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Inspiration, Inspirational women

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

31 March, 2016

katherine obama

[Copyright: 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 Stiched 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

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


All-Female Russian Crew Start Mock Mission To The Moon

2 November, 2015
The crew of 6 Russian women prior to entering isolation

The Crew Of 6 Russian Women Prior To Entering Isolation

A year after Russia sent it’s first female cosmonaut to the International Space Station (ISS), a group of six Russian women are currently undergoing an 8-day analogue mission to the Moon. The accomplished women, with expertise in backgrounds including biophysics and medicine, entered a suite of wood-panelled rooms on October 28 at Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems to simulate the mission. The psychological effects of spaceflight are being tested, with a team of doctors and psychologists remotely monitoring the study.

The institute has previously undertaken a 520 day isolation mock mission, Mars 500, in which 6 male candidates lived in similar conditions, simulating a mission to Mars. Another older analogue study with a mixed crew ended early after two male crewmembers fought and one male crewmember attempted to kiss a female crewmember.

One of the most challenging parts of the all-female Russian mock mission may have occurred before it had even started, during the pre-study press conference. The institute’s director Igor Ushakov remarked, “We believe women might not only be no worse than men at performing certain tasks in space, but actually better.” His casual derogatory remarks continued with, “I’d like to wish you a lack of conflicts, even though they say that in one kitchen, two housewives find it hard to live together.” A potentially inspiring endeavour for women in space was unfortunately reduced to a sterotypical comparison of being a housewife and not being good enough for spaceflight. His remarks deepening the fact that a lack of self-confidence in one’s ability is an internal barrier that women battle around the world. When Canadian Space Agency (CSA) retired astronaut Dr.Julie Payette was asked what her biggest challenge in the pursuit of her goals, she admitted that it was “Fear and doubt I wouldn’t perform as needed.”  Dr.Payette admitted that it had been her biggest challenge and it had taken a lengthy amount of time to convince herself that she was good for the job, even once she was selected and in training.

The institute director’s remarks continued to set the tone for the press conference, where the 6 women, all experts in their fields, were asked by the press how they would cope without men or makeup for the next week. When the subject being inquired into moved to how they could possibly cope for 8 days without shampoo, the women sarcastically remarked back to the press, “I don’t know how we’ll survive without shampoo. Because even in this situation, we really want to stay looking pretty.”  The media’s line of questioning is similar to that faced recently by cosmonaut Yelena Serova, Russia’s 4th cosmonaut(!) and the first female cosmonaut on the ISS. Yelena, an engineer with significant experience, was asked prior to her mission 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. The then head of Russia’s space agency’s remarks about Yelena’s mission of, “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. Though by choosing to conduct a study with 6 female candidates simulating a mission to the Moon, Russia will gain additional results that may help with this issue and hopefully inspire young Russian girls to realise that they can be a cosmonaut too.

Science Spotlight

Science Spotlight – 50 Years of Spacewalking

3 June, 2015

NASA Astronaut Edward H. White Conducting the First US EVA on June 3, 1965

50 years ago on this day, Edward White stepped out of his Gemini spacecraft into the vacuum of space and made history, becoming the first spacewalking American astronaut. Spacewalks are inherently risky endeavours summed up by NASA Astronaut Butch Wilmore as simply “being in the vacuum of space and attached by a little metal tether”, all the while orbiting the Earth at 17,100 mph exposed to Micrometeroid and Orbital Debris (MMOD). Ed White’s spacewalk,  taking place 77 days after the first EVA (Extravehicular Activity) by Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, could possibly be described as one of the riskiest of all and set the precedent for the future of the space program. A spacewalk is performed outside the protective environment of a space habitat or vehicle. To survive the vacuum environment, the human body needs to be in a pressurised enclosure, which is precisely what an EVA suit (spacesuit) is, alongside a life support system. It’s essentially an anthropomorphic, mini spacecraft with the complexity of a large spacecraft. The design of an EVA suit may seem simple at first sight since they are covered with a fabric thermal micrometeoroid garment, but it is in fact one of the most complex technological developments to carry out.

Future spacesuit designers need to provide crew members with a comfortable interior pressure, sufficient flexibility, mobility and microclimate for a range of EVA activities, whilst minimising the risk of suit decompression. In case of an emergency, the suit needs to be able to be worn and removed with ease and rapidly whilst protecting the crewmember from micrometeoroid penetration or puncture. As NASA says when it comes to spacesuits, “understanding the past and learning from mistakes is the only way to progress”. Once on the surface, the environmental challenges faced on Mars and near-earth asteroid surfaces along with potential EVA durations likely exceeding the cumulative length of every Apollo EVA and would require the design of a versatile and rugged suit.

NASA’s Apollo suits were the first to have plaster hand casts and full body casts created for the crewmembers, improving suit fit. Astronauts today have custom-made EVA gloves only, developed using laser scanning, hand casting, 3D computer modelling, stereo-lithography, laser cutting and CNC machining. To allow mobility, the Apollo suit design ensured that the astronaut could easily translate and flex his fingers even with the tendency of its internal pressure to make it a rigid balloon. This still required significant effort and forearm fatigue due to the glove pressure limited productivity. The Apollo suit was redesigned for the Apollo 15-17 missions to allow the number of lunar surface EVA periods to increase to three and an extension of each EVA to eight hours. Improvements were made in the Apollo suit gloves introducing more bonded and moulded components with an increase in the diameter of the glove wrist disconnect to provide greater wrist comfort and making them easier to wear.  With the lunar rover vehicle (LRV) used for the first time during Apollo 15, the spacesuit needed additional waist mobility and improvements to the integrated micrometeoroid garment (ITMG) in its abrasion resistance against the effects of lunar dust.


Astronaut Jack Schmitt conducting EVA activities at the Apollo 17 landing site. Note the heavily dust covered suit especially near the boots and lower arms. [NASA, 2002]

Lunar dust proved to be a significant problem for the Apollo missions due to it’s highly abrasive nature and caused problems including coating the suits causing seal failures, abrasion and irritation when inhaled by the crew. Lunar dust compromised the ability of the astronauts to re-seal their suits after an EVA, with Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad’s suit after his EVA developing a leak rate of 0.25 psi/min, just below the safety limit of 0.30 psi/min. A 3rd EVA would likely not have been possible if needed. The environmental lunar sample seals also failed resulting in sample contamination. The lunar dust was so abrasive that the astronauts’ suits were worn through the outer layer and into the Mylar multi-layer insulation above the boot. Dust scratched the Apollo 16 suits’ gauge dials to leave them unreadable. The abrasive effect of lunar dust on spacesuit and seals is a major problem for long-duration missions where habitat airlocks or spacesuits will be sealed on a regular basis and needs to be taken into account during future suit design.
ISS shuttle.png

The enhanced EVA suit (left) currently used on the International Space Station (ISS) was developed with the requirement that the number of EVAs required for ISS construction would be greater than all of the previous spacewalks conducted by all of the world’s space programmes. The financial constraints relating to the U.S.’s contribution to the ISS program meant that the Shuttle EMU was upgraded rather than developing a new concept. The new enhanced suit provided easier on-orbit sizing and improved custom glove fitting with a heating system.

Lessons are still being learnt to this day, with a major issue discovered within the suits recently. During an EVA on 16th July 2013, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano felt water inside his helmet on the back of his head. The amount of water in the helmet increased migrated from the back of his head onto his face. The EVA was terminated early and the crew re-entered the ISS allowing the suit to be removed. Luca also reported impaired visibility and had to breathe with water covering his eyes, nose, and ears. He also had audio communication issues because of the water and had to rely on manually feeling his safety tether’s cable, attaching him to the ISS structure, for pathway directions back to the airlock rather than relying on his sight. It’s the closest call to this date during an ISS EVA with the amount of water in the helmet estimated to be 1-1.5 litres. This particular issue had been caused by a failure of the fan/pump/separator component within the spacesuit, which was subsequently replaced. Astronauts also now install a Helmet Absorption Pad (HAP) inside their helmets to absorb potential water that may enter their helmet. Along with regular glove inspections during an EVA, astronauts will also carry out HAP inspections to feel whether the HAP is “squishy” (A NASA technical term) indicating that it may be holding 200 milliliters of water at the minimum. Up to 600 to 800mL of water can be held by the pad, giving the crew time to return to the safety of the airlock. Water Line Vent Tubes or snorkels have also been installed inside the suit using velcro allowing the crew to breathe from the drier Torso Section of the suit in case of a serious mishap .

EVA30 water.png

Water visible in NASA Astronaut Terry Virts’ helmet post his 25th February spacewalk [NASA TV Screenshot]

In February this year, astronaut Terry Virts also reported water in his helmet when back in the ISS airlock post-EVA, during repressurization caused by sublimator water carryover. Water present in the suit’s sublimator cooling component can condense as the suit is repressurized after a spacewalk. This caused a small amount of water to push into Virts’ helmet however this is now a known and NASA accepted EVA risk. Tackling these issues related to EVA suit design including the effect of lunar dust and glove design will be a challenge, but is currently being investigated.

EVA is a proven capability for meeting mission objectives and is critical to the ISS, with a current total of 1159 hours 8 minutes of EVA having been completed in ISS maintenance and assembly. The lessons learned over the last 50 years of spacewalking are essential to develop a future EVA suit for long-duration human exploration missions including a mission to Mars, needing to withstand the deep-space and Martian environments.