Women in space: Female engineers at the forefront of space exploration
You could be forgiven for assuming that the space industry is almost entirely male dominated because in the very early days of space exploration, that was mostly true. However, as early as 1963, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first of many women in space as part of the Vostok 6 mission. Exactly two decades later, in 1983, Sally Ride flew aboard the Space Shuttle STS-7, becoming the first American female in space. In fact, women have been very active in space missions since the turn of the century with a total of 65 women having flown in space (as of March 2021). Marie-Pierre Ducharme, Mouser Electronics investigates.
Women’s contribution to space exploration extends far beyond female astronauts, with female engineers and scientists playing crucial ground-based roles throughout the history of space technology. For example, in 1962, NASA was preparing for the orbital mission of John Glenn and despite a highly sophisticated computing setup to control the trajectory of the complex orbital flight from lift-off to landing, the astronauts were still uneasy.
It was a female engineer, Katherine Johnson, who worked through the calculations entirely by hand, and ensured the computer systems were accurately aligned – reassuring the astronauts and enabling the mission to proceed. This historic space flight was a success, made possible by Katherine Johnson’s expertise.
Dr Nancy Roman – NASA’s first Chief of Astronomy
Nancy Grace Roman became known as the ‘mother of the Hubble’ – a reference to her instrumental role in making the space telescope a reality. In fact, Dr. Roman was the first woman to hold an executive position at NASA and the first Chief of Astronomy. Upon her passing she left a generous bequest to help more females pursue scientific careers.
The role of women in space exploration has continued around the world
Today, there are more female engineers than ever before, and many are making waves in the space industry:
- At QinetiQ in Belgium, Sweety Pate is a Satellite Operations Systems Engineer involved in ground-breaking space missions including the ALTIUS satellite for stratospheric ozone monitoring and the QKDSat satellite for secured communication. When not working, Pate is a member of the AIAA Space Operations and Support Technical Committee (SOSTC), Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) Belgium core team and the National Co-ordinator of NASA JPL Scientist for a Day Challenge.
- Electronic technology is a critical element of all space missions and female engineers make a significant contribution here. Deneen Lewis started working on the Hubble project as an electrical engineer upon leaving school. During her career she has been involved in three service/repair missions to maintain and upgrade the Hubble telescope. During the final space shuttle mission to Hubble in 2009, she developed much of the ‘command plan’ that defines the meticulous procedure for dealing with Hubble’s electrical power system.
- Earlier this year, NASA demonstrated the first controlled flight on another planet as part of the Mars Perseverance mission. This is yet another mission that had female engineers and scientists in key roles. Dr. Swati Mohan was the Guidance, Navigation & Control (GN&C) Operations Lead. Her involvement began in 2013 when she worked on the orientation of the spacecraft and the maneuvering during entry, descent and touchdown. Her role culminated in confirming the touchdown of the rover on Mars.
- Diana Trujillo’s story is inspirational – she came to the US from Colombia with just $300 and learned English while paying her own way through college. She joined NASA in 2007 and has held multiple positions including Surface Sampling System Activity Lead and Dust Removal Tool Lead Systems Engineer. On the Perseverance mission, Trujillo was Phase Lead for Robotic Arm Science.
- MiMi Aung was Lead Engineer on the Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, now famous as the first vehicle to perform controlled flight on another planet. She is also the Deputy Division Manager for Autonomous Systems at the NASA JPL.
More and more women from STEM backgrounds are choosing to pursue a career in space technology and this is a very promising trend. However, more work is needed before there is true gender equality in this field. Female engineers and scientists have been at the forefront of space technology since its inception, and it is hoped that their achievements will inspire future generations of women to follow in their footsteps.