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For every person and vehicle that NASA has launched beyond Earth’s atmosphere, there have been numerous women on the ground who made those journeys possible. Women of Asian descent are among them, some of whom made remarkable journeys themselves from across the globe to come to support these important missions. Their numbers at NASA continue to grow at an inspiring pace, doubling from 1992 to 2015. The following women are just a fraction of the Asian Americans whose remarkable work continues to impact the investigation of worlds beyond our own.
The story of an Indian-born woman becoming an American astronaut is an incredible one, and Chawla’s tragic death on February 1, 2003, when Space Shuttle Columbia exploded during re-entry, killing all seven crew members, is also a reminder of the dangers each person willing to make the journey faces. Her life was one marked by numerous accomplishments: multiple pilot licenses; degrees from Punjab Engineering College, University of Texas, and University of Colorado; and many important research and development contributions. She credited her father for supporting her love of aviation at an early age.
It was in December 1994 that she was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA, and after serving in different roles on the ground, including testing software for space shuttle control, by November 1997, Chawla was on the Space Shuttle Columbia headed for a 16-day mission. One of her jobs was to operate the shuttle’s robotic arm. According to NASA, the total time she spent in space, over the course of the two missions, was 30 days, 14 hours and 54 minutes.
After returning from her first mission, Chawla was asked by India Today how she felt about becoming the first Indian woman in space: “I never truly thought of being the first or second someone. Or being a small-town girl. This is just something I wanted to do,” she told the reporter. “It was very important for me to enjoy it. If you want to do something, what does it matter where you are ranked? Nor does being a woman make a difference.”
Project Manager for the Mars Helicopter
Burmese-born Aung is very familiar with uncharted territory. She tackles it as part of her job: overseeing the building of a helicopter to fly on another planet. “What I find most rewarding and challenging about the work I do is the chance to develop never-been-done-before autonomous systems for space exploration,” she shared by email. The miniature 4-pound, solar-powered Mars Helicopter is designed to fly for up to 90 seconds and is scheduled to travel with the Mars 2020 rover. And when it attempts to fly on the Red Planet in 2021 (and hopefully succeeds) it will solidify her place in the history books.
Being a trailblazer is very much in Aung’s blood: her mother was the first woman in Myanmar to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics and the first woman from Myanmar to receive a Ph.D. from the United States. Her inherited love for mathematics led her to engineering and a desire to explore space. Landing an interview at JPL in 1990 was a dream for Aung because it’s “the place for first-of-a-kind missions — missions that nobody has done before — to get the kinds of science that we’ve never gotten,” she shared in an interview on its site. “I remember telling one of the interview managers, ‘I can do this, I could do that …’ And he made a comment saying, ‘Gee, you’re like a kid in a candy store.’” Now at JPL for three decades, that feeling has not subsided for Aung, but perhaps even heightened as she awaits the launch of Mars 2020 rover next summer.
Research Atmospheric Scientist
Climate and Radiation Branch, Earth Science Division
As an atmospheric scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, Gong uses satellite data to study frozen precipitation (such as ice clouds, hail, and snow) in the atmosphere. “Part of my work is to understand where and when these frozen particles in the air will fall to the ground,” Gong said in a 2018 NASA interview. Originally from southern China, she was inspired by the work of her scientist uncle who studied air and water pollution.
After getting her Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences from State University of New York at Stonybrook, her advisors brought her to Goddard. One of them was Dong L. Wu, who researches remote sensing of clouds from space at Goddard and continues to be her mentor and supervisor. Together, they wrote a paper presenting a new approach to calculating atmospheric ice orientation that was honored with the 2017 Goddard Earth Science Division Best Senior Author Publication award.
Her advice to those who wish to follow in her footsteps? “I really think a scientist needs to be open-minded and not just focused on his or her own specialty,” she said. “If not, you will run out of ideas one day.”
Pooja Joshi Jesrani
An alumna of University of Texas at Austin’s Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics program, Jesrani was born in England and immigrated to the U.S. as a child. She is the first female South Asian to serve as flight director and is currently the only minority female in the role. Only 14 women have ever held this position, according to Jesrani, which is significantly fewer than even the total number of women who have traveled to space. (59 have.)
“Both the most rewarding and challenging thing about being a flight director at NASA is working with the massive team that supports the International Space Station,” Jesrani shared. “The Mission Control Center is just the tip of the iceberg. With our 15 international partners and all the engineering and support teams back in their offices, we are a team of thousands. While there are many stakeholders, crew safety, vehicle safety and mission success are our primary objectives. As challenging as it is sometimes to come to a consensus, the greater achievement of flying astronauts to the space station and completing critical science and maintenance over the last 20 years is something to be proud of!”
Mamta Patel Nagaraja
Science Program Manager, Science Engagement and Partnerships Division
NASA Science Mission Directorate
Hailing from the town of San Angelo, Texas, Patel started her career at NASA in 2001 as a cooperative education student and went on to serve in many roles all over the country in the organization: flight controller and astronaut instructor at Johnson Space Center in Houston, space policy analyst and Women@NASA project manager at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and instrument operations and lead mechanical engineer at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
“I believe in the power of knowledge, of discovering, of exploring,” Patel said, whose passion for space developed as a child. Back then she may not have noticed glass ceilings being shattered, but now she can look around and see that women, including herself, are playing considerable roles within the organization, including as leaders. Patel is proud to have supported two science missions (including LADEE- Lunar Atmosphere Dust and Environment Explorer), trained astronauts for the Space Shuttle and International Space Station, and shared her journey in a TEDx talk. “It gives me hope and confidence to see the many women, some who even look like me, in positions to further NASA’s mission considerably. I do think we have much work to do in STEM fields, but progress is evident.”
The fact that Patel has been at NASA for almost two decades is a clear indicator that she loves her work. The organization also strives to bring different perspectives into the fold: “There are many leaders in this wonderful agency who yearn to diversify the table, so to speak,” she said. ”They value diverse opinions, and more than that, they understand that diverse teams mean diverse ways of tackling the toughest of problems, which ultimately yields the best solution.”
“Spacecraft Dressmaker,” Flight Technicians Service
The self-described “spacecraft dressmaker” at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena was born in Vietnam. When her family settled in Los Angeles in the late ’70s, she found a job making lingerie. Little did she know that her sewing skills and night classes in soldering and cabling at a trade school would lead her to support missions to Mars. That cabling skill alone landed her a job working on terrestrial vehicles and space satellites.
It was in in 2000, with a friend’s encouragement, that she applied for a job at JPL working with protective thermal blankets. Fast-forward almost two decades later, and she is still at it, designing and producing an important component in spacecraft assembly. “A thermal blanket has to provide just the right amount of heat — not too much and not too little — for the spacecraft to operate correctly,” Pham shared in a 2016 interview. And creating them is no small feat, involving various layers of material, including Mylar and Kapton film, Dacron netting, Teflon, and Beta cloth, each serving a specific function. She added that a career at JPL is not out of reach; her journey is proof of this. “It’s never too late to learn and take classes. There are a lot of people at JPL who didn’t start in science or engineering, but almost all of them have the drive to learn new skills or search for training.”
Systems Engineer and Head of the Advanced Engineering Development Branch
Born in the U.S. and educated in the Philippines through college, Santiago-Bond started at NASA as a graduate intern at John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida in 2004. Since then she has been involved in space-shuttle and ground-system operations and the development of new technologies there, as well as working on the LADEE lunar missions at Ames Research Center and Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction (RESOLVE) at KSC.
Santiago-Bond actually created the branch she now heads — consisting of more than 20 engineers and three interns.“The most challenging aspect of my job as a supervisor is discerning what drives my individual employees to become more engaged, and make adjustments in my behaviors to facilitate this,” she shared via email, noting that seeing them thrive professionally and personally is the reward. “The icing on the cake is receiving the gift of their feedback, which in itself is a great indicator of employee engagement.” And Santiago-Bond is grateful for NASA for being just as receptive to hers over the years. “I always feel that I am valued,” she told Asian Journal in a recent interview, “not only for my engineering and leadership skills but also as an Asian American and as a Filipina American, who brings a unique set of experiences and ideas to the table every day.”
Senior Research Materials Engineer
Materials that can heal themselves and humans are not just science fiction. Siochi is hard at work using nanotechnology to develop durable, self-healing lightweight material for space vessels, and is one of the inventors of polyvinylidene fluoride, a kind of polymer gauze that aids in healing human flesh when electrically charged. “As a researcher working on emerging materials technologies, it is most rewarding to participate in discovery of new materials and understanding how they can be used to overcome challenges that NASA has in its aeronautics, space exploration, and science missions,” shared Siochi, who was born and raised in the Philippines, before moving to the U.S. for graduate school. “Work is never boring, because I’m always learning new things and growing as a person, as I work with other researchers from the many disciplines needed for NASA to carry out its mission.”
She joined Langley Research Center in 1990 and one of her other projects included creating and testing numerous nonstick wing coatings to prevent insect residue and increase fuel efficiency. “What is challenging in the work that I do is that we are generally tackling problems with no easy answers,” she added, “but that is also what is most rewarding because gaining knowledge helps enable new capabilities and understanding of this wonderful world that we live in.”
Top Image: Astronaut Kalpana Chawla, STS-107 mission specialist, prepares to simulate a parachute drop into water during an emergency bailout training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. | Flickr/NASA Johnson/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0)