8 Women In STEM Who Are Changing The Space Game
The sky above us is full of exciting prospects: new journeys, new knowledge, and new technology. And women are a key factor in the new phase of the space race. From engineers and tech CEOs to astronauts and space recruiters, gifted and passionate women worldwide are focusing their eyes on the astronomical horizon — and they represent the cutting edge of what humanity can do in space. These eight women are changing the space race, and they show there are many ways to alter how we look at the world above our heads.
This is an important conversation to have because women remain shut out or under-represented in the different aspects of STEM that apply to our study of space. The statistics on space research tell a pretty sexist story: 90 to 95 percent of astrophysics journals that publish new research in the field are edited by men. A 2017 survey of academic journals found that male astronomers are cited 10 times more often than female astronomers, and it took until 2017 for NASA's astronaut intake to near a 50-50 gender ratio. The sexism that dominates STEM fields affects how women are able to contribute and make a difference. In light of that context, these nine women's achievements take on a new importance — not just in expanding our capabilities in the world beyond the Earth, but in providing examples to future space-loving girls.
Space isn't just about astronauts and jetpacks. It's also at the forefront of communications technology, which is where the entrepreneur Naomi Kurahara comes in. Kurahara, who is an electrical engineer by training and graduated from the International Space University, founded Infostellar, a company that's disrupting our old models of satellite communications, in 2016. Her company is pursuing a big idea: as she told Forbes early in 2018, "I want to have the largest ground station network on the planet. There is a need for it, and a gap in the industry. There are hundreds of satellites, but the number of ground systems is not there." As satellite numbers in Earth's orbit grow, her company is attempting to help them anchor their networks to the planet and share space effectively.
Anousheh Ansari may be the most famous non-astronaut woman in space travel. She was the world's first female space tourist, launching off-planet in 2006 to go to the International Space Station, but her contribution to space doesn't end there. Her family sponsors a space travel prize for competitors to create safe private spaceships, and Ansari herself, an engineer by training, is now investing in inventions across India that will help peoples' access to technology.
Natalya Brikner is about to be your new STEM inspiration. She was the CEO of her own space entrepreneurship company before she turned 30, and used a PhD at MIT to develop the technology that inspired the company's launch: rocket propulsion for tiny satellites that can fit in the palm of your hand. The propulsion systems themselves are the size of coins, and after successful testing, Brikner's company Accion started taking orders for their commercial use in 2016.
Women in space remain relatively rare, and Claudia Kessler is out to change that. An aerospace engineer by training, Kessler is the CEO of HE Space, a European space recruitment company, and in 2016 she launched the campaign Die Astronautin, which aims to send the first ever German woman to space — something that the European Space Agency has yet to do. Die Astronautin wants to send their female astronaut to the ISS in 2020, and via crowdfunding and recruitment, they appear to be meeting their goal.
Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock is one of Britain's most beloved space commentators, hosting a television program called The Sky At Night. Aderin-Pocock told The Guardian in 2014 that, after a childhood divided between 13 schools and a dyslexia diagnosis, she became one of the world's most elite telescope-makers. She's worked for the U.K.'s Ministry of Defence to help detect landmines, and is now a hybrid educator and academic, combining her research with TV presenting duties and traveling the U.K. getting kids excited about space.
Professor Jo Dunkley is an astrophysicist with a purpose, and it's not just stellar discovery. Dunkley, who is a professor of physics at Princeton whose research focuses on discovering the origins of the universe via maps of extremely ancient light across galaxies, is also a tireless advocate for attracting more women into the physics field. She told Nature.com in 2016 that “There really aren’t enough women role models in physics, and many of the great female astronomers are not often that well known, or talked about in education. I think it is so important. The ability to see someone you can imagine being, is everything, and gives you the confidence to try things out and aim for something."
Portuguese astrobiologist Dr. Zita Martins has been made a BBC Expert Women Scientist, is a fellow of the Royal Society and works on special projects with NASA, and with good reason: her research is giving us insight into life in space. She analyzes meteorite fragments for organic material and is helping to prepare for the search for bacteria and microbes in Mars's desert sands. Right now she's working on testing systems in deserts on Earth, and the next Mars missions may contain some of her tech.
India is emerging as a huge player in space technology, and one of its stars is Minal Sampath. As one of the head engineers at the Indian Space Research Organization, she's overseen the launch of the country's Mars Orbiter Mission in 2013 and, in 2017, its record-setting launch of 104 satellites at once. She often works 18-hour days, according to interviews, and one day plans to be the first female director of a space center — which, considering her career, seems incredibly likely.
The stars are getting closer every day, and human endeavor is helping us reach them. And these eight women are pushing forward the space race from many different directions — so let them inspire your STEM dreams.