Should we be a single planet species?

Theodora Von Arnim speaks with space veteran Marsha Ivins.

Theodora Von Arnim speaks with space veteran Marsha Ivins.

Marsha Ivins has seen the sun rise and set 16 times in a single day. She has operated a robotic arm to conduct maintenance work on the International Space Station. She has acted as a space consultant for an IMAX film which will enable millions of people to vicariously experience space.

Last Friday, we spoke across a 15-hour time difference, via Skype between Sydney and Texas.

Between 1990 and 2001 Marsha was an astronaut on five separate NASA missions, spending a total of 55 days in space. She says she “always wanted to work in the space program”, inspired by a childhood centred on space exploration. She watched the first humans enter space at the age of 10.

Encouraged by her father, Marsha began flying planes when she was 15, getting her pilot’s licence before her driver’s licence. In 1973 she graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder .

Following university, she had anything but a clear run into the profession. “There was a big downturn in space exploration during that time.” By 1974, she achieved her goal of working in the space program, but not without difficulty.

During high school aptitude testing she was discouraged from pursuing a career in engineering because she was a girl. But as she simply put it, “that was my path to working in the space program”. She never considered abandoning it.

When I ask if she had wanted to be an astronaut as a child, she says no. “It simply wasn’t an option. At the time all astronauts were men, which I was obviously not. They also had to be trained fighter pilots, and in the 1960s only men could be fighter pilots.” But by the time Marsha was hired to work at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in 1974, these standards were starting to change. Travelling to outer space became a real possibility.

Marsha first applied to be a shuttle astronaut in 1978, and was rejected twice before being selected several years later in 1984. She is one of very few women to have been sent to space since the beginning of extra-planetary exploration. However, Marsha doesn’t view her specific profession through a gendered lens.  “I think if you asked most astronauts, they would not say ‘I am a male astronaut, or I am a female astronaut’.   It’s irrelevant. I am an astronaut who happens to be a woman,” she says.

Yet gendered imbalance in the industry of space flight, with all its masculine hype, seems ingrained. Of the 540 people who have been to space, only 59 have been women. Germany is yet to send a female astronaut into space.

Fortunately, this trend seems to be shifting in the right direction. Half of NASA’s most recent astronaut class were women, while the class before had only six from 45. More women are entering the basic science and technological fields that funnel candidates into the space programs run by NASA.

We speak about the recently released IMAX film A Beautiful Planet, which films astronauts in the International Space Station and includes breathtaking shots of the earth from outer space. Marsha was the space consultant for the film, which involved coordinating filming in the space station with NASA.

But according to Marsha, the most important sight in the film isn’t outer space, but the “human footprint” you can see on the Earth – smoke that covers entire continents, and pollution from rivers washing into the ocean.

She has seen the impact we are having on our planet from millions of kilometres away – a process which may eventually make human life on other planets a necessity. Marsha cites an analogy from the film: that they must maintain the planet like they maintain the space station. “We need to take care of our planet. If we don’t take care of it, then it wont protect us,” she said.

Marsha’s space trips spanned over a decade, yet she labels the changes in space technology over that period “peripheral”. In the 15 years since her last trip not much more has changed: “The Space Station is still flying with the same 50-year-old technology”.

“The current system works, because we haven’t done anything more challenging, or even nearly as challenging as travelling to the moon” she said.  In the absence of a space arms race with Russia, willingness to invest in space programs has fallen significantly. “Barring some national programs seeking to establish their own space capabilities, there has been very little progress.”

“Advancement in space technology is a very expensive proposition,” Marsha admits, but she suggests it should be the subject of reinvigorated prioritisation. She cites the benefits to every day life that come from developments in space technology. The era of space exploration heralded huge leaps in computer technology, with miniaturisation facilitating the iPhones of today. A concerted effort to send humans to other planets would bring with it significant developments in technological capabilities – by pursuing our drive to “make the unknown known” we learn and develop our common pool of human knowledge, she argues.

“Think about all the stars we can see and the billions that we can’t see, how many planets exist and how many of them could have perfect conditions for life,” Marsha prompts. For Marsha, the possibility of finding valuable planets is more salient than the discovery of evolved life.

My experience of Marsha was as both veteran – an old-school explorer from an era of early tech – and an optimist with an eye on the future. A woman who has been at the forefront of her profession for the past 30 years, Marsha seems impervious to the gendered structures that have deterred many others from flying a fantastic path.