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Why didn’t President John Kennedy put women in outer space decades ago?

The first all-female space walk was cancelled last week because NASA didn’t have space suits of the right size for both female astronauts. Most NASA suits are designed for men, who are larger. So the walk was changed to one woman and one man.

Predictably, this raised a cry about female victimhood in a male-dominated world. So a little background is in order.

In April, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, but only after dogs, monkeys and other non-humans (including turtles, mice, fruit flies and plants) had gone up first “to test the survivability of spaceflight, before human spaceflights were attempted.”

Six weeks after Gagarin put the Soviets ahead in the space race, President John F. Kennedy told Congress that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

JFK did not mention putting a woman on the moon too, or even into Earth’s orbit. Yet there was no outcry about discrimination. That’s because Kennedy was not discriminating against women. He was protecting them.

The early years of the space race was a time when rockets, both Soviet and American, frequently blew up on the launch pad. In 1967 three American astronauts, Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee, were killed in a fire when they were trapped inside their capsule during a launchpad test.

Early spaceflight included the risk of not even knowing what effect just being in space would have on humans. Astronauts returning from flights were quarantined until doctors made sure they hadn’t picked up any space viruses that might be transmitted to the rest of us. That’s why the order of risk-taking in space exploration was non-humans first, then men, then women.

Undoubtedly there were qualified women who could have gone into space in the Kennedy era. Female pilots had ferried fighter planes during World War II and performed other traditional male roles.

But sending women outside the atmosphere at that time was as unthinkable as putting children in harm’s way. When Grissom’s Mercury capsule splashed down in July, 1961, it and his suit filled with water. The capsule sank. He nearly drowned. John Glenn’s 1962 re-entry had a glitch which it was feared would incinerate him. Had JFK called for women in space he would have been pilloried for it and called a madman by everybody, including women.

 

When the Space Shuttle “Challenger” blew up in 1986, killing all on board, the only member of the crew the public remembered was Christa McAuliffe. That’s partly because the death of a woman was then and still is considered a greater tragedy than that of a man.

This is worth remembering in the NASA dustup. Feminist victim claims are often wrong. One example is Marisa Porges writing in The New York Times. Ms. Porges, ironically enough, is the head of an all-girl school (another vestige of female protection), although she sees no problem with that. She finds female discrimination against males useful and necessary.

Along with her rage at NASA for not having enough female accommodation, Ms. Porges notes that when she was a Navy pilot she had to sign a waiver because the ejection seat of her jet was designed for a man, not a smaller woman.

But again, there was a reason for that, and it wasn’t discrimination against women. If anything, it was discrimination against men. Only men flew in combat, only men were drafted to fight (an inequity Ms. Porges and other feminists are still in no hurry to fix), and thus it was only men for whom combat aircraft and other weapons were designed.

Same with space suits. Astronauts were chosen from the ranks of military test pilots, many of whom had seen combat in World War II, Korea or Vietnam.

Ms. Porges also raises the common complaint about women juggling parenting and workplace, while men supposedly skate. She doesn’t mention that at least women have flexibility and choice. Men usually don’t. Nor does she mention that women are compensated with a far larger share of child custody, which is a big reason they do more parenting. If men got a fair share, a lot more women would be free to devote a lot more time to the workplace.

Indeed, if we finally started to draft women for military service, fewer men would have to serve and the casualty rates might be a bit more equitable (it’s currently about 10 males for every female).

It’s time for real equality, not just the selective feminist kind. Not only in space suits but everywhere, even all-girl schools.

Mark Godburn is a bookseller in Norfolk and the author of “Nineteenth-Century Dust-Jackets” (2016).