Women in STEM Are Out of this World: Highlighting Women in the Space Industry

Article Originally Published 4/19/20 at Eloquor

Remember all the dream jobs you wanted as a kid? We were told by our teachers and families to “shoot for the stars” and with hard work, we could land that dream job. I dreamed and worked as hard as I could, but I had a problem along the way. I found myself never dreaming of jobs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. I rarely saw women being portrayed as STEM leaders in media and literature, and I met very few women working in the industry. But my strongest deterrence away from STEM was not being educated on the women who made the industry what it is now. If I had known their names and stories, I might be training to become an astronaut or engineer today. That being said, I wrote this article with my experience in mind—to prevent future kids, and especially girls, from not considering STEM fields. I hope you feel just as empowered reading these women’s stories, as I did writing them.

Illustration Credit: Arfa Khan

Although Katherine Johnson sent the first Americans to space with her math skills, few knew her name until almost six decades later.

Johnson’s calculations were crucial in the success of America’s first trip to space in 1961 and America’s first orbital flight around Earth in 1962, according to NASA. Despite her contributions to the space industry, Johnson did not gain global recognition until about a half a century later when she was portrayed in the 2016 film, “Hidden Figures.” 

The pioneering mathematician, who was also one of the first Black graduate students to integrate West Virginia University, died this February at the age of 101 years old, according to The New York Times. As the world reflects on Johnson’s story, we can admire how influential she was in the beginning successes of NASA. 

However, Johnson is not the only woman to make an “incredible leap for womankind” in the space industry. Hundreds of other women, from scientists to astronauts, have contributed to the world’s space exploration and discovery. Here are a few of their stories:

Sally Ride: Challenger of Space History

In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel to space while aboard the  “Challenger” Space Shuttle, according to NASA. With her engineering expertise, Ride developed a robotic arm for the shuttle to place satellites in space, according to The New York Times.

After being accepted as one of NASA’s first woman astronauts and completing astronaut training, Ride was appointed to be a capsule communicator for NASA’s second and third space shuttle missions from 1981-1982.

“Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday.” —Sally Ride

Ride is also known to be the first and “only openly LGBT American astronaut”, according to Forbes. However, Ride’s sexuality was not public until her death, in which her obituary revealed she was survived by a woman partner of 27 years, according to Business Insider. In a 2014 article, Prospect argues that Ride could have jeopardized her opportunity to travel to space if she went public with her sexuality.

“Around 1990 — seven years after Ride’s historic flight — NASA management quietly ordered a working group of physicians to declare homosexuality a ‘psychiatrically disqualifying condition,’” Prospect wrote in an article.

As a woman astronaut, Ride was also challenged by the media with questions involving her sex such as ‘How would you wear a bra in space?’ and ‘How do you deal with menstruation in space?’, according to The New York Times. 

“On ‘The Tonight Show,’ Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Dr. Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes. At a NASA news conference, Dr. Ride said: ‘It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along’”, The New York Times said in an article.

Regardless of her challenges, Ride still succeeded in the space industry. She has been inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame, according to the New Mexico Museum of Space History. She has also been awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal twice, according to the museum’s website.

After retiring from NASA, Ride founded Sally Ride Science in 2001, a nonprofit promoting young people, and especially girls, to get involved with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), according to the nonprofit’s website. According to NASA, she worked to inspire girls to be interested in STEM until her death on July 23, 2012.

“(I)t’s important for little girls growing up and young women, to have one in every walk of life. So from that point of view, I’m proud to be a role model.” —Sally Ride

Jessica Meir & Christina Koch: Space Walkin’ Astronauts

On October 11, 2019, Jessica Meir and Christina Koch conducted the first all-woman spacewalk, according to NASA. 

“The first all-woman spacewalk is a milestone worth noting and celebrating as the agency looks forward to putting the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024 … Our achievements provide inspiration to students around the world, proving that hard work can lead you to great heights,” NASA said on their website. 

The NASA program is witnessing an increase in female astronauts, according to NASA. For example, NASA said half of Koch’s and Meir’s 2013 class of astronaut candidates were women. 

The all-woman spacewalk was Meir’s first spacewalk, in which she also became the 14th American woman to spacewalk, according to NASA. Koch has completed six spacewalks and has set a record for the longest spaceflight made by a woman with a whopping 328 days, according to Space.

“We work together as a team. And between us and between the crew and our teams on the ground, we don’t look at gender, and we don’t see it as a barrier.” —Christina Koch

Margaret Hamilton: Coder for Moon Adventures

In 1969, Margaret Hamilton led the software team that wrote the code for Apollo 11, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Launched in July of 1969 with commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 became the first spaceflight to successfully land astronauts on the moon, according to Business Insider.

Hamilton was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when NASA made a contract with MIT in 1961 to create a navigation system for the Apollo spacecraft, according to NASA. She led the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory when computer science was just created and helped develop the discipline of software engineering, according to NASA.

“Her systems approach to the Apollo software development and insistence on rigorous testing was critical to the success of Apollo.” NASA wrote on their website. 

NASA said Hamilton’s code for Apollo 11 was so well-done that none of the crewed Apollo missions dealt with software bugs. Her software helped develop software used in Skylab, NASA’s first space station and crewed research laboratory, according to NASA. 

In a 2016 interview with Futurism, Hamilton advised girls pursuing STEM careers “to continue even when things appear to be impossible … (and not) be afraid to be wrong or to make and admit mistakes. For only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” 

“Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity.” —Mae Jemison, physicist and first Black woman astronaut to travel to space

Women Shoot For the Stars

As portrayed by these women’s stories, women are a powerful force in the space industry. We must share these extraordinary women’s stories and encourage girls to “shoot for the stars” and build on them. 

Let girls know they can be the next leading astronauts or scientists. Most importantly, tell girls they can be the next generation’s role models and voices of empowerment, regardless of the career they pursue. Spark passion in young girls’ hearts and help them discover their inner strength. After all, the gift of confidence can be a girl’s strongest tool of empowerment when chasing after their dreams. 

It is never too early to inspire girls to pursue their dreams. And remember, it is never too late for a woman to follow their dreams as well. 

“The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it.” —Kalpana Chawla, engineer and first Indian woman astronaut to travel to space

Written with love to honor Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride

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