Dare mighty things
Women space scientists and icons take center stage at Sunday’s Curiosity landing
By Ellen Snortland 08/09/2012
The late, great Dr. Sally Ride, a former Pasadenan who captured the nation’s heart because of her courage and status as the first American woman in space, would have loved the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) “Curiosity” landing on Sunday night. I had the great privilege of being in the press pool and witnessing not only a major accomplishment for humanity, but seeing with my own eyes how many women were vital team members in the effort. The landing was one huge wheels-down for humanity and a gi-normous interplanetary landing for femininity. Yes, girls, you too can dream as big as the stars and planets, just like our brothers!
We are accustomed to seeing both female and male athletes at our earth Olympics bring home the gold, but we’re not as familiar with brainpower receiving similar rewards and recognition. At the landing, we saw our science, engineering and mathematics female “athletes” win gold, too!
It bears noting that having women on the space team is far from a “no brainer.” Just as I was once told not to pursue a law degree, because it would take up a precious spot that a young man “should” fill, girls throughout history have been told to “stay out,” “shut up” and “go home” in predominantly male fields.
However, never underestimate the power of popular culture. One of the celebs present at the Curiosity landing was Nichelle Nichols, whom “Star Trek” fans know as Lt. Uhura.
What you may not know is that years ago, NASA recruited Nichols to inspire women and minorities to apply for the space program. Astronaut Mae Jemison, Sally Ride and Whoopi Goldberg all cite Nichols as a major inspiration to their careers. And while Goldberg was not actually a space figure, she played one on TV! She acknowledges her desire to play the character Guinan on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was a direct result of being 9 years old and seeing Nichols on the original “Star Trek.”
MSL scientist Dr. Mimi Aung, the manager of Guidance & Control who designed its autonomous descent and landing mechanism, had a great analogy for the virtually impossible task at hand: Landing Curiosity at a certain spot next to Gale crater was akin to throwing a football from Miami’s Sun Life Stadium (home of the Dolphins) to our Pasadena Rose Bowl … and have it not just hit the Rose Bowl, but land on the 50 yard line! A further analogy: the previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity were the size of large skateboards, while Curiosity is the size of a Mini-Cooper!
Do you doubt the power of dreams? Do you doubt the fuel of daring mighty things? Don’t.
In the week preceding the Curiosity landing, I got occasional emails from Dr. Nagin Cox, a friend and colleague of mine with IMPACT Personal Safety, who is also the MSL’s assistant flight system engineering manager. I got chills every time she wrote me and her friends. Here’s a sample:
“Mars in the windshield now … We are now closer to Mars than our moon is to Earth,” and “It has been my goal since I was 14 to work at Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA. Almost 20 years ago, that dream came true and I have loved every moment of my time here and the incredible voyages of exploration we do for America and all humankind. Today, the mission I am privileged to be a part of — Mars Science Laboratory — will land the next rover on Mars. It continues to be an incredible honor to work with some of the most amazing people on the planet for a common goal. Dare Mighty Things! Go MSL!”
Here are some shout-outs to some of the other women on the team:
• Pauline Hwang, integrated planning and execution team deputy chief
• Erisa Hines, altitude control system engineer
• Ann Devereaux, flight system engineer on entry, descent and landing (EDL) team
• Kelly Clarke, deputy realtime operations team chief/GDS engineer
• Leslie Livesay, director for the engineering and science directorate
There are nattering nabobs of negativity who decry the space program. Really? Whether we benefit from inventions that wouldn’t have happened otherwise or actually determine that life is possible on Mars, we need triumphs of science as much as we need women involved in all aspects of life.
If half the population sees their gender is involved in getting to Mars, who knows which little girl(s) in the next generation will get the message and conquer other territories of impossibility … like a cure for cancer, ending war or, yes, colonizing Mars because we’ve screwed Earth up so badly?
Dr. Laurie Leshin, dean of the School of Science and professor of Earth and Environmental Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, once told me that all it took to get her completely enthralled with the idea of being a scientist was seeing an issue of Time magazine with the planet Mars on the cover. I met a Muslim human rights lawyer from an illiterate family, who once saw a photo of a woman receiving a diploma in the newspaper that wrapped her family’s meager purchase from a marketplace in Africa that inspired her to fight for women’s lives.
And Sally Ride? Thank you for also being a part of our latest space triumph. We will not forget you.
Keep up with Curiosity online at mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/nasatv.
Ellen Snortland teaches writing in Altadena. Visit her Web site, snortland.com