NASA commemorated the 100th anniversary of when some American women won the right to vote by celebrating today’s female pioneers, who are spreading their wings far into space.
NASA held a special event on Wednesday (Aug. 27) — 100 years to the day after the passage of the 19th Amendment — called “Past, Present and Future of Women in Space,” featuring four women who have made their mark in the space program. The program, which also included questions and comments from numerous other prominent women in space, was broadcast live on NASA TV and is available on YouTube.
“We’re working towards diversity and inclusion for women,” Christyl Johnson, who manages the research and development portfolio for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said during the event. “That makes this place a wonderful place to be.”
Recent female milestones at the agency include the first all-woman spacewalk by Jessica Meir and Christina Koch last year, the longest single stay in space by a woman at 328 days (Koch, 2019-2020) and the first woman to command the International Space Station twice (Peggy Whitson in 2016).
Another milestone may be coming soon: Jeanette Epps was just named to a commercial crew flight on a Boeing spacecraft this week after being removed from another International Space Station mission in 2018 for reasons NASA never disclosed. She will likely become the first female Black astronaut to complete a long-duration mission.
The panelists not only honored the past of female space exploration but also looked forward to the future — which could include the first woman to walk on the moon during the planned Artemis program moon landing of 2024. The participants spoke about their mentors in astronomy and engineering and talked about the key role women play in large teams exploring space.
Clara Ma named NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover in 2009, when she was only in sixth grade. As of 2019, she graduated from Yale University with a degree in physics, according to NASA, and is working on a masters degree in science, technology and environmental policy at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.
Ma spoke briefly about NASA’s recently launched Perseverance rover, which will search for signs of Martian life beginning in 2021 and build on Curiosity’s ongoing mission focusing on Martian habitability.
She said that NASA gave her opportunities she never could have imagined while a young student. “I started out as a very shy, very antisocial girl,” Ma said, but when thrust into media interviews about her winning essay on Curiosity, she discovered her opinions were valued. “I didn’t feel like I had a voice worth listening to [at first], and NASA changed all that.”
Ma always had been interested in how to address global warming, and said that working at NASA periodically in the past few years gave her the confidence and tools to pursue her interest. “The most important thing we need to do, and NASA needs to do, is keep exploring and keep doing so in an inclusive way.”
Black astronaut Stephanie Wilson is a three-time space shuttle veteran, having flown on STS-121 in 2006, STS-120 in 2007 and STS-131 in 2010. She has held numerous management positions at NASA while still serving as an astronaut. She said she had a lot of ideas, growing up, about what she wanted to do.
“I had a conflict between science and engineering,” she recalled, saying she was really interested in design as well. Aerospace engineering allowed her to combine both interests, and flying aboard a spacecraft after helping design them was “icing on the cake.”
Mentorship and leadership
The first woman launch director, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, said that the ratification of the 19th Amendment not only gave many American women the right to vote, but “it enabled the path that eventually all of us were able to walk down.”
Blackwell-Thompson said that if women’s suffrage had not occurred, “I doubt seriously I would be in a position to be a launch director today.” She grew up in rural South Carolina, she said, and never would have imagined being in this position of leadership and mentorship to others. “Having this role — what it says to young people is, don’t limit your expectations, don’t limit your goals, because anything is possible.”
Kathy Lueders, who a few weeks ago became the first woman chosen to lead NASA’s human exploration program, also delivered a video statement. “There have been a lot of people that have reached down and pulled me up, and are the reason I’m here today,” she said. “Why is this important? This is important because we have big problems. That’s why we’re here — to solve big problems.”
A continuing history
NASA women’s pioneering efforts go back to the very roots of the human spaceflight program. Black female mathematicians helped plot spacecraft trajectories in the 1960s, with their careers mostly unknown until the book “Hidden Figures” was released in 2016 and turned into a popular Hollywood movie the following year. Earlier this summer, NASA renamed its headquarters building after Mary W. Jackson, the first Black female engineer to work at the agency.
The first American woman (Sally Ride) did not fly in space until 1983, more than 20 years after the first American man, although a group of women informally known as the Mercury 13 fought for consideration in the astronaut program in the 1960s. (The first woman in space overall was the Soviet Union’s Valentina Tereshkova, who reached orbit in June 1963.) Ride was also the first known LGBTQ astronaut in space, although that information was not public until after her death in 2012.
While men still predominate in space, women continue to reach milestones worth celebrating. A few such moments include the first female American spacewalk by Kathryn D. Sullivan in 1984, the first Black female in space (Mae Jemison) in 1992 and the largest number of women in orbit at the same time (four) during space shuttle mission STS-131 in 2010. Whitson became the first woman to command the ISS in 2008, and Eileen Collins the first woman space shuttle commander in 1999.