China's first group of female fighter pilots gathers during a ceremony at an air force base in Beijing on Aug. 30, 2009. China could launch its first woman into space as early as 2012
The men chosen to lead China into outer space are often referred to locally as "superhuman beings" and not just because they train to cross the final frontier. Would-be taikonauts have to meet near impossible standards that are meant to weed out the less-than-flawless. Chinese astronauts cannot suffer from chronic sore throats or runny noses. They mustn't have food restrictions, strong regional accents, ringworm, cavities or scars. Bad breath, body odor and a snoring problem are all immediate disqualifiers. And if China's spacemen are expected to satisfy an unlikely string of qualifications, so too are its new spacewomen with two notable additional criteria. China's first two female reserve astronauts, selected earlier this month from a pool of 15 female fighter pilots, were required to be wives and mothers.
The reasoning behind the prerequisite, according to officials, is that spaceflight could potentially harm the women's fertility. "It's out of the consideration of being responsible for the female pilots," Xu Xianrong, director of the PLA's Clinical Aerospace Medicine Center in Beijing and a member of the selection panel, told the official government news agency Xinhua. "Though there is little evidence on how the space experience will affect the female constitution, we have to be extra cautious, because this is a first for China." Ensuring that the female astronauts have already reproduced, he said, will guarantee that their family planning is not disrupted. But at least one authority, Zhang Jianqi, former deputy commander of the country's manned space program, has stated that the requirement stands because married women are more physically and psychologically mature. (See pictures of women in space.)
That was not, of course, the case for Lisa Nowak, the former NASA astronaut who less than a year after flying aboard the Discovery was arrested in Florida and charged with the attempted kidnapping of the girlfriend of astronaut William Oefelein (Nowak was eventually sentenced to a year's probation after pleading guilty to lesser charges of felony burglary and misdemeanor battery). Experts have since said that Nowak, who was married at the time and has three children, may have been driven to those extremes by the pressures of juggling her demanding space career and motherhood. "It's definitely a challenge to do the flying and take care of even one child and do all the other things you have to do," she told Ladies' Home Journal in an interview before her arrest. Psychologist Thomas Nagy, who has studied the stresses that dual-career couples face, says "where there is no balance and the career has demanded too much of the woman, there may be chronic sleep deprivation, stress-related disorders, anxiety, depression and sacrifices to parenting ability and quality of life." But, he adds, "it would be a mistake to assume that women who intentionally delay marriage to pursue other goals are less capable or mature."
Though Nowak's epic meltdown (and her termination by NASA) almost certainly hinged on more than her working-mom status, the case does underscore the arbitrariness of China's new policy. So does a 2005 study on reproductive health and spaceflight in the International Journal of Impotence Research, which reports that about 80% of the American female astronauts who came to NASA were not mothers. The report, which considers both genders, finds no evidence that short-duration spaceflight missions of up to nine days "has an adverse effect on the ability of astronauts to conceive and bear healthy children to term." Though the study notes that the effects on the reproductive system of long-duration flights and the high-energy particle radiation found in space are not well known, some medical specialists hold that it's actually male astronauts whose reproductive capabilities are more vulnerable. "As far as the acute effects of radiation," says Dr. Richard Jennings, who practices gynecology and aerospace medicine in Texas and co-authored the study, "men are much more at risk than women since the spermatogonia are very sensitive to radiation."
Most female astronauts in the U.S. and other countries don't have children not because of the adverse effects of spaceflight but because they have intentionally delayed getting pregnant. Female astronauts who want to have kids tend to put it off early in their careers because of unpredictable flight schedules and because much of their training is forbidden if they're expecting. "Most prefer to get at least one spaceflight in before pregnancy," says Jennings, and are approaching their early 40s by the time they begin trying for children, when the risk of genetic defects and miscarriage is much increased.
As a potential solution, the report proposes not that female pilots begin having children earlier, but that members of both sexes store reproductive cells for future use. For women, banking eggs would not only eliminate the theoretical difficulty of damage to reproductive tissues by cosmic radiation, but also solve the problem of age-related fertility decline.
This remedy, however, is not likely to be of much interest to China, whose one-child policy demonstrates the nation's ongoing commitment to curbing not encouraging population growth. Beijing, it seems, is not so much concerned with disrupting family planning if it were, it might consider astronaut applications from women who are certain they do not want children or broaden the prerequisite to include spacemen but with the image of the women it recruits to represent it on the galactic stage. In China, being a married mother is, arguably, as much a mark of excellence as sweet-smelling breath or a cavity-free dental X-ray. "Chinese culture defines women by their maternity," says Cai Yiping, executive director of the women's-rights NGO Isis International. "The perfect woman should be married with a child. Preferably a son. But I don't know if the space program has put that part in their requirements yet."
Read more: China: Female Astronauts Must Be Married with Children - TIME