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Does Mars need women? Russians say no

A top Russian space doctor's view that women shouldn't blaze a trail to Mars is only the latest controversy over sexism on the final frontier. Commentary by James Oberg.
The Russian space effort's last woman cosmonaut, Nadezhda Kuzhelnaya, is prepared for centrifuge training at the Star City complex in 2001. Kuzhelnaya resigned from the cosmonaut corps last year without ever flying in space.
The Russian space effort's last woman cosmonaut, Nadezhda Kuzhelnaya, is prepared for centrifuge training at the Star City complex in 2001. Kuzhelnaya resigned from the cosmonaut corps last year without ever flying in space.Alan Boyle / file

Are women up to the job of exploring Mars?

This week, the director of Russia’s top space medical institute told students that only men should be allowed on the first mission to the Red Planet, because women are too weak to endure the flight's rigors. His comments once again exposed the internal contradictions of a country that put the first woman into space while having the reputation of being the last European bastion of male chauvinism.

After addressing students at Moscow International University, Professor Anatoly Grigoryev elaborated in comments reported by Russia's RIA Novosti news agency: "After all, women are fragile and delicate creatures; that is why men should lead the way to distant planets and carry women there in their strong hands."

Grigoryev, 61, has been director of the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems in Moscow since 1988, specializing in spaceflight's medical factors. He is an academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a member of the Presidential Council on Sciences and Education, and has enormous influence on the selection and training of all Russian space travelers.

Novosti quoted Grigoryev as saying that the first flight to Mars would put an enormous psychological and physical pressure on the crew, and that only “experienced men” could endure such an ordeal. "It is better to send professionals aged 35-55 with mandatory prior experience of spaceflight on a two-year voyage to Mars," he said.

No women allowed
Grigoriev's views will soon be put to an earthly test: The institute is planning a 500-day isolation chamber study to simulate a human Mars mission by six men — no women allowed. Formal recruitment will begin at an international conference on space biology and medicine in Berlin in September.

Dr. Mark Belakovsky, the project's director, says the project has "tremendous support" from Russia's space agency and the Russian Academy of Sciences. In addition, colleagues from the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency have offered unofficial support, he said.

He told Russian journalists that the project will cost about $10 million, but he had no details on where the money would come from. The parent institute has been underfunded for more than 15 years, and most of its staff have either left or have jobs in other professions and only visit their desks sporadically.

Strong response
Grigoryev's reported comments sparked a strong response from Art Dula, a leading American space lawyer who has been chief counsel for space commercialization projects over the past 20 years. Dula said Grigoryev should either apologize immediately or face the consequences.

"Discrimination against women would make his organization, and any organizations whose activities it controls, possibly including the Russian Federal Space Agency, ineligible to contract with or receive funds from the U.S. government or any U.S. government contractor," Dula said in a statement e-mailed to

He said the U.S. government should tell Russian space officials that, "if Mr. Grigoryev meant what he said, then the U.S. will not provide funding, nor can they expect to meet and work with NASA personnel or contractors."

No space for women cosmonauts
At present there are no women among the approximately 40 cosmonauts in the Russian space program. The last female cosmonaut, Nadezhda Kuzhelnaya, resigned last year after 10 years of training to become an airline pilot. On several occasions, her flight assignments aboard Soyuz space vehicles had been withdrawn and given to millionaire passengers or astronauts from the European Space Agency.

Kuzhelnaya was the last in a dwindling cadre of female cosmonauts. The first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, was launched into orbit in June 1963, and the Soviet Union proudly hailed the feat as proof of the superiority of communism and the equality of women in their country. But after strident debate within the Soviet space program, the women’s "cosmonaut detachment" was soon disbanded.

In 1975, cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, commander of the Russian half of the Apollo-Soyuz international space docking, explained to journalists why the Russian space effort didn't need women. “When we analyzed the results of her flight afterward, we discovered that for women, flying in space is a hard job. ... After training, she will be 28 or 29, and if she is a good woman she will have a family by then. Now, you don’t subject a mother to such severe physical loads that go with the training, aside from physical tensions.”

The following year, Tereshkova’s husband, fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev, elaborated: “Nowadays we keep our women here on earth. We love our women very much; we spare them as much as possible. However, in the future, they will surely work on board space stations, but as specialists — as doctors, as geologists, as astronomers and, of course, as stewardesses.”

Cosmonaut chief Vladimir Shatalov told Russian journalists in 1980 that spaceflight was too demanding for women: “In such conditions we just had no moral right to subject the ‘better half’ of mankind to such loads.”

Women rejoined the cosmonaut program only after NASA selected six female astronauts in 1978 for space shuttle missions. Ten months before Sally Ride's precedent-setting flight on the shuttle Challenger in June 1983, the Russians launched an aerobatics pilot named Svetlana Savitskaya into orbit.

Savitskaya, daughter of the Soviet Air Force's deputy commander, was then dismissed from the program together with her backup women cosmonauts. But in early 1984, when NASA announced plans for one of its women astronauts to make a 3½-hour spacewalk later that year, Savitskaya and her colleagues were called back to active duty. That July, she made a 12-day spaceflight that included a spacewalk lasting 3 hours and 35 minutes.

The Soviets toyed with the idea of launching Savitskaya and two other women on an all-woman Soyuz mission to the Salyut 7 space mission in 1985, but political winds were shifting in Moscow, and “space spectacles” lost favor. The all-woman mission never flew.

Several women engineers from the Russian bureau that built human space vehicles competed strenuously to get into the program as civilian flight engineers, and several achieved that designation. The only one who actually flew in space was Yelena Kondakova, the second wife of a senior cosmonaut at the bureau.

As American women continued to work their way higher within the NASA program — joining the pilot program, commanding a mission and participating repeatedly in long-term expeditions to Russia's Mir space station and the international space station — they did so without any Russian female colleagues.

Bonnie Dunbar was one of those American women astronauts. In 1994 and 1995 she trained in Moscow as a backup crew member for a Soyuz mission to Mir. Dunbar found the Russian attitude toward women to be “reminiscent of the American male chauvinism of the 1950s, only a lot worse,” she told colleagues later.

Final frontier for sexual harassment
The Institute of Medical and Biological Problems has had difficulties working with non-Russian women in the past, which perhaps explains why none will be invited into the new test program. The most notorious case occurred in 1999-2000, during a 110-day isolation chamber test run with an international crew that included 32-year-old Judith Lapierre, a Ph.D. health sciences specialist sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency.

A handful of Russians and international partners had been isolated in a small spaceship simulator, where their interactions were observed by psychologists on television. Lapierre had been one of the three international test subjects who entered the mock spaceship in Moscow  Dec. 3, 1999. The three foreigners and one Russian joined four Russians who had been inside the three-room complex since early summer.

Less than a month into her run, Lapierre suddenly encountered serious problems. She was twice forcibly French-kissed by the Russian team commander, and soon afterwards witnessed a 10-minute-long fight between two Russians that left blood spattered on the walls.

She insisted that the controversial kisses were not merely “friendly celebrations” and that she had vigorously told the Russian to back off. She quoted him as saying, "We should try kissing, I haven't been smoking for six months. Then we can kiss after the mission and compare it. Let's do the experiment now."

Lapierre dismissed the notion that the Russian thought his actions were normal and acceptable. "Why did he try to pull me out of sight of the camera?" she asked.

Lapierre took photographs of the blood-spattered wall with her digital camera and e-mailed them home to Canada, and together with her male associates from Japan and Austria appealed to their sponsoring agencies to discipline the offenders. But they were told that such behavior was the norm for Russians and that they should either tolerate it or leave the project. They were also told that Russian cultural patterns prohibited Lapierre from making a public complaint.

The Japanese participant was so upset by the lack of prompt and energetic support from outside that he quit — but after being given locks for their rooms, Lapierre stayed. In the end, she decided the whole experiment had been a waste of time: "This was a chaotic field study, not a scientific experiment," Lapierre recalled. "They were not ready to host an international study."

When Lapierre's team first entered the modules, Dr. Valery Gushin, the scientific coordinator of the project, voiced attitude that in hindsight could have been seen as warnings about the problem. "Men, they have some expectations from women," he told a Canadian television team. "They want them to be more like women, not just partners. At least Russians do." 

Following the incident, Gushin blamed Lapierre. His official report, which Lapierre has seen, said she had "ruined the mission, the atmosphere, by refusing to be kissed." She should have been taken out, he wrote, and he also insisted that the foreigners had caused the fight.

After returning to Canada, Lapierre spent five years in court with the Canadian Space Agency. Even though the agency sponsored her participation with a research grant, Canadian officials insisted that since she wasn’t a full-time employee she should have had no expectation they would stand up for her against the Russian officials. She finally won her lawsuit last year, but she now believes she has lost any chance of becoming a Canadian astronaut.

With their cultural perceptions so vividly reinforced by such "un-Russian" behavior on the part of a non-Russian woman, Russian space doctors seem determined not to take any chances in the future. But it’s not because women are too weak or delicate, as Grigoryev recently claimed. As Lapierre showed them, just the opposite seems to be true.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg had a 22-year career as a space engineer in Houston, where he specialized in NASA space shuttle operations for orbital rendezvous. He has written numerous books about the U.S. and Russian space efforts, including "Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S./Russian Space Alliance."