Celebrating Women in Space

by | Feb 17, 2023 | News Articles, Product, Space Exploration

This February we look at five women who have made historic achievements in pursuit of knowledge and discovery.

Every February 11, we have observed International Day of Women and Girls in Science to raise awareness about the importance of achieving complete and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls all around the world. This special day was declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, in recognition of the critical role that women play in the development of science and technology, and the need to ensure that they are fully included and recognised in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). 

Since the day also highlights the achievements of women and girls in science and technology (which in turn encourages greater investment in gender-responsive STEM education and research),  it is important to celebrate the remarkable contributions that women have made to the space industry. Despite facing barriers and discrimination, these incredible women have broken through glass ceilings and achieved great heights, leaving their mark on the human history of space exploration. 

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson at work (Source: NASA)

Katherine Johnson was an African American mathematician who embarked on her career in 1953 with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that preceded NASA. Her work as “computer” in what was then their Guidance and Navigation Department at NACA was instrumental in the early days of space exploration. She calculated the trajectories of the first human spaceflight by an American, Alan Shepard, and the first human orbital flight by John Glenn. Johnson verified the computations made by early electronic computers used for the Apollo missions that landed men on the moon! Her work was vital in ensuring the safety and success of these space missions, and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

Kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla at NASA’s Ames Research Center (Source: NASA)

In 1997, Kalpana Chawla became the first woman of Indian origin to travel to space, serving as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia. Chawla flew on a second space mission in February of 2003, but tragically perished along with her crew when the shuttle disintegrated during re-entry. Since Chawla focused on the study of micro-gravity and its effects on materials and living organisms, her works included experiments in fluid dynamics, combustion, and the behaviour of granular materials in space. As an accomplished aerospace engineer, she played a crucial role in the design and testing of Space Shuttle thermal protection systems. To this day, 20 years since her death, Chawla has been a role model for many, breaking barriers and challenging stereotypes as a woman of colour in a field dominated by men. 

Ellen Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa (Source: NASA)

Ellen Ochoa was the first Hispanic woman to travel to space, serving as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1993, and she went on to fly on three more Space Shuttle missions. During her space missions, Ochoa’s work focused on a variety of scientific experiments, including materials science, Earth observation, and the effects of spaceflight on the human body and the Earth’s atmosphere. She also played a key role in the development and testing of new technologies for space exploration. Prior to her career as an astronaut, Ochoa worked as a research engineer at the NASA Ames Research Center, where she conducted research on optical systems and image processing. She also holds several patents for her inventions, including an optical inspection system for use in manufacturing and a system for detecting defects in a repeating pattern. Ochoa’s many achievements and contributions have earned her numerous awards, but her dedication to science continues to inspire and empower young people, particularly girls and minorities, to pursue careers in science and technology.

Valentina Tereshkova

Valentina Tereshkova on Vostok 6 mission (Source:NASA)

Valentina Tereshkova was a Soviet cosmonaut who was also the first woman to travel to space. She made her historic flight on June 16, 1963, aboard the Vostok 6 spacecraft, orbiting the Earth 48 times and spending nearly three days in space. Tereshkova was a factory worker when she entered the rigorous selection process that began in 1962, when the Soviet Union was looking for the first woman to fly to space. During her mission, Tereshkova conducted experiments on the effects of spaceflight on the human body and took photographs of the Earth from orbit. She also communicated with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and other officials on the ground, and her flight was celebrated as a major achievement for the Soviet space program. Her pioneering journey into space helped break down barriers for women in science and technology and paved the way for future generations of women astronauts.

These four women represent just a small fraction of the many women who have made important contributions to the space industry, having overcome significant obstacles to make lasting contributions to space exploration. They serve as a major inspiration to future generations of girls and women who aspire to build careers in science and technology. By promoting equality and inclusivity in the space industry, we can ensure that the next generation of women will continue to break new ground and achieve great things in the pursuit of knowledge and discovery.