Is outer space a man’s domain? You might think so in Germany, where the country’s 11 astronauts have all been men. They also dominate mission control at the German Space Operations Center, although Katja Leuoth is helping to change that.
Five years ago, Leuoth became the center’s first female flight director. Recently, a second woman was hired, she says. They and 10 male colleagues run the European portion of the International Space Station 24/7 from the compound in the small Bavarian town of Oberpfaffenhofen.
It’s a challenging job, but what Leuoth really wants is to be inside the module as it floats around Earth, especially when she talks to the astronauts.
“We had a couple of computer issues on the ground and we asked them to reboot,” Leuoth says. “And Scott Kelly was like: ‘Ah, maybe that is because of some solar eruptions I’ve just seen.’ And you’re just sitting down there, like, ‘whoa.’
“For them, it’s so common,” she added. But “it’s something I really would love to see.”
But she can’t — at least, not yet. The European Space Agency — to which Germany and 21 other countries belong — is not planning to hire any women in the foreseeable future.
Past female applicants say the agency only recruits astronauts every 14 years or so. Even when it does, it’s rare for women to advance to the final rounds.
The last time, about 1,700 women applied. But only one — Italian Samantha Cristoforetti — made it onto the team, says Claudia Kessler, the German CEO of HE Space, an engineering services company for the space sector with offices in Houston and across Europe. (Kessler says the name is derived from the last name of one of the American co-founders, not the male pronoun.)
Kessler says she’s frustrated by the trend, but not surprised. German women who go into the sciences or pursue technical careers often face discrimination at home, school and work, despite the example set by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is a chemist by training.
There’s even a derogatory term for working mothers in any field — Rabenmutter, or “raven mother.” It refers to the myth that a raven’s young are left to fend for themselves too early.
“I heard that when my daughter was small,” Kessler says. There is still pressure on women “to manage both kids and the job, whereas the husband can just focus on his career,” she adds.
“There are so many bright women coming up and they don’t even have a chance to apply” to be astronauts, she says. That’s because, Kessler says, ESA for now plans to select any new astronauts it needs from its backup list. And that list includes no women.
So Kessler decided this month to launch her own project, called Astronautin — the feminine version of astronaut in German — to recruit and train the first German female space traveler and send her to the International Space Station by 2020. The female astronaut’s mission during the weeklong trip will be to conduct experiments, including ones proposed by German girls, to help encourage their interest in mathematics and sciences, Kessler says.
“It’s going to be like a private mission to ISS, like there have been before,” Kessler says. “We are going to buy a commercial mission with the Russians.”
First she must raise more than $30 million, the cost for a seat on a Soyuz rocket. Kessler says she is pursuing that through crowdsourcing and company sponsors.
So far, the 50 applicants far outnumber sponsors. Another woman who plans to apply is Kessler’s friend and fellow German aerospace engineer, Tina Buechner da Costa, who was inspired to pursue a space-related career after seeing the movie Apollo 13.
Da Costa, a lanky, 37-year-old mother of two from Bremen, tests Ariane 6 rockets for a living and dreams of seeing Earth from space. “I’ve listened to a lot of astronauts describing this view, and every time, it gives me goosebumps,” she says.
Back at the German Space Operations Center in Bavaria, Leuoth also plans to apply, although she jokes she may wait a while before telling her mother.
“Have you ever seen a launch? You’re sitting on tons of fuel and somebody is holding a fire basically underneath,” she explained. “It is a dangerous thing to do, that’s for sure, but it is so inspiring, so I would definitely do it.”