Watching the Oscars this year, it was easy to get overwhelmed with all the awesome when the cast of Hidden Figures appeared on stage with real life hidden figure Katherine Johnson to present the award for Best Documentary Feature. The three main stars of the film, Octavia Butler, Taraji Henson and Janelle Monae, all gave outstanding performances (and it must be said, all three made outstanding fashion choices as well). Needless to say, they commanded your attention.
I'm not sure if anyone in the audience knew that Katherine Johnson (whom Taraji Henson portrayed in the film) would be joining them, but her appearance nearly brought the house down. Less attention, however, was paid to two other women in attendance that are still reaching for the stars, thanks in part to Johnson’s work at Langley Research Center so many years ago.
The first was the woman who helped Johnson on stage: Dr. Yvonne Cagle. Cagle is a member of NASA Astronaut Group 16, the largest class of astronauts to date (44 in total) selected back in 1996. She's a medical doctor with a specialty in aerospace medicine (aka a flight surgeon) and served as the Air Force Medical Liaison to STS-30.
In 2008, she retired from the Air Force with the rank of colonel, but she remains a member of the astronaut corps and is currently assigned to Johnson Space Center's Space and Life Sciences Directorate. Cagle is also on the reserve crew for NASA's Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) project on the slopes of Mauna Loa in Hawai'i.
The second woman at the Oscars worth discussing here was Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American engineer. If her last name sounds familiar, that's because her family funded the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million dollar prize to the first non-governmental agency to launch a reusable crewed launch vehicle/spacecraft twice within two weeks. (The prize was awarded to SpaceShipOne in October 2004.)
Ansari was the fourth private citizen, and the first (and so far only) woman, to travel to space as a tourist in 2006. She spent 12 days aboard the International Space Station conducting experiments for the European Space Agency. Ansari attended the Oscars at the request of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who boycotted in protest of President Trump's Muslim Ban.
Together with Firouz Naderi, and Iranian-American engineer who retired from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab just last year, Ansari accepted Farhadi's Oscar for Best Foreign Film. While her presence at the Oscars had more to do with her origin than her accomplishments in space, her being there showed the world yet another woman of color whose story is worth telling.
On a final note, in the process of writing this I discovered that there have been a total of 22 black astronauts to date, with only five of them being women (out of a total of 338 people). That total includes both those who have flown and those who haven't. If we narrow it down to who has been to space and back, the numbers shrink to 15 and three, respectively. All 15 of those astronauts were crew on either the Space Shuttle or a Soyuz capsule. There has yet to be a black astronaut crew member on the space station. Astronaut Jeanette Epps will be the first when she launches to ISS in May of 2018.
As Viola Davis might say, it's clear we have a lot more bodies and stories to exhume. We've barely scratched the surface.