May 9, 2005

Women Still Strive to Break Space Barriers

CAPE CANAVERAL, United States (AFP) -- Eileen Collins will lead the Discovery shuttle as it blasts into space in July, but NASA's first female shuttle commander remains among the few pioneering women in the male-dominated field.

Collins became the first female shuttle commander in a 1999 mission, and she will resume that role in the fleet's first mission since February 2003, when the Columbia shuttle disaster left seven astronauts dead, killed as the shuttle exploded during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, created in 1958, first sent a woman into space in 1983, when Sally Ride rode in the Challenger shuttle.

The American astronaut Shannon Lucid was the first woman to spend time in a space station, when she visited MIR in March 1996. Lucid remains the only woman to have been awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

Despite the progress, a great gap remains between the sexes in space programs in the United States and elsewhere.

Out of 94 NASA astronauts, 20 are women today. Since the US agency's creation, there have been more than 400 male astronauts compared to 43 women.

The disparity is also evident in NASA's hierarchy. Out of 22 key management positions, only six are occupied by women.

NASA's new chief, Michael Griffin, pledged recently before a women's association in Washington to boost female presence in high-ranking positions.

"I think if you watch, as the months go by, you'll see more rather than fewer women in senior management positions ... as I select the team I will work with over the next four years," Griffin said.

Women's under-representation in the space and aeronautics field reflects a study showing the low rate of women earning engineering and science degrees.

According to a National Science Foundation study, men earned 83 percent of 5,265 engineering doctorate degrees awarded by American universities in 2003. That same year, 57 percent of science doctorates went to men.

Men also have a two-to-one advantage in physics, according to the study.

Harvard University president Lawrence Summers came under fire earlier this year when he suggested in a speech that differences of "intrinsic aptitude" between the genders partly explain the under-representation of women in top science and engineering jobs.

Ride, who obtained a physics doctorate in 1976 and teaches the subject at the University of California, objected to Summers' suggestion.

"It's not a question of ability but of providing the proper reinforcement for female students who have interests in science, math and technology," Ride told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Ride, who organized a fair in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to encourage girls to study science, said: "It's really important for girls to have role models, to put female faces on whatever career they want to go into."


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