By Ewa Zwonarz:
‘What we think as impossible is something that hasn’t yet happened,’ said Loretta Whitesides, the Founding Astronaut at Virgin Galactic to an audience of over two hundred attendees who gathered at GSVLabs in Redwood City on the evening of March 29, 2016 to hear six women panelists share their perspectives.
The event was organized by DoubleX, an organization founded by Andy Cunningham of Cunningham Collective, with the mission to make gender in technology a non-issue. The audience included business leaders as well as high school students and retired space enthusiasts, all sharing the affinity for an industry that has stimulated innovation as well as imagination.
Tamaira Ross, Configuration Design Engineer at Blue Origins said that we are at a remarkable time in space development. ‘With the increased commercialization of space exploration opening to wider number of people, the issue remains: how can we make it less expensive and more available?’
For the teams at Planet Labs, getting to orbit more cheaply, has been on the forefront of thought. Erika Reinhardt, the Director of Product Engineering at Planet shared that there are lots of exciting things in progress – from commercialization, to designing renewable systems and components.
DIVERSITY & DESIGN
An important theme weaving through the discussions pointed at the fact that designing systems that work in space, can help us create solutions on our home planet. ‘Space teaches us how to solve really hard problems. If we can tackle them out there and succeed, we will be successful here on earth,’ said Tamaira. She added that it is important to consider technical diversity across genders and sizes if we are to accommodate millions of people who might one day soon find themselves working in space.
Dottie Metcalf-Lindenberger, a Retired Astronaut from NASA and one of only fifty-nine women to ever enter earth’s orbit, is no stranger to the importance of design. When using a bathroom during her 2010 mission on the space shuttle, she got nervous when things did not work with the necessary precision. ‘I was worried that things would…overflow,’ she said. ‘But thankfully I was the only one concerned. The others minds were focused on the right thing – the spacewalk.’
Dottie added that thanks to more women joining the space crew, accommodations in space have improved in the recent years. In fact, the latest class of NASA astronauts is half women! The diversity is crucial when working on space related projects, and that doesn’t only include gender.
Dr. Ioana Cozmuta, PhD, Microgravity Lead, Space Portal at NASA Ames Research Center said of her department, ‘We speak so many languages! Scientists begin with data and end with conclusions. Engineers do the reverse. Businessmen think of business first trying to find the fastest and leanest way to do something.’ She added that problems get solved when there is a balance of perspectives.
For Ali Guarneros Luna, Senior Engineer at NASA Ames Research Center balance comes from her regular interactions with people at Pottery Barn Kids, where she continues to work part time. ‘After spending much time in the company of scientists and engineers, it’s nice to connect with regular people,’ she said to the roaring audience.
Ali’s story of raising four children while working to put herself through school did not pass without an applause. In order to get her degree and begin working at NASA, she needed to create a strong support system. ‘I’d bring my kids to school with me sometimes. I’d sit in the back listening to the lecture while my child was with me.’
Ali shared that NASA was supportive of her occasionally bringing her children to work. ‘It was important to show them what I do so that they knew where I was when I was not with them.’ The message she waned to pass to her children was: ‘If I could do it, so can you! Nothing is impossible. All you need is the right mindset.’
According to Dr. Ioana, having kids has been a best growth experience ever. ‘I could not get a Ph.D. in child rearing. Not even a manual. I had to figure it out myself.’ The mother of two daughters believes that being the best parent means supporting her children in becoming who they want to become. ‘They should choose what makes them happy.’
Dr. Ioana added that Bay Area could greatly benefit from creating a better support system for young mothers. ‘Back in Romania I had a whole neighborhood to ask for help. It was like having an extended family,’ she said, adding that here in the US it can be a challenge for young mothers who do not want to take the time off to raise their children in order not to be judged for not working as hard as men.
Dottie shared that if she could go back in time, she would ask for more support. ‘I got pregnant while I was in the midst of my space training. Women in the office who had been through it offered cribs, clothes and lots of advice. But the training was hard and I was hesitant to ask for help, which I should’ve done. After hours of underwater training in a spacesuit, I’d go to a meeting room to debrief. By then, I was so full of milk it was painful. I should’ve taken a break to pump, but I didn’t. I suffered through it.’
Loretta offered another perspective on motherhood while working in space. Admitting to having type-A overachiever personality, she said her identity crashed when after taking time off to raise her two children, ‘mommy brain’ took over her normally sharp acumen. ‘My self-confidence really suffered. But I learned something really important as a result – that I am not my job title, I am not what I do, I am so much more than that!’
MORSELS OF ADVICE
‘Our world is not perfect, which is great because there are so many opportunities for everyone to step in and improve it,’ said Dr. Ioana when asked about what advice she’d give her 22-year-old self. ‘I’d tell myself to take life one day at a time, because a succession of happy days leads to a happy life.’
Dottie would encourage herself to re-read Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go and know that amongst the adventures and thrill, there will be moment of slump and waiting. ‘And those are ok! Because they are places we all must know before up, up again we go.’
Erika, the youngest of the panelists, said that ‘a whopping two years ago,’ she’d tell herself that we are where we are for a good reason. ‘If you find yourself doubting, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. We all have these moments. It’s what makes us normal.’
Ali would tell herself to be patient and enjoy life’s moments to the fullest. ‘I would tell myself not be so afraid and to learn from my mistakes. They made me who I am.’
Tamaira would save herself many frustrations having known that she can’t always control other people’s behavior or decisions. ‘Sometimes a dream we have has to wait because we lack the support. But we are always free to choose how we respond to a situation.’
Quoting Sting, Loretta’s advice is to always ‘be yourself no matter what they say.’ Looking back, she said, at all the moments of personal achievement, she finally realized that success is not something to be attained. Once a goal is attained, a mountain climbed, there is nothing to be found on top. ‘I’d be back to my normal self in a few days. True success is having no distance between who I am inside and who I am known for in the world,’ she said to the cheering audience.
Another thing working in space has taught Loretta more about living on earth. Knowing that somewhere out there we might not see a cloud spontaneously form or breathe the way we do here, this awareness makes her more present and grateful. ‘There are over 1,800 planets discovered. But not one is are like ours. This one is pretty awesome.’