They are no strangers to space travel, but historically female astronauts have been the exception and not the rule. In 1963, Russian factory worker Valentina Tershkova was the first woman to travel to space, selected as one of five cosmonauts from a pool of some 400 applicants. Fifty years later, another milestone occurred when NASA introduced its 2013 astronaut class consisting of four men and four women. This marks the first time both genders are equally represented in a space program.
Selected from 6 300 applicants—the largest pool of applications since 1978—the final eight candidates were chosen after an extensive review, which included a medical and psychological evaluation, mechanical skill assessments, and an interview with the selection board. Because the overall astronaut corps consists of only 49 today compared to 149 in 2000 due to recent budget cuts, NASA was on a search for a team with diverse skills and background.
The result is a group of evenly matched men and women from geographic areas throughout the United States and a collective background in medicine, science, engineering, and the military. The four women chosen—Anne C. McClain, Christina M. Hammock, Nicole Aunapu Mann, and Jessica U. Meir—are in their mid-30s and happen to be the youngest among NASA’s astronauts.
Selecting an equal number of women is “a reflection of how many really talented women are in science and engineering these days,” said Kathleen Rubins, a NASA astronaut from the class of 2009, in an interview with The New York Times.
The four candidates are not novices to adventure and discovery. Their careers include a helicopter pilot for the Army (McClain), assistant professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School (Meir), a fighter jet pilot for the Marines (Mann); and station chief of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration facility in American Samoa (Hammock). Several said they are now living out a dream to travel to space.
“I distinctly remember drawing a picture—I think in first grade—when we were supposed to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I distinctly remember drawing an astronaut then," said Meir, from Caribou, Maine.
The class starts their two-year training program in August at the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, where they will be trained in skills such as scuba diving, spacewalking, and adjusting to altitude and microgravity changes. Those who complete the program will then graduate as astronauts and go on to potentially travel to untapped areas in space. NASA’s goal is to have their astronauts explore distant asteroids and Mars. In total, 57 of the 534 astronauts who have ever traveled to space were women, but neither gender has made such an ambitious trip yet.
The 2013 class is one sign that times are changing for women engineers. One of the most cited reasons for young girls to not pursue a career in science, engineering, technology, or mathematics (STEM) is the lack of role models, according to Senior Member Nita Patel, chair of the IEEE Women In Engineering committee. “An equal demographic representation in the 2013 class will certainly help provide role models and emphasize the fact that STEM is a gender-neutral field,” she says.
NASA is taking several other measures to involve more women in a career in space. Its website showcases videos of women working at NASA in hopes that the stories will “inspire girls everywhere to reach for the stars and explore the myriad of opportunities available to them through pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” It also offers a virtual mentorship program to middle school students.
For now, we have reason to celebrate the number of women joining the field.
“Congratulations to Christina, Nicole, Anne, and Jessica,” Patel says. “To continue to innovate and provide new ideas, a diverse population of scientists, engineers, and researchers are needed. The more diverse the STEM population we have, the more creative we will be as a country.”
What do you think NASA’s Astronaut Class of 2013 will mean for women in science and engineering careers? What other milestones would you like to see for women engineers?
Photos: NASA (5)