For Mars Missions, Sending More Women Might Make Economical Sense
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Earlier this month, four men and four women set up camp on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, treating the rocky slope of the volcano as if it were the surface of Mars. They live inside a dome. And if they want to go outside, they have to put on bulky spacesuits. It's the third round of NASA's HI-SEAS experiment.
KATE GREENE: They are basically test subjects where they fill out surveys, collect data, run their own personal experiments. And these are all used to kind of think of the way that we need to design a mission to Mars.
RATH: That's Kate Greene - one of those test subjects in the first round of the mission. Based in part on her time in the dome, she got to wondering why aren't more astronauts women? She explored those thoughts in a piece on Slate.com and tells me it's actually not a new idea.
GREENE: There were a lot of female pilots in late '50s and early '60s who were interested in becoming America's first astronauts. And there were tests that were run. And there was a whole campaign behind it. But in the end, NASA went with the test pilots - the military test pilot that are so famous that we know today.
RATH: What were the reasons that they thought that women might do better at being astronauts?
GREENE: Oh, there are a number of reasons. So some of the medical tests showed that women had stronger hearts that could withstand changes in acceleration. There were some isolation studies that showed that fewer women had hallucinations over a period of time as opposed to men. And then there's the more important thing. So women are smaller. They eat less food. They require fewer calories. And if you need to send up less food on a mission, you don't need to have as large a payload. You don't need to use as much rocket fuel. And you can save a huge amount of money.
RATH: Now, when you were on this HI-SEAS mission simulating living on Mars, you got to observe up close the advantage women had over the men.
GREENE: Right. And that's what got me thinking about it in the first place. So I was looking at the data one day. And, you know, this is all anonymous data. But I could see the sex of each subject. And I saw this trend that on average women were expending half the calories of the men on the crew. I just saw this again and again, week in and week out. And, you know, I also saw it sitting at the dinner table - who took seconds and who filled up their plate. It's kind of obvious. But it was nice to have the data to show that.
RATH: And talk about why this is important for a space mission.
GREENE: Well, when you think about a Mars mission that's - I mean, you're going to be in space for two-and-a-half years, roughly. I mean, the idea is for a round-trip mission, that you're just going to load - the payload is going to include all the food for the entire mission. That's a lot of food. When we got to our four-month HI-SEAS mission, we had to inventory four months of food. And I had never seen so much food in my life. I had never seen so much peanut butter. I had never seen so much Nutella. And this is the sort of thing that would launch on a mission to Mars. And if you can cut that payload in half, you're going to save some rocket fuel and you're going to save costs.
RATH: Is there any chance for getting this proposal to get some traction - to have an all female crew for a Mars mission?
GREENE: Well, it's a great question. And I love that it's being talked about as it is. So many of us have this idea of what a space mission would look like to another planet or to an asteroid. And it's a crew of mostly men and maybe a woman, you know, because that's what Hollywood tells us these missions look like.
It's fantastic to just turn it upside-down and conceive of an all-female crew. And what would that actually be like? And if it saves money, then maybe it should be worth discussing.
RATH: That's Kate Greene, a participant in the first HI-SEAS mission. Her newest article about women astronauts can be found on Slate.com. Kate, thank you.
GREENE: Well, thanks for having me.
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