Making Space for Women: Stories from Trailblazing Women at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

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Making Space for Women: Stories from Trailblazing Women at NASA’s Johnson Space Center edited by Jennifer M. Ross-Nazzal. Texas A&M University Press, 2022, 464 pp.

In Making Space for Women, editor Jennifer Ross-Nazzal shares the stories of 21 women who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Johnson Space Center (JSC). In this unique book, she includes women with diverse backgrounds, education, training, and life experiences.

These women joined NASA through various avenues and worked in a wide variety of jobs, some as early as the pre-NASA days at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, which was dissolved in 1958. It was a challenging time for women: at the end of the Apollo era, women made up about 18 percent of NASA’s workforce, compared to the government-wide average of 34 percent. Change began in the early 1970s, thanks to both official programs and the efforts of individual leaders and managers. The most visible change came in 1976 when the first female astronauts were selected.

The essays are all well written and informative. The reader learns about not only NASA’s organization and the individual jobs, but even some technical material, which is explained in clear terms. I have followed the space program for over 50 years and still learned new facts about topics such as ensuring a clean separation of the solid rocket boosters from the shuttle.

The author starts with the oft-overlooked administrative support personnel. Estella Hernandez Gillette, who became a NASA secretary in 1964, took on increasingly interesting tasks, like supporting the initial astronaut selection process in the early 1970s. After the 1986 Challenger accident, which resulted in the deaths of all seven astronauts aboard, she helped the casualty assistance program. Gillette stayed in flight-related positions until after the 1988 Space Shuttle STS-26 return-to-flight mission. The long career of another secretary, Jamye Flowers Coplin, included the unique task of driving between Houston and Florida to trade in the astronauts’ Corvettes.

Ross-Nazzal also features mathematicians and engineers, including those who joined as “human computers.” Dottie Lee served as one a decade before NASA was created, staying with the agency for 40 years. As her technical expertise improved, she joined the Apollo program and then the shuttle design effort, improving the laminar flow over the orbiter and working out the mix of carbon-carbon and tiles in the shielding. Mathematician/engineer Ivy F. Hooks worked on cost modeling and then aerodynamics, contributing to the Space Shuttle separation system. Of one design she bluntly told her boss that it would destroy the orbiter, and changes were made.

Ginger Kerrick was the first non-astronaut to be a capsule communicator, and then, in 2005, a flight director. Experienced with Russian hardware, she recognized before anyone else that an unretracted antenna on a Progress resupply vehicle would impact the International Space Station (ISS). The Russians ignored her advice, and it took two extravehicular activities (EVA) to undo the damage. Sarah L. Murray, the first Black woman flight controller, reorganized mission operations and became the second head of the Columbia recovery office following that shuttle’s destruction in February 2003.

S. Jean Alexander and Sharon Caples McDougal, the first two female spacesuit technicians, share much about the testing, improvements, and fitting of the various shuttle items, including tweaking equipment built for men. On the medical side, legendary nurse Dee O’Hara served as medical support and confidante to astronauts from Mercury to the shuttle. Vickie L. Kloeris, beginning in 1985, designed and ran the food service operation, developing recipes from scratch to lower salt—which raises intracranial blood pressure in microgravity—and provide proper nutrients needed for long ISS missions.

Anne L. Accola came in as a mission planner in 1967, left to do graduate studies in information technology, and returned to be a trainer and prepare astronauts for Skylab, the first US space station. Another trainer, Lisa Reed, joined in 1987, teaching shuttle and station astronauts and serving as Columbia accident investigation board staff. She became fluent in Russian and enjoyed explaining to visiting cosmonauts the critically important Texan word “Howdy.” 

Kathryn Sullivan—a scientific triple-threat as an oceanographer, geologist, and astronaut—admitted she would have liked to have been the first American woman in space, but believed she was not telegenic enough. In 1984, she performed the first EVA by an American woman, and in 1990, she flew on STS-31 to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope. After NASA, she became administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Engineer/astronaut Joan Higginbotham’s most memorable mission was STS-116 in December 2006 as the Space Station Remote Manipulator System operator. The third Black woman in space, Higginbotham describes the intense moments of maneuvering a gigantic truss out of the bay and into position on the ISS. Interestingly, the only tension at NASA she discusses was not over gender or race but between old and new astronauts.

Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot a shuttle and the first to command a mission, came to JSC from the Air Force, where she was a pilot at a time when people still stared at any woman in a flight suit. In 1995, on STS-63, she became the first pilot to fly a Shuttle-Mir mission. She commanded STS-114, the first post-Columbia return-to-flight mission in 2005. She details flying the new rendezvous pitch maneuver to allow visual inspection of the shuttle underbody by ISS astronauts, closing with advice on the need to admit mistakes and fix them, no matter one’s role.

Pam Melroy, another military pilot, discusses management styles and how hers differs from the classic military “tough-guy” approach. She notes that astronauts are competitive and smart but more varied in leadership style than people might expect. For her, the 2007 complex multi-EVA station construction mission, STS-120, became harrowing when JSC planned a potentially dangerous spacewalk for Scott Parazynski to fix a damaged solar array. She closes with the understatement that she could not have topped that flight.

Most senior managers at JSC are now women—a truly striking change. Debra L. Johnson joined at a low level and worked her way up to senior management, which the women referred to as “getting the key to the men’s room.” As head of the procurement office, she pushed hard for flexibility beyond the standard mentality of securing bids. She proudly holds up JSC management practices as a model for NASA.

Natalie Saiz performed numerous human resources roles until she became director. Some of her interesting stories include opening up JSC buildings to help the community after Hurricane Ike in 2008 and dealing with the April 2007 incident when an employee killed his supervisor and then himself. She managed JSC’s workforce through the end of the shuttle era in 2011 and led the effort to help people find new jobs.

Peggy Whitson, who logged a record 675 days in space, became the first woman and first civilian to head the astronaut office, where she had to continually justify everything from the length of crew training to the T-38 aircraft to the office’s continuing existence. She handled the emergency in January 2011 when astronaut Mark Kelly’s wife was shot, including extensive discussions on whether Kelly should fly his planned shuttle mission.

Astronaut Ellen Ochoa, a veteran of four shuttle flights, became head of the flight crew operations directorate in 2007. She ensured that new astronauts received adequate flight time while maximizing the skills of veteran astronauts. This was challenging because their lives revolve around flight opportunities, and securing one could become extremely competitive. A close friend of Rick Husband, who died on Columbia, Ochoa spent long weeks coordinating fieldwork while simultaneously rewriting her plans for budgets and flight crews due to the post-incident stand-down.

At the top of the management pyramid is Carolyn L. Huntoon, who became JSC’s first female center director in 1994 despite being a life scientist, not an engineer. She reorganized the entire center, clarifying lines of responsibility and streamlining processes. She created the technology and transfer commercialization office, improved partnerships with industry, and headed the creation of the space biomedical office and Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, an astronaut training facility and neutral buoyancy pool.

While these women rarely heard blunt remarks about their ability to do their job, they did hear comments about them leaving NASA because of marriage or pregnancy. JSC, which employed thousands, had no childcare center until 1990. There were improper wisecracks, taped-up Playboy centerfolds, and pranks. While few women mention outright sexism in this book, all felt that the spotlight was on them. Nevertheless, they worked conscientiously to be examples for other women and to show male NASA leaders what women could do.

Making Space for Women offers much information on both the personal and professional lives of these women and the technology they developed and used. This book is a major contribution not only to the history of American women but also to the history of human spaceflight.

Matt Bille

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."