one giant leap for women

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women who have professional careers in technology. Actually, I think would be good to expand that out to science in general, because we need more women in all these fields.

So, as my contribution I’d like to highlight a particular field that I find personally inspiring: women who work in the area of astronomy and aeronautics, and with NASA in particular.

I’ve always been a huge admirer of NASA and its various space exploration programmes, and I’m currently following the STS-119 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) with keen interest.

NASA has an entire section of its web site devoted to promoting a career in this field to young women, which is a fantastic initiative. There, you can browse through the biographies of many of the women who are working in NASA.

Like Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot, and command, the Space Shuttle. Eileen’s parents say of her: “Nobody handed her anything. Everything she is today, she’s earned.”

About high school she [Eileen] said, “I began reading voraciously about famous pilots – from Amelia Earhart to Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) – who played an important role in WWII. Their stores inspired me. I admired the courage of these women to go and fly into dangerous situations!”

By 1977 Eileen had saved enough money to earn a pilot’s license and the following year graduated from Syracuse University. With good grades, flying experience and a letter of recommendation from her ROTC supervisor, she became one of the first women to go straight from college into Air Force pilot training.” That was by far the biggest break of my life, getting into pilot training.” This is the point where Eileen set her goals on staying competitive for becoming an astronaut.

Eileen also earned a M.Sc. in operations research from Stanford University in 1986, and a M.A. in space systems management from Webster University in 1989.

Eileen commanded STS-114, NASA’s “return to flight” mission to test safety improvements and re-supply the ISS in July/August 2005. She was the first astronaut to fly the space shuttle through a complete 360-degree pitch manoeuvre. This allowed astronauts abroad the ISS to take photographs of the shuttle’s belly, and ensure there was no threat from debris-related damage to the shuttle upon re-entry.

She has since retired from NASA, but continues to work as a space shuttle analyst, and often covers shuttle launches and landings for CNN.

Eileen played an important part in opening up the field to women: she has come full circle from a girl seeking out inspirational stories of female pioneers in her chosen career, to becoming a role model for a new generation of women who dream of being an astronaut.

In March 1998, when she became the first woman space shuttle commander, Eileen said:

“When I was a child, I dreamed about space – I admired pilots, astronauts, and I’ve admired explorers of all kinds. It was only a dream that I would someday be one of them. It is my hope that all children – boys and girls – will see this mission and be inspired to reach for their dreams, because dreams do come true!”

Finally, I’d like to give a shout-out to Dr. Sandra Magnus, who has been living on the ISS since November 2008, and will return with the STS-119 crew in a few days. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut, Koichi Wakata, will be taking her place. You can view some of her journals from her time living on the ISS. Here’s hoping for a safe return journey for Sandra, and the entire crew of STS-119.