Space, Spectacular Scientists

World Space Week 2021: 21 women in space you should know

This week is World Space Week, and a perfect reason to get back into the habit of writing for the blog! (I know it’s been a while, life’s been busy!) This week I have 3 articles to share with you, and I’ll be sharing on Instagram too! This year’s theme is women in space, so of course my first post had to be highlighting some of the women who have been, or will soon be going, into low earth orbit and beyond!

The First British Astronaut

Helen Sharman was Britain’s first ever astronaut, but with the focus on Tim Peake’s Principia mission to the ISS since 2016, she is often forgotten about! She visited the Russian Mir space station back in 1991 as a cosmonaut. The opportunity arose after she was selected out of 13,000 applicants to a privately sponsored competition called Project Juno. She conducted many experiments when in space from a variety of fields, including chemical and materials testing which made use of her chemistry expertise and background. She has since focussed on outreach and science communication- I got to meet her back in 2017 at New Scientist Live, and she was a brilliant speaker!

Helen Sharman (L) and me (R) back in 2017!

The European Space Agency

Helen was the first European woman to go to space, and she was followed by the first female astronaut from France, Claudie Haignere, who also visited the Mir space station, and later became the first woman qualified to command a Soyuz Capsule! Samantha Christoforetti is Italy’s first female astronaut: she has both a masters in mechanical aerospace engineering and later got a second bachelor’s degree in aeronautical science while training in the Italian Air Force. In 2014, 5 years after her selection in the 2009 class of ESA astronauts, she visited the ISS for 200 days- which was at the time the longest single duration spaceflight by a woman! She is set to return in 2022, when she will be the first female European commander of the ISS. To celebrate this, and the start of World Space Week, ESA partnered with Barbie to send a Barbie replica of Christoforetti on a zero-G flight. It’s hoped that the promotion of space and other stem careers to young girls will continue to dismantle the barriers which cause women to still be hugely underrepresented in many STEM careers, as well as actively supporting women in stem by funding an aerospace PhD bursary! ESA have also been trying to encourage more women to apply to their most recent round of astronaut applications. Out of the 22,000 applications in the first round, 24% are women- this may seem quite low, but it is nearly double the percentage who applied in 2008, and it reflects the proportion of women in the STEM workforce, at least in reference to the UK.

NASA’s Artemis Astronauts

The gender balance of the newest ESA class remains to be seen, but it is encouraging to see that NASA’s Artemis Astronauts are representative of the population at large, with women making up half the class, and there is also a more diverse mix of ethnicities. This is an important step for NASA as they return to the moon, showing that the representation that was distinctly lacking in the Apollo missions is now being prioritised. The future of space should be for everyone, and everyone should be able to see themselves in those who are selected.

The Artemis Team are a strong mix of experienced and recently selected astronauts, so let’s take a look at who may be the first woman to land on the moon! 

In terms of time spent in space, Christina Koch is easily the most experienced, holding the record for the longest continuous time spent in space by a woman, a total of 328 days! Before flying into space, she had helped develop scientific instrumentation for NASA missions, and worked in Antarctica, and now has taken part in the first all female space walk! She conducted this with Jessica Meir in late 2019.

NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir prepare for a spacewalk
Christina Koch (L) and Jessica Meir (R)

The historic spacewalk was originally meant to be with Anne McClain earlier that year, another Artemis astronaut, but unfortunately there was an issue with the number of suitably sized spacesuits, so it had to be postponed. Jessica Meir and Anne McClain are similarly experienced, both with about 200 days of spaceflight in total. Meir has a background primarily in biology, having studied the physiology of marine organisms for her PhD, but also has a Masters in Space Studies and worked with NASA to coordinate life science experiments on the space shuttle and ISS, and just over a decade later it was her conducting such experiments herself!

Astronaut Anne McClain on designing and piloting the next generation of  spacecraft | TechCrunch
Anne McClain

Anne McClain had a more traditional route to becoming an astronaut, having studied aerospace engineering (here in the UK!) and later entered the military and trained as a test pilot. Alongside this, she had a successful career playing competitive rugby in the US national team- and she isn’t the only one!

Geologist Jessica Watkins also played for the USA eagles a few years later! Watkins is one of 2 geologists on the artemis team, a background which will be particularly well suited to the upcoming moon missions, as many of the experiments will be to further our understanding of planetary geology!

Kate Rubins has the second longest time in space out of the women in the team, and became the first person to sequence DNA in space during her first mission to the ISS!

Stephanie Wilson holds the record for the longest duration by a female African American, and has been part of the most spaceflights, having flown on 3 space shuttle missions. Having flown on a completely different type of mission means she brings a different perspective and more experience to the group! 

Jasmin Moghbeli also has lots of experience in aerospace (she has a degree in aerospace engineering from MIT), but being a recently selected candidate, this hasn’t been as an astronaut, but as a test pilot- she’s flown over 25 different types of plane! 

Jasmin Moghbeli

The final 2 female Artemis Astronauts are Kayla Barron and Nicole A Mann. Both are fairly new members of NASA’s astronaut corps and have engineering backgrounds, and although they are yet to fly into space, both have been assigned to their first missions in the other part of the space industry which has gained a lot of attention recently, commercial spaceflight! Nicole will be flying on the inaugural crewed flight Boeing’s Starliner, and Kayla has been assigned to SpaceX’s Crew-3 mission later this month! She is another of the group who studied in the UK, completing her Masters in Nuclear Engineering at Peterhouse College Cambridge!

Commercial Astronauts

At the moment, there are two subsets of the crewed spaceflight industry outside of government organisations: commercial (contractors like SpaceX and Boeing) and private (companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic). All offer exciting opportunities to make the space industry cheaper and more accessible, if managed correctly! One great thing about the private sector is there are many great female role models who are leading the way in these companies. Beth Moses became the first woman to fly on a commercial spacecraft in her role as Chief Astronaut Instructor for Virgin Galactic, in which she will be using her experience in developing spacewalk mechanisms at NASA along with her aerospace degree to train the next generation of commercial astronauts! Amongst her trainees are Sirisha Bandla, the Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic, who took part in the first fully crewed test of VSS unity earlier this year, and Kellie Gerardi, a citizen scientist (taking part in zero-g flights for bioastronautics research), aerospace professional and science communicator who will be flying on one of the upcoming flights! Virgin Galactic’s closest rival, Blue Origin, also launched earlier this summer, providing Wally Funk, one of the Mercury 13, a chance to finally go to space. 

L-R: Beth Moses, Sirisha Bandla, Kellie Gerardi, Wally Funk, Hayley Arceneaux, Sian Proctor

SpaceX has spread across both the commercial and private sectors, playing a key role as one of NASA’s main contractors, but also providing its services for private missions like Inspiration4. This ran as a competition which provided non astronauts with the chance to go to space, funded by Jared Isaacman. The winners included Hayley Arcenaux, who became the youngest American and first cancer survivor to go to space, and Sian Proctor, a geology professor and great science communicator!

Mission Control

All these astronauts are hugely accomplished, but they wouldn’t be able to do it without mission control and so many other support staff (not to mention the scientists and engineers that make spaceflight possible)! The first woman in mission control was Poppy Northcutt, who worked her way up from a ‘computer’ at a NASA contractor, to becoming an engineer in Mission Control, helping to calculate the return trajectory Apollo 8, and supported many Apollo missions ater! She then went on to become a lawyer, specialising in women’s rights and equality, fuelled by her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field and experiencing first hand the gender pay gap. 

It’s not just NASA who have mission control though! I talk about New Scientist Live a lot, but I had so many inspiring experiences at the 2017 event- one of which was hearing a talk by Libby Jackson, who was the ISS flight director for ESA from 2011 to 2014, and later supported Tim Peake’s mission to the ISS. She’s now the head of Human Space Exploration Programme Manager for the UK Space Agency! You can follow her on twitter to keep up to date with all the cool stuff going on in the UK space industry.

L-R: Poppy Northcutt, Libby Jackson, Susie Martinez

And finally, speaking of science communicators, Susie Martinez (you may know her on instagram as @adastrasu) is sharing what it’s like training to be an ISS flight controller!

One thing to note is that in this article I’ve mentioned a lot of ‘firsts’. And while they are a great indicator of progress, it is also a reminder that women, and particularly women of colour, have had to work extra hard over the years to have the same opportunities as men. The world is definitely changing and hopefully having role models like these will show aspiring astronauts of any background that space is for everyone!

I think it’s so interesting learning about all the different opportunities and pathways to being an astronaut, I hope you found this article inspiring! Researching it certainly gave me some motivation to keep studying so that I might have a chance at working in the space industry or research one day!

Head over to my instagram to see my post from last week featuring some other inspiring women in the space industry, and let me know in the comments how you are celebrating world space week!

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