BY MICHELLE SPITZER • FLORIDA TODAY • April 7, 2010
It’s a history-making day for women.
With the planned docking early this morning of space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station, four women will become residents of the orbiting outpost. That’s the largest number of women in orbit ever.
“Women have come a long way and we have worked really hard to do any of the jobs related to space flight,” shuttle astronaut Stephanie Wilson said. “I hope that part of our legacy is that we continue to inspire young women to pursue careers in science, engineering or math.”
Also arriving aboard Discovery are American astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger and Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki. Already onboard the ISS: American astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who arrived there Sunday via a Russian Soyuz rocket.
Yamazaki and Metcalf-Lindenburger, first-time fliers, are the 53rd and 54th women to fly in space.
This is the third mission for Wilson, who said more women need to apply to become astronauts.
“I was involved with the selection of this latest class, and saw that in the numbers of applicants, we still have a lot to do to encourage young women and women of color to apply for these types of jobs,” she said. “The numbers in the applicants were just not there. So I do think that there still is work to be done, and if I can serve as encouragement and a role model for those who are endeavoring to do that, then I’m happy to do that.”
The women spoke of those who helped pave the way for them, like Sally Ride who became the first American woman in space in 1983. Twenty years earlier, the former Soviet Union sent the first woman into space: Valentina Tereshkova in 1963.
“I got inspired from the first Japanese woman astronaut, Dr. Chiaki Mukai,” Yamazaki, 39, said. “Hopefully I can inspire younger women as well.”
Wilson spoke of the importance of women like Pam Melroy and Peggy Whitson, both former shuttle commanders.
“We have made a great start and we have paved the way with women now being able to perform the same duties as men in spaceflight, doing spacewalks, we’ve had to women commanders,” Wilson said. “So we have been able to perform our duties well, and to perform the same duties as the men in the astronaut office, so I do think that speaks well to the shuttle legacy.”
There’s also been strides made regarding females in other NASA-related jobs. For the first time, women hold all three of the NASA Flow Director positions — a job responsible for overseeing all of the work to prepare the shuttle for a mission
Stephanie Stilson is the flow director for Discovery, Dana Hutcherson is responsible for Endeavour and Angie Brewer for Atlantis.
“I think it just shows you how things are overall in the world,” Stilson said. “Women are becoming more populous in leadership roles and in upper-level management, and I think you see that trend with NASA just like you see in private industry.”
Metcalf-Lindenburger, the youngest active astronaut at 34, said she believes her generation already has it easier. She’s hoping that as her 3-year-old daughter grows up, women in the space industry will be just as common as men.
“To her, flying is cool. Running around is being cool. Just learning and growing up as a kid is cool. There aren’t a lot of distinctions, and that’s how I want it to be,” Metcalf-Lindenburger said.