Of which nationality will the first woman to walk on the moon be?

Although the number of women astronauts has increased, none has yet stepped on extraterrestrial soil. The situation could change by 2020, the approximate date at which the missions for manned space stations on our satellite are expected to resume.

On June 16, 1963, Valentina Terechkova became the first woman to fly in space. Since this Russian woman's precedent, 56 other women astronauts have entered the pantheon of those who have ventured past the confines of the Earth's atmosphere. None of these American, European, Japanese or Chinese women have had the opportunity to set foot on an extra-terrestrial rock, however, whereas twelve men have already enjoyed a stroll on the Moon.

The renewed interest that nations with leading aerospace programs show in the natural satellite that lights our night could contribute towards balancing the scale in the near future. As conquering Mars and the project of walking on an asteroid are being studied, the lunar environment provides the ideal training base to test both technologies and the candidates (men and women) for these future missions.

Indeed, with a total absence of any atmosphere, draconian differences in temperatures (from -120°C to 230°C) and high radiation, without omitting a surface of abrasive dust, the Moon's surface provides the most hostile environment that the astronauts can be subjected to. If the equipment and astronauts survive there, one can hope that they would be capable of doing so on the red planet.

China seems to be leading the race towards the complex process of manned lunar missions. China's Jade Rabbit, a remote controlled vehicle, is currently on the Moon, and the country foresees launching a space station in orbit around Earth by 2020 - a step in the development of a module that would travel to the Moon. Furthermore, the last Chinese space flights each included a woman.

The other aerospace leaders are also active. There are about 40 astronauts in the United States, of which 11 are women (compared to only two Chinese women astronauts), and the country has the technical capacity to fly to the Moon. The United States are also collaborating with the European Space Agency (ESA) on building a space shuttle to provide support in orbit prior to, and returning from, moonlandings. This international collaboration could allow the Italian, Samantha Cristoferetti, the only European woman of six active European astronauts, to sit in one of the space shuttle's four seats.

Finally, the Russians hold a peripheral position. Of the 41 active astronauts that are likely to go into space, only one is a woman. They are, however, working on a return trip to the Moon with robotic moonlanding missions that are precursors to programs for manned space stations in partnership with the ESA. There is therefore room for a first woman on the Moon. Whichever her nationality, this event will certainly mark a small step for women and a giant step for equality. 

For Women in Science

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