I’ve just finished an intriguing project – I was asked to curate a special exhibition in the theater lobby at the Old Globe in San Diego, to accompany a play called “They Promised Her The Moon.” The play is about the women who wanted to become astronauts in the early 1960s but had not been able to acquire what NASA required – advanced jet test piloting experience. It was a consequence of the era; women were not barred by NASA on the grounds of gender. Instead, the places where they could have obtained the vital years of experience needed were closed to them. Piloting a spacecraft in – and back from – the unknown required people with a large amount of engineering expertise and years of operational experience test flying jet aircraft. Women had proven themselves as incredible military pilots in World War II and yet, as soon as the war was over, they were dismissed. This came at the worst possible time for them: the era of the jet. Largely sidelined into flying prop airplanes – if they could find flying opportunities at all – women pilots did not have anything like the needed experience military men were allowed when NASA came looking for the best, a decade and a half after the war.
Nevertheless, space was the unknown. No one truly knew what attributes the first people to go there would need. Anything was possible, or at least up for consideration. If piloting experience turned out not to be as important, and attributes such as weight, oxygen consumption, and adaptation to tough environments turned out to be key, then women had a strong case that they were more suited for the first missions.
But these attributes were not as important. Cutting-edge piloting experience was not only vital, it was also proven over and over that it was often the only thing that got astronauts back alive.
A generation of women was therefore shut out of flying in space – except one, a Russian woman who flew for propaganda headlines and then was grounded. Eventually, however, women made their mark in space, as scientists, and engineers, spacewalkers, and space station commanders. When the US military gradually relented and allowed women access to cutting-edge jets, those talented aviators were snapped up by NASA at the earliest opportunity and became space shuttle pilots and – at long last – mission commanders.
It was not easy for me, given the remarkable progress of women in space, to choose just a few spacefarers to represent an entire historical area. At the time of creating the exhibition, 63 different women had left the ground in a space vehicle. 62 of them had made it into space. For the wall area I had to work with, I figured I could choose 28 at the most.
I included some remarkable firsts. Not only the first women from Russia and America, but also from England, France, Canada, Japan, Korea, Italy, India, and China. I included the first woman to pay her own way into space as a private citizen. I included the first mother, the wife of the first married couple to fly, the first Latina, the first African-American woman. The first woman to live on a space station. The first to command one.
I included those who died, on the Challenger and Columbia tragedies, and in a plane crash while training. They are sobering reminders that space exploration will always be dangerous. I also included Barbara Morgan, who completed the educational mission that Challenger planned to carry out, as one of many ways to explain how exploration continues even after tragedy.
Additionally, I was asked to write a two-page overview of women in space for the play’s program. Again, it was hard to summarize so much in so short a space, but I did my best.
I’d read the script of the play, and I liked it. So many books, magazine articles, and television shows get the historical events it covers so wrong, attributing injustice and villainy in undeserved places. This play seemed to have avoided such pitfalls. But the night I went to the Old Globe to see it, I had not seen the program, nor the final incarnation of the exhibition on the wall – and I had not seen the play.
I love theater. If you know me, you know this. I love the literal drama of it. I go a lot, and I generally leaf through the program, reading as much as I can in the pre-show gloom with middle-aged eyes. Sitting incognito in the audience, this time, I wondered – would people read what I wrote?
I couldn’t have been happier. The couple next to me opened the program, and read the piece. Studied it. Discussed it. Around me, I heard others doing that too. It was hard not to say anything to them. I thought of how long this play might run, and how many hundreds of people every single night might read this piece.
The play was also better than I had hoped. Of course, it was a drama, so some historical events were condensed, with real people made more symbolic than they were to emphasize a theme. But all of that felt justified to me. Most importantly, it worked as a piece of moving drama. We saw the complexities of what the media can dream into reality, whatever the truth is. We saw how dramatic showdowns can happen behind the scenes between very different personalities, clashes that poison alliances forever. What surprised me the most was how bravely real the play felt. Social progress can be complex. Perceived allies can turn out to be anything but. People with inner drives and motivations may turn out to have very different goals from yours.
Personal goals can be powerful, but sometimes failing to reach them does not make for an inspirational tale. It can just mean that life can suck and that things were never going to be as we hoped. Sometimes, no one in these battles is wrong – they are just there to fight their fight. They are not there to fight yours.
Best of all, the nuances of the play showed that sometimes – perhaps even unknown to ourselves until it is pointed out to us – we may only seem to fight for causes, for everyone. Sometimes, the cold, hard truth is we wanted something only for our own, ambitious selves. That’s reality, and this play, while never belittling the ambition of the participants, delivered it.
That only left the thing I cared about most – the lobby display. Would people just walk by it and not notice it? To my delight, during the intermission and after the play, I watched patrons stand three to four deep to intently study it and read all about these remarkable women. All three elements of the theater experience were playing off each other, and the audience seemed very into it all.
The story of women in space is a very important one. Personally, I’ve been fortunate to work with many women astronauts. One carried something into space for me. One was even my boss for a number of years. I can only imagine what curating an exhibition such as this is going to be like a few decades from now. There should by then be women who have left earth orbit for further destinations. Perhaps they will have walked on the moon. Certainly I hope that the woefully old-fashioned headlines I still (yes, still) see used for anniversary articles coming out this year, such as “First Men on the Moon,” will seem even more ridiculous. There will be people on Mars. And the “first man on Mars” might not even be a name we remember – because he might not be one of the first people there at all.