Wanted: Uteruses To Populate Space Colony

A new essay details how, in science fiction and reality, female astronauts are often treated like walking wombs.

NASA's First Class of Female Astronauts, 1979.

Sally Ride (right) became NASA's first female astronaut in 1983--twenty years after the first men went up. Next to her is Anna Lee Fisher, renowned for becoming the first mother in space.NASA

Who will make our sandwiches in space? In the 1960s, the vision of the perfect female astronaut was as a space mom—a woman who would cook and clean and sew spacesuits, all while using her bounteous uterus to give birth to the little boys and girls who would populate the final frontier.

Female spacefarers are no longer expected to make anyone's sandwiches, but an essay in The Appendix explores a gaping disparity in the way we view lady space explorers even now. Lisa Ruth Rand, a doctoral candidate studying the history and sociology of science, writes:

Before we shake our heads blithely and chalk this up to 1960s chauvinism, keep in mind that the role of women as interplanetary breeding technology persists in current American scientific and popular culture. Biological studies of the challenges of human reproduction in space have been periodically published in the intervening decades, with one article by NASA researchers on the subject published as recently as 2010. As of April 2014, the Wikipedia page for “Women in Space” is roughly half composed of discussions of motherhood in space—whether it is possible to become a mother in outer space, special risks for astronauts who are also mothers, and studies of mammalian reproduction in space science research.

Even in science fiction, Rand points out, writers build worlds where space explorers travel at the speed of light, make contact with alien civilizations, and order dinner through "Replicators" that synthesize food on demand—but women are rarely separated from their "biological destiny". (That is, except in dystopian novels such as Brave New World.)

Some brands of feminism contend that women will never truly be equal to men until they have the choice to distance themselves from reproduction. Notably, science may be further along in this regard than science fiction. In 2005, Popular Science documented one scientist's quest to build an artificial womb. Since then, artificial placentas and uteruses have kept goat fetuses alive for up to a week, and have successfully reared shark pups in an effort to save a species from extinction. It's an area of research that's fraught with ethical, sociological and scientific challenges—in short, it ought to be the perfect fodder for interesting sci-fi.