Saturday, August 1, 2009

Pseudo-science in space: bring your testicles

A doctor announced China's amazing list of 100 physical requirements you must have to be the nation's first "spaceman." Among the list: no scars, no cavities, and no history of serious family illness for three generations back. Hmm. Does this mean you're required to have three generations of immortality? Or is serious trauma (perhaps stupidity-induced) the only allowable family cause of death?

Equally nonsensical, but left off the list of 100 health requirements (because it's so obvious, duh) is the one absolute requirement - a pair of testicles.

And before anyone wants to make a comment about how ridiculous the Chinese space program is being, check out our own cringe-worthy history. When recruiting began, Dr. Richard Lovelace included women in the physiologic testing for our budding space program. He found that women, on almost every single test, did as well and often better than men (oops). As a group, when it comes to endurance, women, in general, do better. You can chalk it up to thousands upon thousands of years spent dying in childbirth. Or perhaps fem-physio-endurance is due to an even cheerier alternative than childbirth death - packing up tents and trudging through deserts with a household (including children) strapped on our backs. While breastfeeding. Whatever the cause, there it is. Statistically, men, as a group, are better at tests of strength and fast-twitch muscles, while women, as a group, are better able to physiologically withstand - without losing consciousness - such extremes as drought, pain, G-forces, cold, heat, and teen curfew-breaking.

So what did NASA do with those results? Not just deep-six them and fire everyone involved. Oh no. That wouldn't be enough.

Instead, the government went on a public relations campaign. Luminaries like our own Senator John Glenn testified publicly about the potential horrors (shudder) of women in space, despite the existence of many highly-qualified women test pilots who had logged as many hours as himself and had also out-tested him (Jerrie Cobb, in particular). Did that step bury the very idea far enough for NASA? Oh nooo.

So what was the last nail in the coffin of American women in space? The government then found a woman, Nancy Cochran, to testify publicly at length about the dangers of letting women be astronauts. All this, mind you, while NASA's own physiologic testing results were being buried so deep even agents Mulder and Scully would've been challenged to find them.

NASA's ban on women was so effective that it took almost thirty years before the first American women piloted in space. This, despite the reality that Russian women astronauts began rocketing into orbit in 1963.

Pseudo-science has a long and ugly history when it comes to discrimination. Which means, looking over the list the Chinese doctor provided, you gotta wonder how long it will take China to include astronauts with cavities? Or ovaries?

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