Monday, August 3, 2009

Review: Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone

Winner: Siebert Medal 2010

I've never seriously wanted to be an astronaut - unfortunately, I'm one of those women who dropped out of math and science way too early to think of making a career of it. But I've always been fascinated with space (I blame family Star Trek nights as a child). Combine that with my desire to read anything about women's history I can get my hands on and Almost Astronauts becomes my kind of book!

Stone has packed a lot of history into a compact book, giving great descriptions of not only the physical astronaut trials the Mercury 13 women went through, but also the social and political trials they faced in daring to want to pilot a space shuttle. Stone does an excellent job conveying the various injustices these women faced; the jokes made at their expense, and the outright discrimination they received from the highest levels of government. Sprinkled throughout the book are also concise glimpses of what was going on for women outside of NASA in the 60s and 70s, so contemporary readers get the feeling that these women weren't only being shut out of NASA, but they were shut out of institutions we now take for granted (I don't know how I would function if I weren't allowed to do banking on my own without my husband's permission!)

Stone also follows up on the Mercury 13's history by showing what has happened for women in flight in the last 40+ years, from Sally Ride being the first female mission specialist (which was actually quite different from what the Mercury 13 were trying to accomplish - they wanted to be pilots, while Ride was a scientist. And important and exciting position, but her presence on the shuttle wasn't the success the Mercury 13 had been waiting for) to the first woman Thunderbird pilot. But Stone also isn't afraid to point out that everything is roses now - I was very happy when she pointed out that in media portrayals of contemporary astronauts, the men are still portrayed as heroes off to do a job while stories on the female astronauts tend to focus on their non-spaceflight hobbies and how their children will cope with Mommy being away. All too often these subtle forms of sexism go unnoticed, and while it's disheartening they're still there, we can't eradicate them if we don't recognize their existence.

Be sure to check out Stone's website for bonus material - poems that she wrote when she was originally envisioning this book as a children's poetry picture book. It's a fun addition to the text of the book - like an Easter Egg on a DVD, but more literary.

Almost Astronauts is absolutely a must read for anyone interested in space, NASA, and previously-unknown tidbits of women's history.

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