I recently found a meme on my Facebook wall stating that when Hillary Clinton was young she wrote to NASA inquiring how she might become an astronaut and NASA wrote back that females could not be astronauts. The comment below the meme was congratulating me for my success it seemed, not just at NASA, but as a woman at NASA. Reading it, I felt that my accomplishments as a scientist and as an engineer were being attacked. Every day when I am at my college or when I am at my internship, I find myself striving to prove that I am where I am not because I was the best woman for the job, but because I was the best person for the job. I strive to prove to myself and others that I was hired by NASA not because I am a woman with reasonably good grades, but because I have a set of skills, competence, and a resume that provide value to the agency. I have no way to prove this to myself definitively because of hiring quotas, but I can try by measuring my success against the men and women around me. I am blessed not oppressed, but I digress.
Hillary Clinton wrote to NASA at 13 inquiring how to become an astronaut. While it may be true that NASA wrote her back saying that females could not be astronauts it is interesting to note that by the time Hillary was 30, Sally Ride had been selected to the astronaut corps. Sally was born in 1951 and Hillary was born in 1947, both would have spent their childhoods knowing that NASA did not accept girls to the astronaut corps. Sally and Hillary were roughly the same age so what was stopping Hillary from persevering to getting as close as she could to space? She could have readied herself as an applicant by obtaining a degree in the sciences or learning to fly a plane. The acceptance of female astronauts occurred a mere 17 years after her inquiry. At the age of 13 Hillary Clinton had roughly zero of the credentials needed to get her to space, but at the age of 65 she doesn’t seem to have added to that list. Dr. Ride had degrees in Physics, Astrophysics, and English. Hillary has a degree in political science and went to law school. While these are no doubt useful to being secretary of state and a politician, they do not help NASA’s science mission. Astronauts are required to have degrees in a STEM field, and Mrs. Clinton did not obtain one. Astronauts are scientists and explorers and Hillary’s career choices show that she is neither of those things.
Furthermore, when Hillary was 13 the year was 1961 and the space program would have just been starting out. The Mercury astronauts were all military test pilots and they were the best of the best. Only men were allowed into pilot training and so only men would have met these initial criteria. In order to become an astronaut you had to be one of the best test pilots in the entire military. Only the best pilots became test pilots. This meant that you were one of the best pilots in the entire world.
The dangers of space were not yet known but it was clear that astronauts would have to endure large g-forces, cramped quarters, and medical complications. While the prestige associated with becoming an astronaut is high, Hillary likely wasn’t aware of the danger, discomfort, and complications that space exploration brings. The International Space Station (ISS) and the Shuttle have toilets and specially designed attachments that allow women to urinate easily. The lessons of Mercury, Apollo, and Skylab had been taken to heart and these vehicles were made safer as a result. Prior to Shuttle, only military pilots could apply to the astronaut corps, so civilian men who wanted to become astronauts were also out of luck, as were military men who simply weren’t the best in their regimen, or military men who had not gone to college, become pilots and in most cases obtained their masters.
Even now only 339 people have been selected as astronauts to date. Don’t worry Hillary you’re not alone. And to anyone who would send this meme to a successful woman in their life please think twice because they may not take it as a compliment.