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Women played crucial roles in the space program. Yet we don't know much about them. Why?

Megan Burbank, The Seattle Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

SEATTLE -- Edith Gustan's name appears in the fourth paragraph of a Seattle Times article from 1970, a skinny strip of text above a nearly full-page ad for Sears' Mother's Day sale that advertises, among other things, "incontestably female ... cardigans!"

Gustan was a biologist and longtime Boeing employee who conducted research on subjects at the nexus of biology and space travel. But while many stories from NASA's Apollo program are common knowledge, hers is nearly nonexistent. Do some digging and you'll find a 1985 Associated Press article describing her research on the viability of a space-station greenhouse under the headline "And Now, Vegetables in Space." You might read her name in aerospace and engineering industry journals, on papers examining subjects like closed ecological life-support systems. Addresses place her in Shelton and East Wenatchee. But a Google search turns up only a two-sentence obituary from 2017. We know she worked on collaborations between Boeing and NASA, but we don't know much about her.

This is an all too common outcome for many of the women who played crucial roles in the success of the Apollo 11 mission and, more broadly, the American manned spaceflight program. They wrote code, made complex calculations, and -- in Gustan's case -- envisioned a future where astronauts might even grow their own food during space travel. But in many cases, we're only uncovering their contributions now, half a century after humans first walked on the moon.

It's a pattern of "fits and starts" throughout the history of women in America, and it's one Margaret Weitekamp knows well. She's the author of "Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America's First Women in Space Program," which explores the rise and disappearance of an early program that envisioned sending women to space. She also curates the National Air and Space Museum's social and cultural dimensions of spaceflight collection in Washington, D.C. "When we look at the history," she says, "what we find is that many of what we would now call STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math -- were overwhelmingly male, but they were not exclusively male and much of that perception has been shaped in the years since."

Undoing that perception takes work and careful research into the women who were, as Weitekamp puts it, "in some of these rooms." "Famously, we now have paid more attention to the women computers who had for years been working for NASA," she says. This group included Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race, who faced the dual barriers of racism and sexism, and whose story was told in Margot Lee Shetterly's 2016 book "Hidden Figures," and the film of the same name.

In contrast to today's male-dominated world of computer programming, some technical roles at NASA were considered women's work. Human computers such as Jackson, Johnson and Vaughn had "a job that was a woman's job the way being a secretary was a woman's job," says Weitekamp. They did the calculations that made spaceflight possible. Women who held these positions at NASA were among the nation's earliest computer programmers. Though it's difficult to find exact figures on how many women worked as human computers, thousands of women were involved in the Apollo program, and given that human computers were primarily women, it's likely they made up a large part of that workforce.

 

One of the best-known women to work on the Apollo 11 mission was also a programmer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who in 2016 was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her work on Apollo. Hamilton led the team behind the code that took the spacecraft to the moon, and even if you don't know who she is, it's possible you've seen an iconic photograph of her taken from her time with the Apollo program. She stands smiling next to the piled volumes of her code; the stack is as tall as she is. (You may even have seen this image on Twitter last April, when many users paired it with the image of Katie Bouman, also an MIT computer scientist, posing with hard drives containing data that made it possible to photograph a black hole.)

There were also women like one of NASA's first women engineers, JoAnn Morgan, who worked in launch control for Apollo 11, and appears in a famous image from that time. She's the only woman in a sea of men in white dress shirts and ties, and one of the only people in the shot still sitting at a console while the others stand up to watch the launch.

But one place in the Apollo program where women were conspicuously absent was in the spacecraft themselves. That wasn't because women didn't aspire to be astronauts. (It's an impulse so relatable it made it into a well-trod campaign anecdote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.) It also wasn't because no one had thought about sending women to space.

Well before Apollo, William Randolph Lovelace II, the New Mexico physician who oversaw psychological and physical testing for the first corps of would-be astronauts, suspected that women might be good candidates for space travel. But Lovelace's interest in sending women to space wasn't rooted in lofty ideas of equity or feminism before its time, but in traditional notions of male and female labor. When Lovelace imagined human societies on space stations, he did it in accordance with the strict gender striations of the '50s and '60s: He thought that space stations would need workers like "telephone operators and laboratory assistants and nurses and things that were traditionally pink-collar jobs," says Weitekamp. And that would mean sending women to space. "He is in some ways incredibly visionary and in some ways very much a product of his time," she says.

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