Yesterday details emerged that China has selected its next generation of astronauts; a crew of five men and two women. However, to be one of those two women, recruiters demanded a rather unusual qualification, motherhood.
The Chinese space programme is known to be stringent in its selection of potential astronauts; even bad breath can shatter your chances. However, this requirement for maternity doesn’t stem from an inferred ability of mothers to better cope with the gruelling conditions of space. Instead China fear for what damage space-based radiation might inflict on a would-be female astronaut’s ability to have children in the first place.
Xu Xianrong, an expert at the air force general hospital, is quoted on the Guardian website as saying of the unique approach,
“It’s out of the consideration of being responsible for the female pilots. Though there is little evidence on how the space experience will affect the female constitution, we have to be extra cautious. After all, it’s unprecedented in China.”
Such things may be unprecedented in China, but the radiation dangers experienced when leaving the protective cocoon of the Earth have long been considered.
There are two main types of radiation that can cause damage to space travelers, high energy particles from the Sun, and cosmic rays arriving from the galaxy beyond. For those of us on the Earth’s surface our planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field duly shield us from these potential dangers. However, those in space can be hit with their full force, particularly when venturing to places like the Moon, which has neither a magnetic field nor an atmosphere.
In fact, the Apollo astronauts of the late 60’s and early 70’s knew full well the risks that an event like a solar storm could unleash and they travelled to the Moon anyway, albeit keeping mission length to a premium to narrow the risks. Such a storm would rain high energy particles upon the unprotected astronauts, penetrating their skin and ripping apart the DNA in their cells. Cosmic rays, coming from outside the solar system, represent a longer term threat; it is thought they could cause illnesses ranging from cancer to cataracts.
Clearly these doses of radiation harm both men and women alike, what is unclear are the effect such doses would have on female fertility. What is looking increasingly clear, particularly with President Obama’s recent cancellation of NASA’s Constellation programme, is that the next feet to scuff the lunar dust will be Chinese. If such feet happen to be female, then their obligatory offspring would be rightly proud.