structures of the space program were created around a specific type of social body. The language of disability, and the continuity it provides between the technological and the social, is essential in explaining, among other things, why there were no women astronauts until the late 1970s. In disability studies terminology, the 1960s astronaut was a perfect example of the “normate,” a term coined by Thomson to denote the figure in a given society that has the most cultural capital and the most access to participation in society. In the early 1960s, the normate was white, male, middle class with a profession, married, heterosexual, and able-bodied. This is a basic description of the first seven astronauts; military test pilot with a technical college degree would eventually be added. The normate, like the astronaut, is defined by what he is not--his normativity is constructed in opposition to various forms of difference like femaleness, physical or cognitive impairment, and race. As the figure of the astronaut as a white, able-bodied male became naturalized by NASA’s public relations and media coverage, the possibilities for different kinds of astronaut bodies became more and more difficult to imagine.

The selection of astronauts was largely a medical matter, and it was presented to the public as such. After eliminating people who embodied the unspoken disqualifiers of being women, or black, or impaired (among other things like having radical political views), and eliminating people who did not meet the technical and educational requirements, the men on the shortlist were then evaluated by aerospace medicine physicians who searched for the unseen impairments and potential disability that could not be eliminated by other social criteria. When the astronaut selection process is viewed as a continuum, and the elimination procedures at the beginning of the process are brought level with the medical procedures at the end, we can see that disability is the thread that ties them together. Being female was as disabling to the potential astronaut as having a hidden heart condition; the former is a disability that can be recognized on sight where the latter requires elaborate and often unprecedented medical testing to uncover.

Another way to think of the connection between gender and disability in the space program is to consider the extensive modifications that were made to its infrastructure and technology in order to accommodate women in the late 1970s. Amy E. Foster’s book Integrating Women into the Astronaut Corps: Politics and Logistics at NASA, 1972-2004 details the social, technological, and institutional changes that NASA had to make in its operations and organization in order to admit the first women astronauts in 1978. It was not a simple undertaking. Women’s restrooms and locker rooms had to be added to the architecture of ground facilities, accommodations for women astronauts to change clothes aboard the space shuttle and sleep in privacy had to be conceived, engineered, and fabricated. That most terrifying of lady-things, menstruation, had to be agonized over by teams of physicians and engineers who were so keen to contain the crimson tide that they sent hundreds of pads and tampons to space with the first women astronauts. The discussion of space shuttle toilets alone takes up multiple sections. The extent of the changes NASA needed to make in order to integrate women into the astronaut corps demonstrates that the human spaceflight program was designed from the ground up to accommodate only male astronauts. What kind of retrofit would be necessary to accommodate differently-abled astronauts?

Perhaps one last anecdote will help to illuminate the ways that disability functions as a social construction in the history of the space program. At the press conference announcing the first Mercury astronauts, the press was briefed by the head of NASA’s Life Sciences division, and the physician who conducted the medical examinations for astronaut candidates, Dr. Randolph Lovelace. He and the NASA officials conducting the conference assured the press that these men had met the most stringent requirements for health and physical fitness. The press wanted to know if astronauts would be able to smoke cigarettes on space missions, and if they would have to quit smoking (and drinking) while in training. Dr. Lovelace assured the press that the physicians and flight surgeons had no intention of making anyone quit smoking. This, of course, sounds ludicrous to us today, even a history of smoking seems like enough to disqualify someone from being an astronaut (not to mention that Americans would not accept a role model for school children who smoked). But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, everyone expected the astronauts to smoke because everyone smoked! Everyone expected the astronauts to be white, able-bodied men because everyone who had a position of influence and power in America at that time was white, male, and able-bodied. We certainly know better about the smoking part, and we’re getting better about the white, male part. But  there are still deeply entrenched cultural ideas about who is able to be an astronaut that have less to do with the so-called physical facts of the astronaut body and much more to do with the society and structures where astronauts function. These structures are designed with a default figure in mind. In the 1960s, that figure smoked! What other features of this normative figure are merely vestiges of a social and cultural mindset that no longer exists? More importantly, how can we actively change this mindset to make space for difference in our public institutions?

Further Reading

Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Disability in American Culture and Literature. Columbia: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Amy E. Foster, Integrating Women into the Astronaut Corps: Politics and Logistics at NASA, 1972-2004. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.