Early on in the history of NASA, mission control was white shirts and ties, crew cuts and cigarettes. There were women behind the scenes, as famously seen in Hidden Figures, the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the three (brilliant) African-American women whose math fueled the launch of astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.
But the faces at what became Kennedy Space Center stayed mostly the same during the ’60s and ’70s, when the race to the moon got caught up with the Cold War. By the ’80s, though, NASA got better at recruiting women.
“I remember that when I first came here, I was the only one in my group,” recalls Luz Marina Calle, the lead scientist and principal investigator of the Corrosion Technology Laboratory at an outdoor exposure facility.
“When I used to answer the phone, people thought I was the secretary, and I would say, ‘No, in fact, he is my colleague,'” she added.
Cut to today, or better yet, to the fall of 2018, when the new Space Launch System, or SLS, expects to make its first launch, currently being adapted from Firing Room-1 by Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, a veteran of the Space Shuttle era. At the top of the SLS will be the Orion, the capsule designed to take astronauts—men and, yes, now women—as far as Mars (come the 2030s).
Thus, Blackwell-Thompson is the first launch director for the world’s most powerful rocket, and the first female launch director at Kennedy Space Center, developing countdown plans, launch procedures, and training approaches, working in the room she remembers marveling at on a tour just before she was hired in the ’80s. As for a lot of NASA employees, it’s more than a living. “I get to do this job,” she says.
Kathy Lueders, one of the first female program managers, helps private companies into space, meaning she works with new designs in space travel. “Engineers love design and development and doing cool things and hard work,” says Lueders, “and guess what? We’ve got it in spades! It’s like working in a candy shop.
Alicia Mendoza-Hill is a mission integration manager in the Launch Services Program, meaning she matches rockets with payloads. “It’s an interface between, say, a spacecraft and a powerful and explosive rocket,” she says. Right now, she’s working on finding the right rocket for an asteroid redirect mission, meant to practice moving asteroids off a collision course with Earth.
Barbara L. Brown, chief of the Strategic Integration Office in the Exploration Research and Technology Programs, works in cryogenics, focusing on the storage of fuels at low temperatures. “It’s always been my desire to work here,” Brown says. “People would pay to do what we do.”