No Longer Hidden Figures

The principal investigator of NASA’s Psyche mission on why more women are starting to lead in the traditionally macho field of space exploration.

Female astronaut in spacesuit giving the thumbs-up to waving onlookers.
NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor gestures from inside a bus before the launch of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft at the Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome on June 6, 2018.
Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty Images

On Dec. 11, 2018, Future Tense hosted a conversation with Lindy Elkins-Tanton and other leaders in the aerospace field: “Hidden Figures: What the Women Who’ve Conquered Space Can Teach Silicon Valley.” Watch the full event here.

We had been on the Kotuy River for a number of days before we came to our first town, the little settlement of Kayak. There’s no road, no railroad. Just the hundred or so workers from the nearby mine, where they still used picks to extract coal from a rich seam, who made Kayak home. In the summer, boats would make the 200-km upriver journey from Khatanga, the closest town. In winter, when the river froze, the people of Kayak mostly relied on snow transports and helicopters to ferry people and supplies.

Our team of six American and Russian geoscientists had been on the river collecting rocks and studying the nearby geology to try to understand whether an ancient volcanic eruption in the area had triggered the world’s largest extinction 252 million years ago: the end-Permian. But we needed to resupply and meet a helicopter to transport us to our next destination. We stopped and went into one of the little shops in Kayak, the kind that exist throughout Siberia in the front rooms of houses. After we finished buying the pasta, rice, cracked wheat, canned meat, and cookies we needed for happiness and dinners, the others went off on other errands. Soon it was just me and the two women running the store.

“Zdravstvuyte, ochen priatna poznakomitsya.” (Hello, very good to meet you!) I greeted them in my bold, first-year Russian. I could say and understand just enough to receive their warm Russian welcome and answer some basic questions. They began asking me all about my children (one, a boy) and telling me about theirs. Soon, they placed a little bottle of their homemade berry liquor on the counter, and we were toasting to all our health.

At last, looking concerned, the two of them exchanged glances, and then leaned forward to confide in me: “Geology is no work for a woman. You shouldn’t be out here in the field. You should go home to your family!”

Woman wearing a red shirt standing next to a rocky cliff face near a stream of water.
Lindy Elkins-Tanton in Siberia in 2012.
Lindy Elkins-Tanton

I’m sure that women throughout the ages, and across various pursuits, have received similar versions of this well-meaning advice. And many of us have had cause to wonder, at moments, that perhaps we should have heeded it. I wondered this myself later that day, when a threatening man followed me to the public baths and scratched—literally scratched with his fingernails—on the outside of the door while I had my first warm-water wash in many days. Was the risk of traveling and sometimes being alone too great? Was the worry of my family at home too much of a sacrifice?

But the call of the wild places, of exploration, is also deep in our human bones. Like so many people before me, I’ve ached to go to the remote places where I am the only person for miles—and to the special places, like north central Siberia, where I could collect the evidence of the cataclysms of the Earth’s past.

Yet, of the many human pursuits that have been denied to women, exploration has ranked among the most male-dominated. Land. Sea. Air. Nearly every foray into a frontier in recorded history has been helmed by men. That is, perhaps, until now.

Of course, there are important women among the most important historical explorers. Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, an Icelandic woman, joined Eric the Red’s travels to Greenland in the 11th century, and later told the pope about it. Then there are women like Gertrude Bell, who explored, mapped, and advised the British Empire on the Middle East, and Freya Stark, one of the first Europeans to travel through the southern Arabian Desert. These determined women lived unconventional lives and fought the status quo to make their marks. Yet, in general, men have been the leaders and the followers in the often violent, dangerous forays humans have made into the inhabited and uninhabited regions of our Earth.

But now we live in a new age. Much of the Earth’s surface has been explored, and we are increasingly looking outward to space. In the few decades humans have been sending satellites, probes, and people to explore these further reaches, missions have skewed decidedly male, both in who gets to lead and participate and who gets recognition for their contributions.

Yet, as the women of space exploration can attest, looking around today, we can see the ways the classically macho and predominantly white aerospace field has begun to change. For one, women now make up more than one-third of NASA’s active astronaut roster.

As emphasis has turned toward robotic, rather than crewed, exploration, women, too, have made it to the forefront. The first woman in history to compete for and win a deep-space mission, Maria Zuber, led the team that created the dual-robot GRAIL mission to the moon, which mapped its gravitational fields. The data gathered by the twin probes has helped to answer key questions about the moon’s internal structure and evolution. Zuber is now the vice president for research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Following her path, I’m the second woman in history to compete for and win a deep-space mission: the Psyche mission, named after the metal asteroid our probe will visit. It will be the first metal world that humans will ever explore. We’re on track to launch in 2022, which means our robotic orbiter will arrive at Psyche in 2026 and show us, for the first time, what a metal surface like this looks like and, we hope, help us reveal how this body formed. (Disclaimer: ASU, the lead organization partnered with NASA on this mission, is also a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)

Certainly, like other STEM-heavy fields, aerospace continues to be held back by a lack of inclusion. It’s still far from the point where people achieve, lead, and participate entirely based on their merits, rather than being judged and then excluded based on gender, race, accent, clothing, or any other of our favorite biases. And certain sectors of space exploration have more diversity problems than others—perhaps most notably, the emerging private spaceflight industry being piloted by billionaire entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson.

Yet, compared with other science, tech, engineering, and math fields and the history of exploration writ large, women have been able to make formidable strides in the arena of space exploration. So what has changed from Iceland in the 11th century to today?

Thinking of my own experience, I know I benefit from the many women who came before me. I also benefit from the will of a society that, through rules and laws, has tried to make hiring for some of the key roles in my field more gender-blind. At NASA, we’re all supposed to have the same chance. The Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act, Title IX, and the Constitution itself all guide employers not to discriminate. Given the way the federal government has been more rigorous about offering and enforcing these and other equal opportunity employment policies, it’s likely no accident that, in agencies like NASA and contractors that have had long-standing business with them, women have better representation in leadership and across their workforces.

Though these kinds of policies don’t fix all the problems of implicit and explicit biases in education and opportunity, they have repeatedly created great improvements in representation. Government should continue to take on this role to keep guiding the way to a better society—for, as we’ve seen, those in power repeatedly fail to do so when left alone. Leaders and educators, too, can do more to be more inclusive in their support of talented individuals in all stages of the pipeline. We can raise all boats with our tide.

I am thrilled by the progress that has allowed me to get to where I am and has advanced many women throughout the field. I’m also daunted by how far we still have to go: Women aerospace engineers, for example, still represent less than 10 percent of workers employed in that occupation. But looking back at that day in Siberia, 12 years ago now, when I ignored the warning of my new well-meaning Siberian friends, I can’t help but be filled with optimism that we can get to an age where human exploration includes more of humanity. One where we’ll continue pushing to go where no humans have gone before, go with curiosity rather than violence, and go together.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.