Yes, there may have been some subconscious sexism in the hysteria over Tim Peake’s flight

Was Helen Sharman overlooked because she is a woman?

Will Gore
Sunday 20 December 2015 20:16
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Britain's astronaut Tim Peake during a sending-off ceremony at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome on December 15, 2015.
Britain's astronaut Tim Peake during a sending-off ceremony at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome on December 15, 2015.

In space, no one can hear you scream, which is ironic given that it all started with a big bang. Back down on Earth, however, there was much excited cheering and whooping last week as Major Tim Peake blasted off to the International Space Station – the first man to rocket into orbit with the Union Flag on his shoulder.

Space travel is pretty run-of-the-mill these days. There has been a largely constant human presence 200 miles or so above our heads for years, thanks to the development of space stations in the 1970s. Nevertheless, for most of us, there is still a sense of wonder about the idea of hurtling through the Earth’s atmosphere at 17,000mph, which perhaps helps to explain the outpouring of enthusiasm over Major Peake’s current adventure. (The only sadness being that he isn’t discovering new corners of space, which would ever after be known as the Peake District.)

For people of a certain age, the event has evoked memories of the excitement that accompanied Helen Sharman’s flight to the Mir space station in 1991. Yet, as some commentators have noted, during the past week it has often felt as if Dr Sharman’s achievement as the first Briton in space has been somewhat lost.

In part this reflects the fairly standard media practice when reporting something rare: hype up the rarity value. Major Peake is the first publicly funded Brit in space, and the first to visit as part of the European Space Agency programme. But there have also been suggestions that the sidelining of Dr Sharman’s achievement is an example of everyday sexism, that she has been forgotten because she is a woman.

There are, of course, several other Britons who have undertaken space missions. They, too, have tended to be downplayed – because, in their case, they took American citizenship and flew under the Nasa banner.

The unusual lead-up to Dr Sharman’s visit to the Mir station – she was selected for the mission following a radio advertisement – also seemed to count against her as far as some were concerned. And let’s not forget the passage of time. Plenty of those writing about Major Peake may be too young to remember just what a big deal Dr Sharman’s trip was. This doesn’t excuse inaccurate reporting but it might explain why last week’s events seemed so novel.

So, once everything else is taken out of the equation, has there been some subconscious sexism? Maybe so, and two or three people expressed their concern at our own coverage. Yet, when we published a comment piece on Wednesday that sought to call out sexist attitudes, one reader was less than convinced, believing it was an attempt to devalue Major Peake’s achievement. Mind you, he – yes, it was a he – addressed his complaint to “you miserable, misandry-infested, wet pant, arse-wiping....” so and sos, which suggested there was, perhaps, an agenda at play.

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