Wed. Aug 10th, 2022

‘Women in Space’ gives nations a chance to honor women who are truly out of this world. This year’s theme for World Space Week not only celebrates the women themselves, but draws attention to the importance of encouraging more girls to STEM paths.

Valentina Tereshkova [Credit: Flickr @ UNIS Vienna]

Since technology is a traditionally male-dominated field, it can be easy to overlook women’s contributions to space research. But they have been and continue to be monumental to the success of space programs.

Valentina Tereshkova

Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova orbits over 200 km from the earth’s surface. The year is 1963. She is the first woman to ever travel into space. As she completes her solo tour consisting of 48 Earth orbits, she has unknowingly opened the doors to women in aerospace. It would still take another 20 years before the first American woman, Sally Ride, and the second Russian woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, would travel into space. But here is Valentina; fearless and groundbreaking.

Katherine Johnson

No ‘Women in Space’ recognition would be complete without mentioning the incredible Katherine Johnson. In 1953, she worked in the all-black department of computing at NACA (would become NASA), but things took a fateful turn in 1957, when Johnson had the opportunity to demonstrate his true expertise; mathematics. She provided some of the calculations in important documents that remained fundamental in the design of orbits for Alan Shepard’s escape into space as the first American man.

This made her the first woman involved in mathematics in a project of this size. But perhaps Johnson’s most famous engagement was with John Glenn’s suborbital sailing, where she recalls that Glenn himself had cold feet before launch and stated “if [Katherine] say [the trajectories] are good, then I’m ready to go ”. Johnson continued to be involved in many NASA missions, including Apollo 11, and remains a true inspiration to women and minorities.

Nancy Roman

Also known as ‘The Hubble’s mother’, Nancy Roman played a fundamental role in driving the United States forward as a leading nation in space research. Roman credits his scientific parents for his own love and interest in science; she was particularly fascinated by astrology and astrometry (study of constellations). Aside from her role as the first female head of NASA and involvement in NASA’s astronomy program, Roman’s greatest legacy was her contribution to the Hubble Telescope.

Mae C Jemison [Credit: Flickr @ NASA Appel Knowledge Services]

She helped lead the program, selected operators and even personally invested in the program. She felt strongly that there was more than the eyes quite literally out in the room waiting to be discovered. And thanks to her efforts to found this historic device, we have.

Mae C Jemison

In 1992, Mae Jemison reached another milestone by being the first black woman to travel into space. From a young age, Jemison was passionate about astronomy and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from Stanford University. She then attended Cornell Medical School and practiced as a physician for disadvantaged communities in Thailand, Cambodia and East Africa.

She even joined the Peace Corps and worked in the Centers for Disease Control. But Jemison’s childhood passion never disappeared, and in 1987 she was selected from around 2,000 applicants to join the crew of the Endeavor space shuttle. Jemison continues to advocate for the rights and contributions of women and minorities not only in the scientific field, but throughout society.

Susan Helms

Imagine spending 536 minutes walking in a huge river of nothing. It’s eerily quiet and there’s nothing in the hundreds of miles except a giant menacing mass of floating rocks. That may have been what Susan Helms experienced when she broke the record for longest single spacewalk. The nearly 9-hour expedition took place during her 5 months aboard the International Space Station, where she was also the first female occupant. Helms also boasts a decorated military career that began when she graduated from the U.S. Airforce Academy in 1980 with a degree in aeronautical engineering. Eventually she retired with lieutenant general.

I am happy to say that there are many more examples of female astronauts, engineers and innovators in space research. Kitty O’Brien and Mary Jackson are the first female and black female engineers, respectively. Not to mention Kalpana Chawla, Ellen Ochoa, Christa McAuliffe and Dorothy Vaughn.

[Credit: Sarah Feldmen @ Statista]

Today, NASA hosts a number of women in STEM careers, including Dawn Martin, an engineer on the Artemis program for all women, and current astronaut Loral O’Hara. Thanks to the pioneering women of the past, STEM has never been more popular among women. In the UK, the workforce for women in STEM has exceeded 1 million, the highest it has ever been. As of 2015, it is estimated that 14.4% of the adult workforce in the UK is made up of women in STEM.

These women have been empirical about the evolution of space technology, so I encourage you – in the name of science – to explore them further and discover the women today who are engaged in space discovery thanks to past women.

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