Women and Flight: A 100-Year Relationship

Vol. 1, No.7 - Spring/Summer 2003

Women have participated in and contributed to humankind's great developments in the field since its incipient period in the early 1900's.

When NASA was chartered in 1958, women had already made their mark, not just in support roles, but, as pioneer engineers, mathematicians and technicians.

In 1939, Vera Huckel began her career at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA's predecessor, as an engineer. She was one of only three women engineers at NACA's Langley Research Center at that time.

In 1940, physicist Pearl Young became NACA's first female professional, paving the way for women to work in laboratories, and making her one of the first prominent women in the Agency. She also pioneered a process for aeronautical engineers to communicate their ideas and technical information to disseminate to industry, academia, and other government labs.

In 1960, Nancy Roman, Ph.D., became the first Chief Astronomer at NASA.

In 1965, Marjorie R. Townsend became the first woman to manage a U.S. spacecraft launch.

In 1974, Mary Helen Johnston, Ann Whitaker, Carolyn Griner and Doris Chandler comprised an all-women science team for experiments at the Marshall Space Flight Center. In the late 1990's, Carolyn Griner, Ph.D., went on to serve as acting center director at Marshall.

In January 1978, the first women joined the astronaut corps: Rhea Seddon, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Judith A. Resnick, Sally K. Ride, Anna Fisher and Shannon W. Lucid.

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride, Ph.D., became the first American woman to fly in space. October 1984, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Ph.D., became first American woman to walk in space. Her assignment: to help repair the Hubble telescope.

January 28, 1986, Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire teacher, was the first Space Shuttle passenger/observer to participate in the NASA Teacher in Space Program. She had planned to teach lessons during live television transmissions. She, Judith Resnick and five fellow astronauts were killed when the their Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

On May 4, 1989, Mary Cleave, Ph.D., and the crew of STS-30 were the first to deploy a planetary probe (Magellan) from the Space Shuttle. In 1991, she and Lt. Col. Eileen Collins, USAF, became the first female Space Shuttle pilots.

In September 1992, Mae Jemison, M.D., became the first African-American woman in space.

October 29-November 7, 1998, for the first time in the history of spaceflight, the launch commentator, Lisa Malone; the ascent commentator, Eileen Hawley; flight director, Linda Hamm; and CapCom (the communicator between Mission Control and the crew), Susan Still, were all women. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the flight control team for STS-95 were women.

On July 20, 1999, Air Force Col. Eileen Collins became the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. She piloted two previous flights for NASA.

Since the inception of the Space Program, women have played an ever-increasing role. They are engaged in all facets of the program as astronauts, engineers, doctors, administrators and physicists.

NASA women have volunteered to participate in the Women of NASA project which mentors young women and encourages them to be involved in all aspects of the space program. Participation is on a voluntary basis, and these NASA women share their time and wisdom with the young women who participate in the project. Together they make a difference in what young women see as their opportunities, career paths and dreams.

Christa McAuliffe touched people's heartswell before the fatal Challenger mission which took her life and the lives of her sixfellow crew members. Her enthusiasm for her mission and her love of teaching science was evident in media interviews in which she shared the objective of her mission and her personal experiences as the first "teacher-astronaut."

She had been selected as the primary candidate for the NASA Teacher in Space Project on July 1985. She was a payload specialist of STS 51-L, scheduled to be launched on January 28, 1986. We felt a special connection with the Framingham native. She had designed lessons for her students at Concord High School in Concord, New Hampshire, which would be taught from the Challenger. We watched in horror as the Challenger exploded, ending the life a truly remarkable woman.