This month, the New Horizons Probe made a close flyby of Pluto, giving scientists the first-ever photos of the surface of the former planet. From there, the tiny probe headed deep into the Kuiper Belt to examine some of the ice-balls that circle our solar system far beyond the last planets. Remnants of a time when our solar system formed, this huge region has intrigued astronomers for a very long time. Space scientists surely find this exciting. The general public probably finds it interesting, but by now is fairly used to seeing random shots of far-off places.
For many of us, the National Aeronautic and Space Agency (NASA) has been part of our world our entire lives. If you lived in the ’50s and early ’60s, you remember the race to space, with Earth orbits and ocean splashdowns of tiny space capsules. In the late ’60s through the ’70s, the Apollo missions to the moon captivated the world and brought us the first humbling photos of our fragile world from a distance. The next decades brought the space shuttle, including the Challenger failure. The first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, was among those who died when the Challenger exploded during takeoff in 1986.
One huge success of space shuttle flight was the launching and adjusting of the Hubble telescope, which has let us look farther into space—and into the universe’s origins—than ever before. The Space Shuttle Program also helped build and supply the International Space Station (ISS) until 2011. Most recently, NASA’s news has focused on planetary probes and studies of asteroids and comets.
In the early days of NASA, the public saw very few women participating in space projects. The glory days of Apollo brought great attention to the astronauts’ wives, but no comment on the few female faces scattered across the floor of the Johnson Space Center tracking the flights. In 1963, the Soviet Union sent the first woman into space: It was not until 1983 that Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. But women are playing an increasingly significant role behind the scenes at NASA, evidenced by the fact that dozens of women are behind the design, building, testing, tracking, and eventual deciphering of data from the New Horizons Probe.
Among the women making New Horizons happen are Alice Bowman, the mission operations manager, and Yanping Guo, the design leader responsible for the trajectory data that will take the probe past Pluto with precision. Leslie Young sets the flyby’s research priorities, both before the flight and in real time. Indeed, women are so common on this elite team of scientists and engineers that scientist Kim Ennico is quoted on NASA’s site saying, “I’m really only conscious of it when there are only women in a meeting room.”
Women had been working on space flight research and development even before NASA was founded. In the mid-1940s, Roxanah Yancey and Isabell Martin were among the women working at the Muroc test site, using their math degrees to crunch the numbers needed to develop the X1 aircraft. Nancy Roman left her position at the Naval Research Laboratory in 1959 to become NASA’s first head of Astronomy and Relativity Programs. Katherine Johnson was an African-American woman who joined the pre-NASA pool of mathematicians, calculating flight trajectories and plotting navigational charts before there were computers. Johnson was a teacher before that, and a strong supporter of STEM programs after she left NASA. Hundreds of others have worked on NASA projects since the agency was created, and that number is only expected to increase in the coming years.
When you look at the images and news stories about the New Horizons Probe with your family or your students this fall, talk about the women who are working hard to make it happen. They are among those changing the face of science and math forever and proving that the students of today’s schools can look to find opportunities on many new horizons.
Learn more about women and space with these resources:
NASA’s Women in Space
“The Women Who Power NASA’s New Horizons Mission to Pluto”
Women in Flight Research at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center from 1949–1995”
“She Was a Computer When Computers Wore Skirts, the Story of Katherine Johnson”
Check out these sites on the history of NASA:
Armstrong Hosts NASA 50th Anniversary Documentary (2008)
50th Anniversary of NASA (2008) with interactive time-line, and pages for teachers, students, and more
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