Nasa breaks its final frontier - the gender barrier

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THE AMERICAN space agency will break through its final frontier this month - old- fashioned, deep-rooted male chauvinism. Forty years after Nasa began hunting those with the "right stuff", for the first time a woman, Colonel Eileen Collins, will command a US space mission.

Scores of American men have been astronauts, but Nasa has sent only four women into space - despite its 1959 training programme for women, begun months after the one for men, and cancelled abruptly in 1961.

When the appointment of Colonel Collins, 42, was announced last year - to the space shuttle launch on 20 July - she said: "Since I was a child, I've dreamt about space. I've admired pilots, astronauts and explorers."

Of the women in the early training mission, she said: "I couldn't be here today without them. I'd like to say a special thank you to them." The 13 women picked and dropped by Nasa don't feel like thanking the agency.

Jennie Cobb, 28 when she started training in 1960, has agitated to go on a space mission. At 67 she points out that John Glenn, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts in 1962, flew again last October aged 77. If him, why not her?

"A 120lb woman uses less oxygen and eats less than a 160lb man," she says. "Women can do a boring task for longer than men. A woman's reproductive organs are on the inside - that makes us less susceptible to radiation. And we can withstand pain, heat, noise and vibration better than men." Is there anything in men's favour? "More physical strength."

And that's what Nasa seemed to decide was more important in an astronaut. The women's astronaut programme was cancelled after Nasa said it wanted people with experience as test pilots in jets, a position rarely held even now by a woman.

The first woman into space was a Russian, Valentina Tereschkova, in 1963. The first American woman was Sally Ride, in June 1983. In 1995 Shannon Lucid set a record on the Mir space station, spending 188 days aloft. The same year, Colonel Collins was the first woman to pilot the shuttle.

But the culture of chauvinism appears deeply rooted at Nasa. In its pecking order, women appear to be clearly ranked: behind even geriatric men such as Glenn and John Young, who was still listed as having "active flight" status in 1998 at the age of 67.

Of Nasa's 119 active astronauts, 49 are women. They don't go into space much and, if they do, they're usually kept from the controls: only four are qualified as shuttle pilots. Places are reserved for males and females to assemble the International Space Station. Cobb is not among them.