Women Sharing Space

This is of Ajay Palvayanteeswaran’s pet theories:  No two Indian girl graduate students can get along as roommates. Sometimes, he would extrapolate it to all Indians in general or any two women. “It is not a sexist statement,” he would add. “In fact, it works in favor of all males. We should divide and conquer.”

Sylvia Earle

The stereotype about women being not being able to live amicably under one roof brings me to the story of  an oceanographer and explorer Sylvia Earle. In 1969, she applied for a chance to live underwater and conduct research for 6 weeks as part of the government’s Tektite program. The review board thought a mixed gender team was not the best way to go about this. Earle and other women did not make it to the aquanaut team. But the fact that they were as well-qualified as the men did not escape the notice of the board.

So, the next year, Earle was named team leader for Tektite Two, a shorter project solely for women researchers to  study the effects of pollution on coral reefs. Five women had to stay in cramped quarters for close to three weeks — except when they were diving in the endless ocean around them. There was some tittering about how the women might not be able “to get along.” But boy, did these women prove the stereotype wrong! Their pathbreaking work prompted NASA to open its astronaut-training to women the year after.

The ‘aqua-babes’ received quite a bit of media attentionWomen have made it to the International Space Station since. There hasn’t been an all-women crew on the ISS, but that might only be a matter of time.

Read Earle’s own account of becoming an aquanaut in the Best American Science & Nature Writing of 2013.