SciComm, Space, Spectacular Scientists

Women in Space: Past

Space is probably my favourite area of science (as you have probably guessed due to the nature of most of my posts), as it involves so many aspects of science: Biology- to assist human space flight and look for life across the universe, Chemistry- to figure out the composition of planets and discover new kinds of fuel or materials to be used for spaceflight, and of course Physics- ranging from Particle Physics, to looking for massive astronomical events like supernovas, to figuring out how planets orbit stars, stars orbit galaxies and galaxies orbit…? And not to mention the fantastic feats of engineering and technology that stem from Space Research. So, for the next few posts, I’m going to investigate the role that women have to play in space: Past and Present. 

Getting to Space

Thanks to the movie Hidden Figures, the role of women in early- and modern- spaceflight has been propelled into mainstream media!  In case you haven’t watched it yet, the story features three women at NASA: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, who start as ‘computers’ and end up as a mathematician who calculated the launch and landings for many Mercury and Apollo flight, a supervisor of programming and mathematics, and a chief engineer respectively! 

Hidden Figures, a movie made about 3 incredible women at NASA

The role of a computer was considered to be a woman’s job back then, and although quite tedious, it played a vital role in calculations, due to the slowness of electronic computers at the time. Other important women at NASA also started out as human computers, and worked their way up the ladder from there, such as Annie Easley who became a computer scientist and rocket scientist. Although none of the Apollo Missions included female astronauts, getting there required female brains! Margret Hamilton developed software for the Apollo Missions that resulted in the success of Apollo 11, by implementing a priority system into the computers. Jeanette Scissum helped write the program to predict where the Lunar Module would and should land. Poppy Northcutt was the first female engineer in the Apollo program, and the only woman in Apollo 8 mission Control! She too began as a human computer.

Since then, more and more women have played vital roles in the success of space missions, and just last year, Holly Ridings was named NASA’s first female chief flight director, the person in overall charge of mission control.

Holly Ridings, NASA’s chief flight director

In Space

Of the ~550 people who have travelled to space, only 65 are women. That’s only just over 10%. Why? 

Initially, women were held back by sexist views of the time, and the belief that spaceflight would negatively affect them more than men, resulting in reduced performance. Since then, women have flown in space, and there have been no more issues than with men, although spaceflight does affect women and men differently but the issues seem to balance out, and none of them affect the astronaut’s long term performance while in space! 

  • Women are more likely to feel sick upon arrival to space, but men are more likely to get sick on re-entry. 
  • After the flight, women are more likely to have blood pressure problems, but men are more likely to have vision and hearing difficulties. 
  • It has been seen that women have a lower threshold for radiation, so may be more likely to get cancer post-spaceflight, but more research has to be done, as the sample size for women is obviously lower than men, given that less have gone to space. This is why it is so important that more women do become astronauts!

Compared to the 60’s, NASA, and other space agencies, are much more gender-balanced today, with 5 out of the 12 astronaut candidates selected by NASA in 2017 being women. Looking for some notable names to sprinkle some science into everyday conversation? Here’s a list of some female astronauts who have flown over the years ( a comprehensive list can be found here)

  • Valentina Tereshkova- first female astronaut, orbited the earth 48 times on the Vostok-6 craft, in 1963
  • Sally Ride- first american woman in space
  • Helen Sharman- first british astronaut, and the second woman to fly on the Mir space station
  • Mae Jemison- first African-American woman to fly in space
  • Eileen Collins- first female Space Shuttle Commander
  • Peggy Whitson- first female ISS commander, and holds the record for most time spent in space for any US astronaut, and the longest single space flight out of all female astronauts. 
  • Yelena Serova- first Russian Woman to visit the ISS
  • Samantha Cristoforetti- first Italian astronaut and first person to brew an espresso in space
  • Beth Moses- first woman in space on a commercial spacecraft, as the astronaut trainer for Virgin Galactic
  • Christina Koch and Jessica Meir- first women to perform an all female spacewalk, earlier this year

Space Research

Despite the many barriers that women faced, space science has benefited from the minds of female astronomers and astrophysicists throughout history! Perhaps the first female astronomer on record was Hypatia, an astronomer who lived in Alexandria in the time of the Romans, teaching astronomy and charting celestial bodies. Another famous female astronomer is Caroline Herschel, who, as a result of helping her brother, William Herschel, developed a love for astronomy and discovered many comets and nebulae! 

Now to America. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Harvard College Observatory was directed by Edward Charles Pickering, known for hiring many female astronomers, at a time when women were considered very much inferior to men. Two of these were Williamina Fleming and Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Williamina is known for being one of the first of the all-female Harvard Computers group, and discovered ~60 nebulae (including the famous Horsehead nebula!), and over 300 variable stars! 

Following on from this work, Henrietta Leavitt discovered the relationship between Cepheid Variable Stars and luminosity, which allows astronomers, to this day, to measure distances across the universe, and allowed Edwin Hubble to discover the expansion of the universe!
And of course, the discoveries of Vera Rubin, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and many others in the more recent past have helped deepen our understanding of the world around us!

So, it’s obvious that women have played a crucial role in the development of space science and industry, which continues today! Stay tuned to find out about some inspiring women who work in the space industry in the present…


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