Why women are better astronauts than men

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IF SPACE scientists had known better at the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969, the mission’s defining legacy might have read "one small step for a woman, one giant leap for womankind".

New medical research has revealed that the mental and physical characteristics of women mean they are far better suited to long-term space travel than men. As a result, one medical expert has now claimed there is a very strong case for an all-female cosmonaut crew on the first mission to put humans on Mars.

William Rowe, a professor of medicine at the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo, in the United States, said: "A manned trip to the Red Planet should, in fact, be womanned."

Prof Rowe has published new research in the journal Mens Health and Gender, which focused on the hormonal and physical make-up of women under 30 years of age, and concludes that they are far better suited to long-term, long-distance travel than men.

In particular, men in their thirties and forties are much more likely to develop the first signs of heart disease, a condition exacerbated by space travel. Women are protected from this by their comparatively high levels of oestrogen.

Drug treatments during space flight are not recommended because they are not readily absorbed in weightless conditions, the liver and the kidneys do not function at their best and the drug compounds deteriorate more quickly owing to the higher levels of radiation experienced in space.

Men are also disadvantaged because they retain much higher levels of iron in the body than women, particularly in space, and this can reach toxic levels. Women’s reduced body mass, which requires fewer calories and produces less waste, also makes them yet more suitable as long-term astronauts.

There is one drawback to having an all-female crew, said Prof Rowe. They should avoid space walks during menstruation because of the increased risk at that time of decompression sickness, resulting from lower total blood volume.

Regardless of that risk, however, Prof Rowe remained adamant that women would be much better placed than men to take a trip to Mars, a mission with an expected duration of two years. He said: "The cards are stacked against man in space."

Britain’s first woman in space was Helen Sharman, who became an astronaut after responding to an advertisement which said: "Astronaut wanted - no experience necessary."

At the time she was a scientist researching into the chemical and physical properties of chocolate for Mars confectionery in Slough. In May 1991, after intensive training, she joined a crew of male Soviet cosmonauts on an eight-day Anglo-Soviet Juno space mission. Her job on the Mir space station was to carry out 20 scientific experiments dealing with biology, Earth observation, the growth of crystals and the effects of space on the body.

The first female leader of a space mission was Eileen Collins, a US Air Force colonel, who commanded the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1999.

Dr Didier Schmitt, the head of life sciences at the European Space Agency, said: "From documented experiences on the Russian Mir Space Station, it is correct that for long-term missions with an all female crew, astronauts do perform extremely well. Having females in a group is very positive because it breaks down the competition within the male group.

"We have now shifted from research on men over to women for the next year. We are conducting experiments on human physiology under conditions of 60 days bed rest at minus six degrees, and now we have finished the tests on men we are about to carry out the same research on women to see if they react the same way.

"It will provide either further evidence to corroborate this story, or it could even reveal results which are completely at odds with it."