The nature of NASA’s space programmes is changing, says a former American woman astronaut, pointing to a growing gender imbalance on the U.S. agency’s space flights and a focus on low cost shuttles.

“We were just a few years away from Mars when NASA’s human space exploration programme, ‘Constellation’, came to an end. But the new programme is more ambitious...it seeks to prepare our destinies as space-faring civilisations,” said Mary Ellen Weber, who has twice been into space.

The new space exploration focus is on capacity building for the future and low cost shuttles with a possibility of commercially-run space flights, the petite astronaut said.

“NASA has taken a different approach to take astronauts out of the low earth orbits to outer space,” she told a group of space enthusiasts at the American Centre here on Wednesday.

Ms. Weber, one of the youngest astronauts to venture into space, has travelled 297 earth orbits. She was on the Atlantis mission STS-101, a critical early construction mission for the International Space Station, and on the Discovery earlier in 1995 to launch a $200 million communications satellite into the orbit of the earth.

Over the years, the number of women on flights had dwindled for several reasons, Ms. Weber said.

“One of the reasons I resigned from NASA was that I could not fit into the medium size space suits after my second mission with my small frame. They were big,” she said.

Space suits are expensive to maintain and the general idea is that taller people do better space walks than shorter people, she said.

“Taller people have longer arms. The suits became standard in size...,” she said, hinting at a new cost consciousness at NASA.

Moreover, a woman has to excel to be chosen as an astronaut, she said.

“I don’t think there is a drive to keep women out... it is just that they are inadequately represented. I had to undergo 300 hours of training at NASA from 1992 before being chosen for a flight in 1995,” she said.

A lot of changes happen to the body after a visit to space, she said.

“One of the immediate effects is that the body sheds one-third of its fluid in space to keep itself afloat. Some people take days to recover from trips to space and some have been hospitalised,” she said.

“The biggest risk in a manned space flight is taking off and landing,” Ms. Weber said, remembering astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who was killed in the Columbia explosion in 2003.

“She was lucky. Kalpana had experienced space. She was minutes away from home before she died. She was an acquaintance and was liked at NASA,” the astronaut said.

Having logged over 4,000 skydives, Ms. Weber is also a world record for the largest free fall formation with 300 skydivers.

She said in hindsight, scientists and the community of astronauts have gathered an incredible amount of knowledge in the last four decades of manned space exploration with the landing on the moon.

“It will help build infrastructure for future space travel and develop new spacecraft that will make exploration easy,” she said.

Ms. Weber said “NASA was looking for more international partners”.

“It depends on the kind of expertise international partners bring to the table. Unfortunately, India does not have a human space shuttle programme; a country has to decide where it wants to deploy its resources,” she said responding to a query on India’s prospect.

Ms. Weber mused, “Hundreds and thousands of years from now, we will be travelling through space and solar system...”