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The 1st Girls of NASA

The women who worked in the early days of NASA played a crucial role in the agency's success, contributing their skills and expertise in science and engineering to advance the space program.

In the early days of NASA, courageous and talented women like Pearl I. Young paved the way for a future where equality and diversity thrive, much like the ideal universe of Star Trek. Pearl Young, the first female technical employee of NACA, now known as NASA, not only broke the gender barrier but also became the Chief Technical Editor at Langley Instrument Research Laboratory and an esteemed engineering professor. As early as 1942, nearly 200 women were employed at Langley Laboratory, handling various tasks previously done by men, including reading wind tunnel instruments, computing data, and assisting in aircraft model preparation. These women displayed remarkable aptitude and skill, proving that gender is no barrier to scientific excellence. Their contributions mirror the values of Star Trek, a future where everyone, regardless of gender or background, is given equal opportunities to contribute to the advancement of science and exploration. The steps taken by these pioneering women at NASA reflect the inclusive and egalitarian vision of the Star Trek universe, where diversity is celebrated and knowledge knows no boundaries.

Throughout the history of NASA, women have taken on various roles. As early as 1922, the organization hired female scientists and technical personnel. In the following decades, more women joined the teams at Langley Memorial and other NASA sites across the United States. As the space program progressed, women were able to expand their roles, eventually reaching the status of astronauts.

In the 1920s,

Image of Pearl I. Young (1895 – 1968) was the first female professional hired by the NACA, in an age when most women in the government were constrained to staffing support positions such as secretaries or administrative aides.
Pearl I. Young (1895 – 1968) was the first female professional hired by the NACA, in an age when most women in the government were constrained to staffing support positions such as secretaries or administrative aides.

Pearl I. Young was among the earliest women to work as a physicist and in other technical roles. She worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory building 1202 in Langley, Virginia.

In the 1960s, women's roles in NASA were evolving.

Women have played a significant role in supporting NASA throughout history, serving in positions ranging from administrators and secretaries to doctors, psychologists, and engineers. In the 1960s, NASA began recruiting women and minorities, hiring thousands. Mary Shep Burton, Gloria B. Martinez, Cathy Osgood, and Shirley Hunt, who worked in the computer division. At the same time, Sue Erwin, Lois Ransdell, and Maureen Bowen served as secretaries for the Mission and Flight Control teams. Dana Ulery was the first female engineer hired at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Donna Shirley worked as a mission engineer during the same period. Carolyn Huntoon was a pioneer in researching astronaut metabolisms and body systems, Margaret Hamilton was the lead programmer for the Apollo program's guidance computer, and Judy Sullivan was the lead biomedical engineer for the Apollo 11 mission.

Image of Katherine Johnson, American mathematician who calculated and analyzed the flight paths of many spacecraft during her more than three decades with the U.S. space program. Her work helped send astronauts to the Moon..
Katherine Johnson, American mathematician who calculated and analyzed the flight paths of many spacecraft during her more than three decades with the U.S. space program. Her work helped send astronauts to the Moon..

NASA had a difficult start with female representation in the organization, but some women made significant contributions to the space program despite their challenges. Katherine Johnson is one of the most notable figures in NASA history, having worked her way up to become one of the top and most respected engineers on the Apollo mission. Her achievement was groundbreaking for both black women and women overall, providing inspiration to the public. Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson also made significant contributions to the space program by ensuring the accuracy of rocket launch calculations. These women were pioneers in increasing the acceptance of females working for NASA.

In 1962, George Low, NASA's Chief of Manned Spaceflight, argued against employing women, asserting it would impede progress. That same year, John F. Kennedy established the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women to promote gender equality in the workplace. Subsequently, a NASA administrator, James Webb,

An image of James Edwin Webb (1906-1992)
James Edwin Webb (1906-1992)

instituted an agency-wide policy that declared all those interested in working for NASA would be provided equal opportunities. However, no female applicants were chosen for the astronaut corps from 1963 to 1967.

During the 1970s,

In the 1970s, women took a step closer to becoming astronauts as the military started allowing them to take pilot training. This was further boosted by Nichelle Nichols' help in recruitment due to her role as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, which inspired young girls to pursue a career at NASA. Soon after, in 1992, the first black woman astronaut, Dr. Mae Jemison, was named. Another influential figure in the 1970s was Dr. Carolyn Huntoon, who declined to become an astronaut, instead opting to serve on the selection committee. Furthermore, Huntoon was sent across the U.S. to encourage women to enter STEM. Additionally, in 1979, Kathryn Sullivan flew a NASA WB-57F reconnaissance aircraft to a record-breaking altitude of 63,300 feet for American women.

During the Decade of the 1980s,

In June of 1983, Sally Ride made history by becoming the first female American astronaut to go into space. A little over a year later, Judith Resnik followed suit and became the second American woman in space, taking the Space Shuttle Discovery on the journey. Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic female astronaut, joined NASA in 1988. She flew on the Discovery, Atlantis, and four other times, spending almost 1,000 hours in outer space. Shannon Lucid's first flight was in 1985, and by the end of her career, she had set an American record of 188 days in space for both men and women, lasting until 2002.

During the 1990s,

In the 1990s, NASA undertook a lot of research on how space affects women's bodies. Carolyn Huntoon gave a speech at the 2nd Annual Women's Health and Space Luncheon in 1994 to express appreciation for the work done by NASA that had gone unnoticed. On February 3, 1995, Colonel Eileen Collins became the first female to fly a U.S. spacecraft. Shannon Lucid, a board engineer, accomplished five missions in space and served as the lead scientist for NASA in Washington, DC.

In the Early 2000s,

Since 2000, the number of female members of NASA's planetary missions has noticeably increased. The percentage of women chosen as Co-Investigators and Participating Scientists had been relatively low in the 1990s, but by the 2000s, it had gone up to about 30%. For instance, Pamela Melroy was an astronaut and a veteran military pilot who had flown around 5,000 hours in space shuttles such as Discovery and Atlantis. In 2007, Peggy Whitson became the first female to command the

Image of NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson
NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson

International Space Station. Furthermore, Whitson conducted several experiments in space that have since advanced space exploration technology.

In 1986, Christa McAuliffe was initially announced as the first teacher in space, with Barbara Morgan as the alternate or secondary candidate. However, Barbara Morgan became the first teacher in space that same year. Tragically, Christa McAuliffe perished in the Challenger accident, and Morgan had to wait until 2007 to be able to go to space.

The 2010s - A Decade Of Growth

Sunita Williams is renowned for her numerous female milestones, such as having spent 322 total days in space, taking over 50 hours on spacewalks, and being the second female to control the International Space Station.

Female Involvement in NASA

The contribution of women to the Space Program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been significant and ongoing. From the agency's early days, female astronauts and scientists have been instrumental in advancing knowledge of space exploration.

The beginning of the inclusion of women in U.S. space programs can be traced back to the unofficial program of Mercury 13. At the time, all seven astronauts chosen were white males. Randy Lovelace and Don Flickinger were involved in the selection process and suggested having female participants. Lovelace believed that women could do the same tasks as men in space. Consequently, they encountered Jerrie Cobb in 1960, who was an important figure in the recruitment and testing of women. The Mercury 13 program is the starting point for the inclusion of women in U.S. space programs.

An image of Jerrie Cobb, was an American pilot and aviator.
Jerrie Cobb, was an American pilot and aviator. She was also part of the Mercury 13, a group of women who underwent physiological screening tests at the same time as the original Mercury Seven astronauts. She was the first to complete each of the tests..

December 20, 1959, marked the revival of the Women in Space Program, a modified version of the Women in Space Earliest program that had been canceled the month prior. Just like the program for men, it required candidate testing, but the parameters were altered to be more accommodating to women. For example, men were required to have a degree, be jet pilots, attend a military test pilot school, and have at least 1,500 hours of flying time. Since women needed access to these same opportunities, the screening criteria shifted to women with commercial pilot licenses since many were already instructors. Jerrie Cobb was the first to go through the testing, and she became the leader of the Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs) with 12 other women. This made up a total of 13 women, which earned them the title of Mercury 13 by the media. Even though Cobb was appointed a NASA consultant and continued testing, the women were still not allowed to be astronauts.

At the time of the examinations for women, some scientists believed that women had more suitability than men to be sent to space because their internal organs were thought to better withstand radiation and vibrations. Additionally, it was thought that it would be less costly if women were to use spacecraft due to their smaller size. However, the testing for women was canceled after it was realized that NASA had yet to send out an official request for such a project. Subsequently, Lovelace chose not to continue with the program and ended up in a difficult situation with NASA. Furthermore, Jerrie Cobb, the program's leader and had been organizing the tests for women, was removed from her post at NASA.

Image of Jerrie Cobb
Jerrie Cobb's journey towards becoming the first female astronaut was one that faced numerous challenges and setbacks. Despite her qualifications and dedication, she was unable to fulfill her dream of space travel. The situation raises important questions about the barriers faced by women in science and technology, and the steps we can take to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to pursue their aspirations.

Today at NASA

As of 2012, 43 American women had ventured into space since Sally Ride first did so in 1983. Additionally, 12 other women astronauts from other nations had gone into space. Currently, females make up around 10 percent of NASA's astronauts.

Significant occurrences:

  • 1959 Brigadier General Don Flickinger and Doctor W. Randolph "Randy" Lovelace II, the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Sciences members, created the Woman in Space Earliest (WISE) program. A year later, Nancy Grace Roman emerged as the first female with an executive role in the organization.

  • Jerrie Cobb was appointed to serve as a NASA advisor in 1961, and the same year, President John F. Kennedy endorsed the idea of both sexes participating in the space program.

  • The Soviets made history in 1963 when Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel into space.

An image of Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova's landmark 1963 flight, which launched her into history as the first woman to fly to space
Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova's landmark 1963 flight, which launched her into history as the first woman to fly to space .

  • 1978 saw Anna Fisher, Shannon W. Lucid, Judith A. Resnik, Sally K. Ride, Margaret R. Seddon, and Kathryn D. Sullivan chosen as astronauts.

  • Sally Ride completed her space mission five years later, making her the first U.S. woman to do so.

  • Kathryn Dwyer Sullivan made history as the first U.S. woman to walk in space in 1984.

  • Tragedy struck two years later when Judith A. Resnik and payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe died in the Challenger accident.

  • Mae Jemison became the first black woman in space in 1992, and Ellen Ochoa followed a year later as the first Hispanic woman to go into space.

  • In 1994, Carolyn Huntoon became the first woman to lead a NASA center (Johnson Space Center).

An Image of Carolyn Leach Huntoon is the only woman to have served as the director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Carolyn Leach Huntoon is the only woman to have served as the director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
  • Shannon Lucid was the first woman to receive the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1996.

  • Eileen Collins became the first U.S. woman to command a spacecraft in 1999, and Shana Dale was the first female Deputy Administrator of NASA six years later.

  • Finally, in 2007, Peggy Whitson became the first woman to command the International Space Station.

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