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Celebrating Women’s Equality Day Across NASA

Celebrating Women’s Equality Day Across NASA

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August 26 is celebrated in the United States as Women’s Equality Day. On this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was signed into law and American women were granted the constitutional right to vote. The suffragists who fought hard for a woman’s right to vote opened up doors for trailblazers who have helped shape our story of spaceflight, research and discovery. On Women’s Equality Day, we celebrate women at NASA who have broken barriers, challenged stereotypes and paved the way for future generations. This list is by no means exhaustive. 

Rocket Girls and the Advent of the Space Age

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In the earliest days of space exploration, most calculations for early space missions were done by “human computers,” and most of these computers were women. These women’s calculations helped the U.S. launch its first satellite, Explorer 1. This image from 1953, five years before the launch of Explorer 1, shows some of those women on the campus of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

These women were trailblazers at a time when most technical fields were dominated by white men. Janez Lawson (seen in this photo), was the first African American hired into a technical position at JPL. Having graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, she later went on to have a successful career as a chemical engineer.

Katherine Johnson: A Champion for Women’s Equality

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Mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose life story was told in the book and film “Hidden Figures,” is 101 years old today! Coincidentally, Johnson’s birthday falls on August 26: which is appropriate, considering all the ways that she has stood for women’s equality at NASA and the country as a whole.

Johnson began her career in 1953 at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that preceded NASA, one of a number of African-American women hired to work as “human computers.” Johnson became known for her training in geometry, her leadership and her inquisitive nature; she was the only woman at the time to be pulled from the computing pool to work with engineers on other programs.

Johnson was responsible for calculating the trajectory of the 1961 flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, as well as verifying the calculations made by electronic computers of John Glenn’s 1962 launch to orbit and the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the moon. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama on Nov. 24, 2015.

JoAnn Morgan: Rocket Fuel in Her Blood 

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JoAnn Morgan was an engineer at Kennedy Space Center at a time when the launch room was crowded with men. In spite of working for all of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, and being promoted to a senior engineer, Morgan was still not permitted in the firing room at liftoff — until Apollo 11, when her supervisor advocated for her because of her superior communication skills. Because of this, Morgan was the instrumentation controller — and the only woman — in the launch room for the Apollo 11 liftoff. 

Morgan’s career at NASA spanned over 45 years, and she continued to break ceiling after ceiling for women involved with the space program. She excelled in many other roles, including deputy of Expendable Launch Vehicles, director of Payload Projects Management and director of Safety and Mission Assurance. She was one of the last two people who verified the space shuttle was ready to launch and the first woman at KSC to serve in an executive position, associate director of the center.

Oceola (Ocie) Hall: An Advocate for NASA Women 

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Oceola Hall worked in NASA’s Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity for over 25 years. She was NASA’s first agency-wide Federal Women’s program manager, from 1974 – 1978. Hall advanced opportunities for NASA women in science, engineering and administrative occupations. She was instrumental in initiating education programs for women, including the Simmons College Strategic Leadership for Women Program.

Hall’s outstanding leadership abilities and vast knowledge of equal employment laws culminated in her tenure as deputy associate administrator for Equal Opportunity Programs, a position she held for five years. Hall was one among the first African-American women to be appointed to the senior executive service of NASA. This photo was taken at Marshall during a Federal Women’s Week Luncheon on November 11, 1977 where Hall served as guest speaker.

Hall was known for saying, “You have to earn your wings every day.”

Sally Ride: Setting the Stage for Women in Space

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The Astronaut Class of 1978, otherwise known as the “Thirty-Five New Guys,” was NASA’s first new group of astronauts since 1969. This class was notable for many reasons, including having the first African-American and first Asian-American astronauts and the first women.

Among the first women astronauts selected was Sally Ride. On June 18, 1983, Ride became the first American woman in space, when she launched with her four crewmates aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger on mission STS-7. On that day, Ride made history and paved the way for future explorers.

When those first six women joined the astronaut corps in 1978, they made up nearly 10 percent of the active astronaut corps. In the 40 years since that selection, NASA selected its first astronaut candidate class with equal numbers of women and men, and women now comprise 34 percent of the active astronauts at NASA.

Charlie Blackwell-Thompson: First Female Launch Director 

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As a part of our Artemis missions to return humans to the Moon and prepare for journeys to Mars, the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket will carry the Orion spacecraft on an important flight test. Veteran spaceflight engineer Charlie Blackwell-Thompson will helm the launch team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Her selection as launch director means she will be the first woman to oversee a NASA liftoff and launch team.

“A couple of firsts here all make me smile,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “First launch director for the world’s most powerful rocket — that’s humbling. And I am honored to be the first female launch director at Kennedy Space Center. So many amazing women that have contributed to human space flight, and they blazed the trail for all of us.”

The Future of Women at NASA

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In this image, NASA astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch pose for a portrait inside the Kibo laboratory module on the International Space Station. Both Expedition 59 flight engineers are members of NASA’s 2013 class of astronauts.   

As we move forward as a space agency, embarking on future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond, we reflect on the women who blazed the trail and broke glass ceilings. Without their perseverance and determination, we would not be where we are today.

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