Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Why can't a woman fly?: NASA and the cult of masculinity, 1958–1972
by McComb, Erinn Catherine, Ph.D., Mississippi State University, 2012, 320; 3505392
Abstract (Summary)

This is an investigation into the history of masculinity in spaceflight during some of the tensest years of the Cold War era. This dissertation asks why the U.S. did not counter the Soviet launch of the first woman into space. Scholars have pieced together the story of American women's fight for spaceflight. The dissertation adds another layer to this narrative by analyzing the construction of the astronaut image from 1958 to 1972, a period characterized by a widespread masculinity crisis.

Scholars of Cold War America suggest that Americans saw communism, conformity, feminism, homosexuality, bureaucracy, corporations, male consumerism, leisure, automation, and the dreaded “organization man” as a threat to masculinity. The astronaut was not only a way for Americans to display their superiority over the Soviets; he also represented a widespread domestic reaction against the threat of automation. I build on the scholarship of the Cold War masculinity crisis by focusing on how the crisis played out within the public discourse of the astronaut image. I begin with a narrative of the Cold War masculinity crisis. Using print media, congressional records, and astronaut accounts, I explore how the masculinization of spaceflight created a public image of the astronaut that mirrored the Cold War masculinity crisis. As the average American man struggled for individuality and control in his own life, the astronaut struggled to exert and maintain individual control over the space capsule. Continuing through the Apollo program, the discourse surrounding the astronaut shifted away from depictions of him as a rugged individual exerting control in space toward an emphasis on the astronaut as a team player who shared control of the capsule with computers, the scientist-astronauts, and Mission Command. In the end, the astronaut struggled to represent a superior masculinity as he increasingly became the corporate organization man, symbolizing the masculinity crisis. The struggle to resolve the masculinity crisis continued as teamwork replaced individualism, hyphenated scientist-astronauts flew into space, and NASA commissioned the first passenger space shuttles.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Marcus, Alan I.
School: Mississippi State University
Department: History
School Location: United States -- Mississippi
Source: DAI-A 73/08(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: American history, Gender studies
Keywords: Astronaut, Cult of masculinity, NASA, National Aeronautic and Space Administration
Publication Number: 3505392
ISBN: 9781267296498
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