At school she was particularly interested in mathematics and space travel. The American Mackenzie Calle later studied photography and now works as a photo reporter. By chance she came across a newspaper article about the astrophysicist Sally Ride. In 1983, she was the first American woman to fly into space on a space shuttle. It was only after her death in 2012 that it was revealed that she had lived with a woman, children’s author Tam O’Shaughnessy, for 27 years. “Funnily enough, there wasn’t much of a stir in the media,” says Calle in an interview with Stern.

The photographer, who lives in New York, wanted to find out more about it and began researching: “I am queer myself and deal with the topic of sexual orientation, especially in a historical context. To her surprise, she discovered what a major role the topic plays in space travel The first seven astronauts of the Mercury project in the late 1950s were all experienced fighter pilots and heterosexual men.

“Until 1973, gay men were banned from working in a federal agency,” says Calle. So NASA also did everything it could to send only heterosexual men into space. “She had a very specific vision of who should be an astronaut: She corresponded to the prevailing image of the traditional American man providing for his family at the time.” Strong, but not too macho, is the idea.

“The candidates had to undergo numerous psychological tests,” says Calle. This included, among other things, the famous Rorschach text. The men were asked to recognize female body shapes in abstract inkblot pictures. In addition, the prospective astronauts had to answer hundreds of psychological questions. The basis for this was the Edwards Personal Preference Schedule (EPPS) developed by psychology professor Allen Edwards. It comprised 15 questions from 15 subject areas, each of which had two alternative answer options. One area of ​​question concerned sexual orientation: According to Calle, the men had to say whether they would love and kiss people of the opposite sex.

It wasn’t just men who were checked for their “safety”. Sally Ride would probably never have gone into space if NASA had found out about her love for a woman. From 1982 to 1987, Sally Ride was married to astronaut Steven Hawley. The marriage ended virtually at the same time as her career with the space agency.

Nasa’s sexual discrimination inspired photographer Mackenzie Calle to undertake a special photo project. The starting point was the question: What if there had been or would be a queer space organization alongside NASA? Under the title “The Gay Space Agency,” she combined historical footage with questions or images from psychological tests or replaced actual astronauts with queer aspirants interested in space travel. With this project she became one of the 24 winners of the World Press Photo Awards 2024.

Calle is pleased about the attention to her concern, but she still sees a lot of work to be done. “To date, NASA has not dealt with this discriminatory practice over decades. There has also been no apology to those affected,” regrets Calle. Today, the space agency no longer conducts sexual orientation tests. Yet in the space industry, only very few people who identify as part of the LGBTQ community come out, as a 2022 study of NASA astronauts showed. “Like Sally Ride, they fear disadvantages for their careers or even being excluded from some programs,” says Calle. There is only one thing that should decide whether someone works in a (space) project: whether he or she is qualified and passionate about it.