“More women should demand to be involved”

Astronauts N. Jan Davis and Mae C. Jemison.  
In the early days of space flight the U.S. Air Force defined an astronaut as any person who had flown past an altitude of 50 miles above sea level. International governing bodies such as the Federation Aeronautique Internationale went a little higher, placing the dividing line between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space as 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles up, what came to be known as the “Karman Line,” named for Hungarian scientist Theodore von Karman.

Wherever it is physically located, it was definitely the highest-altitude glass ceiling in 1983 when Sally Ride broke through it aboard the space shuttle Challenger and became the first American woman in space. She followed Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova (1963) and Svetlana Savitskaya (1982).

Since that history-making flight, numerous other American women have flown in space, and they have been joined on space shuttles and on the International Space Station by women from around the world. Thus far, at least four of the American women who have followed Sally Ride into the vastness of space have come from the prairies of Illinois.

Born in Alabama the year before Sputnik first orbited the Earth, Mae Jemison moved with her family to Chicago at the age of 3. Like many American children in the 1960s she was highly interested in space, frequently studying astronomy books in her school’s library. Jemison was an honor student at Chicago’s Morgan Park High School, and upon her graduation in 1973 she went to Stanford where she graduated with a degree in chemical engineering. From Stanford she went to Cornell University Medical College where she earned her M.D.

She practiced medicine in California and also with the Peace Corps in West Africa in the early 1980s, but she never lost that early interest in space. After her time in the Peace Corps, she applied with NASA to be part of the astronaut training program. The program was reeling from the Challenger disaster of January 1986, but Jemison was undeterred, and in 1988 she became the first African-American woman to become a NASA astronaut (the first African-American astronaut was another Illinoisan: Chicago-born Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., who graduated from Bradley University in Peoria in 1956).

Certified as a science mission specialist, Jemison began training for her mission, STS-47, the eight-day flight of the shuttle Endeavour in September 1992. When the shuttle lifted off from Cape Canaveral on September 12, Jemison was the first African-American woman in space. She studied the effects of weightlessness and conducted more than 40 different material science and life science research experiments as part of the mission. In all she spent just over 190 hours in space.

She retired from NASA in 1993 and received a Montgomery Fellowship at Dartmouth College. She also worked to fight malnutrition in children. She went on to start her own advanced technology marketing firm. Jemison continued to advance our knowledge of science and medicine through her work with the American Medical Association and the American Chemical Society.

“More women should demand to be involved,” Jemison said. “It’s our right. This is one area where we can get in on the ground floor and possibly help to direct where space exploration will go in the future.”

Catherine "Cady" Coleman, Susan L. Still, and Janice Voss. 
Rockford native Janice Voss was the second Illinois woman to fly into space, and she did it five times over the course of her NASA career. She attended elementary school in Rockford and in 1975 got her engineering science degree from Purdue, known as the “cradle of astronauts.” Voss earned her doctorate in aeronautics/astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1987.

Voss became an astronaut in 1991 and flew her first mission in 1993, which was also the first shuttle flight after Jemison returned to Earth. Her ties to NASA went back to the early 1970s when she worked on computer simulations in the space agency’s engineering and development directorate. She was a crew trainer in the late 70s and helped develop the Mars Observer in the early 90s.

Assigned as a mission specialist, Voss flew on five space missions between 1993 and 2000, traveling 18.8 million miles and orbiting the Earth a total of 779 times. One of her most notable flights was STS-63 in February 1995, which was the first space shuttle rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir, an important precursor to the International Space Station (ISS).

Retired from space flight, Voss remained active with NASA, serving as science director for the Kepler Space Observatory which searched other solar systems for planets similar to Earth. Her work with Kepler was especially noteworthy as it coincided with the period of time during which NASA space flights were grounded after the crash of the shuttle Columbia in 2003.

Voss died in 2012, but her legacy is remembered in her hometown of Rockford. She was a supporter of Rockford’s Discovery Center Museum and was a frequent visitor and presenter there. An exhibit at the museum includes one of her space suits, video she shot in space as she describes the on-board experiments, and an Illinois state flag which she took aboard the shuttle.

“Her boundless enthusiasm for getting as much research done was contagious, especially welcome in the challenging time after Columbia,” said ISS payloads office manager John Uri. “Her experiences from flying science missions as an astronaut were invaluable in optimizing the onboard research.”

Sunita L. Williams and Joan E. Higginbotham
Following in Jemison’s footsteps was the third African-American woman to fly in space, Joan Higginbotham, who was born and raised in Chicago and attended Whitney Young Magnet High School in the city. She holds a degree from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and also got two masters degrees from the Florida Institute of Technology. Higginbotham joined the Astronaut Corps in 1996.

Higginbotham’s path to the launch pad was a long one. In the nine years before she became an astronaut herself, she worked at NASA as an engineer and a manager, participating on the support team for 53 different shuttle launches. Her turn finally came in December 2006 aboard Discovery on mission STS-116 to the ISS. Higginbotham was a mission specialist on STS-116, which helped in the construction of the ISS by installing a truss section and re-wiring the station’s power system. She operated the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) during the mission, which included 308 hours of space flight.

The mission was a success. As part of Higginbotham’s assignment, she had to maneuver the SSRMS just inches away from the structure of the ISS while hurtling through space. She knew the exacting standards required for complex maneuvers in space were an important part of expanding our horizons.

“When we go back to the moon and on to Mars, I don’t think those operations are going to be any less complex than the ones that we are doing now, so it’s essential for us to master these skills now for us to continue with our exploration,” she said.

Higginbotham was scheduled to be part of the crew of STS-126 in 2008, but she left NASA for an opportunity in the private sector. Chicago’s Adler Planetarium honored her in 2007 with its Women in Space Science Award.

The space shuttle made its last flight in July 2011, with Belleville-born astronaut Sandra Magnus aboard as a mission specialist. Magnus was making the third space flight of a career that included a 133-day stay aboard the ISS over the winter of 2008-2009. On the last shuttle flight, aboard Atlantis, Magnus was the mission specialist charged with overseeing the transfer of more than 11,000 pounds of supplies to the ISS, an especially challenging task in the weightlessness of space where extra effort is required to get large mass objects moving and then stopped.

Sandra H. Magnus simulates a parachute drop into water. 
Magnus earned a degree in electrical engineering from the Missouri University of Science and Technology and a Ph.D. in materials science from Georgia Tech. She worked with McDonnell-Douglas aviation in the late 1980s on a new stealth aircraft for the Navy before joining NASA in 1996.

Her flight to the ISS in 2011 was actually a return trip, as she had been part of the crew which helped construct the station in 2002, also aboard Atlantis, as well as another mission during which installed a truss section on the ISS. That mission required three spacewalks while Magnus worked the robotic arm on the shuttle.

Magnus’ NASA career also included some noteworthy missions on Earth. In January 2006 she worked with two other astronauts on an intensive two-day survival training mission in Russia meant to simulate the kind of conditions astronauts might find themselves in should a descent module from the ISS make an emergency landing in an uninhabited area of Earth. She also was involved in the NEEMO-11 mission not to space, but to the depths of the ocean where astronauts trained underwater off the Florida coast in conditions remarkably similar to the zero-gravity conditions of space.

Her time with the Astronaut Corps over in 2012, Magnus moved into an administrative role and then took a position as the Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. When Ride passed away in 2012, Magnus was one of the NASA astronauts who participated in her memorial service at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Women in space flight were back in the news just last fall when American astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch conducted the first ever all-female spacewalk, a seven hour mission to replace a power controller on the ISS. Their work was aided by Naperville engineer Dawn Schaible, a graduate of Waubonsie Valley High School and Peoria’s Bradley University, and a NASA engineer for more than 30 years.

Dawn Schaible
Schiable was part of the team which built the living quarters for the two astronauts on the ISS. She first went to work at NASA in 1987 designing systems for the space shuttle which would help astronauts live in space during their missions. Her work touched on essential life support functions such as temperature and supplying drinking water and breathable oxygen to astronauts. She was the lead test engineer during the 1990s on American-designed components of the ISS, including the Destiny research laboratory.

She recalled watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon when she was a young child. Looking back over her distinguished career with NASA, she credits her mother and her teachers with encouraging her interest in math and science.

“It’s a dream come true,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “That’s the thrill of going into STEM: making what is impossible possible. That is what drove me into that field.”