Kathy Lueders had just sent two men into space on a private spacecraft — an extraordinary accomplishment nearly a decade in the making — when she received a call from the head of NASA this summer.
There was a sudden opening in the agency’s human spaceflight division, and she was being offered the top job. Lueders, a highly respected manager at NASA, had led a separate program to get astronauts onboard a commercial vehicle and to the International Space Station (ISS), ending a nine-year drought in crewed spaceflight from American soil. Now she was being offered the opportunity to lead the entire division — NASA’s most critical — at a time when public interest in space was again growing, when a mission to return to the moon was on the horizon.
But she didn’t say yes right away. More than anything in her career, Lueders wanted to fly. And she was finally in a role where she had the opportunity to do it.
She asked for more time to make a decision.
When she got off the call, her husband, Jeremy Horne, was aghast.
“What are you doing?” he said. “This isn’t about you. This is about the people after you.”
Horne had pointed to the piece of this appointment Lueders had initially missed: If she took the position — which she eventually did — she would be the first woman to ever lead human spaceflight at NASA.
Lueders’ ascension to the role signaled the latest shattering of yet another glass ceiling in an industry that has long been dominated by men. It was man who walked on the moon and men who led what was called “manned” spaceflight for decades, even after Sally Ride — the first American woman in space — rode the space shuttle in 1983.
But the perceptions about who gets to go to the cosmos — and who works to get them there — are shifting away from an orbit that centers around men.
The term “manned spaceflight” is already out of vogue — NASA’s official style guide calls it “piloted” or “human” spaceflight. NASA headquarters is getting a name change, too, after Mary Jackson, the first Black female engineer at NASA, who for many years was a “hidden figure” in the country’s moonshot.
A new program wants to return astronauts to the moon by 2024. Its name: Artemis, after the twin sister of Greek god Apollo, for whom the original program was named. The program aims to put the first woman on the lunar surface.
For that mission, space suits are being redesigned for the first time since the 1970s to accommodate all body types, after the first all-female spacewalk was thwarted last year due to a shortage of smaller suits.
And women are driving much of this innovation, not only as engineers, but as leaders.
When those two astronauts went to space this summer aboard the mission to the ISS, it was SpaceX’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, who helped get them there. SpaceX was competing with Boeing for that shot, a company whose space division has been led by Leanne Caret since 2016. Lockheed Martin, one of the largest aerospace and defense contractors in the world, is building the capsule that will take astronauts to the moon, much of that under the leadership of former CEO Marillyn Hewson, who this summer moved into a new position as executive chair of Lockheed’s board. And Northrop Grumman, which shuttles supplies to the International Space Station on its spacecraft, is now under a female CEO for the first time in its history since Kathy Warden was promoted to the top spot in 2019.
It’s a seismic cultural shift, said Lueders, 57, from the world in which she grew up, where there were few female role models working in aerospace. In fact, she only decided to study engineering after watching her roommate Robin work toward her mechanical engineering degree.
Lueders initially aspired to work on Wall Street, but she then decided to return to school to study engineering, even though she had a child in diapers and a toddler. She’d drive 2.5 hours each way to class at New Mexico State University to earn degrees in industrial engineering and systems engineering. And when she got a job at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico in the early 1990s, she was only the second woman to ever work in the propulsion lab. The woman before her only lasted one week on the job.
Now, the person leading that office is a woman.
Lueders, who was born in Japan and later went to high school in a small farming town in Iowa, said she approached engineering problems differently thanks to her lived experiences — and that gave her an edge.
“When you’re solving problems, having vast backgrounds and experiences is what gives you the best options and solutions and we need that innovation,” Lueders said. “It’s survival, right? If we don’t open our apertures and welcome all backgrounds’ input, we aren’t going to have the best solutions out there.”
To be sure, there is still work to be done. According to Aviation Week Network’s 2020 workforce report on the aerospace and defense industry, only about 19 percent of executives in engineering are female. The overall engineering workforce is 24 percent female, a figure that has remained flat for the past few years.
On racial diversity, aerospace’s record is even worse. Only 6 percent of the workforce is Black, 8 percent is Latinx and 11 percent is composed of Asian-Americans. That’s part of the reason why the recent appointment of astronaut Jeanette Epps to Boeing’s first operational mission to the ISS with its own spacecraft was so celebrated. Epps could become the first Black woman to live and work in space for an extended period of time.
Lueders, who only began her new role in July, already has a flight scheduled on NASA’s books. This one will carry the first woman on a commercial mission, astronaut Shannon Walker, as early as next month.
Her husband, Lueders said begrudgingly, was right.
“I hate to say that,” she said, laughing. But her decision to take the job was ultimately bigger than her.
In the days since her position was announced, messages poured in from all over the world. One arrived from a 9-year-old girl who said she hoped to be NASA administrator one day. No woman has yet held NASA’s highest post.
Lueders looked at the message and thought, “Yeah, you can, damn it. Yes, you can.”
When Lueders was growing up, she would be hard pressed to receive a similar message from a woman in the field.
The United States set its sights on the moon in the early 1960s, years before the second wave of the women’s movement, years before women joined the workforce in earnest, years before they were graduating from military academies or doctoral programs in substantial numbers. It was a time when the newspaper listed jobs for men and jobs for women in separate categories. The astronaut corps, the most visible part of the space agency, was all male.
But that didn’t mean women weren’t fit for life in space. A NASA testing program run by Dr. Randy Lovelace started testing female pilots for spaceflight in 1960, said Margaret Weitekamp, curator and chair of the Space History Department at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Weitekamp called Lovelace an innovator, but also a “product of his time.” His vision was that there would be a city in space, and women would be needed to fill roles as telephone operators, teachers and nurses.
The women who tested performed well, but the program was canceled in 1961 because the U.S. government wasn’t ultimately looking for female astronaut candidates.
“They worried about the public relations look of seeming to do something that might seem to put women at risk,” Weitekamp said. “Especially in that moment when they were really worried about spending, that might seem like they were frivolously spending government money examining women as potential astronauts in a way that would put the program in jeopardy.”
Instead, women found another way in, applying for jobs in aerospace by using first initials instead of their names. Many, like Mary Jackson, worked in computers, the “mathematical equivalent of the secretarial pool,” without the same promotional opportunities as men in the same positions, Weitekamp said.
Some extraordinary women like Poppy Northcutt, the first female engineer to work in NASA’s Mission Control, stood out, but it wasn’t really until the space shuttle era in the early 1980s that women’s participation started to grow.
“It really takes a generation or so for women to build on those changes, to have the kind of security of those changes being well in place, and then have the luxury of getting to come in as a woman doing the job where the issue was the job — not the fact that they’re a woman,” Weitekamp said.
Former NASA astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, who came up through the ranks in those early years, said she had largely positive experiences and felt supported by her male colleagues. Dunbar flew the space shuttle five times, beginning in 1985 — two years after Sally Ride became the first woman in space.
Now an aerospace engineering professor at Texas A&M University, Dunbar has mixed feelings about NASA committing to flying the first woman to the moon on the Artemis flights.
“That’s not something that Sally or I, or any of their original women in the first two classes wanted — to be put on a crew so that we could fill out some sort of gender quota, because it’s diminishing to not only us, but to our male peers,” Dunbar said. “There’s nothing more gratifying for a woman than to be picked as the most qualified.”
These days, Dunbar is focused on preparing astronauts for the upcoming missions to space by updating the design of suits. At Texas A&M, she runs a spacesuit design lab, working on solutions for custom designs.
That is one issue that hasn’t caught up with the strides the industry has made on diversity. It played out most starkly in 2019, when female astronaut Anne McClain was replaced with male astronaut Nick Hague ahead of a heavily publicized all-female spacewalk. The ISS didn’t have enough suits to fit both McClain and fellow female astronaut Christina Koch.
The suits they were wearing had not been redesigned in 40 years.
Funding was to blame, Dunbar said. In the Apollo years, each suit was custom designed to fit each astronaut, sewn together by female seamstresses at the International Latex Corporation, the same company that manufactured bras and girdles.
After the Apollo moon missions, NASA chose a less costly approach, building the suits in five sizes — extra-small to extra-large — in the late 1970s. But funding took a bite out of that, ultimately eliminating the smaller and largest sizes.
The limitations affected what female astronauts, who may not fit either through size or proportion into the remaining suit sizes, could do in space. If the suit didn’t fit, they could still conduct research or operate a robotic arm, but spacewalks were less likely.
“[Suits] would be kind of the last thing to be funded, and so we got the short end of the straw there, and the crews don’t like to complain,” Dunbar said, “So, they would try to accommodate as much as they could.”
For Artemis, a new generation of suits will be more customizable, allowing one suit to fit a wider range of people with different body types, NASA announced last year. In her lab, Dunbar is working toward what she believes is the best option: Returning to customized suits for each astronaut, but in a way that’s cost effective. Her vision is to be able to scan astronauts’ bodies to produce a suit that gives them more mobility and is tailored to their needs.
“You’re putting all this investment into getting to a place that’s far, far away, but most of your success depends on the humans there — it’s depending on performance,” Dunbar said. “That is worth the investment.”
Another key area of investment is the talent pool. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM) programs across the country have been working to recruit more women for years.
But the numbers aren’t budging much.
The issues begin at even the earliest education levels, where lack of exposure is still leading some students down more gendered channels, leaving women pursuing biomedical engineering, for example, instead of aerospace engineering. By college, the numbers look like this: In 2020, about 31 percent of the entire engineering student population was female — an improvement — but among the senior students, the female population was down to 23 percent, where it has largely remained for years.
Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and CEO of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, an industry trade group, said the problem remains that women are less likely to have access to female role models in the industry.
“That’s the thing that’s most important for girls,” Dittmar said. “You have to see people who look like you in order to know that these things are possible.”
Dittmar said that when she was in high school in the 1970s and showed an aptitude for science, she was encouraged to go into music or social work instead. Later, she was told to not pursue a doctorate degree, because if she did she would “never get married.”
“The message that was coming through loud and clear was: ‘Women don’t do the science stuff, women don’t do math,’” said Dittmar, who went on to get a doctorate in cognitive science and human factors.
That message is still strong, despite efforts toward inclusivity.
“We need to be asking ourselves: ‘Why isn’t the needle budging more?’” Dittmar said. “[Students] need a support system, they need people who are doing outreach.”
Still, things have improved, she said. Dittmar is no longer the only woman in the room at meetings. Long gone are the days when people would mistake her for a secretary. Today, NASA can have a program that puts women at the center of a mission named for a goddess.
The progress made thus far reminds Weitekamp, the historian, of Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to perform a spacewalk in 1984. Sullivan used to talk about preparing for the spacewalk in the pool inside a suit that didn’t fit her the way she would have liked.
“She thought that if she complained about the suit, they would be more likely to change astronauts than to change suits,” Weitekamp said.
Last year, NASA astronaut Anne McClain was also in a suit that didn’t quite fit. She had trained to wear a medium and a large, but when she performed a spacewalk with a male astronaut, she realized the medium fit her better — the same suit her female colleague planned to wear. There was only one medium on the ISS.
“To have NASA take the public black eye, walking back a much-touted, all-women spacewalk in order to really accommodate the safety of the astronauts,” Weitekamp said, “is in its own way, a demonstration of the real integration of women into the astronaut corps.
“She felt like she could ask for what she wanted, ask for what she needed, in order to do the job well.”