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The highest glass ceiling

NASA expects that, when it returns astronauts to the surface of the Moon under the Artemis program, at least one of those people walking on the lunar surface will be a woman. (credit: NASA)

Almost every time I hear Jim Bridenstine talk about the Artemis program to return to the Moon, he mentions that It will have an American as the first woman to walk on the lunar surface. It is a somewhat subtle way to put the leverage of gender politics into the campaign to get support from the public and, more importantly, Congress. He is far from the first to use this kind of tactic to get political support for a program or law. He most certainly won’t be the last to do so.

Whenever someone from an underrepresented gender or racial group does something for the first time in a high-profile profession or activity, it makes news. When the first women CEOs of large companies were hired, the phrase “shattering a glass ceiling” has often been used. Considering how exclusive a club “moonwalker” is, a woman joining it would be huge news. There aren’t too many other occupations and accomplishments that at least a few women haven’t done.

While no woman has become president of the United States, they have participated in every other branch of power including the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court. Women have been leaders of other nations around the world. The glass ceiling of becoming a head of state was shattered long ago. While I’m not predicting any upcoming election, I would be surprised if the US didn’t have a female president within the next decade or so.

In my opinion as a male space geek, walking on the Moon is the last and highest glass ceiling left for women to shatter. It is, after all, 400,000 kilometers up! It would be an amazing accomplishment representing the work of tens of thousands of people, and the millions of taxpayers who made it possible. It is an elite club that has only 12 white male members. When we go on to Mars it’s quite likely women will be on the first crew so there will be no glass ceiling in place to shatter. That leaves moonwalker as the highest milestone for women to break through.

Besides the political leverage, what would be the advantage of a woman stepping out on the lunar surface sometime in the next decade? Imagine it is 2024 and Congress has fully funded Artemis and, miraculously, its development managed to remain on schedule. There will be the moment after the first lunar lander has settled down on the surface of the Moon near the south pole. A lander from a previous robotic mission is in position to broadcast the moment live to the world, perhaps. Hundreds of millions, if not more than a billion, people around the world are glued to their TVs, cell phones, and computers, watching with great anticipation for the hatch to open. In those countless multitudes are millions of children, including young girl,s watching. When that moment happens, think of how many will think, “Why can’t I do that?”

Most of the kids watching, as with the kids who watched Apollo 11 land, won’t become astronauts. But many will be inspired to pursue occupations in science, engineering, and other fields that helped make the landing possible. If it helps more women to want to go into these professions in greater numbers, it will thus help fill the ranks of jobs in the highest demand, keeping our economy fueled for decades to come. It will inspire people to dream like we did after Apollo. Instead of the defeatist attitude many have when it comes to the problems we face, what if it inspires more people to search for and develop real solutions? It will be great if people start saying, “If we can put a woman on the Moon why we can’t we (fill in the blank)?”

I personally would be just as inspired and more optimistic for our future if we accomplished a return to the Moon regardless of who walks out on the surface. I want to see it happen soon. But if giving the role of the next moonwalker to a woman makes it more likely to happen, I have no problem with that. I believe that the women astronauts currently working for NASA are more than qualified for the task. I think when the votes on this program are in front of Congress each Representative and Senator should be asked, do you want to give all these young children the inspiration to be optimistic about their futures and dream of doing great things? Or do you want to be known as the member of Congress who delayed or shattered the dreams of a generation of girls and boys yet to have their Apollo moment?

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