Rocket science is one of those engineering endeavors commonly assumed to be dominated by men. In large part, it is, but there have been and are many influential women in the field. Here, we’re going to look at ten women who not only became rocket scientists, but who broke the mold and became some of the most influential people in science and society.
Doctor Anita Sengupta is best known for her current work as Senior Systems Engineer at the North American Space Agency’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more than ten years, she has been working on entry and propulsion systems and has been involved in most of NASA’s planetary exploration probe missions. She designed the parachute for the two ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter robots, the Mars Ascent Vehicle and is the principal investigator for the Orion Vehicle Drogue Parachute Subscale Test Program. She has also worked as entry system lead for the Venus lander mission, for Mars Sample return mission concept, and more.
Dr. Sengupta is an Indian-American who’s had a love of science and engineering concepts since childhood. She attended Boston University for Aerospace Engineering and then received her Masters and PhD in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Southern California, where she teaches Spacecraft Design in the university’s Aeronautics Department.
Most well known for her animal rights work and her charity organization On Wings of Care. She is a pilot and rocket scientist, whose groundbreaking work at NASA created the multi-national LISA program (laser inferometer space antenna), an idea that puts three spacecraft adrift in a triangular pattern at a distance of about 12 times the moon’s orbit of the earth. The ships are connected by lasers, which in turn can create a “gravitational wave detector” to find black holes and other gravitational phenomenon in space.
Bonny Schumaker has always had a fascination for science and was a “math whiz”, which got her a scholarship to California Polytechnic. She wanted to become a veterinarian, but her only path into college would be as a physicist, so she took it. Her high honors at Cal Poly landed her a job at NASA as an astrophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. After well over a decade there, she took up hang gliding as a hobby and loved it. From there, she took flying lessons, completed flight school, instructor’s training, got certified for jet aircraft, and then took a leave of absence from NASA to fly commercially for Continental Airlines. Four years of that got her enough flight hours to be ready for her own plane carrying passengers. She returned to NASA and bought a Cessna.
She began volunteering her airplane to fly animals out of danger zones or to receive emergency medical care. She rescued animals from sanctuaries threatened by wild fires, animals that were to be killed because they didn’t have homes (but others wanted them), and more. Soon, she incorporated On Wings of Care as a non-profit and is now flying full time, all over the nation, saving animals of all types. She is known as the “Rocket Scientist Turned Animal Airliner.”
Camille Wardrop Alleyne
Currently one of the most-recognized women in aerospace engineering, Camille works for the North American Space Agency (NASA) at its Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. She is the Assistant Program Scientist for the International Space Station (ISS), leading an international task force in educational and public outreach campaigns for the station as well as to attract more young people into the sciences. She has worked on other projects as an engineer, including NASA’s Orion project to design the next-generation of space craft. She was also an environmental control tester for the space shuttle program at NASA in the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Camille Wardrop Alleyne was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. She was encouraged by her parents to take things apart and rebuild them as a child, learning engineering by doing. She stargazed and was interested in space early on as well. After primary school and early college in Trinidad, she then came to the U.S. to attend Howard University, then Florida A&M, and finally the University of Maryland where she received successive degrees in Mechanical Engineering, specialized in Composite Materials, and in Aerospace Engineering with specialization in Hypersonic Aerodynamics and Propulsion.
One of the most recognizable faces at NASA, Ginger Kerrick holds the title of Flight Director at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Until its decommissioning in 2009, she was often the face and personality behind the space shuttle program and, specifically, its astronaut training programs. She still trains astronauts, though now they are sent to the International Space Station or are training in hopes to a future manned mission to Mars.
For as long as she can remember, Ginger wanted to be an astronaut. She attended Texas Technical University where she received a Masters in Physics, but health issues kept her from her dream of becoming a space flier. She joined NASA anyway and became Life Support Systems Instructor for the then-fledgling ISS in 1994. She became the first non-astronaut Capsule Communicator (the liaison between Mission Control and flight crews) in 2001 and then was named as Flight Director four years later. She has supported five shuttle missions and thirteen ISS missions thus far.
Currently the chief of the Areodynamics and Propulsion Branch at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Jennifer Cole is an aerospace engineer whose career at NASA has almost literally skyrocketed. Her career at NASA began while she was in the United States Navy, where she gained her background in propulsion and aerodynamics working with the Navy’s flight programs.
Jennifer became fascinated by flight as a child, where she lived just outside of the Willow Grove Naval Station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and would see aircraft coming and going. She joined the Navy hoping to become a pilot, but vision problems kept from that goal. That didn’t stop her from working with aircraft, however, and from there, she just kept on flying higher and farther.
Mary Ann Esfandiari
A long-time contributor to NASA’s space programs, Mary Ann Esfandiari currently holds the title of Associate Director for Exploration and Space at the Goddard Space Flight Center. With more than thirty years of experience at NASA, Mary Ann has worked on many space flight projects, including analyzing data sent back from space missions to developing flight software that operates onboard spacecraft. She is also an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve and has been for 23 years.
With an early penchant towards mathematics, Mary Ann stepped out of the usual mold expected of women in the 1950s and 60s to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Astronomy/Physics from the University of Maryland at College Mark and then a Master’s degree in Computer Science from George Washington University. Her goal from a young age was to work at NASA.
Mary Sherman Morgan
The most famous female name in rocket science, she was the first woman to enter the field and be recognized as a rocket scientist. She created the rocket fuel Hydyne that, in 1957, saved the United States from disastrous earlier attempts to send satellites into space. The rocket carrying our first successful satellite, Explorer 1, into space used her fuel. So despite the Russians getting the Sputnik into orbit first, thanks to Mary, we quickly recovered and became dominant in the space race.
Mary Sherman Morgan was born in 1921 as the second-to-last of six children to a family in Ray, North Dakota. Despite early setbacks to school attendance – her father was reluctant to allow her to go – she showed an excellence in academics that helped her not only make up two years lost, but then go ahead of her peers and graduate as valedictorian in high school. To get into college, she ran away from home after graduation and signed up at Minot State University as a chemistry major.
When World War II broke out, Mary was a mother had to leave college to care for her family. She was recruited by a local factory to begin work on top secret explosives formulas for the military during the war, keeping her chemistry background moving forward. She was the only woman at the factory. She was at North American Aviation still, in 1957, when the government looked again to launch a rocket after Wernher von Braun’s designs proved to be insufficient to the task. Mary Sherman was placed in charge of the contract at NAA and the rest is history. Mrs. Morgan died in 2004.
A materials scientist in the Research Technolgy Directorate at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, QuynhGiao Nguyen works on high temperature materials design and testing for use on aircraft and re-entry vehicles from space. She holds a PhD in Clinical-Bioanalytical Chemistry from Cleveland State University College of Science.
When QuynhGiao and her parents immigrated from Vietnam, she didn’t speak a word of English. From age seven on, though, she made it her priority to master the language and excel. After twelve years, at the age of 19, she was accepted as an intern at NASA’s Environmental Durability Branch. That gave her a foot in the door towards a full time job at NASA after graduation from CSU. Since then, she has not looked back.
Currently working on rocket testing, Rosa Obregon is the first and only Latina woman to be certified by NASA to do this type of work. She has worked on the rockets propelling the space shuttle into orbit and now works on next-generation rockets that NASA will use to compete with private rocketeers to launch commercial spacecraft and future scientific missions. Rosa currently serves as the lead mechanical engineer at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
Born in 1982 to Mexican immigrants, Rosa always had a fascination with the night sky and space exploration. Her father bought her a telescope from which she would peer at the night sky from their home in southern Texas. In her junior year in high school, having already won recognition for her mathematics and science academics, she applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and was accepted. She entered MIT and studied aerospace engineering.
Rosa graduated from MIT and went to work for NASA, where she has been since. She also travels the country speaking to grade school and high school students about what it takes to become a rocket scientist.
The first American woman in space, Sally Ride was a PhD student at Stanford University in 1978 when she answered an advertisement from NASA looking for astronauts. She was one of only 6 women accepted out of 35 total winners and soon finished the rigorous training program to become the first woman in space, going aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. She also served as communications officer for the next two Colombia missions. Her description of launching into space, “..a 600-pound gorilla sitting on top of you.. then the space shuttle engines stop. The gorilla vanishes. ..and your notebook floats in front of you and you’re in space,” is one of the most-repeated descriptions of launch to this day.
Sally was born in 1951 in southern California and played competitive tennis, which earned her a scholarship to the exclusive Westlake High School. From there, she entered Stanford University hoping to become an English or Science teacher, studying (and eventually completing degrees) in both English and Physics. After her first mission in 1983, she then made another in 1985 with fellow classmate and astronaut Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan. She retired from NASA in 1987 to teach physics at the University of California San Diego. She died at age 61.