Cape Canaveral: For the 21st-century spacewoman, gender is a subject often best ignored.
After years of training for their first space mission, the last thing Samantha Cristoforetti and Elana Serova want to dwell on is the fact they are women.
Cristoforetti, Italy's first female astronaut is set to rocket into orbit this weekend from Kazakhstan, bound for the International Space Station. There, she will join Russia's Serova, a rarity in her homeland's male-dominated cosmonaut corps.
It will be just the second time in the space station's 16-year history that two women make up the long-term, six-member crew.
Just don't ask Cristoforetti or Serova about the gender issue.
"Space is what I do for work, and that's what I think about it: It's my work," Serova said in a NASA interview before launch in late September.
Cristoforetti, 37, a fighter pilot and captain in the Italian Air Force, has managed to sidestep most if not all gender questions leading up to Sunday's planned launch.
Serova tried to do the same. But before the 38-year-old engineer climbed aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, Russian reporters asked if she was taking up makeup and wondered how she would wear her hair during her six-month mission.
Serova ignored the makeup question. As for her hairdo, she shot back: "I have a question for you — why don't you ask the question about Alexander's hair, for example," she said, referring to crewmate Alexander Samokutyaev seated next to her at the news conference. "I'm sorry, this is my answer. Thank you. More questions?"
To Americans old enough to remember, it felt like a time machine hurtling back to 1983 and Sally Ride's first flight into space when she got similar questions.
Both Serova and Cristoforetti will spend six months aboard the 260-mile (429-kilometer)-high complex, following in the footsteps of nine American women who logged lengthy stays.
Two of those US women shared the place in 2010, with four men. Another two women rose to station commander rank.
Cristoforetti is the first woman assigned to a lengthy space station mission by the European Space Agency, fresh off a spectacular comet landing of a spacecraft.
Serova is one of only four Russian women to fly in space and the first to live at this space station. It was 1963 when Russia launched the world's first spacewoman, Valentina Tereshkova, beating America by two full decades, and 1984 when it flew the first world's female spacewalker, Svetlana Savitskaya.
For the young Serova, those two pioneering Russian spacewomen were role models.
"They had very impressive personalities, showing everybody that if somebody wants to achieve something they can do it," Serova said in the NASA interview.