Five Amazing Women In Space
Peggy Whitson on the ISS. Credit: NASA

Five Amazing Women In Space

25/10/2017Written by Elspeth Lewis

The stories of the many women in history who have deepened our understanding of the universe.

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Star cluster NGC 7380, discovered by Caroline Herschel. Credit: NASA
Hypatia. Credit: Elbert Hubbard, 1908

The announcement of the first female Doctor Who triggered much debate, with a small but vocal minority even questioning the place for women in space at all.

But in real life, women have long played a very active, although sometimes overlooked, role in space science and space travel.

Female astronomers can be dated back to the ancient times. The two most prominent of these ancient astronomers were Aglaonice (2nd or 1st century BCE) and Hypatia (370CE-415CE).

Aglaonice was a Greek expert on the Moon who founded a school of astronomy for women that lasted 200 years, and Hypatia was a respected Egyptian academic at Alexandria’s university who lectured in mathematics and astronomy, previously a male-only occupation. In their time, they were both well-known astronomers and teachers of astronomy, which was very unusual for women.

In more recent history, there have been countless women who have followed in their footsteps to work as astronomers, as well as 60 female astronauts to date who have travelled into space.

We highlight just five of these amazing astronomers and astronauts here, but this blog is dedicated to the many more women throughout history who have deepened our understanding of the universe.

Caroline Herschel - comet hunter

Caroline Herschel - comet hunter
Caroline Herschel. Credit: Public domain

Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848) was a German astronomer who created extensive catalogues of the night sky and became the first woman to discover a comet.

She was born as the younger sister of William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus. She helped William in his observations, but she was also an astronomer in her own right, using her telescope to discover nebulae and comets. Caroline discovered eight comets within her lifetime, becoming the first woman to discover any. Following a move to England, William became the court astronomer of King George III, and Caroline was eventually employed as an astronomer and assistant to William, thus making her the first recorded woman ever to be paid for scientific work.

Together Caroline and William created an essential catalogue of nebulae, and later in life Caroline later went on to cross check and verify another astronomer’s catalogue of stars. Her work on this included an additional 560 stars which he had missed.

Due to her astronomical abilities, Caroline was the first woman to be awarded the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828 and was jointly the first woman to be granted honorary membership into the society in 1835, along with Mary Somerville, a prolific science author. On her 96th birthday Caroline was awarded the Prussian gold medal for science – an award given strictly for recognition of extraordinary personal achievement. No error has ever been found in her catalogue calculations.

Nancy Roman - mother of Hubble

Nancy Roman - mother of Hubble
Nancy Roman. Credit: NASA
Nancy Roman - mother of Hubble
Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

Nancy Roman (1925 – ) played a major part in planning the Hubble telescope and was the first woman to hold an executive position within NASA.

At the age of 11, Nancy set up a school astronomy club where her and her friends would learn about constellations, sparking her interest in an astronomy career. After being fast tracked through high school she gained a degree and then a PhD in astronomy. She worked for a while as a researcher and then eventually applied to become the first Chief of Astronomy in 1959 at NASA. Her appointment made her the first woman to hold an executive position within the space agency.

Nancy set up the committee for Hubble Space Telescope and was highly involved in the telescope’s planning and design, which is why she is now often referred to as the ‘mother of Hubble’. Upon retiring from NASA in 1979 she continues to be a spokesperson and advocate for women in science.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell - pulsar discoverer

Jocelyn Bell Burnell - pulsar discoverer
Jocelyn Bell Burnell c 1967. Credit: Roger W Haworth
Jocelyn Bell Burnell - pulsar discoverer
Pulsar star. Credit: NASA

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1945 – ) discovered a brand-new type of object, called pulsars, while working as a PhD research student.

In secondary school in Northern Ireland, Jocelyn was not allowed to take science lessons due to her gender, until her parents complained. She was then one of only three girls in the science lessons, but she came top of her class. During her university degree, she was the only female student in the honours class, but this did not stop her from going on to a PhD at Cambridge.

While working towards her PhD, Jocelyn discovered the first pulsar. Pulsars are rapidly-spinning cores of dead stars (neutron stars) that have a strong magnetic field. This magnetic field sends an intense beam of light from the poles of the pulsar, which can sweep across the direction of Earth, much like the beam from a light house.

The discovery of the pulsar is considered one of the greatest astronomical discoveries in the 20th century, but Jocelyn was not included in the Nobel prize winners for this find. Some people see this as a slight on her gender, however in interviews, Jocelyn has always been positive about the Nobel Prize. She’s pointed out that at the time Nobel Prizes were typically awarded to the senior academics in a group, rather than research students (such as she was).

She became a lecturer at the Open University in 1973, and her advancement to professor in 1991 doubled the number of female physics professors in the UK at the time.

Jocelyn was the first female president of the Institute of Physics and has also served as the president of the Royal Astronomical Society, received a DBE, and continues to serve as a strong role model for women in science and astronomy.

Carolyn Porco - planetary scientist

Carolyn Porco - planetary scientist
Carolyn Porco. Credit: Elliot Severn

Carolyn Porco (1953 – ) has shaped our understanding of the Solar System, thanks to her key discoveries from the Voyager and Cassini-Huygens mission data.

In 1983, after completing her PhD at Caltech, Carolyn became a member of the Voyager Imaging Team and tasked with the job of studying the images from the two Voyager probes. These probes visited the outer Solar System for the first time; Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter and Saturn and Voyager 2 flew by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Carolyn was key to the discovery of brand new features in Saturn’s rings, including eccentric ringlets and spokes. These ringlets and spokes are connected to Saturn’s magnetic field, a connection which Carolyn discovered.

As Voyager 2 swung by Uranus and Neptune, Carolyn was heavily involved in the study of their thin rings. Until recently, she led the imaging science team on the Cassini-Huygens mission at Saturn.

Peggy Whitson - NASA astronaut

Peggy Whitson - NASA astronaut
Peggy Whitson on the ISS. Credit: NASA
Peggy Whitson - NASA astronaut
Peggy Whitson. Credit: NASA

It’s hard to know where to start with record-breaking Peggy Whitson (1960 – ), NASA’s most experienced astronaut.

After a career in biochemistry, Peggy was began training as an astronaut in 1996. She first flew to space in 2002, where she spent 6 months (184 days) on the International Space Station (ISS). Peggy returned to the ISS in 2007, staying even longer – 191 days. After returning, Peggy became the first female Chief of the Astronaut Office.

Peggy’s third trip to space was a record-breaking trip. In April 2017, Peggy broke the record for the longest time in space of any American astronaut, with a cumulative total of 534 days in space. She recently returned to Earth on 3 September 2017, with a total time in space of 665 days.

Peggy also holds the records for the oldest woman in space (age 57), the first woman to command the International Space Station (and the first woman to command it twice), and record for most number of spacewalks by a female astronaut (10 as of May 2017).

This list is in no way exhaustive and only scratches the surface of the lives of the incredible women listed.

Many more women deserve a mention, including Henrietta Swan Levitt, Annie Jump Cannon, the Mercury 13 group, Valentina Tereshkova, the ‘Hidden Figures’ of NASA’s human computers, and of course Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut.

The concept that women can and have played an important role in our understanding of the universe should not be a strange one. A female hand in control of a telescope, a spacecraft, or even a TARDIS is a fine thing.

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Find out more about women pioneers in space in our Into Space gallery

About the author: Elspeth Lewis is a physics student at the University of Leicester and works as a Science Interpreter at the National Space Centre.