Author: Sarah Sexton, Communications Manager, Intel Ireland
Last week I had the chance to visit NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston where I accompanied the lucky winner of the Intel sponsored Women Invent Tomorrow competition.
Women Invent Tomorrow is a national campaign being spearheaded by Silicon Republic, Ireland’s leading technology news service and it aims to highlight the importance of closing the gender gap in Science and technology, as well as championing and profiling inspirational women as role models in the fields of STEM. Last year one of the highlights of the initiative was a campaign that gave the general public the chance to vote on Ireland’s Greatest Female Inventor and be in with a chance to trip to visit Intel’s headquarters in Santa Clara and also the NASA center in Houston.
Competition winner Eimear Donovan pictured at NASA mission control
The prize was won by Irish teenager, and science enthusiast, Eimear Donovan who hails from a small town in the south west of the country and who is preparing this year to sit her final school exams.
On a sunny Texas morning we set off our on our NASA adventure together with a small group of other visitors who were all part of a special ‘Level 9’ tour and found ourselves at our first stop of the day – the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. It was here that our guide, David Cisco, a NASA veteran who was heavily involved in the Lunar Module program, explained to us the concept of teaching astronauts how to complete space walks by recreating the experience of being weightless in a giant pool of water filled with replica components of the international space station.
This massive pool (filled with 6.2 million gallons of water!) was a pretty incredible sight but what caught my attention was the stunning images that lined the walls – images of astronauts first pictured in training at that very lab and then shown in an accompanying photo of them completing an actual spacewalk as part of a mission at the space station. As I moved along taking in each photo I noticed that a number of them were of female astronaut Sunita Williams.
I was fascinated by the images of Sunita, taking in every detail and being particularly impressed by the presence of red stripes on her bold white outfit as this, I had been informed, signified the role of mission commander. And with that image I was intrigued to understand more about the role that women had played in the story of space exploration.
Sunita Williams pictured during a space walk on the International Space Station
When I considered the fairly recent history that included the pushing of boundaries and making space exploration and discovery a reality it is something which has really been characterised by men. The Apollo era that began in the 60’s was a massively significant period of time in human history, which was born out of the bullish declaration in 1962 by President Kennedy that his country would put a man on the moon by the end of that decade – bullish as this declaration came only a year after Alan Shepard became the first American in space! But yet every astronaut, and indeed every flight director on the ground that took part in the program that followed were men. Young females around the world must have grown up thinking that space was travel was something open only to males. But there have been some key moments for women along the way….
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the first female in space – Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova who on June 16th, 1963 took her landmark flight which launched her into history and this came only two years after Yuri Gagarin performed the first spaceflight ever. Tereshkova circled the Earth 48 times during her time as the pilot onboard the Vostok 6 spacecraft.
It would be 20 years later when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. Applying to NASA’s training program for astronauts on an impulse in 1978, Sally Ride became one of six women of 35 trainees chosen and became the first American woman astronaut when the space shuttle Challenger took off in 1983.
And there have been many other notable moments where women have played a central part, such as the tragic story of Christa McAuliffe who in her role as a school teacher was a civilian mission specialist aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle when she died with the rest of the seven member crew when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after its launch in 1986. And there have been moments too of triumph like in 2010 when four women served together on the International Space Station on April 14 representing the highest number of women in space simultaneously.
And these moments and indeed these women ultimately blazed a trail for someone like Sunita Williams to play her part in history holding records for the longest space flight by a woman, the most spacewalks undertaken by a woman and the most time spent on a spacewalk.
4 women in space simultaneously – clockwise from lower right are NASA astronauts Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson, and Tracy Caldwell Dyson along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Naoko Yamazaki
Many hi-tech companies today are faced with challenging the long held perceptions around the place of women in these environments. But really, when we seek to solve some of the most complex challenges on the planet (and beyond even that in NASA’s case!) it has to be about having the best people and more importantly having advantageously diverse teams working together.
We can probably all play some role, however small, in helping to challenge the norms, questions the perceptions and sow the seed of opportunity into the minds of young females and in this case a 16 year old from a small town in Ireland who has a love of science and has had her eyes opened first hand to some of the most incredible experiences that the world has to offer – regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.
So perhaps women have not quite yet conquered the final frontier – of the 534 people who have flown to space only 57 of them are women – but we are certainly on our way to replacing frontiers with endless possibilities.
Further images can be found here: Women Invent Tomorrow – prize winner trip – a set on Flickr
About Women Invent Tomorrow
Women Invent Tomorrow, which is supported by Intel, Accenture, ESB, Irish Research Council and CoderDojo is a campaign spearheaded by Silicon Republic, Ireland’s leading technology news service, which aims to highlight the importance of closing the gender gap in Science and technology, as well as championing and profiling inspirational women as role models in the fields of STEM.
The World Economic Forum’s recent Corporate Gender Gap Report highlighted that a lack of role models was one of the greatest barriers to women leaders and so a large part of the campaign will be to team up with industry stakeholders to share the stories of aspirational females across Ireland and the world.
This campaign will ensure that the women with talent in knowledge professions are seen, supported and championed, with the objective of inspiring others to follow, encouraging more people to tell their story and influencing the career choices made by women and girls today, so that the knowledge industries and society of tomorrow are built using the collective knowledge of women and men. The campaign will take place primarily online through the Silicon Republic news platform and will be supported by grassroots outreach campaign, social media and also some traditional media.
About the Greatest Women Inventor Competition
The competition ran over the summer months of 2013 and invited young people to select ‘Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor’ from a shortlist of 10 Irish innovators and pioneers.
After a summer-long campaign, 12 to 18-year-olds in the Republic of Ireland voted physician and tuberculosis (TB) fighter Dorothy Stopford Price as Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor.
Dublin-born Stopford Price received 27.68pc of the votes, putting her ahead of the other nine finalists in the Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor competition. One of those votes came from 16-year-old Eimear Donovan, from Listowel, Co Kerry, who was then chosen at random as the grand-prize winner of the competition. As a result, Eimear won a trip to NASA’s Space Centre Houston and Intel Museum in Silicon Valley, and also spent two days in San Francisco, California, along with her parents Mary and Louis. Click here to read more.
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Media contact: Sarah Sexton | firstname.lastname@example.org | + 353 1 606 8537