Discovering NASA’s Sisterhood of STEM Pioneers
STEM Women have played a pivotal role in NASA’s 58-year history, but their legendary work in STEM started even earlier. Here’s a look at the women who’ve shaped America’s space programs:
An Engineer Shares Her STEM Story
Rebecca L. Trupp, an engineer at Honda R&D Americas, told us a little about how she went against stereotypes and discovered a love of math.
What inspired you to study and pursue a career in STEM?
Growing up I loved playing with Legos, building train tracks spread far across my family’s living room, and race cars that zoomed quickly around the loop that my brother and I built. When I was in middle school I learned how much I liked science, especially the experimentation available through chemistry. Prior to high school, I found out that made me a good candidate for Project Lead the Way, a four-year, five-course engineering program. It was through this program that I had the opportunity to design and develop various projects ranging from a fischertechnik elevator to CNC wax blocks to a sensor device for blind people. Little did I realize what I was getting myself into.
As a female, have you personally experienced gender bias while pursuing your STEM degree or in the workforce?
Of course. I was the only girl in my high school and college graduating classes to complete the four-year programs and specialize in mechanical engineering. The bias became a benefit when it came to looking for jobs as I have found many companies are looking for young women like myself to fill the roles that are currently empty. My team at work is filled with five other women and six men. Those are pretty good statistics in my eyes.
Can you share the best piece of advice you have received from another woman in STEM?
I think some of the best advice I got was to chase after what I wanted and to speak up for what I believed and deserved. It helped me to choose and create a job in a field which I had been dreaming of working in for years.
What advice would you give to young girls looking to go into STEM?
Don’t knock it till you try it. I was terrible at math and strongly disliked it all the way up until college. When it came to university, I ended up having to retake a math course that I had already taken. It ended up being one of the biggest blessings as it became a turning point in my life and I can say I truly enjoy math today. Be willing to work hard, dream big and keep the faith that you too can be exceptional — you can be a woman in STEM — and live your best life.
Vaughan started working at NASA in 1943. She was a respected mathematician and NASA's first African-American manager. For nine years, Vaughan was head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) segregated West Area Computing Unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians. She was one of the NACA's few female supervisors.
A computer scientist, Easley started working at NACA doing computations for researchers in 1955. Over her 34-year career, Easley’s work evolved from hand calculations to becoming a computer programmer. She developed and implemented alternative power technology code, which was used for the Centaur upper-stage rocket, as well as early hybrid car batteries.
Sputnick, the Soviet Union’s satellite, launched in 1957. That’s the same year mathematician Johnson provided some of the math for the 1958 document, “Notes on Space Technology.” That document led to the formation of the Space Task Group — NACA’s first official venture into space travel. Later that year, NACA became NASA.
Johnson did trajectory analysis for America’s first human spaceflight — Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission in 1961. She co-wrote a report with engineer Ted Skopinski, marking the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division received author credit of a research report. As NASA prepared for John Glenn’s 1962 Friendship 7 mission, Johnson did the math, making sure the computers that were programmed with the correct orbital equations would control the trajectory of the capsule. She was right and the mission was a success. In a 33-year career, Johnson authored or coauthored 26 research reports. In 2015, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom award, America’s highest civilian honor.
In 1958, Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer. That was also the year she wrote her first report. In her nearly two-decade career at NASA, she went on to author or co-author a dozen research reports, mostly on the boundary layer of air around airplanes.
Nancy Grace Roman
Roman was hired as NASA’s first chief of astronomy in 1959. She went on to set up the Hubble Space Telescope program. Her work on space telescopes continues today — NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is the largest space observatory ever built, will launch in 2018.
In 1967, Darden joined NASA’s computing pool. She went on become one of NASA’s preeminent experts on sonic booms and supersonic flights. Darden was the first African-American woman promoted to senior executive service at NASA Langley.
An engineer, Townsend was the first woman to assume a project manager role in the U.S. Space program. She worked on the Small Astronomy Satellite series, which launched three satellites between 1970 and 1979.
Ride became the first woman in space in 1983. She joined NASA’s astronaut class in 1978, the first year women were included; Ride’s classmates included and five other women and 29 men. In 1984, she went to space again for an eight-day mission STS-41G. A physicist, Ride went on to become a college physics professor. She was also served on the investigation boards following NASA’s two space shuttle accidents.
Today, NASA’s Deputy Administrator Newman, an aerospace engineer, works with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, to provide overall leadership, planning and policy direction for NASA.