Celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science with NASA Trailblazers

February 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day set aside to recognize the role women and girls play in science and technology and promote full and equal access to participation in science. What better way to recognize the day than by highlighting a few NASA trailblazers?

Still taken from 255-HQ-296 Where Dreams Come True.

The NASA film Where Dreams Come True, directed by William Greaves in 1979, highlights the contributions of many of NASA’s diverse and dedicated employees who make space exploration possible, including two women, both trailblazers in their fields. His interviews with Dr. Patricia Cowings and Kathryn Sullivan give insight into what it takes to work at NASA. In the following Clip, Dr. Cowings discusses the difficulties women face when pursuing a career in any “non-traditional” field for their gender.

Dr. Cowings is the first American woman to receive scientist astronaut training. Her work with Autogenic-Feedback Training, a way to mitigate motion sickness without pharmaceuticals, was patented by NASA in 1997. She has also served as a principal investigator on three Space Shuttle Flight experiments and as primary American collaborator in an experiment flown aboard the Russian Mir Space Station. Hear more about her work with NASA in the clip below.

Clip taken from 255-HQ-296 Where Dreams Come True

Kathryn Sullivan is also profiled in Where Dreams Come True. Footage follows Sullivan as she participates in astronaut training, part of one of the first groups to include women. During Space Shuttle Challenger mission STS-41-G, she performed the first extra-vehicular activity (EVA) by an American woman. In 1990, Sullivan was part of the crew of STS-31 which was responsible for launching the Hubble Space Telescope into Earth’s orbit. During her time at NASA, Sullivan flew three Space Shuttle missions and logged 532 hours in space.

Clip taken from 255-HQ-296 Where Dreams Come True

Women have worked for NASA and NACA (NASA’s predecessor) since the early days of American aeronautical research. NACA was founded in 1915 and in 1922, Pearl Young became the first female professional hired there. Mary Jackson, portrayed in the film Hidden Figures, was hired in 1958 making her the first Black female engineer. The first Asian-American woman to work for NASA, Josephine Jue, was hired in 1963. Jue was the sole Asian-American when she was hired. In her 34 years at NASA, she utilized her skills as a computer programmer and mathematician, contributing to both the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.

Despite NASA’s willingness to hire females and people of color, the agency was not exempt from the racism and sexism present in America. The space exploration era occurred at the same time as the civil rights movements of the 1950’s and 1960’s and until the nation saw expanded civil rights for people of color and women, employees of NASA also faced systemic discrimination based on their sex and race. One example of systemic discrimination happened until the mid 1960’s when Black female mathematicians at the Langley Research Center had to work in a segregated section of the campus. Another example persisted until 1978 when the astronaut corps, previously closed off to women of all races and men of color, admitted their first new group including women as well as several men of color.

By 1979 when Where Dreams Come True was produced, the number of employees who were women and people of color was steadily increasing. In 1979, 19.6% of total employees were women and 9.7% were people of color. To date, women account for 34% of total employees while people of color account for 29% of total employees.

Clip taken from 255-HQ-296 Where Dreams Come True

Several other NASA employees are profiled in Where Dreams Come True. Isaac T. Gilliam IV, former Director of NASA’s Hugh L. Dryden Flight Research Center, Frederick Gregory, former USAF pilot, NASA astronaut, and NASA Deputy Administrator, Ronald McNair, NASA astronaut and physicist who died during the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger, and NASA engineer Ruben Ramos all share what is it like working for NASA as a person of color circa 1979.

Clip of Frederick Gregory and Kathryn Sullivan from 255-HQ-296 Where Dreams Come True

Greaves set out to document, emphasize, and celebrate the contributions of women and people of color in the film Where Dreams Come True. He leaves viewers with a final thought; “The people of NASA, with their many skills, disciplines, and interests, make it a place where dreams come true. People from all over, men and women of every color, race, and religion. A group of people who demonstrate daily the ability of human beings to work together closely, cooperatively. A group of people whose commitment and support of one another in their work is very high.”

NARA holds several films about women in STEM related professions. Space For Women is another NASA film by Greaves that discusses at length the roles women play in the space program. Read more about Greaves’ contributions in a 2017 Unwritten Record post titled, African-American Filmmaker William Greaves on Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. Read more about women at NASA in the blog post Sally Ride and the Women of NASA.

Works consulted
NASA Helped Kick-start Diversity in Employment Opportunities
NASA Workforce Data
“Racism, Sexism, and Space Ventures”: Civil Right at NASA in Nixon Era and Beyond
The Space Economy in Figures
The Women of NASA online exhibit by the National Women’s History Museum

One thought on “Celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science with NASA Trailblazers

  1. A world, no a country, no a society, Naah, a house nope, in fact, a single human being can exist without a woman. It’s a day to give tribute to a Mother, a teacher, a doctor in fact you name a single field there’ll be a woman. we are all proud of you and your services.

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