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NASA

Astronauts, Inspirational women, Media

Rocket Women Featured In BBC’s Women With The Right Stuff

24 February, 2017
“What everyone in the astronaut corps shares in common is not gender or ethnic background, but motivation, perseverance, and desire - the desire to participate in a voyage of discovery.” - Ellen Ochoa, NASA Astronaut & First Hispanic Woman In Space.

“What everyone in the astronaut corps shares in common is not gender or ethnic background, but motivation, perseverance, and desire – the desire to participate in a voyage of discovery.” – Ellen Ochoa, NASA Astronaut & First Hispanic Woman In Space.

In 1961 Wally Funk undertook secret tests to become an astronaut in the USA. A full twenty-two years before Sally Ride became the first American Woman in Space. She, along with 12 other female pilots, passed the tough rigorous physical tests to become an unofficial member of the ‘Mercury 13’ – the US women who could have gone into space over 20 years before the first American woman eventually did and even before Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963.

In the BBC’s Women With The Right Stuff, Wally Funk leads the listener through the story of the Mercury 13, a group of trailblazing and driven female pilots – some with more flying hours than John Glenn, the first American man in space that unfortunately never got the chance to fly to space, to the current NASA class chosen, being 50% female. The piece also features insights from trailblazing female astronauts including NASA’s Jessica Meir and Eileen Collins, the European Space Agency’s Samantha Cristoforetti and the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman. I’m excited to also be featured in the documentary among such fantastic company and represent Rocket Women. (You can find my interview at 9 minutes into the documentary and again at 30 and 40 minutes.)

Listen to the piece here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p041kpmw

Additionally, here’s an insightful article by the documentary’s producer, Sue Nelson, about the documentary and working with Wally Funk: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-36824898

Education, Inspiration

Two New Scholarships Available For Women In STEM

26 October, 2016

brooke_zerog

Dawn Brooke Owens [Image Copyright: BrookeOwensFellowship.org]

Do you want to be the next Helen Sharman, Kate Rubins or Sally Ride? Then here are two new scholarships available you should consider!

Brooke Owens Fellowship Program

The Brooke Owens Fellowship Program was created to honour “the legacy of a beloved space industry pioneer and accomplished pilot, Dawn Brooke Owens (1980 – 2016), the Brooke Owens Fellowship Program is designed to serve both as an inspiration and as a career boost to capable young women who, like Brooke, aspire to explore our sky and stars, to shake up the aerospace industry, and to help their fellow men and women here on planet Earth.”

The fellowship offers paid internships at “leading aviation and space companies and organizations for passionate, exceptional women seeking their undergraduate degree”. The program is open to women carrying out undergraduate degrees in any field who intend to pursue a full-time career in the aviation or aerospace industry.

Applicants should submit a work sample relevant to their discipline in addition to a standard internship application. “This sample could take any of a wide variety of forms: a video of a rocket motor test, recording of an original song or poem, a white paper on a matter of aerospace policy, or whatever else you think best captures your personality and your ambitions.”

The deadline for applications is 5th December, 2016.

Nancy Grace Roman, the 'Mother of the Hubble Space Telescope' [philosophyofscienceportal.blogspot]

Nancy Grace Roman, the ‘Mother of the Hubble Space Telescope’ [Image Copyright: philosophyofscienceportal.blogspot.com]

NASA Nancy Grace Roman Technology Fellowships in Astrophysics for Early Career Researchers

Otherwise known as the Roman Technology Fellowship, this NASA program provides early career researchers with the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to “lead astrophysics flight instrumentation development projects and become principal investigators (PIs) of future astrophysics missions; to develop innovative technologies that have the potential to enable major scientific breakthroughs; and to foster new talent by putting early-career instrument builders on a trajectory towards long-term positions.” The NASA fellowship is named to honour Nancy Grace Roman, who was the first person to hold the title of NASA “Chief Astronomer”, a position she held for 20 years until her retirement in 1979. During this time she helped design the Hubble Space Telescope, earning her the unofficial title of “Mother of the Hubble”. NASA’s three other astrophysics fellowships are named after Edwin Hubble, Albert Einstein, and Carl Sagan.

Read more about NASA’s Roman Technology Fellowship and apply here. Good luck!

Inspirational women

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 me.

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

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.

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.

How To Be A Rocket Woman, Inspirational women

Meet A Rocket Woman: Emma Lehnhardt, NASA

23 January, 2016

Emma Lehnhardt with NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot [L] and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden [R]. accepting an award at NASA HQ Honors Awards ceremony on behalf of her team, who organized NASA's first FedStat meeting.  FedStat is a new initiative to benchmark across all federal agencies and focus on mission performance.

Emma Lehnhardt with NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot [L] and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden [R].
accepting an award at NASA HQ Honors Awards ceremony on behalf of her team, who organized NASA’s first FedStat meeting. FedStat is a new initiative to benchmark across all federal agencies and focus on mission performance.

Emma Lehnhardt discusses her impressive career at NASA, the future of the agency, her initial love for astrophysics before transitioning to space policy and being mindful of her supportive relationship. 

[Disclaimer: The following represents Emma’s personal opinion, not that of her employer NASA]

Q) You work at NASA as an Operations Research Analyst, and previously worked at The Tauri Group as a Technology Analyst. What was the path to get to where you are now? How did you get your job at NASA?

The path started when I was in college & grad school. In college I studied Politics & Astronomy and in grad school I went to George Washington (GW) University and studied space policy. When you do a job like space policy, a lot of people are aiming towards NASA and I thought that after graduation I would go straight to NASA, especially since as I had done an internship at NASA Headquarters in my last year as a grad student. But it’s really hard to get a job in the US Civil Service. So what happened was right as I was graduating I was going to the International Space University and I wanted to make sure I had a job lined up for when I got home. Nothing was happening with the applications that I was putting in with the government and I got a job offer just out of the blue on the spot, a fantastic opportunity with Booz Allen Hamilton, the consulting firm. Booz Allen Hamilton, the government services company, worked a lot with the airforce, with DARPA and NASA. It was a really good first job for me.

I had wanted to go and work for NASA, but here I was consulting for them. I got to do some good projects for the applications division of the Earth Science part of the [NASA} Science Mission Directorate and also work for other government clients, but to be honest I had in my brain that I would always become a civil servant for NASA. It was just a long process to get there. So I worked at Booz Allen for about three years and then went to go and work for The Tauri Group, also aerospace consulting and contracting for NASA for another three years. During that entire time I was trying to get jobs at NASA, and it took that long to get the right match through the USA Jobs process and get hired.

So it was honestly a little bit of luck, but my work at The Tauri Group being an onsite support contractor helped tremendously. Because I got to spend two years doing basically the exact same job that I got to come into as a NASA Civil Servant.

One of the women who really had an impact on me when I was an intern at NASA in 2007/2008 was Lynn Cline. I only ever had one meeting with her, but I was absolutely struck that a French literature scholar became the Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Operations.

Q) How did you choose to take politics & astronomy? Did you originally wanted to choose both and then figure out exactly which way to go?

That was a complicated decision. I grew up a complete space nerd. My parents’ dining room at home is their library. The table is right in the middle of all these books and they’re all classic science fiction. So growing up I loved space, loved science and got the opportunity to take geology and astronomy during my senior year at high school, which I don’t think a lot of people get the chance to do. I loved astronomy and thought that I wanted to go into that at college and a career.

I noticed that one of the questions that you have on the [Rocket Women] website is about ‘What piece of advice would you give your 10 year old self?’. For me it would be don’t listen to the people who tell you that you can’t do math. I firmly believed that I could not do math, yet I really liked astronomy. I got to Calc 2 in college and it wasn’t going so well. Right about then I discovered this thing called the Space Policy Institute. I’d also been taking some politics and political history classes, loved those too. I figured that if my college would let me do a major in politics and a minor in astronomy, instead of a major of astronomy, that that would be a really good combo to set me up for space policy in grad school. And they let me do that and switch things around.

One of my astronomy professors in college sat me down and asked me what I thought a career in astronomy was. I think I had very romantic visions of Jodie Foster in Contact, and observatories and seeing the stars overhead at night. And my professor said, “No it’s by yourself with a computer, running simulations with a computer. It’s not this romantic vision that you have. So if you are not actually interested in this maybe you should think of something else.”

There are lots of different pathways to working for an organization like NASA.  We need more STEM graduates, absolutely, and I want to encourage young women especially to pursue those fields, but we also need policy wonks, like me, accountants, lawyers, artists, English majors, you name it.  One of the women who really had an impact on me when I was an intern at NASA in 2007/2008 was Lynn Cline. I only ever had one meeting with her, but I was absolutely struck that a French literature scholar became the Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Operations.

Q) Can you tell me about when your interest in space grow when you were younger?

I’ve thought about this a lot and tried to figure out where it came from. I’m sure there must have been something younger than this. When I was in high school, my friends and I did not want to eat lunch in the cafeteria. So we used to go to the Astronomy Room, which was open and plastered wall-to-wall with images of Jupiter and Mars. And a big globe of the Moon. I found that really inspiring. My astronomy teacher when I took the class in my senior year of high school was Mr.Gallagher and I think about him a lot. Not only was it an astronomy class, we had star watching nights after school and we had a huge inflatable planetarium that we, the high school students, would take around to the elementary schools and do star shows for the elementary kids. We also went to the Space & Flight Museum in Seattle and I think they must have a Challenger Centre there. The astronomy class did a mock up Mars mission and I think I got to be the Mission Commander. All of that really just became such a firm foundation for everything afterwards.

I’m very fortunate that nobody ever said to me you can’t do X,Y and Z because you’re a girl.

Q) How important are role models to young girls? Do you think more need to be done to allow the younger generation to interact with women working in STEM?

It’s very important to be able to visualize someone like you. I honestly can’t picture who it was that I idolized or looked up to as a role model when I was a very young girl. I’m pretty sure they were all fictional characters. One of my professors recently posted on Facebook asking for book recommendations for his young grandson who had just devoured the Harry Potter books and was looking for something next, I went back and looked at the Young Adult and SciFi books that I had read when I was in middle and high school and found to my astonishment that my mother had given me all these fantastic books that resonate with me to this day, I’ve just gone back and re-read some of them, that all happened to have independent, fearless, female main characters. I didn’t know what she was doing at the time but I do now! It’s really important to see characters like Rey in the Star Wars film. I also thought about Ridley from Alien. They’re awesome characters, not awesome female characters.

Q) When you’re having a stressful and bad day, what helps you get through it?

I’ve been trying a lot recently to remind myself where I am, which is in a job that I’ve always wanted to have, and that I’m very fortunate and I’m very proud of myself. Even when I’m having a rough day, everyone has a rough day, I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic team that I love seeing everyday. That’s very helpful. Starting to take yoga about 5 years ago was fantastic and learning to breathe deeply is probably the most important thing. Taking a breath, walking away and then all of a sudden everything feels better.

Having a husband that you can talk through everything with, even silly office drama also helps a lot. We’re very mindful of the partnership that we craft. I really like the word partner and how you think of each other. Theoretical physicist Mary K. Gaillard was recently asked, “What piece of advice do you have for young women?” She said, “Do What You Like. Find A Nice Partner.” And that was it. I read that sentence over and over again and yes that was it! I like to think of myself as Kris’ [Emma’s husband] career manager and he’s my career manager. Every step is discussed and analyzed over glasses of wine.

I got to a point when I was pretty unhappy in a previous job, when I was coming home every day crying and complaining. Kris listened and was supportive but also said, “I can’t help you in this situation. You need to say something to the people involved.” It took months, but I finally did. Now years later I think I’m much better at speaking truth to power and being honest with my bosses when something’s not right. Because you have to make your own happiness. It take a lot time to get there, especially if you’re not naturally contentious. If you don’t good things won’t happen if you don’t speak you’re mind.

Q) Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be difficult or different to your initial expectations?

Not getting to be a government employee right off the bat after grad school was certainly one of them, and the other was meeting Kris [Emma’s husband]. I went to ISU [International Space University] saying, I’m not going to be one of those girls, I’m not going to be an ISU couple. Now 7 years later we’ve just celebrated our 2nd wedding anniversary. It was unexpected for me, but more a major life upheaval for him having to move the United States. I’ve been in Washington DC now for 10 years and I’m so grateful that Kris was able to come down here, and that he’s had a rewarding career in the field that he wanted here. I think the next phase is going to be driven by his next decisions and that’s only fair. Because last time it was because of me here in Washington DC. It flips flops. People in our generation can have 2 or 3 entirely different careers in their lifetimes. They never know where things are going to go.

An interesting thing the other day when the Forbes 30 under 30 list came out. The website had some infographics where they asked ‘How do you define success?’ and 2% said ‘Wealth’. The majority said the equivalent of ‘Personal well-being’ and ‘Happiness’. I looked at that graphic and I thought that is the one thing I would show to people in my industry, at NASA, who come from a different generation and don’t understand this one. I think that would help them understand it to see that it’s a different way of looking at your life. Sometimes it takes you by surprise.

Another unexpected thing that happened to me was learning how much I like budgets. When I was in my first year in grad school, my professor heard that the Office of Management and Budget was going to have an internship for the summer. He said, ‘You’d be great for this, you should apply,’ and I think I might have rolled my eyes at him because I thought the Office of Management and Budget sounded like the most boring thing ever and do I really want to have my head stuck in an Excel page for all summer long? And I LOVED it and it’s what I love to do now still.

Senior mentors and role models are fantastic, but people should also really value more near-peer mentors. People that are just 5 or 10 years older than you can be so incredibly helpful.

Q) You work in Washington DC and we were talking about mentors earlier. Have mentors, both men and women, been influential in your career choices and path?

Absolutely. One of my favourite things to do now is go out to coffee with people and just talk about all of the options on the table. One of the surprising and best thing that I’ve discovered in the last two years as a civil servant is that you really have the opportunity to move around lot. I went on detail [at NASA’s Office of the Administrator] for 5 months, it seems like there’s always another option around the corner, something fantastic. I finally got over the nervousness of asking people for advice and help. People love talking about that. The thing I’ve discovered recently is that senior mentors and role models are fantastic, but people should also really value more near-peer mentors. People that are just 5 or 10 years older than you can be so incredibly helpful.

I got to see our senior leaders really struggling with some core questions, one of which is “What do we NASA want to do?” and “What do we the leadership want the NASA workforce to do?”

Q) Has NASA changed at all with the rise of the commercial space sector? 

NASA really has changed. When I started in Washington DC the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Program was still relatively new and hadn’t had a lot of successes yet, and there was a feeling within NASA, within the White House that this was a test. This was a brand new way of doing business, we’re not sure about these partners, let’s see how this goes. And now it is so ingrained as a way of doing business, that when we think about our next steps beyond the International Space Station we’re thinking about Public-Private-Partnerships and the Space Act Agreement Model, it’s not just a new and different acquisition mechanism, it’s a new way of thinking about how NASA can accomplish its mission.

We are at a bit of a critical juncture as an agency and over the past 5 months I had the opportunity to work at the Office of the Administrator. I got to see our senior leaders really struggling with some core questions, one of which is “What do we NASA want to do?” and “What do we the leadership want the NASA workforce to do?”. The idea that within ten years’ time, in twenty years’ time with looming huge massive numbers of retirements that the workforce would shift to become just an acquisition workforce is not the vision that we’re going towards, I don’t think. We just need to define our niches where our workforce will still be the technical leaders in the world, in these certain areas. So we will still be an R&D agency absolutely. Especially for the things that there is no business case for, yet. Planetary Exploration for example.

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Glamour Magazine Features Fearless NASA Astronauts

7 January, 2016

The latest NASA astronaut class to be chosen had the highest percentage of female astronauts selected at 50%. This taking place in 2013, the year celebrating the 50th anniversary of  the First Woman In Space, Valentina Tereshkova (& the 30th Anniversary of the First American Woman in Space, Sally Ride). Four out of the new eight astronauts are female with a breadth of experience among them, with women now representing 26% of NASA’s astronaut corps. It’s really wonderful to see these women being recently featured in mainstream media, especially Glamour Magazine, a media outlet that’s followed by millions of women around the globe (1.17M followers on Twitter!).

Glamour does a fantastic job of interviewing the most recently selected female NASA Astronauts, experts in a variety of scientific fields. Namely, Christina Hammock Koch, former NOAA station chief in American Samoa,  Nicole Aunapu Mann, US Marine and F18 fighter pilot, Dr.Jessica Meir PhD, former Assistant Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and Anne C. McClain, US Army and OH-58 Helicopter Pilot.  (Dr.Jessica Meir PhD is also a graduate of my alma mater, International Space University (ISU) (MSS00), making me proud to be an ISU alumna myself!) The article also featured quotes from the inspirational Dr.Dava Newman, Deputy Administrator of NASA.

Fearless Women: NASA Astronauts From The 2013 Class. The Class With The Highest Proportion Of Women At 50% [Photo credit: Glamour magazine/Bjorn Iooss]

Fearless Women: NASA Astronauts From The 2013 Class. The Class With The Highest Proportion Of Women At 50% [Photo credit: Glamour magazine/Bjorn Iooss]

 A highlight from Glamour’s feature includes:

Governments around the world—in China, Europe, and Russia—have plans in the works to at least land robots on Mars, while in the U.S., private companies like SpaceX are partnering with NASA on a human mission and plotting their own commercial trips. And unlike the 1960s race to the moon, this time women are playing pivotal roles—building rockets, designing space suits, and controlling the remote rovers that are already sending momentous insights back from Mars.

This emphasises an important point, women are contributing to missions on an increasing basis, compared to the days of the Apollo programme.  In fact the New Horizons mission team, which last year provided the world with the closest encounter of Pluto and it’s moon Charon, is 25% female, making it the NASA mission with the highest number of female staffers, including engineers and scientists.

The newest four female members of NASA’s astronaut corps also describe how they felt the moment they realised they were chosen in 2013 and how they were inspired to apply.

Anne McClain: There were more than 6,100 other applicants for our class of eight, and I’d made my peace with not getting in. I still remember getting the call that I’d been selected. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t talk. I started crying. I grew up in Spokane, Washington, and I can’t recall ever not wanting to be an astronaut. I learned a lot [serving 15 months] in Iraq, flying attack helicopters at the front of the front lines. I joined the Army out of a deep sense of duty, but wanting to be an astronaut feels more like my destiny. With so much conflict in the world, space exploration can be a beacon of hope. No one cares about race or religion or nationality in space travel. We’re all just part of Team Human.

Jessica Meir, Ph.D.: I had a fantastic view of the stars from the teeny town in Maine where I grew up. Maybe that’s why I wanted to be an astronaut from such a young age. I’ve always been drawn to remote places—and extreme challenges. While doing research on emperor penguins for my Ph.D. in marine biology, I lived and worked in Antarctica, where I also went scuba diving under several feet of ice.

Christina Hammock Koch: My bedroom wall in Jacksonville, North Carolina, was covered in posters of the space shuttle alongside ones of New Kids on the Block. I had always set my sights on working with NASA, but I didn’t want to get there by checking the usual boxes, like learning to fly and scuba dive. I wanted to get there because I was passionate about science and the next frontier. When the opportunity to spend a year at the South Pole came up, I took it. There I was in charge of more than 10,000 gallons of liquid helium to keep the telescopes supercool. Our motto was “When the South Pole isn’t cold enough, call us.”

Nicole Aunapu Mann: I’m probably one of the few astronauts who didn’t know that’s what I wanted to do as a kid. “Astronaut” seemed like a far-fetched dream. I’m from Penngrove, California, and it wasn’t until my first tour in Iraq flying fighter jets with the Marine Corps that I realized one day I might actually be a good candidate. Going into space will be the absolute coolest thing in the world.

Glamour’s feature also discusses the logistics of relationships in space whilst on a multi-year interplanetary mission and the intricacies of astronaut training. From the feeling of being weightless in a zero-g plane, practicing a spacewalk underwater and even to learning to be a dentist.

NASA recently opened a call for the next generation of NASA astronauts, closing mid-February. If you’re a US citizen and would like your chance to explore the Moon or even Mars, apply now! Women currently represent 26% of NASA’s astronaut corps, let’s work to bring that up to 50%.

Read the full version of Glamour’s feature on female astronauts here

Astronauts, Inspirational women

5 Record-Breaking Rocket Women Of 2015

31 December, 2015

With 2015 almost over, it’s time to look back at the inspiring women that took a leap and broke records this year worldwide.

1. Samantha Cristoforetti

World Record Breaker For Longest Serving Female Astronaut In Space & First Italian Woman In Space

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti smiling following her Soyuz landing in Kazakhstan after spending 200 days in space

Italian European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti smiling following her Soyuz landing in Kazakhstan after spending a record-breaking 200 days in space [ESA]

When European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti landed in her Soyuz descent module on a desert steppe in Kazakhstan on 11th June 2015, she did so breaking the world record for the longest serving female astronaut in space. Samantha spent 200 days on the International Space Station, beating the previous record of 195 days held by NASA astronaut Sunita Williams (Sunita herself is on track this year to become the first female NASA astronaut to fly to space on a commercial vehicle). On her launch day to the ISS, 200 days earlier, Samantha became the first Italian woman in space. Her mission, along with that of crewmates NASA astronaut Terry Virts and Russian commander Anton Shkaplerov, was extended from an original May end-date, due to an incident with the Russian Progress 59 resupply mission. Samantha wasn’t at all disappointed by the delay tweeting, “Looks like it’s not time to get my spacesuit ready yet… what a present! ‪#MoreTimeInSpace.” Whilst on the ISS she spoke to Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon,  thanking Susan for her interest in girls in STEM and commitment to help girls find their way to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math[s], “..maybe in the future we can event work together to help sparkle that passion and interest for STEM and to show that no dream is too big”.

2. Susie Wolff

Williams Formula One Test Driver. Announced Her Retirement in 2015 After Becoming The First Woman in 2014 To Participate In A Formula One Weekend Since 1992

She’s an inspiration for women worldwide dreaming of becoming a Formula One (F1) driver. Susie Wolff, Williams F1 Test Driver, announced her retirement from the sport at the end of 2015. At the 2014 British Grand Prix Susie became the first woman to participate in a Formula One weekend since 1992 as a Test Driver. That’s 22 years without a woman on the Formula One track, let alone as a F1 driver. The last woman driver to actually qualify for a Formula One Grand Prix race was Italian Lella Lombardi who competed in three seasons, from 1974 to 1976. only scoring points in 1975 and finishing sixth.

When Susie was asked if she was surprised there weren’t many women in Formula 1 she replied, “Well there are lots of women in Formula 1 actually, just not many on the race track. But there are many fantastic women doing very good work in the paddock, that is just not as visible as what happens on track and sadly there aren’t as many on track. But the next generation is coming and I will definitely dedicate some time and energy to helping that next generation.”

3. Dr.Fabiola Gianotti

Selected by CERN Council in 2015 as the first female CERN Director-General

Fabiola Gianotti [Image Copyright: CERN (via TheGuardian.com)]

Fabiola Gianotti [Image Copyright: CERN (via TheGuardian.com)]

Beginning tomorrow, 1st January 2016, Dr.Fabiola Gianotti will become the first woman to hold the position of CERN Director-General since the organisation’s conception in 1974. Prior to her new role Gianotti led a 3,000-person team working on CERN’s “ATLAS Experiment” at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), leading to the ground-breaking discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. Fabiola also handled a proton beam malfunction in 2009 and as a colleague described, “showed the whole of CERN that she could really handle that kind of pressure. It doesn’t really get worse than that”. On being selected for the role, Dr.Gianotti stated, “I didn’t feel I was treated a different way because I was a woman. But I also have to tell that some of my colleagues had a more difficult life. Some others suffered a bit and had to face some hurdles and some difficulties. I am very much honored by the role, not so much because I am a woman, but because I am a scientist, and having the honor and the privilege of leading perhaps the most important laboratory in the world in our field is a big challenge. I will do my best.”

4. The NASA New Horizons Mission Team

The flight team that allowed the world to see Pluto up-close for the first time comprised of 25% women, making it the NASA mission with highest number of women staffers, including many scientists and engineers

The Women Working on the New Horizons Mission

The Women Working on the New Horizons Mission. Front from left to right: Amy Shira Teitel, Cindy Conrad, Sarah Hamilton, Allisa Earle, Leslie Young, Melissa Jones, Katie Bechtold, Becca Sepan, Kelsi Singer, Amanda Zangari, Coralie Jackman, Helen Hart. Standing, from left to right: Fran Bagenal, Ann Harch, Jillian Redfern, Tiffany Finley, Heather Elliot, Nicole Martin, Yanping Guo, Cathy Olkin, Valerie Mallder, Rayna Tedford, Silvia Protopapa, Martha Kusterer, Kim Ennico, Ann Verbiscer, Bonnie Buratti, Sarah Bucior, Veronica Bray, Emma Birath, Carly Howett, Alice Bowman. Not pictured: Priya Dharmavaram, Sarah Flanigan, Debi Rose, Sheila Zurvalec, Adriana Ocampo, Jo-Anne Kierzkowski. [Image Copyright: NASA.gov]

On July 14 2015 at 7:49 am EDT we saw Pluto, a dwarf planet, up-close for the first time. Behind this historic achievement however is a team of brilliant, hard-working women in charge of the $700 million piano-sized NASA New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizon’s historic moment took travelling through the Solar System for over 9 years, before allowing the world to learn about this icy dwarf planet during it’s 30,800 miles per hour (49,600 kilometers per hour) flyby.

The story that most people have not heard of though is of the mission team, with the flight team comprised by 25% women, potentially making it the NASA mission with highest number of women staffers, including many scientists and engineers. These women have dedicated their careers and years of their lives to this mission, to gain unique data from the seven instruments aboard New Horizons and gain an unprecedented insight into Pluto and it’s largest moon, Charon, in particular, found to have a landscape covered with mountains, canyons and landslides.

5. Alice Bowman

Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager (MOM) made history as the first female Mission Operations Manager (MOM)

Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager (MOM), on console [Image copyright: NASA.gov]

Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager (MOM), on console [Image copyright: NASA.gov]

Relatedly, Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager (MOM) and group supervisor of the Space Department’s Space Mission Operations Group, made history as the first female Mission Operations Manager (MOM) at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). The novel scientific discoveries gained by the instruments aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft were only made possible with the dedication of the women behind the mission.

pluto-colour_3386831b

A close-up view of Pluto, taken by the NASA New Horizons spacecraft in 2015 [NASA]

How To Be A Rocket Woman, Inspirational women

Meet A Rocket Woman: Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic

2 December, 2015
Sirisha Bandla Flying High During A Parabolic Flight

Sirisha Bandla Flying High During A Parabolic Flight

In 6 years Sirisha Bandla has risen from a Co-Op (Intern) to positions including Associate Director of Washington DC based Commercial Spaceflight Federation and her present Government Affairs role at Virgin Galactic. With a background in Aerospace Engineering and an MBA from George Washington University, her passion for space and outreach is paramount. I interviewed her recently to talk about her impressive career trajectory.

Could you maybe tell me a little about your journey from choosing to study aerospace & astronautical engineering to how you became involved in the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF)? How did you get started?

How I got to CSF is completely by, I would say, coincidence. I know I’ve always wanted to be part of the space industry since I was little. I think it’s kind of unique in the sense where that I’ve never had that turning point in my life saying YES this is the industry that I wanted to be in. I’ve always wanted to go into space since I can remember. That being said, I also wanted to be an archaeologist or a marine biologist, or whatever movie was hot at that time. Going into space and being to be an astronaut was something that I never grew out of no matter what phase I was into, and that really drove my decision.

Going into space and being to be an astronaut was something that I never grew out of no matter what phase I was into, and that really drove my decision.

In high school I played the cello and was a debater on the speech team, I liked math, I was good at math; it wasn’t my favourite thing to do. But because I wanted to go into space, I decided to study aerospace engineering at Purdue [University]. Actually [as for] how I got to CSF , after graduating I went to work for a defense company out in Texas and by chance my professor at Purdue that I flew on the Zero-Gravity aircraft with, called me and said ‘Hey this opening came up in DC, I know you’ve always wanted to be part of the commercial space movement. This is probably a good stepping stone, what do you think’. I said ‘Sure’, and I interviewed and that’s how I ended up here. So it wasn’t something I planned at all, I took some chances.

Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be different?

I will admit that I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, but when I was in High School I looked at the traditional route of maybe being a pilot or at least be an engineer, being great in my field and applying but my eyesight is awful. By the time I reached high school it reached the limit where I could never be a NASA astronaut and I was a little bit disappointed but I still wanted to be in the space industry. My sophomore year in 2004 was when Spaceship One claimed the XPRIZE and when I saw that I was revitalized and refreshed. One of the draws of that was that I didn’t have to go through NASA to go to space, and I could still be a part of something that’s expanding humanity’s outreach into space without going the traditional route. And when I decided there was still hope for me to go into space I joined the commercial space sector.

Who has been your inspiration throughout your life?

It was a combination, I was pretty lucky to have been surrounded by parents and teachers that support their students and encourage them to reach as high as they want to go. It wasn’t ‘Hey Sirisha, reach for space or for the stars’. It was whatever you want to do, you can do it. I think that really shaped how I thought, it wasn’t them telling me to reach for the stars and go above and beyond. It was whatever you wanted to do, there was nothing that prevented you from doing it, if you put your mind to it. I think a message that’s getting increasingly important, and one that really appeals to me about the commercial space side is that women or children in general, don’t need to be engineers, or don’t need to be the best mathematician to be a part of the space industry.

The commercial space industry is very business oriented. We need designers, we need business people we need finance people. You don’t need to be an engineer to be part of the space revolution. I think that’s really exciting and a message that will resonate with the younger generation.

I was speaking to students about space, and this young girl came up to me and said that she really loved space and wanted to be an astronaut, but she wasn’t not really that great at math. It was really discouraging to see that kind of thinking, ‘I’m not good at math, so I can’t go to space or join the space industry’. Whilst math and all the STEM fields are important, I think the messaging that you can do anything that you can put your mind to is very important. Someone that’s passionate about business, or passionate about the arts can be a part of the STEM field. Especially the commercial space industry, it’s very business oriented and we need designers, we need business people we need finance people. You don’t need to be an engineer to be part of the space revolution. I think that’s really exciting and a message that will resonate with the younger generation.

One my favourite quotes is by Sally Ride, “If You Can’t See, You Can’t Be” and inspired me to start Rocket Women. How important do you think role models are in today’s society and are they fundamental to ensuring future generations in STEM?

It’s very important. It’s very easy for someone to tell you and it’s important that message it heard. But it’s not as powerful as having someone there, having someone tangible to show you that that message it true. It’s the difference between hearing about it and actually seeing it, there’s something that I think we’re wired to see. Something physical resonates with the younger generation and myself, rather than just reading something on paper and hearing that you can do it. As an example, my boss at CSF has a daughter that 5 years old, and I actually went and spoke to her class about space and what they can do in space. After the class his daughter came up to me and said that it ‘was so awesome but can girls be astronauts?’ My boss was like yes of course, there’s tons of female astronauts, astronauts can be anybody! She took that to heart and this past weekend she got to meet Sandy Magnus, an astronaut and a woman. It was one thing for her Dad to say, of course you can be an astronaut, girls can be anything they want to be, but there was another facet of it of her actually meeting an astronaut, who’s a powerful woman in the industry and been to space and the ISS [International Space Station] multiple times. Actually meeting Sandy really resonated with her on another level so I think it’s very important to have that role model and that physical evidence that you can do anything that they can.

One of the reasons that his daughter actually asked him if there were female astronauts, was that every time she saw astronauts either speaking at an event or on TV, it was a male. That’s what she got in her head that there weren’t any girl astronauts because of that lack of visibility. So even having some female astronauts speaking to them, it resonates in a different way.

It was one thing for her Dad to say, of course you can be an astronaut, girls can be anything they want to be, but there was another facet of it of her actually meeting an astronaut, who’s a powerful woman in the industry and been to space and the ISS [International Space Station] multiple times. Actually meeting Sandy [Magnus] really resonated with her on another level so I think it’s very important to have that role model and that physical evidence that you can do anything that they can.

What has been the proudest moment for you in your career?

When I was doing more engineering work, I think one of the things that’s a little bit tough about engineering is that you can work on a project that you’re passionate about, but it’s a long way down the road before you see the project come to life. Sometimes engineers don’t even get that moment because programs can be cancelled. But when I was working as an engineer, I did the Finite Element Analysis on CHIMRA, basically the dirt scoop [used for sample acquisition] of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), and now’s on another planet. So one of my proudest accomplishments is that some of my engineering work has landed on another planet. And something about that makes me very excited and proud that I’ve done a small bit to further exploration of our universe.

What was the most difficult phase of your career? Was it transitioning to another role or not achieving something you wanted to do?

Throughout people’s careers they get into ruts or have to re-evaluate their lives, to figure out what they’re doing. And for me I have a MSL sticker on the wall, that was given to me by the project manager at the time and anytime that happens I can just look at the sticker and remember that what I’m doing is something that I’m passionate about and it just takes that one image to boost my morale that day if I’m in a rut.

How do you think the space industry has changed for women over the years? Has it become more inclusive?

I think it’s definitely changed from when it started. Just looking at the astronaut class, which has gone from all male, to the latest class which is 50/50, which was unheard of. In general of women getting positions in the aerospace sector I think it’s fantastic, because women are excelling in the field and landing jobs just as well as the men. That being said I don’t think it’s a completely equal playing field just yet, I think it’s a better environment for sure and everyone that I’ve ever worked with has been amazing. I’ve never felt that I’m less qualified than the next person and that’s because of the people I work with who are fantastic. But I have run into people that have felt that they didn’t have a problem getting the job, but in the workplace people may make comments or speak down a little bit, because you may be a woman. I think the struggle for our generation is that it’s hard to speak up sometimes, because you’re in a position where you speak up and it’s taken as you’re hardcore feminist and you’re sensitive. I think still with our generation there’re still some lines that you need to make sure aren’t crossed and we need to pave the way for the next generation. Like the previous generation made sure that it’s an equal playing field to get jobs, and now we just need to make sure that that playing field, just in terms or how women are treated is a little more equal. I think that in the US maternity leave is an area of improvement for sure. Even now some of my friends are having babies and that means I’m old! But just from their view, even outside the aerospace sector in the US there’s definitely areas for reform for women.

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve been given or worst?

I think the best piece of advice was to take chances. I think you can get into a position where not everything is ideal and I think there’s times where you should factor in, what’s good in terms of salary you can live off, your happiness in the job, your proficiency. But I think there’s another portion of are you passionate about the job. When I was moving to CSF, which is a non-profit, I was leaving a very stable job to move to DC where I didn’t really know anybody, and hadn’t done anything in policy, but I knew what I wanted to do and how I could definitely help the industry move forward. It was a very big chance that I was taking there but it was one of the best outcomes I could’ve imagined. So I think at that point it was my parents saying that I should take a chance and right now if anything happens you can recover, you’re not done. I think that was the best piece of advice.

On the other hand when I was leaving this company to go to DC, my boss who had been an engineer for his entire life at one or two companies at most, actually had told me in my exit interview that what I was doing was a stupid idea and if I failed I could come back there. That was some of the advice given to me about going to DC too and going into space, I know it wasn’t the most stable or 100% successful decision I could’ve made but I think because of that I will continue to take my chances and follow my passion.

When you’re young you definitely experience as much as you can. I thought it was always a little bit interesting to decide at 18 to choose a degree and decide your career for the rest of your life. Which to me is a little bit ridiculous, because I had no idea how I was going to get into space, because the NASA route had gone away. For other students that unlike me may not know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, to choose a degree at 18 seems a little bit ridiculous to me. So outside of that, you take time and chances and experience as much as you can, you’ll find what you want to do and what you want to be.

Take time and chances and experience as much as you can, you’ll find what you want to do and what you want to be.

Making these decision by the time they’re 11-years-old, they need to have exposure and role models in different areas of STEM. Really seeing what’s out there and knowing what’s out there so they can make an informed decision is really important. I think schools are trying to do better at that, but there’s so much more we can do. I’m really happy to see that with the rise of social media and connectivity we’re seeing right now, there’s a lot of ways you can transmit that information. You can have astronauts from the ISS speak to young [school] grades and I think there’s so much more potential that can be built on that.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10 year old self, what would it be? What would you change? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

I think that every decision I made since I was 10 years old had a consequence, whether it was a good outcome or a bad outcome, I think it taught me something. I don’t think I would go back and change anything, unless I could change my eyesight, but that’s something that’s completely out of my control. If I could go back and give myself some advice, I would say that I’m learning that I had lessons to learn from each outcome whether it was good or bad now. I think that if I was cognizant of that when I was young, even if I failed, I would’ve gotten a lot more out of it. So my advice would be, no matter what, just keep learning. You make a decision that ends up in total failure or you make a decision that ends up in complete success, and you might learn a lot more from the failure than the success. But no matter what, completely take in the lessons from your decisions and keep learning. There’s lots to acquire from skills and knowledge, role models and mentors. You can learn from everyone and everything, and I think that’s very valuable. I’ve gained so many mentors just from being in DC. I learn from my job, but I learn so much more from the people that surround me everyday.