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October 24, 2007

Women in Charge

When I was growing up, there were no women astronauts or flight controllers. But I knew that would not always be the case. Russian Valentina Tereshkova had flown in 1963, and Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols seemed at home on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. So, like Heinlein’s Starman Jones who was denied the chance to train for astrogator, but because of his knowledge, was ready to do the job when finally offered, I studied physics and astronomy and watched for an opportunity.

That opportunity came in 1978 when NASA hired the first women astronauts and also opened other positions to women. I was fortunate to be hired and become one of the first ten women flight controllers. I cheered as Sally Ride made her first flight in 1983, and Judy Resnick became the second American woman in space in 1984. Women made strides in all areas of NASA, with Linda Ham becoming the first woman flight director in 1991.

It wasn’t until 1999 that a woman, Eileen Collins, commanded a shuttle mission. This week, Pam Melroy became the second. It was only last Friday, October 19, when another woman, Peggy Whitson, was put in command of a space station.

On Thursday morning at 10:33 Eastern time, the hatch between the shuttle and ISS will be opened, and the two female commanders will greet each other. Also on board Discovery is Stephanie Wilson, who became the second black woman to fly in space during her flight in 2006 (Mae Jemison flew in 1992).

So finally, the women are in charge!

Thanks to these trailblazing women, the thousand 5th-8th-grade girls signed up for the Sally Ride Festival this Saturday here in Houston will know that a career in space is a valid choice for them. These girls have the added benefit of meeting Eileen Collins who is the featured speaker. I am excited to be one of the 40 women recruited to run science workshops for these future scientists and explorers. I’ll be talking to them about their future on the Moon.

I hope that by the time these girls reach adulthood, women being in any position in space will no longer be news. It will be expected, normal, like women doctors and lawyers and accountants. Currently, only about 20 percent of the astronaut corps is female. Considering the almost total lack of women cosmonauts and that half of space crews are Russian, it will be many years before we see equal numbers of men and women in space. For space settlement to become a reality, this must change.

Space needs more women!

I’ve been told that the reason only 20 percent of astronaut classes are female is that not many women apply. The number of women getting degrees in science is on the rise, but the number of graduates in engineering, both male and female, remains low. The U.S. managed just 70,000 engineering graduates in 2006, far behind China’s 500,000 or the 200,000 produced by India. Can more attention to space make a difference? Absolutely!

It is easy to get discouraged pursuing an A in a math class or a degree in engineering without the constant reminder of the reward for the effort. Young people therefore need to hear others say how important space exploration is to the future, and how exciting, fascinating, and financially rewarding it can be to have a career as a scientist or engineer. Members of the National Space Society are helping fill this important need through conferences, educational outreach, scholarships, and simply by being friends and mentors who share an interest and contacts in the space movement. Young people who take advantage of these opportunities today will improve their chances of obtaining the education, skills and experience necessary to one day rule a space settlement.

See you there, ladies!

Marianne Dyson

NSS Member
Former NASA flight controller

Posted by m_dyson at October 24, 2007 11:24 AM



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