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Flying High

Women in space exploration

By Linda Formichelli

Women have been making strides in space exploration for a long time (see the sidebar "Women Watching the World"), but "there's no question that it was more difficult for the first women astronauts and mission controllers," says Melroy.

These days, more and more women are joining the ranks of mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, and other specialists at NASA, Boeing, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and other organizations involved in the space exploration industry. "About 22% of NASA senior executives are women," says Robert Bishop, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Aerospace Engineering & Engineering Mechanics at The University of Texas at Austin. "One in five students in aerospace engineering are women. That's twice what the average is across engineering." Adds Melroy, "It's wonderful for me when I go to meetings and see that 50% of the people are women and minorities. It shouldn't be a big deal because women make up 50% of the population, but it is."

Denise Kelley agrees that opportunities for women in this field are as limitless as space itself. "As a woman and a minority, I have been able to get into the field, and in recent years there have been more women, more minorities, more opportunities to contribute to this environment," she says. "When I was in school in the more advanced courses, you might have seen only one or two minorities or women, but now women are coming into the field and telling others that this is a wonderful opportunity. They're speaking at schools and encouraging people who look like them to try this."

Kathryn C. Thornton releases a strut

STS-49 Mission Specialist (MS) Kathryn C. Thornton (foreground) releases a strut from the Multipurpose Experiment Support Structure (MPESS_strut dispenser during Assembly of Station by Extravehicular Activity Methods (ASEM) procedures in Endeavor's payload bay. MS Thomas D Akers, positioned on the opposite side of the MPESS, waits for Thornton to hand him the final strut.

Even better news is that hiring organizations are actively seeking out and encouraging women and minorities to enter the field. For example, Boeing Houston has clubs and special interest groups like the Boeing Black Employees Association, a forum where employees motivate, mentor and coach one another.

This past June, NASA started a new initiative with the United Negro College Fund Special Programs Corporation that will give researchers and students from minority institutions direct access to NASA facilities, scientists and capabilities.

More Than Flying

When you think of space exploration careers, you probably think of astronauts and envision yourself floating in space, gazing upon a marble-sized Earth. And while you can become an astronaut, as many notable women have, "there's tons of work on the ground," says Julie L. Burdick, director of the Rowe Center for Women in Engineering at the University of Cincinnati.

The NASA jobs Web site, for example, notes that NASA is looking for "scientists, engineers, computer programmers, personnel specialists, accountants, writers, maintenance workers and many, many other kinds of people." Here are just a few of the opportunities available that will put you in touch with outer space:

  • Materials engineers develop, process and test the materials used to create a range of products used in space exploration.

  • Software engineers manage flight control systems, power, data networks, engines, communications and environmental systems on spacecraft.

  • Aerospace engineers design, develop and test spacecraft. Often specialize in areas such as structural design, navigation and control, guidance, instrumentation and communication, or production methods.

  • Electrical engineers design, construct, operate, and maintain electrical systems and equipment, such as space communications equipment or robotics.

  • Chemical engineers refine the fuels that get us into space, and while we're out there, we use their knowledge to purify drinking water, produce and process food, treat waste and more.

  • Mechanical engineers build the rockets, shuttles, space exploration vehicles, and other machines that make space exploration possible.

  • Nuclear engineers work on nuclear-powered spacecraft.

  • Ceramic engineers create the tiles on space shuttles, solar panels and other products.

  • Professors do research and teach others who are interested in working in the space exploration industry.

Where the Jobs Are

While it's great news that all kinds of engineers are needed to explore space, who will be hiring them? Plenty of businesses supply space-related products and services, but here are some of the biggest employers in space exploration:

  • NASA: Their mission is to answer basic questions about space: What's out there? How do we get there? How can we use what we've discovered to make life better here on Earth? NASA conducts its work in four main organizations: Aeronautics (new flight technologies), Exploration Systems (human and robotic exploration), Science (exploring the Earth, moon, Mars, and beyond), and Space Operations (such as the International Space Station).

    Jobs site: index.html

  • Boeing: Based in Chicago, Boeing works on the Space Shuttle, International Space Station, and other space exploration projects as a major subcontractor to NASA's space flight operations.

    Jobs site:

  • Lockheed Martin: Headquartered in Bethesda, Md., Lockheed Martin works with NASA to support the U.S.'s commitment to space exploration through its several lines of business: Launch Services, Satellites, Space Command and Control & Mission Processing, and Space Operations.

    Jobs site: search/search.asp

  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory: JPL is based in Pasadena, Calif. and is a NASA center staffed and managed for the government by the California Institute of Technology. It built and controlled the first U.S. satellite, which was launched in 1958, and is still working on a variety of aspects of our space program today.

    Jobs site:

  • Honeywell: Headquartered in Morristown, N.J., Honeywell provides products for momentum control, pointing, vibration isolation, guidance, navigation, environmental control, data control and more. Customers include worldwide space agencies, military services, prime contractors and commercial suppliers.

    Jobs site:

Cracking the Books

Want a space career? Well, study up on your engineering-and your writing, and your presentation skills and your foreign languages. . . First, you need to have an excellent educational background in engineering-and the higher the degree, the better. "A bachelor's degree will get you an entry-level position in space exploration where you're part of a team," says Bishop. "As a Ph.D., you'll be leading those teams. People with master's degrees are somewhere in between, though there are examples of people with master's who rise to the very top." Anita Sengupta agrees: "Definitely get your master's degree," she says. "That's really valuable. I did it in two years while working, and without working you can do it in a year."

Astronaut Kelly Thornton

STS-61 Astronaut Kelly Thornton releases the old (damaged) solar panel into low-Earth orbit during the first Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission in 1993. Earth's gravitation pulled the jettisoned panel toward Earth's atmosphere, where it entered and ultimately burned up.

However, says Burdick, employers are looking for employees who are agile, meaning they're proficient in many disciplines. "If you specialize, you might want to have two specialties, like aeronautical engineering and materials science, so you know propulsion and aerodynamics, but you also get a feel for the new composites of the future."

Not only that, but employers expect you to have a broad view of the world, which means stepping outside the engineering box to learn about history, art and other subjects. "This gives you insights into what you're doing rather than just thinking, 'I'm writing a computer program,'" says Bishop. "It's nice to know the context in which engineering is done. Take courses in liberal arts, fine arts or the history of technology."

Here are some other surprising skills that can boost your chances of success in a space exploration career:

  • Public Speaking
    As an engineer, you need to be able to explain your ideas and your work to other people-sometimes to people who don't have an engineering background. "If you can't communicate well enough to sell your ideas, this can be a limiting factor," says Kelley. "An engineer or mathematician might say, 'I can't believe she's telling me to take drama or speech,' but a lot of what we do is stand up in front of people and articulate our vision."

    Kelley suggests that new engineers join Toastmasters, a public speaking organization where members learn by speaking to groups in a supportive environment (

  • Writing
    Along the same lines, says Kelley, "many of us don't put a lot of value on punctuation and other writing skills, but how you write is representative of the organization you work for, so you want to master those skills. You are going to do a lot of writing and build a lot of charts." If grammar makes you queasy and your idea of punctuation is showing up to work on time, take a basic writing class or pick up a book like Strunk & White's Elements of Style (which is available for free online at

  • Foreign Languages
    While knowing Spanish or German can help you in your space career, Burdick recommends Chinese as the most important foreign language you can learn. "China is spending huge amounts of money on laboratories and research and is graduating many engineers," she says. "So if you know Chinese, that would be an asset for all kinds of collaborative projects."

  • Team Building
    If you're stuck in a spacecraft for two years, you probably want to be with people who know how to play well with others. "[Working in space exploration] is a team environment," says Melroy. "We place a huge emphasis on the ability to work with other people. We're talking about sending people to Mars in 20 years-that's a two-year trip. Who will we pick to go? The ones we feel will work well together as a team."
Photo courtesy of Nasa, C.R. O.

Photo courtesy of Nasa, C.R. O.

Launching Your Career

While it would be nice to land a space job right after college, many people in the industry get their foot in the door through mentors, internships and co-ops.

Find a Mentor
A mentor is someone who is in the position you want to be in, who is willing to give advice, warn you of potential pitfalls, and help you network within the industry. "I'm fortunate to work with people who took me under their wing," says Merav Opher. Being gutsy helps: Opher picked up the phone and cold-called a professor at Caltech, who took her on as a protege. However, you can't rely on a mentor to do all the work for you; you need to have a strong educational background and a lot of motivation. And you need to present yourself to a potential mentor as a serious student.

You can often find mentors through your university or through the employers. Boeing, for example, offers a mentoring program called BRANCH (Boeing Regional Association of New College Hires), says Kelley. "Students coming into space exploration are partnered with more seasoned engineering people to help them understand the nuances of the field they've chosen and build their career goals."

Get an Internship/Do a Co-op
An internship (where you work temporarily at a company to learn the ropes) or a co-op (a cooperative education program where you work while studying) can help you open the door to a career in space exploration. Denise Kelley, for example, broke into the field after completing a summer internship at NASA.

Your first stop is your university's career development office; they can let you know what companies they've teamed up with to create co-op opportunities. You can also check out the organization you're interested in interning with to find out what they offer.

For example, NASA's Higher Education Division offers a plethora of internship and co-op options. The NASA Cooperative Education Programs let you combine academic studies with on-the-job training and experience at a NASA Field Center; each NASA Field Center manages its own program. PIPELINES (Program to Increase the Pursuit of Education and Learning In Engineering and Science) is a paid, on-site internship open only to ethnic minority students and faculty in the fields of engineering, science, mathematics and computer science. For the scoop on these and other internships in NASA, visit their student jobs site.

JPL's Cooperative Education Program (COOP) gives college undergraduates on-the-job training as a supplement to classroom instruction; full-time students enrolled in the program participate in paid employment at JPL during alternating quarter/semester periods.

Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Honeywell also offer internships and co-ops. For details on Boeing's internships, go to For Lockheed Martin, visit their Web site at and click on "Careers." Honeywell's internship/co-op page is

 Atlantis nears touchdown at NASA's Kennedy Space Center

Just before dawn, Atlantis nears touchdown on Runway 33 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, concluding mission STS-115. Photo courtesy of NASA/JohnKechele.

A Universe of Jobs

Space exploration is one career that's growing, with more opportunities for new hires each day. In fact, says Bishop, there's a shortage of engineers as the first space explorers are starting to retire. "I wouldn't say the aerospace field is growing so much as aging," he says. "There's a lot of opportunity for younger engineers to have more authority and take on more responsibilities earlier in their careers. Our students are not having any difficulties finding jobs."

Adds Kelley, "There are so many new things coming on the horizon. People could choose to work on legacy programs like the shuttle or space station or new programs like lunar landing equipment. People going into this won't have to worry about jobs...the future for this industry is so bright."

Linda Formichelli is a freelance writer in Concord, N.H., and the co-author of The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success. Visit Linda online at

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