Kalpana Chawla: The First and Only Indian Woman in Space

By NASA – Public Domain.

Kalpana Chawla was born in 1962 in Kamal, Punjab, India. Perhaps it was foresight that made her parents name her “Kalpana”, meaning “idea” or “imagination”, because while other girls her age liked playing with dolls, Kalpana preferred to draw airplanes and had an inquisitive mind. After getting a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College, she moved to the United States in 1982 where she earned a master’s in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington in two years. Undeterred by the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986, Kalpana went on to earn a second master’s and then a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1988. Later that year, she started work as a NASA scientist, researching power-lift computational fluid dynamics. She joined Overset Methods, Inc. in 1993 as a research scientist as well as vice president. She was also rated as a flight instructor and held commercial pilot licenses for airplanes, gliders, and seaplanes.

When she succeeded in being naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1991, Kalpana had applied for the NASA Astronaut Corps; she was accepted and began training in 1995, and was soon scheduled for her first space shuttle mission, joining the six-astronaut crew of the space shuttle Columbia. The two-week mission in late 1997 circled the Earth 252 times, and she was in charge of deploying a Spartan satellite using a robot arm; Kalpana had become the first Indian-born woman and the second Indian person ever to fly in space. After the mission, she did technical work for NASA relating to the space station. She was chosen for a second mission in 2000, but technical problems with the shuttle engine prevented it from going forward. At last she returned to space in 2003 aboard Columbia, but after a 16 day mission involving more than 80 experiments by the seven-astronaut crew, the shuttle, which had sustained heat shielding damage to a wing upon launch, did not survive re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, and the entire crew was lost. Kalpana was posthumously awarded Congress’ Space Medal of Honor; scholarships were established in her name, and an asteroid was named after her.

“When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system.”
– Kalpana Chawla, at her first launch
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Sally Ride: Pioneering the Extraterrestrial Frontier

By NASA; retouched by Coffeeandcrumbs – Description page (direct image link), Public Domain.

Sally Ride was a physicist and the first American female astronaut. Born in 1951, she grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a political science professor. Besides her interest in the physical sciences, she was also a nationally ranked tennis player. She went to Swarthmore College for a couple years, then transferred to Stanford University as a junior. At Stanford, she first earned double major bachelor’s degrees in physics and English and then went on to obtain a PhD in physics there in 1978, with a focus on astrophysics and free electron lasers. That same year, Sally was accepted into NASA’s astronaut training program – a coup, since a thousand others had applied. After completing their rigorous program, Sally became the first U.S. woman astronaut as part of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger in 1983; only two women made it into space before her, both members of the Russian space program. As part of the Challenger crew of five, she deployed satellites and did pharmaceutical experiments.

The next year, Sally flew another shuttle mission and logged a total of 343 hours in space; she did eight months of special training for a third shuttle mission, but when the Challenger tragically exploded in a disastrous launch malfunction in January of 1986, the mission was canceled. She headed a subcommittee on the presidential commission that investigated the shuttle explosion; many years later, after her death, it was revealed by General Donald Kutyna that she had discreetly given him key engineering information that led to identifying the cause of the explosion. She continued with NASA at their headquarters in Washington, D.C., after which she led NASA’s first strategic planning initiative and founded its new Office of Exploration. Sally left NASA in 1987 to work at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Arms Control. In 1989, she became a physics professor at UC San Diego as well as director of the university’s California Space Institute.

In 2001, Sally started Sally Ride Science, a company that created educational programs and products whose aim was to inspire girls to stay with their interests in science and math, serving as the company’s president and CEO. She received the NASA Space Flight Medal as well as the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award and later inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Before passing away from pancreatic cancer, Sally Ride left her mark on Earth as well as in space. After her passing, it was revealed that she had been partners with another woman, a school psychology professor, for 27 years; Tam O’Shaughnessy now carries on Sally’s legacy as the CEO and chair of the board of Sally Ride Science.

“When you’re getting ready to launch into space, you’re sitting on a big explosion waiting to happen. You have to reach a level of comfort with that risk.”
— Sally Ride
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Karen Horney: Facing the Father Complex

CC BY-SA 3.0, Public Domain. 

Freud frequently tarried overlong on theories of hysteria and other so-called female neuroses. The first critic to respond to these theories was Karen Horney who challenged his bias against women, stressing the social rather than the biological factors in feminine psychology. She also argued that neurosis is not inevitable, but arises from childhood situations that are preventable. She met with much opposition for her sensitivity toward the plight of the patient, and her peers were appalled at her cheek in daring to criticize the “Big Daddy” of psychoanalysis.

But she was no stranger to making her own way. Born in Germany in 1885, Karen Danielson surprised her blustery and abusive Norse sea-captain father by insisting on not only seeking higher education, but studying medicine, whether he liked it or not. At university, Karen met a law student, Oscar Horney, and they married in 1909. While earning her medical degree from the rigorous University of Berlin—her thesis was on traumatic psychoses—she had three daughters in four years.

Undergoing psychoanalytic training from 1914 to 1918, she first opened a private practice while a faculty member at the Berlin Institute, where she applied a special affinity for trauma victims while working with shell-shocked veterans of World War I. Beginning around this time, Karen sought to overturn Freud’s theory of penis envy, a tired theory at best, reasoning that it is not the penis women envy, but the privilege modern society accords men in contrast to the suppression of women. Horney posited an alternate theory: the castration complex in young girls is brought on by their inability to follow their father’s path, when doors open for men are slammed shut for women. Her theory was fairly well received and established her as a force to be reckoned with.

Karen’s independent streak didn’t end with her neo-Freudian theorizing; she divorced her husband in 1926 and emigrating to Chicago, cofounding the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. The New York Psychoanalytic Institute was next on her plate where she taught, did clinical research, and began a career as an author, publishing The Neurotic Personality of Our Time to high praise and Our Inner Conflict, a book about denial of pain that sounds like it would do fine in the popular self-help world we live in today. Karen Horney refused to agree with the accepted psychoanalytic gospel of the day and continued to emphasize the effect of environment upon the psyche. “There is no such thing as a normal psychology that holds for all people,” she proclaimed.

Perhaps Horney’s optimism was the biggest division between her and the rest of the psychoanalytic pack. She believed people could help themselves. She had a severe parting of the ways with her peers when she suggested that patients need not live a life of pain, a Freudian notion, and that people can work out of their neuroses. She was booted out of the New York Psychoanalysis Society and Institute in 1941 upon the publication of her book, New Ways in Psychoanalysis, which laid out a series of refutations and refinements of Freud’s doctrine. Undaunted, she founded her own institute, taking several other free-thinkers with her.

Karen Horney was way ahead of her time. Had she lived fifty more years, she would be safely ensconced in a comfy chair across from Oprah Winfrey, where her self-help positivity would be fully embraced. Psychoanalytic pioneer and humanist, Karen Horney shows us that even the most sacred of cows need to be led off to pasture, especially if they’re wrong! Here’s to the shero who deep-sixed penis envy!

“Life itself still remains a very effective therapist.”
— Karen Horney
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Olga Skorokhodova: True Visionary

By DK Clews: uploaded 22 Jul 2016, Public Domain. 

Olga Ivanovna Skorokhodova was a Soviet scientist, writer, teacher, and therapist. Born to poor Ukrainian peasant parents circa 1911, she was a sickly child who proved to have great strength of spirit and a powerful mind. Olga lost her sight and hearing at age five after a bout with meningitis. When her mother died in 1922, Olga was sent to a school for the blind in Odessa. Three years later, Olga arrived at the School-Clinic for Deafblind Children in Kharkiv; though at that point she was almost completely mute, under the care of Professor Ivan Sokolyansky she was able to recover the ability to speak. She began to keep self-observation notes. In 1947, she published a book titled How I Perceive the World; it drew public interest to how she was able to recover speech and won the K.D. Ushynsky literary prize. She expanded upon this original work with 1954’s How I Perceive and Represent the World and 1972’s How I Perceive, Imagine and Understand the World. Olga became a research fellow at the USSR Institute for the Handicapped for the Academy of Educational Sciences in 1948, later rising to be a senior research fellow, and worked there for the rest of her life. She authored a number of scientific works concerning the development of education and teaching of deaf/blind children.

“I must say I owe all of my knowledge and literary speech to reading, above all fiction.”
— Olga Skorokhodova
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Caroline Herschel: Super Star

By Ölgemälde: Melchior Gommar Tieleman; Foto des gemeinfreien Gemäldes: unbekannt – Michael Hoskin: Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel, book preview.

Caroline Herschel’s childhood in Hanover, Germany, didn’t exactly prepare her to become one of the top two astronomers of her day! Born in 1750, her education didn’t extend beyond violin lessons, playing, and learning to do household chores. Indeed, though she longed for an education and her father wished her to be trained as her brothers were in French, mathematics, and music, her mother had other plans for her, insisting that Caroline become her domestic slave. At ten, she got typhus, which stunted her growth—she never grew taller than four foot three inches, which prompted her father to proclaim that she must prepare for a life as an old maid. When she was in her early twenties, her elder brother, William, moved to Bath, England, and took Caroline along to keep house for him. An accomplished musician, William took pity on Caroline and gave her voice lessons. Soon she was the most famous soprano in the area.

William also had an avocation, which he supported with his musician’s wages—he was an amateur astronomer, and Caroline ended up helping him around the observatory. Together, they scoured the heavens and later built telescopes to resell so they could build the equivalent of the Hubble of their day. Caroline became an expert in grinding and polishing the mirror they used to search the skies. William frequently traveled on business, and Caroline would fill in for him while he was gone. Soon visitors recognized her contributions, and King George III decreed that she should have a pension of fifty pounds. It was the first time a woman was recognized for her scientific contribution.

Then William discovered the planet Uranus, originally called Georgium Sidus, and soon he got the top gig as the Royal Astronomer. Meanwhile, Caroline was exploring on her own and went on to discover fourteen nebulae and eight comets. She also published a catalogue of 2,500 star clusters and nebula, as well as several other seminal astronomical references for which she received medals from England, Denmark, and Prussia. To discover the nebula, she had to teach herself mathematics; because she learned so late in life, she never was able to memorize the multiplication tables. She had to carry them around in her pocket.

One of the most famous women of her day, in 1828, when she was seventy-seven, the Astronomical Society awarded her its gold medal for her contributions to the celestial science. At eighty-five, she was elected with Mary Somerville as an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society, the first women to receive such an accolade.

“(I am) minding the heavens.”
— Caroline Herschel
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Mary Leakey: Digging for Truth

By National Institutes of Health, Public Domain.

Mary and Louis Leakey worked together in the search for the origins of man. Mary’s fabled perspicacity for digging and sifting was matched by her acerbic manner and love of good strong cigars. Of the famous duo, Mary was the one with the lucky spade. In 1948, Mary uncovered the skull and facial bones of the much ballyhooed hominid that came to be known as “the missing link.” In her trademark no-nonsense manner, Mary mused, “For some reason that skull caught the imagination.” In 1959 in the Olduvai Gorge of northern Tanzania, she discovered some teeth and the palate bone of the oldest ancestor of man up to that point. Upon finding other bones, they were able to determine that the five-foot, barrel-chested, small-brained, and browless hominid Zinjanthropus had walked upright a million years ago. Three years after Louis Leakey’s death in 1972, working widow Mary surpassed her own historical findings when she found the tracks of bipedal creatures 3.6 million years old, preserved in volcanic ash, and she later unearthed the jawbones of eleven other humanoids carbondated to 3.75 million years old! Mary passed the torch, or rather spade, to her son when she died in December of 1996 at the age of eighty-three. We owe a great deal of our new understanding of human evolution to Mary’s nose for old bones! “Her commitment to detail and perfection made my father’s career,” said son Richard E. Leakey. “He would not have been famous without her. She was much more organized and structured and much more of a technician.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Mary Jackson: A Pioneer

Mary Jackson at Work NASA Langley
By NASA Langley Research Center, Public Domain.

Mary Jackson, born in 1921, was an African-American mathematician who rose to the position of NASA’s first black female engineer. She had earned double-major bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physical science in 1942, but worked as a schoolteacher, bookkeeper, and clerk for nearly the next decade before being recruited in 1951 to the gender and color-segregated “human computer” department by NACA, NASA’s predecessor as an aerospace agency. A couple of years later, she took another NASA position with an engineer working on the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel; she was encouraged to do graduate-level physics and math studies so she could be promoted to an engineering position. These UVA night courses were given at an all-white high school; she had to petition the city of Hampton, Virginia, her home town, for special permission to attend classes with white students. But nevertheless she persisted, and in 1958 became an aerospace engineer at what was now renamed NASA, researching airflow around aircraft.

While her contributions to aerodynamic studies were significant, after many years Jackson took an in-depth look at the inequalities built into the agency and saw that she could have the greatest impact in a formal human resources role. In 1979, she took on a new role as an affirmative action program manager and federal women’s program manager at NASA, taking a cut in pay to do so. In that position, she was able to make changes that empowered women and people of color, and helped managers to see the capabilities of their black and female employees. Even at the point that NASA administrators were finally forced to acknowledge black women’s work at the agency, the public generally had no idea about the contributions of the black women of NASA. Mary Jackson, together with two other veterans of the “human computer” group of women of color at the agency, inspired Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Female Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, which was recently adapted into an acclaimed motion picture.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.