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Reflections on Women Pioneers in Rocket Science

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Reflections

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It was the Spring of 2003. As the world waited, eager-eyed, for the return of Space Shuttle Columbia, the seven year-old me gazed at her television screen, looking at the image of Kalpana Chawla - a naturalized American citizen of Indian birth who had made it big in the world of space science and had lived true to her name (Kalpana, meaning ‘Imagination’ in Sanskrit). The 2000-2010 decade in India was a time of change and progress during which the idea of women choosing a profession in science disciplines that previously had been viewed by many as the province of men was beginning to be treated as socially acceptable. Kalpana Chawla’s life had kindled a belief among many young girls that they, too, could dedicate their lives to exploring what was beyond the barriers of space and time, the space and time that we know anyway - Planet Earth. Her tragic death in the space shuttle Columbia disaster echoed painfully across India, even as her life had inspired new hope in many girls’ hearts in that nation. [1]

In the fall of 2017, my personal quest to work in space science found me traveling several thousand miles to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. with a focus on Space Science and Engineering Research at Virginia Tech. This program has allowed me to explore and learn more about the possibilities and wonders of this field. As I have delved more deeply into this field of study, I have come to realize that while this is surely a mystery-filled realm, some of its denizens still maintain old ideas about welcoming the likes of my kind - a woman - to their ranks. 

The thought of a female expressing ideas and uncovering fresh possibilities has not always resonated with the ethos and beliefs of many in our male-dominated profession. This perspective, prevalent for far too long kept from public view the many contributions of women who were instrumental in putting a ‘man’ on the moon. A review of the lives and manifest excellence of these great women always ends with the same question: Why do Americans still not give them enough credit for their many contributions and, even more importantly, support efforts to provide today’s women ample opportunities to share their talents in space exploration? I turn next to offering vignettes about four women who were pioneers in this field and conclude with a few observations concerning my own ongoing experience as a female in this exciting area of study.

Margaret Hamilton: Preparing Human Beings to Land on the Moon

Margaret Hamilton working on the Apollo 8 Mission’s guidance computer.
Photo 1: Margaret Hamilton working on the Apollo 8 Mission’s guidance computer.

Margaret Hamilton began her career in 1959 after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and served as that agency’s lead programmer for development of the groundbreaking Apollo guidance computer. Hamilton was a part of every crewed Apollo mission and led the team that developed the inflight software for the command and lunar modules for the historic Apollo 11 flight. From initially being questioned about her capabilities to being awarded the title of ‘Software Engineer’ for that mission, Hamilton proved many times over that she was more than capable of filling her leadership role. As she observed, “When I first got there, I was the only one in that project. If you look at photos of the engineers back then, you can hardly find a woman in there.” [2]  Hamilton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2016. [3]

Katherine Johnson: Flight Trajectory Analyst for the “Moon Shot”

Katherine Johnson working on data analysis at one of NASA’s flight facilities.
Photo 2: Katherine Johnson working on data analysis at one of NASA’s flight facilities.

Katherine Johnson, an African American and recipient of the Presidential Award of Freedom, [4]  is now more than 100 years old. She was born and grew up in West Virginia during the era of Jim Crow segregation. As a result, despite demonstrating great talent for math, ‘college’ of any kind was an ambitious dream. Nonetheless, motivated by the force of her conviction and hopes for the future, she attended college at West Virginia State University and graduated with a degree in Math in 1937. She later joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (the precursor to NASA) Langley laboratory in Virginia. She spent much of her career analyzing flight test data to move the nation’s space exploration program forward. Her efforts yielded a historic outcome when her trajectory analysis allowed synching of the Apollo 11 lunar lander with that mission’s command and service modules.

Francis Northcutt: Mission Control Engineer

Frances Northcutt at NASA’s Mission Control unit.
Photo 3: Frances Northcutt at NASA’s Mission Control unit.

A graduate of the University of Texas with a bachelor’s degree in math, Frances Northcutt sought that degree in order to obtain a ‘man’s job,’ and she succeeded. Northcutt became the first female to serve as a NASA mission control engineer. Her contributions to bringing the malfunctioning Apollo 13 module home safely are still lauded. As an outspoken feminist and the first ‘women’s advocate’ at NASA in Houston, Northcutt pursued a law degree and career as a criminal defense lawyer after she completed her stint with the country’s space agency.

JoAnn Morgan: The ‘Mother’ of Rocket Science

JoAnn Morgan watches from the launch firing room during the launch of Apollo 11 at Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral).
Photo 4: JoAnn Morgan watches from the launch firing room during the launch of Apollo 11 at Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral).

JoAnn Morgan was the only woman in the launch room for the Apollo 11 mission. Morgan’s journey from starting off as ‘a precocious little kid,’ said to have rocket fuel in her blood, was not an easy one. [5]  In fact, as the only female on the Apollo 11 project team, she endured obscene phone calls, lewd comments and also had to travel with a male supervisor who guarded the door while she used the men’s restroom because there was no women’s bathroom at the facility where she worked.  This was so because women simply were not expected to pursue, let alone occupy, the technical job of which she was a deeply admired master. Morgan always encouraged interested girls and women to study rocket and space science throughout her 45-year career at NASA.

A Brief Personal Reflection on being a Woman Studying Space Science Today

Today, more than five decades later, the space science workplace remains an often challenging and unaccepting environment for women. The astronomical industry, and its rocket engineering domain more specifically, continue to offer a world of possibilities and yet, still too often set up roadblocks to women’s full participation in the pursuit of those potentials. Despite continuing discriminatory assumptions held by too many of its professionals, I have had the opportunity to work on some amazing NASA projects - the GLO (Gas Filter Correlation Radiometry-Limb Occultation) instrument to fly on the SOCRATES Mission and the Polar NOx Rocket Mission - during my two-years at Space @ VT.

I have also worked at NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility at Fort Sumner, New Mexico and have studied hardware, coding, software development and other scientific dimensions of my chosen field. As a result of these experiences, I can say that I am now a confident woman ready to contribute to my profession. Having said that, I would credit a strong share of my development and self-confidence to my advisor, Scott Bailey, director of Space @ VT. His dedication to encouraging more women in rocket science and his advocacy for gender equality in the workplace are well known and deeply appreciated. His commitment has resulted in more female than male graduate students working on his research team.

An image of me with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Team at NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, Fort Sumner, New Mexico, taken on September 3, 2019.
Photo 5: An image of me with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Team at NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, Fort Sumner, New Mexico, taken on September 3, 2019.
An image of the Virginia Tech team that performed the Star Test on the Polar NOx Rocket in August 2019.
Photo 6: An image of the Virginia Tech team that performed the Star Test on the Polar NOx Rocket in August 2019.
Some of the women working on the Rocket payload at the Optic Lab, Space @ VT.
Photo 7: Some of the women working on the Rocket payload at the Optic Lab, Space @ VT.

These photographs are testimony to the fact that with the right motivation, time and encouragement, females can succeed in rocket science. My fond hope is that women will become commonplace in this field in coming years.

Notes

[1]  On February 1, 2003, Kalpana Chawla lost her life in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster when that orbiter disintegrated over Texas during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere shortly before it was scheduled to conclude its twenty-eighth mission, STS-107.

[2]  Smith, D. (July 19, 2019) “Without these women, man would not have walked on the moon,” The Guardian.  https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/jul/19/apollo-women-man-walk-on-the-moon, Accessed September 15, 2019.

[3]  Wikipedia (September 3, 2019) “Margaret Hamilton,”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Hamilton_(software_engineer), Accessed September 15, 2019.

[4]  “Katherine Johnson awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIWJFNAN4XI

[5]  Patrinos, T. (2019). “Rocket fuel in her blood: The story of JoAnn Morgan,” NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/the-story-of-joann-morgan, Accessed September 15, 2019.

References

Moskowitz, C. (2019). “Women in space: A gallery of firsts,” Space.com. https://www.space.com/16143-women-space-firsts-gallery.html

Smith, D. (July 19, 2019) “Without these women, man would not have walked on the moon,” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/jul/19/apollo-women-man-walk-on-the-moon

 Wild, F. (August 23, 2019) “NASA women in science.” NASA STEM Engagementhttps://www.nasa.gov/stem/womenstem/women-in-science.html

Saswati Das

Saswati Das is a third-year doctoral student in Electrical Engineering. Her area of research is Electromagnetics and she works for Space @ Virginia Tech (Center for Space Science and Engineering Research). She has been working on NASA missions in collaboration with Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the GLO (Gas Filter Correlation Radiometry- Limb Occultation) instrument to be flown on the SOCRATES mission and also on the Polar NOx Rocket Mission that aims at understanding the vertical profile of Nitric Oxide and its downward transport during the polar night. She holds a Bachelor of Technology Degree in Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering from Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology, India. She enthusiastically advocates the inclusion of women in Space and Rocket Science.

Publication Date

September 19, 2019