Eileen Collins, left, became the first female space shuttle commander when she and her crew delivered the Chandra X-Ray Observatory to orbit on Discovery's STS-93 mission in July 1999. Credit: NASA photo

WASHINGTON — NASA is laying the scientific groundwork for a possible space shuttle mission with an all-female crew assigned to study women’s health issues, including the effect of spaceflight on women.

However, the top medical officer at the U.S. space agency insists that assembling an all-female research crew is far from being a done deal.

“We do not select research subjects before we select experiments,” said Arnauld Nicogossian, NASAs chief medical officer and the associate administrator for life and microgravity sciences and applications. “That’s like putting the cart before the horse.” Nicogossian, who first proposed the idea of an all-female crew late last year to NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, insists no decision will be made until his office decides that there are research opportunities and needs that just such a mission.

The scientific research, he said, must come first. To that end, NASA researchers are evaluating whether there is any merit to studying gender-based health differences in space.

If more data is needed, Nicogossian said, NASA might fly all-female crews or simply fly its female astronauts more often.

Nicogossian said no more than four NASA scientists are currently investigating the merits of spaceflight research related to women. The day-to-day activities are being managed by Dave Williams, director of space and life sciences at John-son Space Center, Houston.

Williams’ team is working with researchers from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, a recently established consortium that includes researchers from seven U.S. medical schools.

Still in the planning stage is a series of workshops on the topic to be held this year.

Williams is expected to update Nicogossian on the team’s progress in June. Nicogossian said he plans to report back to NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin with recommendations sometime next year.

He said he would not necessarily recommend flying all-female research crews.

“My recommendation will not be the mission,” he said. “It will be how to collect the data on gender health.”

Some critics have questioned the scientific need to fly an all-female crew.

“How could an all-female crew further the study of gender difference any more than a mixed crew?” one congressional staffer asked.

Nicogossian said there could be advantages to flying a research crew composed entirely of women. Like NASA’s Neurolab investigations, which were conducted on the shuttle in April and May 1998, the shuttle could be outfitted with a lab specifically equipped for research of women’s health issues. Such a dedicated lab would ensure that NASA would get a maximum return on the research being done, he said.

Nicogossian said he first broached the subject of female research crews with Goldin late last year after a medical advisory committee recommended NASA take a closer look at gender differences.

A NASA-funded study conducted by the Space Studies Board of the National Research Council noted that little is known about “whether there are gender differences in the human response to spaceflight.”

“As part of its program to include women on missions,” the report continues, “NASA should monitor the data to investigate whether there are significant gender differences in the human response to spaceflight.” 

The 1998 report, “A Strategy for Research in Space Biology and Medicine in the New Century,” recommends that, “should evi- dence of differences become apparent, a high priority must be given to investigating their significance.” 

While Nicogossian’s researchers are busy determining whether there is a scientific justification for an all-female shuttle research mission, most top NASA officials will not discuss the issue. Aside from Goldin himself, Nicogossian is the only NASA official authorized to discuss the controversial proposal, NASA spokesman Renee Juhans said. 

Requests by Space News to interview female astronauts about the proposed mission were denied. 

NASA officials at Johnson Space Center have been instructed to refer all questions about an all-female shuttle crew to headquarters here, said Doug Peterson, a Johnson spokesman. 

Goldin has made clear his enthusiasm for the idea on a number of occasions. 

At a recent meeting with reporters, Goldin fended off criticism of the idea. “Now the thing that amazed me is we were quietly and professionally understanding [the all-female mission concept] and we have all these kibitzers that don’t know anything about the science poking their nose into this,” he said. “Go back, get a grip, take a deep breath and let’s let the scientific process proceed.” 

Goldin also alluded to the inspirational value of flying a female shuttle crew “In 1999, young girls are not encouraged to go into math and science,” Goldin said. “Something is wrong and let’s recognize that.” 

Goldin said he wants to find out whether women are assigned to shuttle missions in proportion to their representation in the astronaut corps. 

Thirty-two of NASA’s 140 astronauts are women. 

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...