NASA
Women in Science
Hypatia

Mathematics, Astronomy

Hypatia

Hypatia (believed to be born around 350) was known as a great thinker in her age. She was one of the earliest women to be a noted astronomer, mathematician and philosopher in ancient Greece and Egypt. She was also a popular teacher and lecturer on philosophical topics of a less-specialist nature, attracting many loyal students and large audiences.

Hypatia’s father, Theon, was a mathematician and astronomer and it’s likely that he introduced Hypatia to much of what she originally learned in these subjects. She then went on to write important new works in areas such as geometry, number theory, and astronomy. Letters from one of her students, Synesius, indicate that these lessons included how to design an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomical calculator that would be used until the 19th century.

This period of the Roman Empire was one of conflict due to differences among religious sects (Christians, Jews, Pagans, etc.) and the realms of science and mathematics suffered along with other areas of intellectual interest. According to sources, Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob because of her beliefs. She remains an important and inspiring figure for being the world’s leading mathematician and astronomer in her time. More


Ada Lovelace

Mathematics, Technology

Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, usually referred to as ‘Ada Lovelace’, was born in London in 1815. Lovelace’s mother had a tumultuous relationship with her father, the famous poet Lord Byron. Her mother thought that rigorous studies in subjects like mathematics and science would focus her daughter and keep her from developing some of the personality traits of her father. Therefore, Lovelace had tutors who taught her challenging subjects that were not typically introduced to girls in her social circles during the 1800s.

Around the age of 17, she became introduced to the mathematics and inventor Charles Babbage and became fascinated with his work on an “engine” that could perform mathematical calculations. Babbage became a mentor to Lovelace, and she later continued and improved on his work for what would become the world’s first computer. Her work was published in 1843 in an English science journal. She used only the initials “A.A.L.,” for Augusta Ada Lovelace, in the publication. Though her work was not recognized during her lifetime, Lovelace is now considered the first computer programmer. More


Grace Hopper

Mathematics, Technology

Grace Hopper

Working as a Rear Admiral in the Navy and as a computer scientist, Grace Hopper was a leader in the nascent computer programming and software development fields. Born in 1906 in New York City, she went to Vassar College before becoming the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from Yale in mathematics in 1934. During World War II in 1943, Hopper obtained a leave of absence from Vassar and was sworn into the United States Navy Reserve, one of many women to volunteer to serve in that capacity.

After the war, Hopper remained in the naval reserves and went to Harvard before leaving for private industry to oversee programming for the UNIVAC computer. In 1952, her team created the first compiler for computer languages (a compiler renders worded instructions into code that can be read by computers). This compiler was a precursor for the Common Business Oriented Language, or COBOL, a widely adapted language that would be used around the world.

When she retired in 1986, at age 79, she was a rear admiral as well as the oldest serving officer in the service. In addition to her programming accomplishments, Hopper’s legacy includes encouraging young people to learn how to program. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women In Computing Conference is a technical conference that encourages women to become part of the world of computing, while the Association for Computing Machinery offers a Grace Murray Hopper Award. On November 22, 2016, Hopper was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. More


Melba Roy

Mathematics,Technology

Melba Roy Mouton

After graduating from Howard University in 1950 with a Master’s degree in mathematics, Melba Roy Mouton worked for the Army Map Service and Census Bureau before transferring to NASA in 1959. She headed a group of NASA mathematicians, known as “computers,” who tracked early Echo satellites in Earth orbit. Her computations helped produce the orbital element timetables by which millions saw the satellite from Earth as it passed overhead.

During her time at NASA, Mouton served as head of the Data Systems Division’s Advanced Orbital Programming Branch, Head of the Mission and Trajectory Analysis Division’s Program Systems Branch, and Assistant Chief of Research Programs, Trajectory and Geodynamics Division. She received an Exceptional Performance Award and NASA’s Apollo Achievement Award. She retired in 1973, and passed away in 1990, at the age of 61. More


Katherine Johnson

Mathematics,Technology

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson calculated space flight trajectories for critical NASA projects such as the 1969 Apollo 11 trip to the Moon. Johnson was known for her mathematical accuracy and was asked to double-check the computer-based calculations on major space flight missions. She made fundamental contributions to the United States’ aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA.

Prior to these impressive achievements, Johnson had already broken through many barriers. Born in West Virginia in 1918, Katherine Johnson’s intense curiosity and brilliance with numbers vaulted her ahead several grades in school. By thirteen, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. She was later handpicked to be one of three students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools and earned her Ph.D. in mathematics in 1937.

In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Katherine Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for. The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, DC, Cape Canaveral, and Bermuda. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite, and authored or coauthored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986, after 33 years at Langley. More


Eileen Collins

Science, Mathematics

Eileen Collins

For Eileen Collins, her journey toward the skies and beyond started in the public library of her hometown of Elmira, NY. As a young child and teenager, she consumed books of all types about flying, drawn to the airplanes and missions themselves as well as the engineering of aviation. When Collins was nine years old, she read an article in Junior Scholastic magazine that profiled the Gemini program and its astronauts.

When Eileen Collins joined the Air Force Reserve Office Training Corp (ROTC), women were not allowed to be pilots. Fortuitously, that changed in 1976 while Collins was working on her undergraduate degree in math and economics at Syracuse University. After spending over a decade at the Air Force, Collins was selected to the astronaut corps in 1990. She became the first female pilot of NASA’s Space Shuttle in 1995.

On July 23, 1999, Collins was the commander of the Space Shuttle Columbia as it blasted off from the launch pad carrying NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. This marked the first time a woman ever had led a Space Shuttle flight. Collins went on to be the commander of the “return to flight” mission in 2005, following the tragedy of losing the Space Shuttle Columbia and her astronauts on board in 2003. In 2006, Collins retired from NASA but continued to serve on its advisory council as well as serving as a board member and consultant for a host of companies and organizations. More


Cady Coleman

Science

Cady Coleman

For Cady Coleman, having interactions with teachers and colleagues throughout her academic career, as well as having an instilled “can do” attitude, was extremely important. She remembers a particular chemistry teacher from her high school in Virginia who had a passion for the subject and inspired Coleman to pursue it herself.

As an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Coleman attended a lecture by Sally Ride, the first woman in space, and was inspired. After pursuing graduate work in chemistry at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Coleman joined the NASA astronaut core in 1992. She flew her first mission into space in 1995, and on just her second flight, Coleman was selected to be the mission specialist on STS-93 in 1999 that deployed Chandra out of the Shuttle’s payload bay using its robotic arm.

Following STS-93, Coleman became the Chief of Robotics for NASA’s Astronaut Office and then returned to space in 2010 for a mission to the International Space Station. In total, Coleman has logged more than 4,330 hours in space aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia and the International Space Station. She left NASA in December 2016, but is still active in promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers for all. More


Annie Easley

Mathematics, Technology

Annie Easley

During her career, Annie Easley participated in the evolution from the “human computer” to computer programming at what today is NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio. Born in 1933 in racially segregated Birmingham, Alabama, she was fortunate to be encouraged by her mother to get a good education, ultimately graduating as valedictorian from Holy Family High School.

After high school Easley went to Xavier University in New Orleans, and then an African-American Roman Catholic University, where she majored in pharmacy for about two years. After moving to Cleveland with her husband, she was hired at what became NASA Lewis Research Center (which has subsequently been renamed the John H. Glenn Research Center). Easley continued her education while working for the agency and in 1977 she obtained a Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Cleveland State University.

Annie Easley’s 34-year career included work with the Centaur project which helped as technological foundations for the space shuttle launches and launches of communication, military and weather satellites. Her work contributed to the 1997 flight to Saturn of the Cassini probe, the launcher of which had the Centaur as its upper stage. She developed code used in researching energy-conversion systems, analyzing alternative power technology. Easley was a mentor and role model to many through her actions and successes. More


Vera Rubin

Science, Technology

Vera Rubin

In the 1970s, astrophysicist Vera Rubin discovered evidence that the Universe was made of more than what could be seen with telescopes — today known as "dark matter". Born in 1928, Vera was drawn to watching the stars at an early age. Her passion would lead her to become the sole astronomy major in her graduating class at Vassar in 1948. After Princeton denied her admittance to graduate school due to her being a woman — a policy that stood until 1975 — Rubin pursued her advanced training at Cornell and then Georgetown, where she completed a Ph.D. She was a life-long advocate for women in science and scientific literacy. More


May Jemison

Science, Technology

Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison is a physician, Peace Corps volunteer, teacher, astronaut, accomplished dancer, founder of two technology companies and speaks four languages. She attended Stanford University when she was just 16 years old, and earned her doctorate in medicine from Cornell University by the time she turned 25. In 1983 , she applied to the NASA program, after being inspired by Sally Ride, the first woman in space, and Nichelle Nichols, an actor in Star Trek. In 1992, Dr. Jemison flew into space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, becoming the first African-American woman in space. More


Mary Jackson

Mathematics, Engineering

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson was born in Hampton, Virginia in 1921. After graduating with highest honors from high school, she then continued her education at Hampton Institute, earning her Bachelor of Science degrees in mathematics and physical science.

After spending part of her early career as a teacher, she changed paths to become a “computer” (or mathematician) for the agency that would later become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Jackson worked on data from wind tunnel experiments as well as data from aircraft and aeronautics experiments. Through NASA, Jackson gained hands-on experience conducting experiments in the facility, and eventually suggested that she enter a training program that would allow her to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer.

Upset with the lack of opportunities for women in her field, Mary Jackson began her engineering career in an era in which female engineers of any background were a rarity; in the 1950s, she very well may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field. For nearly two decades she enjoyed a productive engineering career, authoring or co-authoring a dozen or so research reports, most focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes.

Jackson retired from the NASA Langley Research Center in 1985 after 34 years during which she received many awards and accolades. More


Liu Yang

Science, Technology

Liu Yang

On June 16, 2012, Liu Yang traveled aboard the Shenzou 9 mission that docked with the space module Tiangong 1, becoming the first Chinese woman in space. This historic trip happened 49 years to the day after Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova's pioneering flight into space for women. During her mission in space, Liu was in charge of the medical experiments. Born in 1978, Liu had an accomplished career as a pilot before becoming an astronaut in 2010. She graduated from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force College in Changchun and earned over 1,600 hours of flying experience, eventually achieving the rank of major.


Henrietta Leavitt

Science, Technology

Henrietta Leavitt

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Henrietta Swan Leavitt conducted research that led to two of the most surprising and important discoveries in the history of astrophysics. Leavitt performed meticulous analysis of pulsating stars called Cepheid variables. She used these observations to develop a powerful new tool for estimating the distances of stars and galaxies, a crucial advance for understanding the size and evolution of the Universe that astronomers of the day were struggling to accomplish. Astronomers still use her relationship – now generally called Leavitt’s Law – in cosmological research today.


Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Science

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

As a graduate student in 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her colleagues discovered unusual radio signals from space. These objects came to be known as “pulsars,” which are rapidly rotating, dense cores of dead stars created by supernova explosions. In 2018, Bell Burnell was awarded the Breakthrough Prize for her role in discovering pulsars discovery as well as for her scientific leadership in the past 50 years. She announced that she will donate a majority of the $3 million prize to fund students from underrepresented groups, including women and people of color, in physics. More


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