April 3, 2010

Women Prepare For Another First In Space

After NASA's next shuttle launch, space will have the most women it has ever encountered at one time, the Associated Press (AP) reported Friday.

One woman is already circling the Earth in a Russian capsule that is heading to the International Space Station (ISS), and after Monday's launch NASA will have three more women orbiting the outpost aboard space shuttle Discovery.

NASA is also sending up four men with the space shuttle, so the men will still outnumber the women by more than 2-to-1 aboard the shuttle and station. 

It has been 27 years since Sally Ride became America's first female astronaut to rocket into space.

Among the women who will set the record is a former schoolteacher, a chemist who once worked as an electrician, and two aerospace engineers.  Three of the women are American and one is Japanese.

However, it makes no difference to educator-astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger's 3-year-old daughter Cambria.

"To her, flying is cool. Running around is being cool. Just learning and growing up as a kid is cool. There aren't a lot of distinctions, and that's how I want it to be," said Metcalf-Lindenburger, 34, who used to teach high school science in Vancouver, Wash.

The head of NASA's space operations was unaware of the feat that will be set by the women until a reporter brought it up last week.  Three women have flown together in space before, but only a few times.

"Maybe that's a credit to the system, right? That I don't think of it as male or female," space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier told AP. "I just think of it as a talented group of people going to do their job in space."

Discovery's crew plans to spend 13 days in space hauling up big spare parts, performing experiments and bringing other supplies to the nearly completed space station.  It is one of four shuttle flights that remain.  The launch is expected to take place at 6:21 a.m. on Monday.

Metcalf-Lindenburger and Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki will become the 53rd and 54th women to fly in space.

"I'd love to have those numbers be higher," said astronaut Stephanie Wilson, 43, who will be making her third shuttle flight. "But I think that we have made a great start and have paved the way with women now being able to perform the same duties as men in spaceflight," she told AP

Wilson became the second black woman in space in 2006, and there has since been only one other to follow.
Yamazaki will become the second Japanese woman to fly in space.

Yamazaki's husband quit his space station flight controller's job to follow her career and care for their 7-year-old daughter while she is away.

"It is very rare. In Japan, it's general for men to work and for women to stay at home," Yamazaki, 39, said. Just as she was inspired by Mukai, "hopefully, I can inspire younger women as well."

Tracy Caldwell Dyson will be the fourth woman, who was launched aboard a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan on Friday along with two Russian men.  They will arrive on Sunday and settle in for a sixth-month stay.

Dyson has a doctorate in chemistry and grew up in Southern California assisting her electrician father.

Metcalf-Lindenburger was a young earth-science and astronomy teacher when she found NASA's want ad for astronaut-educators in 2003.  She knows the potential risks of the launch but is ready to ride.

"Of course, the shuttle has its risks. But we've tried to make it as safe as possible, and there are so many things that we gain from it and there are so many reasons to fly it," she told AP.


Image Caption: he STS-131 astronauts pause after arriving at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for launch. They are, from left: Mission Specialists Clayton Anderson, Naoko Yamazaki, Stephanie Wilson, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger and Rick Mastracchio, Pilot James P. Dutton, Jr., and Commander Alan Poindexter. Image credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann 


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