Breaking Barriers: Women in Space

Astronaut Janet Kavandi has spent 33 days, 20 hours and eight minutes in space, and one hour discussing that experience at the Experimental Aviation Association’s (EAA) AirVenture. On Thursday, July 17, Kavandi spoke on AirVenture’s five-pronged panel “Women in Space: Redefining Glamour.”

She was joined by four other women dedicated to space and aeronautics, including Sandy Coleman, the staff vice president of NASA Programs for Orbital ATK. “Being smart and reaching for your dreams is really glamorous,” Coleman said. “‘Glamour’ means more today than maybe it did years ago, at least to us who are in the space industry.”

Immersed in the space industry since before the Marshall Space Flight Center was established, Coleman wore the NASA “meatball” logo for 40 years. Today, she works hand-in-hand with the agency at Orbital ATK’s aerospace manufacturing and defense company. Not too long ago, however, she was the first woman in the firing room to give a space shuttle’s final “go for launch.”

Yet Coleman never felt out of place as often the sole woman on the job. “NASA gave me every opportunity,” she said. “When you’re in those jobs, I don’t think people look at you as a woman. I think you kind of transcend all of that and become somebody that’s enabling the program.”

There were a lot of “firsts” for Coleman. First woman given a sabbatical at the Marshall Space Flight Center, first female Project Control Chief in the Shuttle Program Office, first woman Deputy Project Manager. Milestones like these paved the way toward acceptance, smoothed by the knowledge that she worked just as hard as anyone else to be there.

As the thirty-fifth woman in space, Kavandi shot through the glass ceiling with this same knowledge. One of just 23 astronauts in NASA’s Group 15, she was scrupulously screened for qualifications. She didn’t get the first job she applied for out of college, but that obstacle led her to the Kennedy Space Center. “Thank God for those unanswered prayers, sometimes, because you think you know what you want and you think you have your life planned out and this is the way to go,” she said. “It actually sometimes works out better that you’re disappointed with your first choice, because the second path or the third path is the one that leads you to the best position in life.”

Spectators gather outside of AirVenture 2017's Forums at Aviation Gateway Park, anticipating the panel to come.

Spectators gather outside of AirVenture 2017’s Forums at Aviation Gateway Park, anticipating the panel to come.

Perhaps the most breathtaking position of her life, if not the best one, revealed a new vantage point – literally. 208 miles up, perspective shifted away from everyday problems to the global future.

“As you pass over Europe especially, you can really see the outline of Europe and all the major cities and you think that, ‘I can see London and Paris and Rome,’ and think of all the history that you’re looking at as you pass over those beautiful cities at night,” Kavandi said. “It just gives you a whole different perspective of what it’s like to be human on the planet, and how fragile the planet is.”

There are a lot of bad hair days as an astronaut, Kavandi jokes. She wouldn’t refer to her profession as “glamorous” — instead it’s an adventurous career that refocuses the age-old allure of space onto pressing climate concerns. For Lockheed Martin Supplier Relations Manager Michelle Butzke, the “glamour” of space lies in sharing its story.

Women, she says, play a distinctive role in its narrative. “We care, we’re passionate, and we’re team builders by nature,” she said. “Sometimes the mechanical engineer can’t see beyond the mechanical engineers – we need those communicators and women leaders to help bring everybody together.”

Butzke found herself on stage surrounded by women in STEM fields, women with backgrounds nothing like her communications major. But “to work for NASA,” she says, “you don’t have to work for NASA.” Not in the typical sense. Numbers weren’t for her growing up, but her love of space persisted.

“I don’t know how young I was when my mom first took me to a planetarium,” she said. “But she reminds me quite often of the day that the kindergarten teacher sent a note home that said, ‘Dear Ms. Brightheart, I think you might find it amusing to know that while the other children are looking at picture books, Michelle is in the science room, studying star charts.”

From left to right, Michelle Butzke, Tracy Michael, Shyla Quinn, Dr. Janet Kavandi, and Sandy Coleman fill the panel to discuss their work and their worlds.

From left to right, Michelle Butzke, Tracy Michael, Shyla Quinn, Dr. Janet Kavandi, and Sandy Coleman fill the panel to discuss their work and their worlds.

Before she knew her ABC’s and 123’s, Butzke could find the North circumpolar constellations: space runs through these women’s veins. For Orbital ATK Project Engineer Shyla Quinn, that lifeblood pushed her to become the first engineer in her family, and the first college grad.

“We didn’t really have STEM when I was growing up, but it’s really becoming very popular,” she said. “I was one of three girls that graduated out of 506 engineers, when I graduated. I’ve usually been the only female in my coworker groups, and I can say for the last probably 5+ years, we’ve been getting more women and they are just so amazing.”

In those last five or more years, she says, the concept of women in STEM has become more acceptable, but females in the industry should come to terms with the idea that they’re “going to have to work five times harder, ten times harder.”

“Like most successful women, I’m very driven, I’ve always been goal-oriented: go, go go, and I wanted to have a family,” Quinn said. “Staying home for five years with my children was the hardest struggle I ever had. I missed being with my engineers, the team, the mental stimulation.”

Even for a rocket scientist (or a rocket booster development/testing scientist), sometimes the hardest challenges are more emotional than intellectual or professional. For Quinn, that meant returning to work on the Orion spacecraft. For Senior Contracts Manager Tracy Michael, it means making time for self care even in such an intense field.

Michael works for Boeing, where she attended a Women in Leadership panel. There, a Boeing division president shared a message that floored her. “She said, ‘As women, there are times we will always feel like we’re not enough. We’re not good enough, we’re not doing enough, we haven’t done enough. Those are the voices in our head; that is not our truth.’” Michael said. “I was like, ‘Thank you for being so raw and so honest; I needed to hear that.’”

Success for these women means pinpointing a passion and following through with it. One giant leap for woman, however, can’t be made without that first, resilient step.

This holds true for Kavandi’s advice on astronaut applications, and for the panel’s advice on women in space, STEM and beyond. “Keep working at it, and maybe, just maybe, you might be lucky enough to be selected,” said Kavandi. “If you don’t play, you can’t win.”

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