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Inspirational women

New Movie Highlights Pivotal Role Of NASA Women To Achieve Moon Landing

16 August, 2016

Neil Armstrong may have been the first man on the Moon but behind his historic steps were a group of women with the job title of ‘Computer’. A fantastic and long overdue movie called ‘Hidden Figures’ tells the story of trailblazing NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). These women were responsible for calculating the trajectory for Neil Armstrong’s 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon and Apollo 13 among others. Katherine Johnson was critical to the Apollo 13 mission and relied upon to help safely return the astronauts to Earth through her work on backup procedures. 97-Year-Old Katherine Johnson was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, for a hugely influential career in mathematics. The struggles and triumphs of Katherine and her colleagues are highlighted in this brilliant must-see movie due to be released in January 2017!

Watch the trailer here:

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Anima Patil-Sabale, NASA

27 May, 2016
Anima suited up wearing a Final Frontier Design Spacesuit for a suborbital flight on the XCOR LYNX spacecraft simulator

Anima suited up wearing a Final Frontier Design Spacesuit for a suborbital flight on the XCOR LYNX spacecraft simulator

Anima Patil-Sabale is on a mission to be an astronaut. She is based in the Intelligent Systems Division at NASA Ames Research Center and has worked on NASA’s Kepler Mission for more than 3 years, with 14 years of experience in the software industry prior.

Anima was selected as Commander for the HERA VII mission, a 14 day Human Exploration and Research Analog at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She is a First Tier Support Engineer for Hi-SEAS and scientist-astronaut candidate for Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere). She kindly shared her story with Rocket Women.

On how she was inspired to study space:

It all began when I was 7 years old and we had a book fair at our school, St. Josephs Convent in the small city of Jalgaon in Maharashtra, India. At this book fair I came across books that had pictures of the US and Russian spacecrafts, astronauts lying on their backs when launching and Apollo astronauts. On that day I said to myself if I ever want to become something in life it is this – I want to become an astronaut. Now I decided that and saw one of the most difficult dreams of all, but had no way to figure out how I was going to go about making my dream come true. To top that there criticism and taunts I had to face when I would tell people I want to become an astronaut.

On her inspiration and overcoming setbacks:

My only inspiration was Astronaut Rakesh Sharma, India’s one and only astronaut so far [at the time]. Growing up I thought to myself, like him I will become a fighter pilot and then I will have a chance to become an astronaut. I was a good student always amongst the top. I participated in extracurricular activities, was a member of our school’s singing group, participated in dances, debates and speeches. I did great at school and then although India wasn’t accepting women as fighter pilots yet, I was hopeful that by the time I graduated things would’ve changed. The fighter pilot application said they were looking for graduates in engineering or physics. Since my Dad said whatever you want to study it has to be here, so going out of town to study engineering wasn’t an option and hence I decided to do BS Physics. I used to love physics anyways, and astronomy really interested me. I did my bachelors project on the same and I graduated with a distinction. I got the fighter pilot application and even though it said ‘only males’ can apply , I decided to apply anyways, but was defeated in one criteria – I was slightly short sighted and they needed a perfect 20 20 vision. All my world collapsed around me that day, it felt like everything was over now!

I got the fighter pilot application and even though it said ‘only males’ can apply, I decided to apply anyways.

On fighting for an education:

I didn’t know what I was going to do and the summer passed. It was time to make a decision about what I wanted to do next. I didn’t want to do a masters in Physics. My Dad suggested the MCA (MS Computer Applications), a 3-year-old program that had started at our North Maharashtra University in Jalgaon. With only 30 seats it was tough to get into but I got in. Dad wasn’t sure if I should do it as it was a 3-year program and he said there were marriage proposals coming for me, and he could not guarantee that I will be able to complete my degree if they liked a boy who was suitable for me and decide to get me married. My Mom said to him, “She’s smart and ambitious, let her study, we can negotiate with her would be in-laws and husband to let her complete her studies”. That’s how I finally got to do the MCA, a big thanks to my Mom!

On meeting her husband and following Indian cultural expectations:

Dinesh, my husband was a year senior to me when I was studying for my Masters. He really liked me and proposed to me. I asked him to meet my parents if he really liked me. I thought that would deter him, but he surprised me and did come to meet my parents! We got married while I was finishing my first year of MCA. I continued to stay at my parents while I completed MCA, Dinesh stayed at his parents, and we completed our studies. When it was time for me to look for 6 month industrial training and Dinesh was looking for job, we came to Mumbai and after a lot of efforts finally were picked by a small company together.

On moving to the US from India:

After 2.5 years in Mumbai we got the opportunity to come to the US on the H1B visa through the same company. In March 2000, we came to San Jose, California where we started settling in new jobs and making our new home here. In a couple of years I found out there was a NASA centre here, I was seeing the space shuttles launch and I remember watching Columbia launch.

On finding her true goal and the importance of persistence:

Seeing the shuttles launch regularly, knowing about NASA Ames being close, my dream, that had become dormant, started beckoning me again. I saw hope of doing something here so with a full-time job as software engineer and with a 3 year old, I applied and got accepted for my second Masters – MS Aerospace Engineering degree at San Jose State University. While studying I kept applying at NASA, Lockheed, Space Systems – all local Bay Area aerospace companies for jobs. But I wasn’t a citizen and so I wouldn’t get any calls. I kept at it though. By the time I completed my second Masters, I had my second son! I did complete my MS with a decent GPS 3.24 /4 – not bad for a full-time mom and working woman! I completed the degree in 2010 but still had no success in getting even a call from NASA.

On that phone call from NASA:

In 2012 when I was couple months away from becoming a citizen, I got a call from the hiring manager for a position on Kepler Mission. His first question was are you a US citizen and when he found out I was about to become one he called me in for an interview. One interview with about 10-12 scientists, managers and engineers and I landed the job. They liked my Aerospace and Software engineering background. I enjoyed working on Kepler as a Senior Principal Software Engineer in Operations Engineer role. While working on Kepler, I started doing talks about Kepler and NASA. I became a NASA mentor for girls. I was a Cub Scout Den Leader for my boys. I also started coaching my elder son’s Lego Robotics league and I started my private pilot lessons

I was doing these talks so I could guide the younger generation, provide them the direction I couldn’t get growing up.

On sharing her story to guide the younger generation:

When I went to India in summer 2014, on a friend’s insistence and my alma matter North Maharashtra University’s invitation, I did a few talks. The people in my hometown developed an interest in my story and I got more invitations for talks and interviews. It was all humbling and exciting because I was doing these talks so I could guide the younger generation, provide them with the direction that I couldn’t get growing up. Age is one factor against me, I am not getting any younger, I will do what I can to work towards my dream and I will apply to the astronaut program but whether I succeed or not in achieving my goal, I will adhere to my motto of “Guide, Motivate and Inspire” the youth and kids, our future generation. Advise them on career options, paths get them interested in STEM and be an advocate for human space exploration. I have continued to do that. I did several talks during that 2014 trip and during a recent visit in January 2016 in India. I have been doing the same here in the Bay Area in the US.

The interest in my story has grown, after interviewing with the media, a lot of people have been wanting to connect with me. I have created a Facebook page to share my story and to answer questions. I am also putting a website together.

On participating in simulated Mars missions:

Two years ago I got selected for a four month simulated mars mission in Hawaii, HiSeas. Since I couldn’t get a vacation from work for four months I had to let go of that opportunity, but I have been doing mission support for HiSeas since. Last summer I got selected to participate in the HERA (Human Exploration and Research Analog) mission at Johnson Space Center. We were a crew of 4. I was designated Commander and we were in a simulation for 14 days , our mission was rendezvous with an asteroid GeoGraphos. It was a great learning experience and I totally loved it. The tough part was being away from the boys as this was my first time ever being away from them for so long, but they did fine thanks to my husband!

On Being a Scientist-Astronaut Candidate for Project PoSSUM and Project PHEnOM:

Recently, I got selected as a Scientist-Astronaut Candidate for Project PoSSUM – Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere; a project supported by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. During the 5 day training for this project at the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University campus in Daytona, Florida, I  trained in aerobatic aircrafts and experienced High-G and Zero-G flights and performed Anti-G maneuvers to avoid motion sickness, nausea and such symptoms that are experienced by pilots and astronauts during such flights. I also trained for high-altitude decompression recognition and recovery in a hyperbaric chamber up-to an altitude of 22000 ft.

After studying about noctilucent clouds and Earth’s upper mesosphere, I  got to perform a flight on XCOR Lynx’s Spacecraft Simulator in a pressurized Final Frontier Design Spacesuit, as a scientist-astronaut candidate, and use the PoSSUMCam to collect science data on the clouds.

I have now been selected to participate as Citizen-Scientist Astronaut in Project PHEnOM – Physiological, Health, and Environmental Observations in Microgravity; it is one of the world’s first commercial human spaceflight research programs, training and utilizing citizen scientist-astronauts and mission support specialists to carry out its mission objectives. I look forward to this training.

This training and experience gives me the skills and confidence to forge ahead towards my childhood dream and putting together a strong Astronaut Application. I have applied to NASA’s Astronaut Selection program and while I wait for the yearlong process to unfold and find out where I stand in the same, I plan on continuing my adventures.

Being a Mom and a wife who’s 40 years now, it has been a tough ride. I faced a lot of opposition from my parents and husband when I decided to do the MS degree and for everything I do that’s out of the norm for a married woman and Mom.

On re-writing Indian tradition and waking up at 4am to reach her goal:

Being a Mom and a wife who’s 40 years now, it has been a tough ride. I faced a lot of opposition from my parents and husband when I decided to do the second Masters degree and for everything I do that’s out of the norm for a married woman and Mom.  I have struggled, argued and stood my ground. I have never failed in any of my motherly duties or duties as a wife, daughter and daughter in law, they have seen this and have come to support me now. I am happy and in a good place as family support matters a lot when you are pursuing a tough dream as this!

I was able to convince parents to let their kids pursue the careers that the kids want and not what the parents want – that is one of the biggest challenges in India and a lot of students were telling me the same right in front of their parents!

I go above and beyond to make them my priority and put my dreams and goals as the last priority. I wake up at 4am everyday, cook lunch, pack lunches for everyone, lay out breakfast and clothes for the boys and then come to work by 6am. I leave work at 2pm and get home by 3pm when my boys come home from school then I can help them with their homework, do the dishes and start cooking. I am my younger son’s cub scout leader, and my older son’s Assistant Scout Master, Lego Robotics coach and an active participant in their activities. When I get time I carry out my flying lessons to become a pilot and I recently became a PADI Certified Open Water Scuba Diver.

I think it’s important to share my story because somewhere someone who has a dream and cannot figure out how they should pursue it, will find inspiration and guidance in my story.

During my talks recently in India, I was able to convince parents to let their kids pursue the careers that the kids want and not what the parents want – that is one of the biggest challenges in India and a lot of students were telling me the same right in front of their parents. It felt like ‘mission accomplished’ when I was able to convince the parents they should allow their child to pursue the field they love because then they will enjoy it all their life. Their work will be something they will look forward to everyday !

I think its important to share my story because somewhere someone who has a dream and cannot figure out how they should pursue it, will find inspiration and guidance in my story.

On her goals for the future:

I would love to contribute to more simulations as it’s a neat way to contribute towards the much needed research for long duration spaceflight. But I also have to stay in my family responsibility and work responsibility boundaries, so I’m doing whatever I can. I have applied to the NASA astronaut program. Whether I succeed or not, I think it’s important to share my story because somewhere someone who has a dream and cannot figure out how they should pursue it, will find inspiration and guidance in my story. I will also have the satisfaction that even though somewhat late in life, I made an attempt towards my dream while enjoying my journey every step along the way.

Anima is passionate about human space exploration, long-duration spaceflight. Anima is also a recent graduate of the Project PoSSUM suborbital scientist-astronaut training program. Anima pursues her motto to Inspire, Guide and Motivate the younger generation and provide them the direction she missed out on while growing up; through her Facebook page. You can follow Anima on her journey towards the stars here.  She is also a proud Mom of 2 handsome boys, and wife to a doting husband.

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Helen Sharman On Being The First British Astronaut

22 April, 2016

Britain's First Astronaut -Helen Sharman Landing After Her 8-Day Mission [Copyright: Alamy / The Guardian]

Britain’s First Astronaut -Helen Sharman Landing After Her 8-Day Mission [Copyright: Alamy / The Guardian]

Almost 25 years ago, Dr.Helen Sharman became the first British person in space. At the age of 6, I remember learning that Helen Sharman was the UK’s first astronaut and had travelled to space a mere 2 years before. That moment changed my life and inspired me to consider a career in space.

Helen’s story began as she replied to a November 1989 Project Juno radio advertisement calling for astronauts, “Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary,” and worked hard to be selected from more than 13,000 applicants. After undergoing 18 months of strenuous training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre at Star City, Russia she launched into space on 18th May 1991. After her privately funded 8-day mission as a research cosmonaut, Helen Sharman became an overnight sensation in the UK. She spent the 1990s telling the world of her mission and spreading her inspirational story. But as suddenly as she had appeared, she disappeared.

A new interview with Helen Sharman by The Guardian helps to shed light as to why she led such an intensely private life. After shunning the limelight for over 15 years, Helen’s story has been brought back to the public’s imagination through Tim Peake’s mission, the first British European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut.

She spent the 1990s telling the world of her mission and spreading her inspirational story. But as suddenly as she had appeared, she disappeared.

As her interview with The Guardian states, “I wanted my privacy back. I’m a scientist, but I found myself in interviews being asked where I bought my clothes. Irrelevant. And I always felt I had to be photo-ready. Fame was the downside of space.”

When British Major Tim Peake was assigned a flight to the International Space Station, she found the UK Space Agency apparently ‘writing her out of history’. In statements, Major Tim Peake was reported as the UK’s first official astronaut. Helen says, “I asked them: ‘What happened to me?” She questioned what ‘official’ even meant, reminding them that her mission was ‘part of the Soviet Union space programme’. “The British government didn’t fund it but it was still official.”

Discussing what she enjoyed most about her mission, “It wasn’t so much going to space as the training that appealed. Living in Russia, learning the language, doing advanced mechanics. It was a way out [of] the rat race.”

As the first British astronaut in 1991, Helen Sharman inspired a generation in the UK to look to the stars and follow their dreams, similarly to the hopeful impact of Tim Peake’s mission a quarter of a decade later. On being selected, she shrugs, “I can only surmise why me.” “I was physically fit, good in a team and not too excitable, which was important. You can’t have people losing it in space. I think it was just my normality.”

Read Helen Sharman’s feature with The Guardian here.

Inspiration, Inspirational women

India’s Rocket Women: Meet The Women Of ISRO

9 April, 2016

India has built and launched 82 satellites into space and explored the Moon, Mars and the stars through it’s Chandrayaan-1, Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) and ASTROSAT respectively. But behind these missions is a strong team of scientists and engineers, including a team of trailblazing women.

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) launch [ISRO]

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) launch [ISRO]

Condé Nast Traveller recently featured the women working on the Mars Orbiter Mission (also called Mangalyaan). India’s MOM mission to Mars was astonishingly designed, planned and launched in 15 months with a budget of only US $70 million! Comparatively, NASA’s recent Maven mission to Mars cost $671 million.

Nandini Harinath served as deputy operations director on MOM and has worked on 14 missions over 20 years at ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), India’s space agency. Nandini highlights that “Women constitute only 20% of ISRO’s 16,000-strong workforce, but female engineers are increasingly joining in. There’s greater awareness and education among young women now. Parents are being supportive of their daughters pursuing careers.” Nandini also discussed the problem of a number of highly educated women dropping out before they reach leadership positions. “That’s the mindset we need to change. Women have to realise that they can manage having careers and families. It’s possible! You can do it if you want to.””

“Women constitute only 20% of ISRO’s 16,000-strong workforce, but female engineers are increasingly joining in”

ISRO Scientist Nandini Harinath at ISRO’s Satellite Centre in Bengaluru

Here’s an excerpt from the Condé Nast Traveller’s fantastic feature:

“What does it take to make sure your little girl grows up to be a rocket scientist? Start her young. Some 30 years ago, Ritu Karidhal was a little girl, looking up at the stars twinkling in the Lucknow sky, and wondering why the moon changed its shape and size every night. In her teens, she began following the activities of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the newspapers, cutting and collecting clippings. Around the same time, Moumita Dutta was reading about India’s first lunar probe, Chandrayaan 1, in the Anandabazar Patrika in her hometown of Kolkata and thinking, ‘How lucky those people are to have the opportunity to be part of this!’ Flash forward to 2015, and both women are top ISRO scientists, part of a team that worked on India’s acclaimed Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), aka Mangalyaan.”

The feature highlights the little-known story and mission dedication of the women at ISRO, including the four hours of sleep they get per night in order to help their children study and supportive in-laws that travel for hours to help their families.

“We think of our satellites and payloads as our babies, too. To us, they have lives. So the rules for office and home are common: Patience, Procedures, Priorities. If you’re patient, that’s half the battle won. Don’t allow for single-point failure; have backup plans in your mind all the time to avoid chaos. And you can’t be everywhere at once; so assign your priorities. The mind and heart have to be in sync. You must always be true to yourself.”

Read the full Condé Nast Traveller feature here.

Update: Meet The Women Who Helped India Reach Mars On The First Try (within 18 months!)

Nandini Harinath, ISRO [Science Friday]

Nandini Harinath, ISRO [Science Friday]

“If you’re doing mission operations you don’t need to watch a science-fiction movie, we see the excitement in our day-to-day lives.” – Nandini Harinath, Project Manager Mission Design, Deputy Operations Director, Mars Orbiter Mission, ISRO

A wonderful new film from Science Friday tells the story of the Indian women in science of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).

The goal of the film is to show the scientists and work behind the mission, aiming to inspire the next generation of women scientists. With only around “40% of missions to Mars” having been successful, this mission is special as it was not only successful on the first try for ISRO but on a “shoestring budget and in a very short time”.

“When I was small I had a dream to help the common man.” – Minal Rohit, Scientist & Engineer, Project Manager, Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM), ISRO

Watch this fantastic film here.

Inspiration, Inspirational women

NASA’s Female Pioneers – Rocket Women From History You Should Know

31 March, 2016

katherine obama

[Copyright: WhiteHouse.gov. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls]

She’s played a role in every major US space program, from calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s (First American in Space) inaugural flight to the Space Shuttle era. Her inspirational work for the U.S. space program since 1953 predates the creation of NASA. She calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon in 1970, and Apollo 13’s mission to the Moon. When Apollo 13’s mission was aborted, she helped to safely return the crew to Earth four days later through her work on backup procedures and charts .

Her name is Katherine Johnson and it’s likely that you’ve never heard her name before. Until recently that is. 97-Year-Old Katherine Johnson became a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2015, the United States’ highest civilian honor, for a hugely influential career in mathematics. When NASA began to use electronic computers for the first time to calculate astronaut John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, she was relied upon to verify the computer’s calculations. And now, mathematical genius Katherine Johnson is about to be commemorated in a movie titled ‘Hidden Figures‘ and played by none other than “Empire” Star Taraji P. Henson.

Katherine Johnson along with her colleagues Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history — the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and his safe return. Glenn flew the Friendship 7 mission in 1962, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. The job title of these women was ‘Computer’. The three women crossed all gender, race and professional lines while embarking on the mission.  ‘Hidden Figures’ is an adaptation of the Margot Lee Shetterly book “Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race,”

I’m so glad that this movie is being made and will help to highlight the significant work that these women have achieved. But Katherine Johnson isn’t the only woman whose achievements have been unsung for over 40 years.

During Women’s History Month, other women who you need to know include:

Valerie Thomas

Valerie Thomas [NASA]

Valerie Thomas

In the 1940s, Valerie Thomas went to an all-girls school where math and science weren’t even taught. But she persevered and went on to study physics in college. Valerie took a job at NASA, project managing the Landsat program, which collected satellite images of Earth from space. She soon began conceptualizing the projection of 3D images in a similar way. Using a series of concave mirrors, Thomas invented and patented the 3D-Illusion transmitter, which produces 3D projections of objects – and NASA still uses her technology. It’s her technology that made your 3D TV and modern medical imaging possible.

Seamstresses nicknamed "'Little Old Ladies”, threading copper wires through magnetic rings. Apollo memory was literally hardwired!

Seamstresses nicknamed “‘Little Old Ladies”, threading copper wires through magnetic rings. Apollo memory was literally hardwired! Wire going through core=1.Wire going around=0 [Photo copyright: Jack Poundstone/Raytheon]

The Women That Stitched Apollo To The Moon

Raytheon’s expert seamstresses, nicknamed ‘Little Old Ladies’, threaded copper wires through magnetic rings (a wire going through a core was a 1; a wire going around the core was a 0). Unbelievably, software was woven into core rope memory by female workers in factories. Apollo memory was literally hardwired and almost indestructible.

Seamstress Hazel Fellows sewing the thermal micrometeoroid garment of the ILC A7L Apollo spacesuit( [Quartz/Copyright, ILC Dover]

Seamstress Hazel Fellows sewing the thermal micrometeoroid garment of the ILC A7L Apollo spacesuit [Quartz/Copyright: ILC Dover]

At ILC Dover, a team of expert seamstresses, on Singer sewing machines, designed and built the iconic suits worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969, and essential to every Apollo mission. A total of 3 custom made suits were created for each astronaut, a training suit, a flight suit and a backup.

This is Margaret Hamilton, NASA lead software engineer, and this is the Apollo guidance program that she wrote.

This is Margaret Hamilton, NASA lead software engineer, and this is the Apollo guidance program that she wrote. [Copyright: NASA]

Margaret Hamilton

The code hardwired by a team of seamstresses that allowed the Apollo missions to fly, was created in part by Margaret Hamilton. Although not an astronaut, her contribution was critical to the success of Apollo, through the development the onboard guidance software for the Apollo mission as NASA’s lead software engineer. and through her role as Director of the Software Engineering Division at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory. Three minutes before the Apollo 11 lunar lander reached the Moon’s surface, her work prevented an abort as computer alarms triggered. Due to her design the computer overcame it’s overloading and took recovery action to rectify the issue, allowing the crew to land. “As a working mother in the 1960s, Margaret Hamilton was unusual; but as a spaceship programmer, Margaret Hamilton was positively radical. She would bring her daughter Lauren by the lab on weekends and evenings. While 4-year-old Lauren slept on the floor of the office overlooking the Charles River, her mother programmed away, creating routines that would ultimately be added to the Apollo’s command module computer. “People used to say to me, ‘How can you leave your daughter? How can you do this?’” Hamilton remembers. But she loved the arcane novelty of her job.” Margaret was also a vanguard in business and founded Hamilton Technologies Inc. in 1986, a groundbreaking software company, becoming CEO alongside coining the term “software engineering”.

Annie Easley [Engadget]

Annie Easley [Engadget. Photo Credit: NASA]

Annie Easley

During Annie Easley’s 34-year career, she worked not only on technologies at NASA that led to hybrid vehicles, but additionally to create software that enabled spaceflight and exploration. She was encouraged at a young age by her mother who told her that anything was possible, “You can be anything you want to. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what your size is, what your color is. You can be anything you want to, but you do have to work at it.” At NASA, then NACA, Annie was literally a human computer and later, as actual computers were used to conduct calculations, a math technician. She made a decision to carry out a degree in mathematics and attended classes full-time at Cleveland State University, in addition to working full-time at NACA. Male colleagues had their tuition paid for, however she had to pay for her courses herself, with her own money. NASA later sponsored additional specialized courses, but only after she had paid for her degree. Her work includes research in alternative energy, analysing solar and wind technologies, determining the life use of storage batteries and identifying energy-conversion systems – supporting the batteries used in hybrid vehicles today. Her software development skills were invaluable during the development of the Centaur rocket, the most powerful upper stage in the US space program. The rocket would be used to launch weather & communications satellites in addition to exploration spacecraft – Pioneer, Viking, Voyager and Cassini.

You can be anything you want to. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what your size is, what your color is. You can be anything you want to, but you do have to work at it.

The words of Dava Newman – NASA’s Deputy Administrator and a fellow trailblazer – regarding Katherine Johnson’s achievements ring true for each of these women, “We are fortunate that when faced with the adversity of racial and gender barriers, she found the courage to say tell them I’m coming.”

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Leading Women@NASA Answer Your Questions!

16 March, 2016

[L-R] NASA Deputy Director Dava Newman, Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, Deputy Associate Administrator Lesa Roe and Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa will be answering your questions as part of Women’s History Month [NASA]

[L-R] NASA Deputy Director Dava Newman, Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, Deputy Associate Administrator Lesa Roe and Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa will be answering your questions as part of Women’s History Month [NASA]

To celebrate Women’s History Month, Women@NASA in partnership with the White House Council on Women and Girls are holding a joint event featuring NASA Deputy Director Dava Newman, Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, Deputy Associate Administrator Lesa Roe and former astronaut and Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa. These leading women at NASA will answer your questions, sent using the hashtag #AskNASAWomen.

Join this fantastic opportunity to hear from these inspirational women discussing their careers at NASA at noon EDT/4pm GMT on Wednesday 16th March, livestreamed on NASA TV. The event will take place at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and moderated by Christyl Johnson, Goddard’s deputy director for Technology and Research Investments.

Inspirational women, Media

Inspiring Women To Reach For The Stars In Silicon Republic

10 March, 2016

Vinita Marwaha Madill at the at DLR (German Aerospace Centre) in Cologne, Germany, working on ISS Operations

Vinita Marwaha Madill at the at DLR (German Aerospace Centre) in Cologne, Germany, working on ISS Operations [Silicon Republic]

Rocket Women is honoured to be featured by Ireland’s biggest science and technology news website, Silicon Republic. The article is part of their ‘Women Invent’ series, which highlights and profiles women in STEM, aiming to encourage young women to be more aware of STEM and pursue careers in it.

Here’s an excerpt from the article in which I discuss the importance of encouraging girls to consider a career in STEM, my reasoning behind starting Rocket Women and the path to achieving my goals in the space industry:

The sky is no limit for space consultant Vinita Marwaha Madill, who is keen for young women interested in STEM to have role models.

‘In space, no-one can hear your bones weaken, but some exercise and a specially-designed spacesuit can help – and this is where space engineering consultant Vinita Marwaha Madill comes in.

“Astronauts carrying out six-month missions on the International Space Station [ISS], including Tim Peake, can grow up to 5cm to 7cm in height, with the spinal growth causing tension in the vertebrae and back pain,” explains Marwaha, adding that, in microgravity, humans can lose 1-2pc of their bone mass per month and their muscles can waste.

Exercise can help protect against these changes, but what else can be done? Marwaha has been involved in designing a ‘gravity-loading countermeasure skinsuit’ with the European Space Agency to mimic the effects of gravity on the body and help prevent elongation of the spine.

The suit, which draws on several years of research and development, was evaluated last year onboard the ISS by Danish ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen.

“With a force close to that felt on Earth, the suit effectively squeezes an astronaut’s body gradually in hundreds of stages from the shoulders to the feet,” explains Marwaha. “The suit could also be used alongside current exercise countermeasures on the ISS to help prevent bone loss. Bone responds to loading and the suit’s pressure on the skeleton could help to stimulate bone growth.”

Vinita Marwaha  Madill installing and developing the astronaut procedures for EML (Electromagnetic Levitator) using the training model at the European Astronaut Centre

Vinita Marwaha Madill installing and developing the astronaut procedures for EML (Electromagnetic Levitator) using the training model at the European Astronaut Centre [Silicon Republic]

Marwaha Madill has also helped astronauts to get to grips with spacewalk (EVA) skills at the European Space Agency’s European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany.

“The astronauts train to carry out EVA,s or spacewalks, underwater,” she explains, because training underwater provides a microgravity-type experience. “Astronauts initially learned how to translate, or move along, the Station using its handrails, move in the spacesuit and operate tools, before eventually moving on to training for full-length spacewalks.”

Currently based in the UK and Canada, Marwaha has worked too on ISS operations at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), guiding and training astronauts through experiments on the Station as it orbits Earth.

Marwaha credits role models such as astronauts Helen Sharman and Sally Ride for inspiring her to work in the space sector.

Aged 12, Marwaha went to the library and printed the astronaut candidate guidelines (you can see a contemporary version here) from NASA’s website, then stuck them to the inside cover of her school folder. She recalls them as being a daily reminder of how to reach her goal and set her focus on achieving them. “Those guidelines set the direction for my career,” she says.

Today, as well as working as a consultant focusing on space engineering, Marwaha is heavily involved in STEM Outreach through talks and through her website Rocket Women, for which she interviews women in STEM and space around the world.

“Only 6pc of the UK engineering workforce are female, meaning that UK companies are missing out on almost 50pc of their engineering talent. This is coupled with the fact that girls make up under 20pc of students taking physics A-level,” she says.

“My passion, and the goal of my website Rocket Women, is to try and reverse this trend by inspiring girls globally to consider a career in STEM. I think you need those role models out there, tangible and visible, to be able to inspire the next generation of young girls to become astronauts, or be whatever they want to be. I started Rocket Women to give these women a voice and a platform to spread their advice.”

Read the full Silicon Republic article here.

Inspirational women

UN Celebrates Girls And Women In Science

11 February, 2016

Only 3% of engineering degree applicants in the UK are girls and 6% of the UK engineering workforce are female. That’s right, it’s in the single digits!

Having carried out physics and engineering degrees in the UK, this statistic pains me. Relatedly, physics is the 3rd most popular A-level for boys but only the 19th for girls. Half of all state schools in the UK don’t have any girls studying physics A-levels at all. With a similar trend seen globally obviously something needs to change.

The United Nations (UN) has declared 11th February the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating their scientific achievements and taking place for the first time this year. So it’s apt today to look at how we can encourage girls to study science, including physics, ensuring that they have access to STEM jobs in the future.

Although girls are more likely to want to work on something meaningful they are reluctant to translate that desire to science

Although girls are more likely to want to work on something meaningful they are reluctant to translate that desire to science

The Impact of Technology

When speaking to young girls, one thing that has always helped me to portray the wonder of science, is rather than always thinking about the technology itself, think about the impact that technology will make on people. Humanize the technology itself. Take satellite technology for example: initiatives are now being undertaken to provide affordable internet access worldwide through a constellation of microsatellites, a project with the potential to have an unprecedented impact on those around the world without access to basic communication. Rural communities will have high-speed internet access where once there was none, providing education and knowledge to those currently without. The impact of the project is from where, I believe, you can inspire an increasing number of girls to study science.

Rather than thinking about the technology itself, think about the impact that technology will make on people. Humanize the technology itself.

NASA Astronaut Karen Nyberg in the cupola module on the International Space Station (ISS). She has a degree in mechanical engineering and her studies centered on human thermoregulation and experimental metabolic testing and control, and focusing on the control of thermal neutrality in space suits.

NASA Astronaut Karen Nyberg in the cupola module on the International Space Station (ISS). She has a degree in mechanical engineering and her studies centered on human thermoregulation and experimental metabolic testing and control, and focusing on the control of thermal neutrality in space suits. [Image copyright: NASA]

Find Role Models

Allowing girls access to women in STEM is key. As the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, said, “If you can’t see, you can’t be.” With movies and media portraying mainly male scientists, meeting one female scientist can change the life of a young girl as many don’t realize that a career in STEM is an option. Their future options can be influenced by a decision they make at a very young age. Positive female role models are essential to provide women with examples to look up to when they’re making the most critical decisions in their educations or career. Girls can be inspired by independent, fearless, female main characters in books or on TV as well as in real life. Knowing that there is somebody that looks like them and is a scientist can be pivotal in their educational journey.

Take a look at the Inspirational Women section of Rocket Women to read interviews with accomplished women in the space industry.

Six-Year-Old Abigail Enthralled By Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield's Sokol spacesuit

Six-Year-Old Abigail Enthralled By Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s Sokol spacesuit [Copyright: Lottie.com]

Encourage Girls When Young

To encourage more women into engineering you need to inspire them when they’re young. Girls at the age of 11 decide to leave STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), when they’re in an education system where the choice of subjects at school severely limits their options for working in other fields later. Girls need to be allowed to be creative and inquisitive from a young age, rather than being told to play with toys that are seen by many as more appropriate for young girls is key. At 8, I was learning to programme the VCR and encouraged to read voraciously about science. The key is to initially spark an interest in STEM and then to allow that to grow over years, overcoming gender bias, especially in the early years and secondary school. There are an increasing number of companies helping parents to encourage girls when younger and avoid toys that are infused with gender stereotypes, including Goldieblox which allows girls to build and become engineers and Lottie Dolls who recently launched a Stargazing Lottie doll, designed by a six-year-old girl called Abigail, to the International Space Station (ISS).

Girls need to know that it’s fine to be nerdy

Changing The Stereotype

The typical stereotype of a physicist or engineer is usually male and nerdy, which needs to change. Many men and women that work in STEM don’t consider themselves a stereotypical ‘nerd’. Girls also need to know that it’s fine to be nerdy, or simply smart, in fact as an increasing number of jobs incorporate at least a moderate level of technical skills, it’s going to be necessary for girls to learn to code and feel comfortable in a technical environment in order to succeed and thrive in any chosen career. According to US CTO Megan Smith, tech jobs pay 50% more than the average American salary.

96% of the world’s software engineers are men. The average salary for a software engineer in the US was close to $100,000, one of the top paying jobs in the country, with a similar trend worldwide.

On this inaugral International Day of Women and Girls in Science, lets share this advice with young girls around the world to help them reach their potential in the future.

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space, Discusses Being An Astronaut With Gloria Steinem

5 February, 2016

A stunning new animated video highlights Sally Ride‘s interview with icon Gloria Steinem in 1983, mere months after Sally became the first American Woman in Space. Her flight invigorated the imagination of thousands of young girls, showing them that it was possible to be an astronaut, or in Sally Ride’s own words and one of my favourite quotes, “If you can’t see, you can’t be.”

But although NASA were looking to the future, some were still lagging behind. Prior to her flight, rather than focusing on her technical acumen and performance, the press asked Sally whether she cried when there were malfunctions in the shuttle simulator, about the bathroom facilities or what kind of make up she was bringing up with her.

“I wish that there had been another woman on my flight, I wish that two of us had gone up together. I think it would’ve been a lot easier” – Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space

A recording of the interview was found by PBS Digital Studios in the archives of Smith College, who transformed the interview into an animated video (above) for its “Blank on Blank” series, posted this week.

“I wish that there had been another woman on my flight,” Ride says in the video “I think it would have been a lot easier.” She also overcame early education barriers, “I took all the science classes that I could in junior high school and into high school.”

“I went to a girls’ school that really didn’t have a strong science programme at all when I was there. At the time it was a classic school for girls, with a good tennis team and a good English teacher. Essentially no math[s] past eleventh grade, no physics and no chemistry.”

NASA has come a long way since Sally Ride’s flight in 1983, with four female astronauts chosen out of the eight candidates in the recent NASA Astronaut Class. Their selection in 2013 means that women now represent 26% of NASA’s astronaut corps, thirty years after the flight of America’s first woman in space.

Although a greater number of women now than ever have the opportunity to become an astronaut and fly, implicit (and explicit) gender bias still remains, notably seen in the questions asked of the crew pre-flight. Six accomplished Russian women underwent an 8-day analogue mission to the Moon last year. Prior to their mission they were asked by the press how they would cope without men, shampoo or makeup for the next week.

This is similar to the line of questioning faced by cosmonaut Yelena Serova, Russia’s 4th female cosmonaut and the female cosmonaut on the International Space Station (ISS). Yelena, an engineer with significant experience, was asked prior to her mission in 2014 how she would style her hair in the microgravity conditions on the ISS and how she would continue to bond with her daughter during her 6-month mission. Remarks about Yelena’s mission by the the editor of Russian magazine Space News including, “We are doing this flight for Russia’s image. She will manage it, but the next woman won’t fly out soon,” do little to inspire hope in the numbers of Russian women in space increasing in the near future.

However, by being honest about these viewpoints, both historical and recent, and exposing the gender bias that still remains globally, there is hope for change.

Watch the interview above or read it here:

Sally Ride (SR): I wish that there had been another woman on my flight, I wish that two of us had gone up together.

Gloria Steinem (GS): It’s tough to be the first but you’ve done it with incredible grace. You also have the only job in the world that everybody understands.

SR: [Laughs] My father I think was so grateful when I became an astronaut because he couldn’t understand astrophysicist. He couldn’t relate to that at all. But astronaut was something that he felt he could [relate to].

GS: And you could see people all over the world connecting with what you were doing.

SR: Roughly half of the people in the world would love to be astronauts, would give anything to trade places with you. The other half just can’t understand why in the world you would do anything that stupid.

GS: If you don’t have 20:20 vision can you become an astronaut candidate or is it disabling?

SR: I think it used to be. Now as long as it’s correctable to 20:20 it’s ok. So you’d probably qualify!

SR: I didn’t have any dreams of being an astronaut at all. And I don’t understand that, because as soon as the opportunity was open to me, I jumped at it. I instantly realised that it was what I really wanted to do. I took all the science classes that I could in junior high school and into high school. I went to a girls’ school that really didn’t have a strong science programme at all when I was there. At the time it was a classic school for girls, with a good tennis team and a good English teacher. Essentially no math[s] past eleventh grade, no physics and no chemistry.

GS: I’m curious about the reception that you got inside NASA. What kind of thing happened to you?

SR: Really, the only bad moments in our training happened with the press. The press was an added pressure on the flight for me and whereas NASA appeared to be very enlightened about flying astronaut, the press didn’t appear to be. The things that they were concerned with, were not the same things that I was concerned with.

GS: For instance the bathroom facilities. How often did you get asked that?

SR: Just about every interview I got asked that. Everybody wanted to know what kind of make up I was taking up. They didn’t care about how well prepared I was to operate the arm, or deploy communications satellites.

GS: Did NASA try to prepare you for the press or pressure?

SR: Unfortunately no they don’t. In my case they took a graduate student in physics, who spent her life in the basement of a physics department with oscilloscopes and suddenly put me in front of the press.

GS: What do you suppose are the dumbest kinds of questions that you’ve been asked to date?

SR: Without a doubt, I think the worst question I have got was whether I cried when we got malfunctions in the simulator.

GS: That surpassed the one about whether you were going to wear a bra or not. Did somebody really ask you that?

SR: No, the press I think decided that was a good question for someone to have asked me and for me to have answered. But I never got asked that.

GS: But they made you up a good response. Something about in a state of weightlessness it doesn’t matter.

SR: Yeah I was never asked that question.

GS: What about your feelings during the launch? Was there any time that the enormity of what was going on came over you?

SR: The moment of the launch, when the engines actually ignited and the solid rockets, that everyone on the crew was for a few seconds just overcome with what was about to happen to us. But a year of training is a long time, a year of sitting in simulators and being told exactly what’s going to happen, and you hear the sounds and feel the vibrations. It prepares you very well and it worked. We were able to overcome being overcome and do the things we were supposed to do.

GS: Just watching there at the launch, there were people with tears streaming down their faces. People I never would’ve expected and I guess they were all very moved by the human audacity of it.

SR: I think that when you see the long trail of flame and to imagine that there are really people inside that. That’s really something. Inside of course you don’t see the long trail of flame, and what you feel is more of an exhilaration.

GS: Well there are lots of people who are looking up there and feeling proud. Not just of you but of people on the ground.

SR: Thank you.

GS: What do you think it might be like in 2001 in fact? What’s possible for us?

SR: Well 2001 is a long ways in the future to speculate on. But probably the next step after the space shuttle is a space station. I would forsee a station as not just something that’s orbiting the Earth and used for experimentation but would also be used as a launching platform back to the Moon or to Mars. I’m sure that both of those are inevitable. We’ll go back to the Moon and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we go to Mars.

GS: Do you have any speculation about how long it might be before there are such a thing as ‘peopled’ space colonies?

SR: I’d guess that by the year 2000 there will be. I’d think that we’ll have a space station up by the end of this decade.

GS: On which it’ll be possible to live for long periods of time?

SR: Yes

Inspirational women

All-Female Crew Simulate NASA Mission to Near-Earth Asteroid

29 January, 2016

The HERA IX Crew [rocketsfromcassiopeia.com]

The HERA IX Crew [rocketsfromcassiopeia.com]

On the 30th anniversary of the loss of seven NASA Challenger space shuttle crew, NASA is both remembering their sacrifices and looking forward to the future. The HERA IX mission began on 25th January 2016, with four women entering NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) habitat, a three-story research laboratory containing an airlock, medical station, work area, flight deck, four bunks, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The aim of the 30-day simulation will be to mimic the isolation and flight operations involved in a mission to a near-Earth asteroid, with team dynamics and performance under the microscope.

The four accomplished crew selected are Crew Commander Michelle Courtney, a Virgin Galactic aerospace engineer, Flight Engineer Julielynn Wong, a physician and researcher, Mission Specialist LaShelle Spencer, a NASA scientist focused on International Space Station (ISS) air and water purification along with food growth in space and Mission Specialist Leah Honey, a NASA ISS Flight Controller based at Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control. Typically previous HERA mission crew have been composed of two male and two female crew members, though as HERA IX crew member Leah Honey describes, “our mission is four women”. Similarly, three months ago Russia featured an all-female crew in an eight-day experiment to simulate conditions for a potential 2029 mission to the Moon.

NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) habitat

NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) Habitat [rocketsfromcassiopeia.com]

Seven stars were incorporated into the the HERA IX mission patch design to represent and commemorate the seven Challenger crew members. The badge was “inspired by the eye of a peacock feather, a symbol of Hera – the Greek goddess of women” with the globe symbolizing the Earth. “The moon, a near-Earth asteroid, and Mars highlight past, present, and future destinations for human space exploration missions,” as crew member Julielynn Wong describes in her Huffington Post article.

HERA IX Mission Patch [Julielynn Wong, M.D., Huffington Post]

HERA IX Mission Patch [Julielynn Wong, M.D., Huffington Post]

Crew member Leah Honey discussed her excitement related to building a robotic rover during the mission, saying that it should be easier than “tearing apart [NASA’s] Robonaut”, referring to her experience as Robonaut Operations Engineer in which she operated Robonaut onboard the ISS. She discusses her training prior to the HERA IX mission at Rocketsfromcassiopeia.com.

Being in the VR gear and feeling like I’m actually flying around an asteroid is definitely my favorite part of all this so far.

During HERA IX crew members will conduct experiments involving sea monkeys, plants and a 3D printer, however a great deal of their time will be spent training for “EVAs” or “spacewalks” the crew will simulate once we reach the asteroid. As Leah Honey describes, “Two of the crew members will stay inside the habitat and pilot our MMSEV (Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle) to bring us from the habitat to the asteroid. Meanwhile, the other crew-mate and myself will be released from the robotic arm of the vehicle and use jet packs to get us to the specific parts of the asteroid that are considered the highest priorities for sample return. Of course, we’re not actually on an asteroid but rather in the airlock wearing virtual reality gear; after spending just 30 minutes in the VR gear today learning how the controller manipulated each degree of freedom, I definitely can see how real this whole mission can feel when all is said and done!” “Being in the VR gear and feeling like I’m actually flying around an asteroid is definitely my favorite part of all this so far.” Training for the crew also involved essential team building activities, psych screenings, learning how to design and plan the construction of water wells for a Martian colony and being taught how to use the Robotic Work Station to control the SSRMS (or Canadarm2)!

Crew member Leah Honey driving the SSRMS to grapple an HTV from the Robotics Work Station in the HERA IX habitat. [rocketsfromcassiopeia.com]

Crew Member Leah Honey Driving The SSRMS (Canadarm2) To Grapple An HTV Vehicle From The Robotics Work Station In The HERA IX Habitat. [rocketsfromcassiopeia.com]

Although the all-female crew are exploring an asteroid and conducting spacewalks (EVAs) through virtual reality for now, I’m excited for the science to be gained from the first women-led HERA mission. The results from this 9th HERA mission, and all other NASA HERA simulated missions, will be essential to enable future crewed exploration of the Moon, Mars and even asteroids.