As the space industry evolves, women are taking on more visible roles

Women, minorities making major strides in 50 years since Apollo 11 launch

By Ginger Gadsden - Anchor, Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

From Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, to Mae Jemison, who became the first African-American woman in space aboard the shuttle Endeavor, the face of the space industry has changed quite a bit since the Apollo 11 launch 50 years ago.

But even then, there were women paving the way for others before and during the Apollo program.

Today, women and minorities play prominent roles in major space operations at NASA and in private and public space companies.

Standing in the Kennedy Space Center firing room, where hundreds managed the launch of Saturn V and Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson stood next to a picture of launch control at  the day Apollo 11 launched 50 years ago.

"That’s JoAnn Morgan,” Blackwell-Thompson said, pointing to the lone woman in the photo. “She is a kind of a local hero to many of us and really was instrumental in laying the groundwork for other women that would follow.”

Blackwell-Thompson is one of those women who followed in the trail blazed by Morgan. Morgan was Kennedy Space Center’s first female engineer and the lone woman on console in the firing room when Saturn V launched three men to the moon.

In the center of the photograph is JoAnn Morgan, the only woman engineer in the Firing Room at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969. Fifty years later, the firing room will be led by the first woman launch director. (image: NASA file)

Blackwell-Thompson is NASA’s first female launch director. She says her days are currently consumed by what it takes to get to Artemis-1 launch day, but every once in a while, the reality of her position sinks in.

"The first thing that comes to mind is I feel incredibly blessed and really honored. I mean, I’ve I came here as a young woman right out of school, right out of Clemson University and I look back over my career at the things that I've been able to be a part of in the shuttle program, working on the Hubble space telescope."

Today there are women in careers in the space industry that would have been unheard of 50 years ago.

“What we've got to remember today is that diversity and inclusion is a huge part of -- not just the aerospace industry --but the space exploration industry as well,” said Eliana Fu, Relativity Space senior raw materials supply engineer.

Fu was the first female engineer hired by the California-based space startup, which was founded in 2015.

Fu’s background is in material sciences and metallurgy, which is the study of metals. Her expertise is put to good use at Relativity Space, which aims to launch a fully 3D-printed rocket into space from Cape Canaveral next year.

Fu's role specifically is to determine which materials are suitable for the additive manufacturing process, meaning they can be used to 3D print rocket parts.

Relativity Space senior raw material supply engineer Eliana Fu holds up a tiny version of one of the 3D printers the company uses to print its Terran 1 rocket. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG)

She hopes to inspire others to learn about additive manufacturing.

“I make it my personal mission to always reach out to other females and girls and see if they would be interested in either participating or being a fan of following us on Instagram or Facebook,” Fu said.

Through social media, women working in the space industry are highly visible today, which opens up a new world for a field once dominated by mostly white men. That outlet allows girls and young women to see someone who actually looks like them – some for the first time.

Virgin Orbit propulsion engineer Diana Alsindy, 25, is also known as the Arabian Stargazer on Instagram, where she uses social media to teach youth in the Middle East about rocketry, science, technology and math.

[STORY: You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work at a space startup, advice from new space workers ]

There are also more opportunities to help young space workers get their start.

Alsindy was part of the first class of the Brooke Owens Fellowship in 2017.

The fellowship was co-founded by Virgin Orbit Vice President for Special Projects Will Pomerantz, former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Gravers and Chief Operating Officer of Earthrise Alliance Cassie Kloberdanz Lee to honor their friend Dawn Brooke Owens, a pilot and former White House space policy expert.

The organization pairs every “Brookie” with a mentor, a woman working in aerospace, and a paid internship at leading aerospace companies, including Virgin Orbit, SpaceX, Ball Aerospace and Blue Origin, among others.

“I was surrounded by women who are interested in the same thing, who are passionate and have hidden talents that were not able to be viewed in other internships or other applications for universities,” Alsindy said. “So I started in 2017 as a structures intern at Virgin Orbit and it was basically an open door for me to open my career and start my full-time job at Virgin Orbit.”

WKMG 2019

Diana Alsindy, 25, also known as the "Arabian Stargazer," is a propulsion development engineer at Virgin Orbit's facility in Long Beach, Calif. Alsindy was also previously a Brooke Owens Fellow with Virgin Orbit. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG)

Monica Jan, vice president of customer service experience at Virgin Orbit, says the demographic in the industry is changing for the better.

“I remember when I first started in my electrical engineering class in my freshman year. I believe I was the only woman, if not, one of two in my class, so it makes me really happy to walk around here and see lots of young women engineers working here,” Jan said.

Dr. Kavya Manyapu is a flight crew operations test engineer with Boeing’s Starliner program.

Born in India, Manyapu was inspired to learn more about space when as a child, she thought sharks and dinosaurs lived on the moon until her dad told her that was unlikely.

Now, Manyapu has developed a spacesuit material, currently being tested aboard the International Space Station, that will help the next generation of moon walkers.

Manyapu said diversity is important, but so is skill.

“The opportunities we had 50 years ago versus now, of course, technology has leveled the paradigm for us,” she said. ”Rather than paying importance to gender, I think we need to pay attention to competence and that's where you can bring in the real talent.”

That talent that will take humans back to the moon, to Mars and beyond, giving this generation a different picture of the people who have the right stuff to take us there.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said when NASA returns to the moon, as soon as 2024, the first woman will be on that mission.

Copyright 2019 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.