Another Girl Another Planet

18 May
Libby Jackson

Libby Jackson

Space travel’s in my blood
There ain’t nothing I can do about it
Another Girl Another Planet – The Only Ones (1978)

The entertainment industry has always been better at putting women into space than the scientific community, and when women have left the earth’s atmosphere – or even got close to the launchpad – their achievements are likely overshadowed by those of their male counterparts.

Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura (1966) Jane Fonda’s Barbarella (1968), Ripley from Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986), Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone from Gravity (2013) – we know and love them all. But Valentina Tereshkova? Svetlana Savitskaya? Liu Yang? Show of hands… Anyone?

Author Libby Jackson touched down at Swindon Festival of Literature on Thursday to help celebrate some of these unsung women (as an aside, she didn’t have to travel 25 trillion miles to get to the Arts Centre – unbeknownst to those who booked her, she lives in Swindon’s Old Town).

Libby took us on a speed-of-light journey through women in space: Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space (in 1963); Svetlana Savitskaya, the second woman in space, and the first woman to complete (in 1984) a spacewalk (although whether she risked her life for practical, rather than propaganda, purposes is open to question, according to Libby); and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space (1983 – come on USA, catch up!).

Women from Canada, China, Japan, the UK, France, South Korea, and Italy have also been into space. Despite the publicity surrounding Tim Peake, who became officially the first British astronaut in 2015, it was – Libby reminded her audience – Helen Sharman who was the first astronaut to wear the Union Jack on her spacesuit, back in 1991 in a joint Soviet-British mission to the Mir space station.

Libby also celebrated the women who put man on the moon, or got him – and his satellites – into orbit.

It’s unlikely man, or man-made objects, would have left the atmosphere as soon as they did without rocket fuel scientist Mary Sherman Morgan. It was her invention, a liquid fuel called Hydyne, which powered the Jupiter-C rocket that boosted the United States’ first satellite, Explorer 1, back in 1957; or Margaret Hamilton, who wrote the computer code for the Apollo space program, and coined the phrase ‘software engineering’.

Through Libby, we met Ginger Kerrick, who went through the astronaut program in 1994, but fell at the final hurdle because she had kidney stones. Undeterred, she became the first non-astronaut capsule communicator – the person charged with talking to astronauts in space with an astronaut’s understanding of what they’re talking about – and NASA first female flight director, with overall responsibility for success of the mission and the safety of the space crew.

Libby’s talk – and her book, A Galaxy of Her Own: Amazing Stories of Women in Space – goes a long way (maybe as far as 240,000 miles) to ensuring we remember the names Tereshkova, Savitskaya, and Sharman as readily as we recall the names Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong (although to be fair, Michael Collins is still very much the Craig Logan to Aldrin and Armstrong’s Matt and Luke Goss, so even a seat on Apollo 11 doesn’t guarantee you worldwide fame).

Also to be fair, the women who played such an important role behind the scenes might be no more obscure than their male counterparts. I’m not sure how many statues stand to Robert H Goddard, credited with inventing the first rocket fuel back in 1926, or Hal Laning, on whose algebraic compiler Hamilton’s code was written.

Anyway, thankfully in the Western corner* of our little planet, equality means women play, and will continue to play, as important a role as men in getting us to our next destinations: Mars (stand up Gwynne Shotwell, chief operating officer at SpaceX) and beyond.

Libby Jackson is a pretty big deal at the Swindon-based UK Space Agency (although she insists she is “just a civil servant”) where she is manager of human spaceflight and microgravity. She previously worked as a director for the ISS European Space Agency, at Europe’s control centre for the International Space Station. Educated in the UK, she did her work experience at The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston (yes, that Houston – the ‘we have a problem’ one), which surprised her mum.

Words by Peter Davison. Image © Fernando Bagué

*Yes, I know the world doesn’t have corners. Our flat earth is clearly circular (winky face).

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