Time for the Space Cowgirl!
It’s not rocket science to say men hog the spotlight when it comes to the space race, and 2020 is no exception. As women join their ranks, trying to shift the balance, Dr. Mindy Howard, an astronaut trainer and specialist in mental training for space and flight anxiety management, thinks it’s time to change perspective.
“The way we have traditionally approached space has been very male and some would argue, ego-based. It’s all about ‘getting there first,’ conquering the unknown and colonizing new planets,” says Howard, who founded Inner Space Training (IST), based in Zoetermeer, the Netherlands. Howard, who will be the first Dutch woman to launch into space in 2023, thinks it’s time to do things differently: yes to including more women, addressing the space industry’s historic gender imbalance, and yes to taking on a more feminine perspective exploring space.
“Tackling space from the holistic female perspective is about being open and receptive to the unknown. It’s about using space to increase our planetary awareness and respect for the Earth. But this perspective is much harder to market for astronaut training.”
American by birth, Howard, now 54—and who still has the girlish enthusiasm of a cheerleader—has devoted her life to becoming an astronaut, starting with her childhood dream of buddying up with Steve Austin from the 1970’s 6 Million Dollar Man series and floating in space with him. She moved to the Netherlands when she was 24 and got her Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering in Eindhoven, then applied to NASA and was placed on its "Highly Qualified" Astronaut Candidate list and would do so repeatedly, though she was never selected for the final cut. She got her Dutch passport and applied to the European Space Agency, which did not accept astronaut applications, so eventually resigned herself to getting a job on Earth. She worked at Royal Dutch Shell in a variety of roles and ended as the Global Manager of Sustainable Development.
When Shell reorganized, it offered Howard training to secure her next job, and she immediately rekindled her astronaut dreams. She trained with a company in the USA that instructed commercial astronauts how to get used to the changing g-forces of spaceflight. It was then that she noticed other trainees struggling in the centrifuge. (She describes her own experience as feeling like a ton of bricks were flattening her—yet being blissed out.) She founded Inner Space Training in 2012 as a result, aimed at helping commercial astronauts prepare psychologically for the rigors of spaceflight.
“In commercial spaceflight anyone with a good budget can fly, not just Top Gun types who are highly capable, mentally and physically,” she says. She likens flying into space to going on a roller coaster for the first time, only more extreme. “I’ve seen big strong guys screaming like a baby in 6Gs,” she says, which is why she trains clients how to acclimatize psychologically before their mission and remain calm and focused. “Getting to space should be an incredible, life-changing moment. Clients are paying a lot of money for their flight, so I want to make sure they can make the most of it.”
Howard says that her personal interest of going to space lies in the transformational aspect of space travel and preparing clients for a holistic experience, versus just knowing how to withstand g-forces. “My goal is to prepare people so well they can potentially have a cognitive shift or transcendental experience. This is much more interesting to me than summersaulting in zero gravity and taking selfies.”
Howard uses breathing techniques, as well as NLP and neurofeedback tools to help clients stay emotionally and mentally calm, optimizing their “inner space.” She herself will be achieving her dream of going to space in the near future. She was hired to train, coach and fly with participants in AdvancingX’s Career Astronaut program, due to launch in 2023, which launches science-minded participants into space via a 1.5-hour suborbital flight.
What drives Howard most is hoping clients will achieve the “overview effect”, a peak experience many astronauts have experienced when being in space. The overview effect is when astronauts look back at our little blue globe and have a sense of unity or an a-ha, moment being connected to everything and everyone in the universe. “When you are fully connected, the ego is gone. It’s an experience that has a receptive feel to it, and some would say, a feminine energy,” says Howard. Those who experience the overview effect are forever changed. “You become more protective of the planet because you are it. It’s no longer about taking what you think is yours.”
Howard is also referring to Dr. Edgar Mitchell, the Apollo 14 astronaut and sixth man on the moon, who was an Advisory Board member at IST until he died in 2016. Mitchell had a peak experience on his lunar mission in 1971, compelling him to create the Institute of Noetic Sciences, dedicated to conducting scientific research on the fundamental nature of consciousness. “People ostracized him and the whole NASA community said he was nuts. People cautioned me not to approach him,” says Howard, who nonetheless did, sharing Mitchell’s interests. “I think the more people can have this oneness experience, the better off we will be on this planet.”
When it comes to the planet, according to research, women rank altruism, personal responsibility and empathy (which are strongly linked to caring for the environment) higher than men. In the USA, women are also more knowledgeable about climate change than men, who contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions, often in the form of the rugged, macho gas-guzzling cars they prefer to drive. When Elon Musk took his red Tesla Roadster for a spin in space in 2018, to the tune of $90 million, he exemplified men’s love of cruising in the back country.
Of course, the desire to explore the unknown, whether it’s earth or space, isn’t just male, but the main players in past and at the moment are—only 11.5% of those who have traveled to space are women. What’s more, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, the billionaires funding their boyish dreams of launching into the cosmos, have frequently vocalized their interest in colonizing Mars, which Marcie Bianco, Communications Manager of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, calls “a new hallmark in male entitlement.”
Bianco points out in her 2018 article that men have been culturally conditioned to think everything is theirs for the taking. This attitude mirrors our patriarchal society, which says if it’s there, it’s ok to grab and exploit it—and evidently, the same now applies to outer space. Whereas a feminine perspective would mean caring for and protecting the Earth, rather than trashing it and simply seeking riches elsewhere.
In that vein, Howard continues pushing for a much-needed culture change in the space industry, where women have routinely been sidelined. Ironically, most of Howard’s clients are male. “The adventure side of story attracts men, and you need balls to go into space. Of course, there are plenty of ballsy women out there, it’s just when boys dreamed of being astronauts they were encouraged. Girls weren’t typically fed this message until recently.”
It’s definitely working. More women are joining the space industry than ever before and making headlines, like: Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s COO, NASA astronaut Christina Koch, who completed the longest-ever single spaceflight by a woman in February , NASA’s Artemis project, which aims to put first woman astronaut on the moon in 2024, and the Russian Federal Space Agency, which also announced a potential all-female mission to the moon in 2029.
All positives, though Howard believes there’s still a way to go, which requires perseverance. “There are so many good intentions to promote women in space, but in practice it’s different.” She refers to NASA cancelling its first all-female spacewalk in 2019 due to a wardrobe malfunction—mainly, it only had one space suit available for its two female astronauts. “It’s the most intelligent organization in the world yet it still couldn’t figure out you need smaller suits for women!”
Hopefully NASA and the big commercial players will start getting it right because after 60 years of spaceflight, the time is ripe for women to also put their stamp on space—and Mindy Howard, especially.