Monday's launch of the Discovery space shuttle was exceptional beyond the fact it's one of NASA's last scheduled rides into space. Three of the seven crew members were women, which, in addition to NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson who is already on the International Space Station, brings the number of women in space to its highest
ever total: four.
Even with the record-setting week, women still make up less than a third of the 13 astronauts currently in space. Russia sent the first female astronaut up in 1963 -- 20 years before NASA did. Last month, China announced that it would be sending female astronauts into space for the first time in its history as well -- but, while the news was one small step for women, it was also a bit of a leap backward.
Chinese astronauts cannot have allergies or scars, and they cannot be snorers. Female astronauts must meet two more qualifications: they must be married and have a child, which officials call evidence of maturity.
Marriage and children aren't prerequisites for the men.
But, for both women and men in space, the record comes at the end of an era -- only three more shuttle launches remain on NASA's docket, since plans to revisit the moon or to continue shuttle launches were scrapped from its latest budget.
On this most recent Discovery launch, the astronauts are set to deliver supplies and make some updates to the space station during their two-week trip. While veteran NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson has made two previous space flights, NASA's Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger and Naoko Yamazaki, a visiting astronaut from Japan's space program, are both making their first trip into space.
But, even with just three NASA shuttles left, the women may not be grounded. Administration officials have increasingly talked about encouraging private companies to take a role in offering space shuttle service. And -- though it will come at a cost of about $55 million a seat, according to Space
magazine -- NASA astronauts will be able to hitch a ride with Russia's space shuttle program until 2014. Perhaps another record -- longest instance of ride-sharing -- will be in the offing.