March 8th was International Women’s Day. When most people think of the history of space exploration, especially during its heyday in the 1960’s, men like John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin come to mind. Obviously, we know now that the old adage is true even when it comes to space: Behind every great man is a great woman.

Hidden Figures

Just this past January the movie Hidden Figures hit theaters telling the tale of the smart, dedicated, and brave women of NASA and its predecessor, NACA. Not only were these women working to make contributions in a man’s working world, these were African-American women who began this effort even before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus.

The story focuses on three particular women, although there were many others as well who were filling the role of “human computer”. Back in the 1940’s and 1950’s there were no computers as we know them now. There were not even calculators. This is how it worked: twenty four hours a day, seven days a week there were 3 shifts of “human computers” that did math by hand all day. Armed with a #2 pencil and a slide rule, they would plot graphs and complete equations. And at this time in history there were segregated groups where the African-American women would be clustered together to complete the work. There were also separate water fountains and restrooms. Pretty amazing when you think about it now, considering that the average smartphone in our pocket contains more computing power than all the computers combined that put the first man on the moon.

If you want to read more about these amazing women check out this book: Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA.

When it comes to actual space travel, there are 537 humans from Earth that have completed missions. Of those, only 60 have been women and 45 of those from the United States (Sally Ride was the first in 1983). These women were true pioneers in every sense of the word, and new ground continues to be broken by women in science and space today.
Shifting our focus half-way around the world to India, there is another revolution of women contributing to mankind’s quest for the great beyond in space. Gaining its independence from British rule in 1947, India was an upstart nation that did not have the resources to throw itself headlong into the great space race the way Russia, the United States, and other industrialized nations did at the time. India’s first moon mission would not come until 2006. Enter a young Indian girl living in Kollarta named Moumita Dutta who was only in 9th grade at the time. The daughter of academics, her parents placed a greater emphasis on education than the tradition of marriage. Space captured her imagination.

Fast forward to November 5th, 2013 and IRSO, India’s space organization, had scheduled the launch of their first interplanetary space mission to Mars. Here are some notable numbers to consider about this mission:

Cost of Maven, NASA’s Mars probe: $651,000,000
Cost of producing The Martian, starring Matt Damon: $108,000,000
Cost of IRSO’s Mars mission*: $74,000,000


*Pretty amazing when you consider that Matt Damon never left the surface of the Earth and that IRSO had to launch their mission within only 18 months so they could take advantage of the close proximity of the Earth to Mars.

Yes, young Moumita ended up working for IRSO as an engineer with expertise in sensors that could detect methane, which is crucial to life, on the surface of Mars. She worked tirelessly for almost two years leading up to the launch to make sure that her sensors would get the job done. Lucky for her Moumita did not have to sit and use a #2 pencil and a slide rule to complete all those essential calculations to ensure that everything would go as planned.

Today over 25% of scientists working at IRSO are women. Considering the fact that women make up 49.6% of the people on Earth, we still have a ways to go. The Astrophysicist who discovered dark matter, Vera Rubin, said it best:

“There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman. Worldwide, half of all brains are in women. We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women.”

Now I am not a scientist, but I am a woman who works in the Satellite industry (not to mention an unabashedly proud mother of a brilliant daughter) and this makes a lot of sense to me. There are many of our young girls and daughters out there that could be the next Moumita Dutta or Sally Ride.