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How Women Are Shaping the Frontiers of Space Exploration

SWE engages with women engineers and scientists at NASA.
How Women Are Shaping The Frontiers Of Space Exploration

From a pool of over 1,000 applicants, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) was selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as one of 40 participants to attend a NASA Social event prior to the launch of the SpaceX Dragon via the Falcon 9 rocket for the CRS-10 mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The NASA Social experience provided SWE the opportunity to learn from subject matter experts about upcoming research, farming in space, renewable energy, travel to Mars, and the future of the Kennedy Space Center as a multi-user spaceport. We also attended press briefings, met astronauts, toured usually restricted areas, and viewed the (once scrubbed and then successful) launch of Falcon 9 from historic Launch Complex 39 Pad A, where most Apollo and Shuttle missions began.

While any rocket launch is exciting, SWE came to NASA with one question in mind: How are women shaping the frontiers of space exploration?

To answer this question, we engaged with female engineers who run projects on the ISS and are building a launch pad for future heavy-lift rockets. We also learned about female scientists and engineers who are directing research studies sent to the ISS via CRS-10. Not only are women leading innovation in engineering and science at NASA, their work is critically interlinked in the effort to shape the frontiers of space exploration.

At the Frontier of Engineering & Space

Regina Spellman, Senior Project Manager for Launch Complex 39 – Pad B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Pictured here on the launch pad she is retro-fitting for future use. Photo source: SWE.

Regina Spellman is overseeing the retrofitting of Launch Complex 39 Pad B, where NASA’s most powerful rockets will begin their journeys to space. Significant modifications and upgrades need to happen to 39-B in order for NASA’s in-development super heavy-lift launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS), to take astronauts via Orion to deeper parts of our solar system than have previously been explored by humans.

Spellman, who was a SWE Member while earning her mechanical engineering degree at Purdue, said she never dreamed she would actually be able to work for NASA. After starting as a mechanical engineer at NASA, she worked her way up to Project Manager. She is now critical to the next phase of NASA spaceflight as the Senior Project Manager for the Mobile Launcher Element Integration Team for Ground Systems Development & Operations. In her message to SWENexters, Spellman says the sky is not the limit for girls in STEM.

Brooke Thornton is the Missions Operation Manager for SAGE III at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Picture taken before the first launch attempt of the CRS-10 mission. Photo Source: SWE.

While engineers are needed to build on-the-ground infrastructure, they are also vital in the remote management of large-scale research on the ISS. To that end, Brooke Thornton is the Missions Operation Manager for SAGE III. Also known as the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment, SAGE III, as explained by NASA, is vital in providing “crucial, long-term measurements that will help humans understand and care for Earth’s atmosphere.”

After graduating with a degree in physics, Thornton was working as a Pizza Hut Manager. She fulfilled her dream of working at NASA after she took a class in Fortran programming, which she enrolled in after hearing NASA needed coders who were proficient in the language. She has worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center since 1999 and also earned a MS in mechanical engineering in 2003. Now, in working on SAGE III, Thornton is not only taking vital measurements of earth’s climate but also advancing the capacity to do large-scale research projects on the ISS.

At the Intersection of Engineering, Science and Space

Without infrastructure to launch rockets or the ability to conduct large-scale research projects, it would be impossible for scientists to conduct studies in the microgravity available at the ISS National Laboratory.

Dr. Anita Goel, Founder, Chairman, & CEO of Nanobiosym Diagnostics (Primary Investigator). Picture taken at the NASA Social press briefing. Photo source: NASA

One example of an innovative study delivered to the ISS via CRS-10 is a project by Dr. Anita Goel, who is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Nanobiosym Diagnostics. Through partnering with NASA and the ISS National Laboratory, Goel is conducting a critical study that will leverage the microgravity on the ISS to expedite the growth of pathogens (bugs such as MRSA). As Goel explains, data from this study will allow scientists to “see into the future” and understand how mutations of these bugs may evolve with the end goal of developing better antibiotic treatments.

The proof of concept research Goel is directing is the first stage in a potentially transformative process to improve how algorithms predicting pathogen mutations are written. Goel is internationally respected for her research and expertise in nano biophysics. She has a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University and a M.D. from the Harvard–MIT Joint Division of Health Sciences and Technology. Her mentors have included Nobel laureates Dudley R. Herschbach and Steven Chu.

Left: Dr. Melissa Kacena, Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Indiana University (Co-Primary Investigator). Right: Dr. Rasha Hammamieh of the United States Army (Primary Investigator). Picture taken at the NASA Social press briefing. Photo source: NASA

Dr. Rasha Hammamieh, of the United States Army, is also leading a critical study that was sent to the ISS via CRS-10. Hammamieh is the Primary Investigator for a project, through the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research (USACEHR), which examines the challenges encountered in wound and bone healing in microgravity. The data from this project will have implications for tissue and bone regeneration both in outer space and on earth. The long-term goal of this work is to support accelerated recovery times for injured soldiers and humans in extended spaceflight.

Having been recognized for her discoveries around post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD), Hammamieh’s work has helped the Department of Defense, US Army, and the general public better understand and treat the PSTD experienced by our service members and veterans. Hammamieh is the Deputy Director of the Integrative Systems Biology Program at USACEHR. She earned her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Georgetown University.

Jolyn Russell, Deputy Robotics Program Manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s Satellite Servicing Projects Division in Maryland. Picture taken at the NASA Social press briefing with the Raven module. Photo source: NASA

The frontiers of space exploration are broadened when advancements in engineering and science inform one another. For example, the Raven module being sent to the ISS via CRS-10 will autonomously measure incoming and departing vehicles to the ISS. As Jolyn Russell explains, this two-year project will lead to new technology that will enable autonomous refueling of both satellites, to lengthen their lifespan, and to spacecraft, to ensure they can reach places in deep space, such as Mars. Russell, who also worked as a Senior Mechanical Systems Engineer at NASA, is now the Deputy Robotics Program Manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s Satellite Servicing Projects Division in Maryland.

In this new era of space exploration, we are pleased to see so many women at the forefront of technological advancements, engineering breakthroughs, and scientific engineering. Never stop exploring and remember to #BeThatEngineer!



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