Sunday, March 23, 2008

Women in Aerospace: "Big Deal?"

The First Human to return to the moon, or to walk on Mars, might be a woman.

This shouldn't be a headline, but it certainly would shake up many on Earth. While Anousheh Ansari visits the Library of Congress on Wednesday in support of Women in Aerospace, making another pass overhead the western hemisphere during that 90 minute breakfast will most certainly be the International Space Station, and Expedition 16 commander Dr. Peggy Whitson of Idaho.

I watched Eileen Collins, the first female commander in the now-long history of the Shuttle program, as she piloted STS-93 Columbia through a night re-entry over Texas after overseeing a successful deployment of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory in July 1999.

All of Texas was alerted to the event by local media, and those, like me, who went outside and looked up at the right time on that hot July evening were not disappointed by sight of the long trail of orange-red sparkling plasma Columbia left behind all the way across the clear sky.

My daughter Valerie, born only five weeks after the Challenger disaster, wasn't particularly inspired, it seemed to me, no matter how I tried to remind her of the "novelty" of a woman at the controls of the most complex machine ever built. Instead, I only showed my age, I now know. Dr. Whitson, Collins and I are old enough, however, to remember the first time a female voice announced "this is your captain" over the intercom of a commercial airliner.

Are women in space a big deal any longer?

You can answer that question with a qualifying question in return. Simply ask yourself, are there any Russian women cosmonauts, or any Chinese women taikonauts? Is America's lead in equal opportunity for women in space a product of affirmative action of a lifting of barriers? Admittedly, it's been both, certainly, and that's a hard thing for one opposed in principle to affirmative action to admit. In the case of NASA, no better working example may exist, and the women who've been put farther ahead in line have shown brains, skill, and personality in particular which may even put some of them ahead of males. For long and also stressful missions they may be better at adaptation.

Women certainly have proven themselves in America's Astronaut Corp, and Dr. Shannon Lucid, still, as of this writing,
the United States' single mission space flight endurance record holder (MIR 1996), is still CAPCOM overnight, knitting something for her grandchildren, no doubt, as she relays messages and tucks Shuttle crews into their sleeping bags from the front row at Mission Control in Houston.

Privately, particularly during the weird and aimless days of the 1990's at NASA there were whispers of the slots on board MIR being less than choice assignments, but that was never with regard to Dr. Lucid's gender. The buzz was more of such assignments being for loners and drinkers with no family life. (Though British American Michael Foale's flights would seem to put such talk to rest, I think.)

In Texas on the starry night of July 27, 1999, the spectacular event was the headline and not the gender of Columbia's commander. I remember any mention of Columbia being flown by a woman was overshadowed by Chandra and then the "firery re-entry" of the Orbiter being visible throughout Texas, both before and after reports went to press.

And as Dr. Whitson winds up her second six month tour in space, there's certainly no outward sign of any internal Astronaut Corp grumbling nor apparently any ink being wasted on her accomplishments by the planet's Press Corp.

Instead, Dr. Whitson's EVA December 18, 2007 marked the highest cumulative spacewalk time ever any women, and at the mention of her surpassing the record EVA time only just recently set by Lt. Commander Sunita L. Williams, USN, Dr. Whitson was reported to have been tickled, revealing at least some internal Astronaut Corp competition after all, among the women, perhaps.

If you've watched any of the post-EVA activity on NASA-TV at the end of any of the five STS-123 spacewalks performed this past week, you may have gotten a rare glimpse of Dr. Whitson's experience at work. No one knows how to relieve an exhausted spacewalker of a bulky spacesuit faster, using both her hands and feet, and multi-tasking the routine in a way impossible around the training tank. Camille Paglia could write reams of prose about it, a working dance unique to space.

Be that as it may, the women among the ground teams were definitely in the news this past week. Dauna Coulter, science writer for NASA, spread some ink "on dead trees" in Huntsville's Times answering profile questions, and she mentioned only as almost an afterthought the all-female controller day, last week, watching over the MER Opportunity, not yet parked for the Martian winter and a 100 million miles away. How the fifty-five percent of Americans who happen to be women (and I thank God for it) might still not have achieved parity with the Good Ol' Boys, at NASA the "glass ceiling" isn't any longer an appropriate metaphor.

On the Job with Dauna Coulter

Huntsville Times

Job title: Science writer

Where: Schafer Corp., 7057 Madison Pike

Number of employees: 64 in Huntsville; 471 nationwide

Job description: "My principal responsibility is writing articles for a Web site called Science@NASA, managed by the Science and Missions Systems Office as part of Marshall Space Flight Center. On the Web site we communicate NASA science to people from all walks of life, writing in a clear, compelling, creative style. NASA does a lot of work that benefits society and people don't know about it. I also write for the Marshall Star and do other communications-related work."

Best perk: "I get to talk with scientists and engineers who are so brilliant and so excited about their research or projects. It's fun to talk to people so passionate about their work, and I get to try to capture that excitement in my writing while explaining complex material in conversational terms. I get to learn so many interesting things."

Ambition: "To get better at doing what I'm doing: explaining complex material, writing in a clear, compelling, creative way."

Best advice received: "Lay your troubles on the altar. There are so many things in life we don't have any control over; we just have to give it over to a higher power and go with the flow."

Best advice to give: "When it comes to work, I'd say don't be afraid of change. As we get older we tend to want to stay in our comfort zone; it can stop you from growing. When it comes to life, I'd say rescue a dog. Some of my happiest times are hiking with my five dogs. They're a good path to peace and happiness."

It's a bad day when: "I'm not able to spend as much time interviewing and writing, and I have to do some of the mundane things that are part of the job."

It's a good day when: "I get e-mail from readers who compliment me on something I've written. It's nice to think I've helped somebody learn something new."

Role model: "Jesus. You can't argue with the way he teaches us to live. Who can argue with love thy neighbor as thyself?"

Working on: "Today I sat in with a lunar scientist on an uplink done by an all-woman team to the rover on Mars. I got to see how they plan on what to have the rover do next. I recently interviewed a scientist about his research into lunar dust, and soon I'll get to write an article about how gravity waves in the atmosphere can intensify tornadoes. I get to cover a wide variety of topics."

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