New Horizons and the women who will make history

13 Jul 2015

NASA Communications Manager for Exploration Systems Development, Ashley Edwards, talks with children about NASA's journey to Mars. Image via NASA

New Horizons is the name of the craft that will give us our first glimpse of the surface of Pluto, and it couldn’t be more appropriately named given that it marks a turning point for NASA where more women have worked on the mission than any other.

Since its formation in 1958, NASA had long been thought of as a boy’s club where women’s input was rarely heard bar the odd exception, like Margaret Hamilton, who in her 20s designed the computer software for the Apollo 11 mission.

In fact, around the same time as the Soviet space agency was sending the planet’s first woman into space, NASA wasn’t accepting women as astronauts, despite there being a number of trailblazers who wanted to emulate their male peers, that was until Sally Ride in 1983.

Well, now it appears that the tide is turning and a more gender-balanced American space programme is on the cards.

Just last month it was revealed that, for the first time, there was an equal balance of men and women in this year’s esteemed astronaut school, while women have risen to prominence in a number of senior roles, including NASA’s CTO, Deborah Diaz.

And now for the New Horizons mission, which will take the closest images of Pluto for what will likely be the only time in many of our lifetimes, we see that 25pc of the NASA team is comprised of women and top of that list is Alice Bowman, the mission operations manager (MOM).

New Horizons team

The female crew members of the New Horizons’ team. Image via SwRI/JHUAPL

Bowman as the MOM of the group

Now just one day way before New Horizons makes its historic flyby of Pluto at 7.49am EDT (12.49pm Irish-time), Bowman will be busy at work managing the team to have everything just right as New Horizons passes by in the blink of an eye at 49,600km/h.

Bowman’s overall responsibility is to personally read every line of code before it’s sent on to New Horizons, which even at the fastest means of communication possible takes four-and-a-half hours to reach the craft.

“I’m the last one who signs off on everything we send to the spacecraft,” Bowman explains. “I want to make sure it’s perfect.”

Speaking of what is rather new surroundings for many of the female scientists – in being in the company of more women than ever before – many of these crew actually fail to take notice until it’s raised with them.

Members of the New Horizons team are shown at the launch of the spacecraft, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida on 19 January, 2006. Image via KSC/NASA

Members of the New Horizons team are shown at the launch of the spacecraft, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida on 19 January, 2006. Image via KSC/NASA

‘This isn’t remarkable—it’s just how it is’

One of the senior members of the team is Fran Bagenal, who was just one of a handful of women who worked on the Voyager missions, and who refused to let any issues of gender get in the way of achieving scientific advancement.

“That’s just how it was,” she revealed in talking about her time there and now, as the particles and plasma science team leader on the mission, her remarks on what it feels like to be on a team with more women, she shrugged and said: “This isn’t remarkable—it’s just how it is.”

Likewise, Kim Ennico, a deputy project scientist who calibrates instruments on the spacecraft and monitors their status, said: “I’ve never really thought about it. I’m really only conscious of it when there are only women in a meeting room.”

While the views of Bagenal and Ennico are somewhat refreshing as examples of people who are gender blind not wanting to define careers based off these issues, Leslie Young, another deputy project scientist on the New Horizons mission sees it as important to bring that 25pc figure up to 50pc.

“Girls will be inspired to be scientists and boys will grow up to be ‘gender blind,’ seeing women in science as the norm,” she said.

The female members of the New Horizons team are: 

Kneeling from left to right: Amy Shira Teitel, Cindy Conrad, Sarah Hamilton, Allisa Earle, Leslie Young, Melissa Jones, Katie Bechtold, Becca Sepan, Kelsi Singer, Amanda Zangari, Coralie Jackman, Helen Hart. Standing, from left to right: Fran Bagenal, Ann Harch, Jillian Redfern, Tiffany Finley, Heather Elliot, Nicole Martin, Yanping Guo, Cathy Olkin, Valerie Mallder, Rayna Tedford, Silvia Protopapa, Martha Kusterer, Kim Ennico, Ann Verbiscer, Bonnie Buratti, Sarah Bucior, Veronica Bray, Emma Birath, Carly Howett, Alice Bowman. Not pictured: Priya Dharmavaram, Sarah Flanigan, Debi Rose, Sheila Zurvalec, Adriana Ocampo, Jo-Anne Kierzkowski.

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic