Women in NASA: Representation Matters

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There are more kids who have dreamed of being an astronaut than there are astronauts. Fair enough observation: It’s a tough gig and requires a high caliber of person to do the job. But how many of those dreams were quashed due to a lack of available resources? Minimal support? Vision-less souls who repeated ad nauseam “That’s cute… but what are you really going to do?”

It’s been a good year for Space. A plethora of amazing events dazzled us all year long and all around the world. In August, we had the amazing solar eclipse, drawing an arc across the United States of America. It was partnered with an awesome lunar eclipse one week before, visible across Australasia, Asia, and parts of Europe and the Middle East. In September, we bade farewell to the Cassini observer as Saturn provided the final embrace. There was a sombre farewell felt across many nations who had contributed to the program but their work is not finished yet. Cassini left behind an extensive collection of data to inspire a new generation.

That’s the trick, isn’t it? How do we inspire the next generation to seriously consider a future in the space industry? Out of my three spawnlings, two of them are focused on working in space. Nefarious (8yo) is already talking about electrical engineering and astrophysics; he wants to design and build better space-craft for his sister to pilot. That’s right—Zaltu (4yo) is determined to be an astronaut, and primarily the pilot of any transportation available.

With all of this talk about space in our home, I have been kept very busy with special events and news. Now more than ever, it is important to shake-off the nay-sayers and embrace your passion for space. So check this out:

Astronaut Stories

The best way to support a dream is to talk with people who have lived the dream. Australia does not have its own Space Agency (…yet), so any Australians who dream of travelling into space first need to join up with a nation who will actually send them there. This also means we do not have many opportunities to hear stories from real-life astronauts. Fortunately for us this year, the Sydney University (along with other venues around the nation) hosted a special event: An Evening of Astronaut Stories.

These events were held all around Australia, free to the general public. Additional sessions were offered for school excursions during the day. Each venue had different speakers; In Sydney, we met with Dr. Sandra Magnus and Colonel Pamela Melroy.

Col Pam Melroy and Dr Sandy Magnus

Despite attending a night session, it was wonderful to see the audience filled with children of all ages. Events like these are perfect opportunities to support your kid’s interests and expose them to elements they may never have considered before. Col Melroy shared an amazing story about her test-pilot experience and how it led to her role as an astronaut:

“One of my favourite system tests was to test the windshield wipers. Sounds really boring but I’ll tell you how we did it…

We flew behind a helicopter that had a giant tank of water and a big spray gun behind it. It was shooting water at us, and I had to fly the aircraft up and then turn on the windshield wipers and see their effectiveness and speed, as the helicopter increased the water flow until I couldn’t see anything anymore. And I was still responsible for staying in a safe formation. So, a little bit more challenging than just turning the switch. An awesome job… I had so much fun as a test pilot!”

The best part of this event was listening to two different astronauts share their two very different paths: Dr. Magnus studied physics, electrical engineering and then material science before applying for NASA. Having a different background also means she had different stories to share. This one was my favourite of the whole evening:

“I was training to do space-walks, and part of the training is at some point during your training they put you in what’s called a Class-1 Suit, which is the actual suit you are going to be wearing onboard when you do your space-walk.

Now they put you in a vacuum chamber in that suit…and they hang you on a block. And the point is to bring you down to a vacuum in this actual suit you are going to be working on in orbit, and you are going to be…well, playing with the suit. Touch all the dials, know all the levers, play with the computer. Become familiar with it.

They suited me up, and I’m hanging on the wall. They shut the door and I look down on the floor and there’s a cockroach in the vacuum chamber with me. And I think, “well, this is going to be interesting.”

Anyway, it takes a little while but we down to vacuum and the cockroach goes *bleh* (‘belly-up’) and I say, “okay, well…dead cockroach.”

I’m in the vacuum for around 20-minutes, and remember—there’s no air in here. And I look at the cockroach, it’s been quiet the whole time. Looks like it’s dead. And they start pumping air back into the vacuum chamber… and that cockroach wakes up, turns over and scurries away. It was so disgusting! And now I have the experience to show cockroaches will survive.”

Asking our two boys what they thought of the event, they loved it! They both really appreciated listening to some real stories from real astronauts. Nefarious still wants to work in astrophysics and electrical engineering, and Sinister is still happy to stay with marine biology on Earth (until one of his siblings visits a planet with plenty of water).

The surprising response was Zaltu: She, too, loved seeing real-life astronauts but for her, it was so important they were FEMALE astronauts. I was surprised to see how important this was to her. Gender didn’t bother the boys at all—maybe because they easily see male astronauts everywhere in media. For Zaltu, seeing two female astronauts reinforced how SHE could be an astronaut.

LEGO and Women in NASA

After the Astronaut Stories event, it’s now more apparent than ever how much Zaltu wants to be an astronaut. She collected badges and pins and postcards, all of which have a “safe and honoured place” on one of her bookshelves. And now she has a place saved for the Lego set, Women in NASA.

This set has been talked about all over the interwebs, a solid two weeks before it is available for sale. The RRP on the Lego site indicates USD$25/AUD$50 (…Don’t even get me started on this…) and for a moderate set with excellent detail and fantastic representation in the minifigures, it is pretty well priced!

Fans of the original Lego IDEAS project will note one significant absence: Katherine Johnson (recently known from the movie, Hidden Figures). The only information available confirms Lego was unable to gain approval for the likeness of the minifigure. Anything you read beyond that is purely speculation.

It’s a shame because, as I mentioned above, representation matters. Seeing someone just like you makes it seem far more plausible. We still have Sally Ride, Nancy Grace Roman, Mae Jemison, and Margaret Hamilton which works very well. It’s just a little “…ohhhh…” when you know what could have been.

The response from the kids has been amazing! I’m now on the look-out for any and all space-related events. Even tonight, I’m setting my alarm clocks to wake up at 4 am to watch the Orionids Meteor Shower (…stay away, clouds!!). Our next celestial event will be the Geminids around December 15; we’re thinking of a weekend camping trip.

There is always room for more ‘space stuff’. If you have anything planned yourself, share it in the comments below. There has never been a better time, nor a more convenient way, to share information. Let’s give our future generations everything we have!

family telescope in urban area
EG Dad and Zaltu checking out the Super-Moon – even in the city