7 women you've (probably) never heard of that made the space race possible

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Sep 3, 2016, 5:02 PM EDT (Updated)

It wasn’t until 1983 that the United States finally sent a woman into space, a full 20 years after Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova made the trip for the Soviet Union, becoming the first woman to do so. Part of the reason women were largely absent from NASA’s astronaut corps was due to the prerequisite: Astronauts were required to have completed military test pilot school. It wasn’t until 1976 that women were officially allowed into the United States Air Force, and considering the number of former military that comprised the early leadership of NASA, one can see how their shortsighted view on female astronauts came to be.

Despite not going into space until the early '80s, women still played a large role behind the scenes. In fact, were it not for the work of some of these exceptional ladies, much of the space program as we know it wouldn’t exist. Most of them are mathematicians, engineers and computer programmers. Some were part of the West Area Computing Unit -- the all-African-American group of female mathematicians at Langley. Others were part of the all-female computing department of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and one was the unwitting donor of cells that became the first immortal human cell line. A number of these women were were women of color. All of them did extraordinary things in an industry which, at the time, was fraught with misogyny and sexual harassment. Yet in spite of the rampant sexism that in part was responsible for the space agency’s very slow embrace of computer technology (computer programming was at the time deemed women’s work), they persevered. Their accomplishments helped literally and figuratively propel the country’s space program, working alongside some of the most widely respected names in science, such as Carl Sagan,  and long before women’s and civil rights existed and afforded them (somewhat) equal opportunities in the workplace. These women formed a sisterhood, often working together and encouraging one another to continue their education and training and advance their careers. 

Here are seven women that made monumental contributions to the space program and, in some cases, worked to diversy NASA from within.


Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, months after giving birth to her fifth and final child, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. While receiving treatment at Johns Hopkins, two samples of her cells  (one cancerous the other healthy) were taken from her cervix without her knowledge or consent, and given to cancer researcher George Otto Gey. While subjecting Lacks’ cancer cells to various tests, Gey noticed they reproduced at a higher rate and stayed alive longer than any other cells he had seen. Additionally, the cells could be multiplied multiple times and never die, becoming the first immortal cells known to science. The cells, named HeLa, have been instrumental in a number of medical breakthroughs such as the development of the polio vaccine, helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, and Parkinson's disease, are used in cancer and AIDs research, and were the first human cells cloned in 1955. In 1961, a sample of HeLa cells were the first human cells NASA launched into space to determine what kind of effects space had on human DNA.


Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton may very well be one of the most badass reasons for girls to get into coding. In the 60s, Hamilton was a rare breed. The working mother used to bring her daughter to the lab while she plugged away creating the routines that would end up in the Apollo’s command module. It was Hamilton’s code, and the work of her and her colleagues at the MIT Instrumentation Lab, that created the software for the Apollo, and is chiefly responsible for starting the software industry as they wrote the code for the world’s first portable computer. And if that’s not impressive enough, she wrote all this code BY HAND.


Eleanor F. Helin

During Eleanor Helin’s 30-plus year career she was a leader in discovering near Earth asteroids, responsible for discovering or co-discovering 872 of them, before retiring in 2002. Helin discovered the first two Aten asteroids, a group of asteroids closest to the Earth that now consist of over 900 asteroids with over 100 of them classified as potentially hazardous objects (PHOs). Just to give you an idea of how important - and serious - Eleanor’s job was, here’s a video of an interview from before her death where she explains how bad it would be if the earth were to get hit by an asteroid, and how it’s not as farfetched as you may think.

For some perspective, NASA currently lists 11 PHOs that have been observed in the last 60 days ( the list for not recently observed is way longer). Though none of theses asteroids are ranked higher than 0 on the Torino scale,it’s not uncommon for asteroids to start at a 2 or 3 then be downgraded to a 0 within a matter of days. But while a 2 may sound like no biggie comparatively (a 5 is when astronomers really worry, 8-9 is really bad, and 10 would cause the end of civilization as we know it), depending on where it hits on impact could still cause damage. So until that further computer data comes in, scientists do stress about the potential fallout from an impact. 


Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson had a lifetime of exceptional achievements. She started high school at 10, graduated college at 18, and received the congressional medal of honor at 97 for her decades of work with NASA as a computer. Johnson’s math skills saw her calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight in 1961, and she was so accurate that John Glenn requested she personally recheck the new electronic computer’s calculations before his Friendship 7 flight. She was critical to the success of Apollo’s moon landing, and the start of the Space Shuttle program. Katherine’s life story is the basis for the upcoming movie Hidden Figures.


Mary Jackson

A former teacher, Mary Jackson started working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASAs predecessor, in 1951. After five years at NASA, she enrolled in a special training program and was promoted to aerospace engineer.

But it wasn’t merely Mary Jackson’s mathematical skills or work ethic that made her such an asset to NASA; She was fiercely devoted to helping other women and minorities advance their careers within the organization. After 34 years with NASA, Jackson reached the highest level of engineer possible without being a supervisor, but decided to change course, taking a paycut and a position as an administrator in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field. She served as both the Federal Women’s Program Manager in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, and as the Affirmative Action Program Manager. Mary Jackson also appears in Hidden Figures


Sue Finley

Susan Finley’s been with the JPL since 1958, making her the longest serving woman in NASA. Initially one of the JPL’s “human computers” responsible for calculating rocket launch trajectories by hand, Finley is currently a subsystem engineer for NASA’s Deep Space Network.In 1962, she accurately calculated - BY HAND - that Ranger 3 had missed the moon by 22,000 miles. She joined NASA’s DPN in the 80s, and is currently providing support for the Juno mission to Jupiter. In 2004, NASA reversed their decision to grandfather the early female employees without emgineering degrees as engineers, a move that would have gone largely unnoticed since most of them retired by the 90s. However, Sue Finley was essentially demoted, losing her title and being switched to an hourly wage. 


Helen Ling

Helen Ling was a supervisor at the Jet Propolsion Labratory. Like Mary Jackson, she used her position to focus on employing other women. According to Ling, "Men back then always thought they knew more than you did. So if you hire them under you, they're uncomfortable, you're uncomfortable. So I just hired women just out of college. I thought that if you didn't give them a chance, they'll never get a chance."  Ling also would rehire employees who left the JPL to have kids since maternity leave wasn't a thing and women were forced to quit if they were pregnant, prompting many employees to hide their pregnancy as long as possible and stock up on vacation days so they could take off time after giving birth. 


To read about these and more forgotten women of NASA, check out Rise of The Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars and Hidden Figures.

Also, be sure to check out Hidden Figures when it premieres in 2017.

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