How NOT To Write About A Woman Astronaut

The International Space Station crew members (L to R) U.S. astronaut Karen Nyberg, Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano walk after donning space suits before the launch at the Baikonur cosmodrome May 28, 2013. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

[Follow up: How NOT To Tweet A Woman Astronaut]

I had heard that a US woman astronaut, Karen Nyberg, was docking at the International Space Station (ISS) last night for a 167-day mission and decided I wanted to know a bit more about her.

So, I looked her up and the first article I found about the launch of the Soyuz capsule she took to the ISS was this one from Reuters/Yahoo that begins thusly:

A veteran Russian cosmonaut, a rookie Italian astronaut and an American mother on her second flight blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Tuesday for a six-hour ride to the International Space Station.

Here are the two things I can assume based on these descriptions:

  1. She’s not an astronaut.
  2. And the Russian and Italian space explorers are not fathers.

Of course, she is an astronaut. And it turns out both the Russian cosmonaut and the Italian astronaut have two daughters. Interesting short descriptions of these amazing professionals, Reuters/Yahoo.

Also, this is also a possible interpretation of that first sentence:


So, let’s learn more about these space travelers from the Reuters/Yahoo article:

First: “In command of the Soyuz capsule was cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, 54, who already has made two long-duration flights aboard the space station and one aboard NASA’s now-retired space shuttle.”

Second: “He was joined by Luca Parmitano, 36, a major in the Italian Air Force. Parmitano, who initially studied political science and international law at the University of Naples, and will be the first Italian to live aboard the station.”

And now Nyberg: “Rounding out the crew is NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, a 43-year-old mechanical engineer who has one previous spaceflight on her resume, a two-week shuttle mission. She leaves behind her astronaut husband, Doug Hurley, and their 3-year-old son, Jack.”

Ok. Sure. The mother has left behind her husband and child. WE GET IT, REUTERS/YAHOO.

Here are other things about Nyberg that maybe would interest someone (from Wikipedia):

  • Nyberg graduated summa cum laude with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of North Dakota in 1994.
  • She continued her collegiate studies at the University of Texas at Austin. There her graduate research was centered on human thermoregulation and experimental metabolic testing and control, focusing on the control of thermal neutrality in space suits. This work, performed at the Austin BioHeat Transfer Laboratory, led to her doctorate in 1998.
  • In 1998, on completing her doctorate, she accepted a position with the Crew and Thermal Systems Division, working as an Environmental Control Systems Engineer to improve space suit thermal control systems and evaluate firefighter suit cooling technologies.
  • She was selected as an Astronaut Candidate by NASA in July 2000 and after two years of training and evaluation, she qualified as a Mission Specialist.
  • In July 2006, Nyberg took part in NEEMO 10, a deep-sea training and simulation exercise at the Aquarius underwater laboratory to help NASA prepare for the return of astronauts to the moon and eventual manned missions to Mars. Nyberg and her crewmates lived and worked underwater for seven days.
  • Nyberg served on the crew of STS-124 which flew to the International Space Station in May 2008.
  • She has won a host of awards including the UND Young Alumni Achievement Award (2004), Space Act Award (1993); NASA JSC Patent Application Award (1993); NASA Tech Briefs Award (1993); NASA JSC Cooperative Education Special Achievement Award (1994); Joyce Medalen Society of Women Engineers Award (1993–94); D.J. Robertson Award of Academic Achievement (1992) and University of North Dakota School of Engineering & Mines Meritorious Service Award (1991–1992).

In case you are on twitter, she is @AstroKarenN. Here was her last tweet before she took off from Earth:


And I don’t want to go without sharing these hilarious tweets that people wrote in response to me tweeting out the beginning of the Yahoo article:

(^^ referencing this spectacular NYT fail)

(^^ referencing this spectacular Washington Post fail)

(^^ referencing the unending and non-productive discussion about whether women can really “have it all”)

(^^ referencing Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In)

And speaking of leaning in, Kat pointed out:


And this happened this morning:

Comments are closed.

11 Responses

  1. “Rounding out the crew is NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, a 43-year-old mechanical engineer who has one previous spaceflight on her resume, a two-week shuttle mission. She leaves behind her astronaut husband, Doug Hurley, and their 3-year-old son, Jack.”

    My first thought was, damn, the woman just went to work–she didn’t _die_. My second thought was of course. Because we all know that mothers must all die a little bit when leaving their children (children being their raison d’etre, after all). But not fathers, of course. * eyeroll *

  2. Belinda says:

    Jessica, please send the Wikipedia link to the authors and editors of this article, and thank you for calling them out. Focus on her being a mother might be appropriate for a “Better Homes and Gardens” article, but certainly NOT for this article. Come on people, it’s the 21st century !!!!! On the other hand, if just being a mother is qualification enough to go to the International Space Station, please tell me where to sign up. LOL.

  3. Caitlin says:

    My colleague and I had a conversation yesterday about how our station kept referring to a woman who had been murdered as a “doctor’s wife” and how it was totally problematic. (They had started with it from the very beginning, which made it difficult to break the framing because everyone had started associating the case with “the murder of the doctor’s wife.”) I mentioned that you never hear about a man who was murdered as “the medical assistant’s husband.”

    It’s amazing that we live in 2013 and yet so many people have difficulty conceiving of women apart from their relationships to husbands and children.

  4. Stacy Moore says:

    I hope she left lots of casseroles in the freezer, after cruelly leaving her husband and child behind!

  5. Jason Levine says:

    The author is on Twitter — @Free_Space — so it seems it’s worth a shot engaging her directly about this… no? Of course, she might be busy tending to her family so it might be a while before she can reply…

  6. Nate says:

    Nate, It was the example I came up with off the top of my head because I had just seen a movie in which the main female character was a medical assistant. I see what you’re getting at but really, there was no ulterior sexist motive going on there.

  7. Denise says:

    As a writer, I totally agree– when you’re giving a quick intro you should describe the three on equal terms, that they are all scientists and experienced astronauts. But it’s still an interesting fact to point out that at 43 she has a young child. Believe me, if you gave my sons a choice of who they would fire into space for half a year, it would be their dad, not their mom. It’s still a fact of life that kids need their moms a whole lot.

  8. Pingback: Linkage: Drinks, failure, and astronauts | CWILA: Canadian Women In The Literary Arts