In memory of Carrie Fisher, the rad-est space woman of them all.
I’ve always been a bit of an Outer Space nut. My first typed story was about astronauts finding life on Mars. In fifth grade, I wore my brother’s NASA hat every day for the entire school year. My childhood dream was to be an astronaut.
You probably recognize all those names except for Johnson. She was a member of a team of female African American mathematicians known as the West Computers*. They were the first women to work at NASA above the administrative level, and they made calculations that contributed to the development of electronic computing methods that would go on to launch explorers into space for decades.
Now that tidbit may be ringing a bell because there’s an upcoming film called Hidden Figures releasing in early January 2017 that tells the story of these pioneering women.
* As a side note, “computers” in that era of meant someone who makes calculations; it was a job rather than a machine. Johnson describes herself as a computer “when the computer wore a skirt.”
NACA, the predecessor to NASA, first hired African American women computers during WWII, and they were so pleased with the results that, unlike many other organizations, they kept them on after the war. Racial segregation was still a very real part of daily life at this point — black men and women couldn’t sit at the same tables or use the same bathrooms as their white counterparts. They were limited to areas signed for “coloured computers.”
To abridge a ton of civil rights history, by the 1970s, NASA was completely desegregated and hiring its first female engineers.
Because of the groundwork laid by the West Computers and others, 1983 saw the first woman astronaut, Sally Ride, launch into outer space.
Nichelle Nichols, famous for her Star Trek role, is credited with inspiring young girls in the 1970’s to study STEM and pursue their dreams of working in space.
One of the young women Nichols inspired to pursue a career in Space was Mae Jemison. When she flew on the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992, she officially became the first black woman astronaut in history.
It has taken decades for women to break into space exploration. In the social climate of early NASA, it was not considered suitable for women to be engineers or astronauts. Folks seemed to think that just because women of the era liked hats that flattered their faces, they would intrinsically eschew a space helmet. Sure, it’s not the most fashionable of headwear. But really, come on, even for the most fashion-minded, breathing takes priority. People honestly believed there was no way a woman could be interested in or capable of the highly technical and physical work of an engineer/astronaut.
That’s absurd of course.
The women of NASA have gone on to establish organizations that encourage young girls to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in order to join the ranks of female explorers. It’s not a hard sell. STEM majors are reported as holding the highest return on investment in terms of college education. An engineering major will earn a median annual salary of $50,000 within the first three years of graduating.
When looking at successful women like astronauts, celebrities, and aerospace engineers, it’s easy to gloss over the challenges they had to overcome to get to where they are.
Many notable people in history have taken unconventional roads to success. Oprah Winfrey, arguably one of the most famous women of the era, had to overcome poverty and childhood sexual abuse on her way to success. She won an oratory contest in high school and landed herself a scholarship to Tennessee State University. Today she owns her own magazine, television network, and is lauded as a powerhouse of philanthropic awesomeness. A little girl born just one generation before Oprah might have had a chance to be a news anchor like her, but never could have considered a career as an astronaut. The closest she could have gotten would be crunching numbers at Langley with the West Computers.
Thanks to the work of countless women, not only can little girls today dream of being astronauts, engineers, and physicists for NASA, they can achieve it.
Every step that a woman takes towards breaking down barriers in her career serves as groundwork for the girls who will come after her. The next generation can stand on her shoulders and reach higher than ever before.
Any woman who breaks through barriers in her career is a pioneer, she’s a space woman.