Joy Crisp

(WOMENSENEWS)–When the second robotic rover, named Opportunity, landed on Mars last week, every single step was seamless. First came the whoosh of the parachute unfurling as the rover approached the surface. Then came the blast of landing engines as it hurtled toward its target near the planet’s equator. Next came the touchdown and a roar of applause from 300million miles away. From their headquarters inPasadena, Calif., Jet Propulsion Laboratory employees celebrated this month’s secondsuccessful landing on Mars, the fifth of 12attempts since the first mission to the redplanet back in 1965.

After watching the landing on a projection screen, project scientist Joy Crisp showered her colleagues with hugs and high-fives. Jennifer Trosper, the mission manager, and Jan Chodas, the post-landing development manager, exchanged smiles and sighs of relief. "It was pure joy," says Trosper. "We were delighted to see all our hard work pay off."

At that instant (9:05 p.m. Pacific time on Saturday, January 24), the sound of women cheering filled all four floors of the lab’s mission control building. Holding more than 50 key positions on the Mars project, these female pioneers represent another scientific breakthrough: the dawn of equal opportunity for women in astronomy.

Equal Opportunity in Astronomy

Less than a century ago, women were not allowed to look through the same telescope as their male colleagues. Less than 50 years ago, they were turned away from jobs at observatories for lack of women’s restrooms.

But the Mars mission shows female scientists are making headway. Of the 154 members of the science operations team for the Mars mission, 20 percent are women. Of the 200 members of the engineering team, 10 percent are women. Several of these female scientists hold senior positions, a first for the Jet Propulsion Lab, which oversees Mars missions, and for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, which funded and co-sponsored the Mars mission.

Spokespersons at NASA and the lab say there are far more women on this project than previous ones, but decline to give exact numbers.

When Jan Chodas joined the Jet Propulsion Lab as an engineer in 1980, few other women worked by her side. Today, she’s happy to report that female scientists have become "full members of the team." There are engineers such as Emily Eelkema, Shonte Wright and Saina Ghandchi. There are women representing every specialty: Julie Townsend, an avionics system engineer; Helen Mortensen, image processor; Jennifer Mindock, avionics specialist; Kathy McNair Borin machinist; and Cassie Bowman, robotics expert.

Most of these women are in their mid to late 20s, reflecting the gender demographics of their field. According to a 2003 study by the American Astronomical Society, women account for 57 percent of astronomers under the age of 23 and the majority of graduate assistants and research fellows. But they account for only 10 percent of astronomers over age 50 and 14 percent of college faculty astronomers and 5 percent of full professors of all ages.

Catherine Weitz, the mission’s program scientist, says she and her female colleagues are working to change these numbers. "We’re campaigning to give younger women a better shot," she says. "Our hope is to get them interested in science, get them funding so they can get in the door, then help them get the promotions and recognition they deserve."

Women Leading the Charge to Mars

Having won clout and recognition in their field, female scientists and their male colleagues on the Mars mission are turning their attention to the task at hand. Their project–four years and $800 million in the making–will explore the history of Earth’s closest neighbor, the fourth planet in our solar system. Did liquid water once flow across Mars’ surface? Is there evidence of life from eons past? Since the Opportunity’s twin rover, Spirit, landed on Mars on Jan. 4, scientists have worked to answer these questions and found some surprising answers.

While Spirit explores the Gusev Crater, a 4-billion-year-old basin the size of Connecticut, Opportunity is investigating a region called the Meridiani Planum on the opposite side of the planet. Both are sites where traces of water linger and where conditions may once have been favorable to life.

During its month on Mars, Spirit has transmitted photos of lava rocks and detected substances called carbonates that indicate the possible presence of water. Due to a software problem, however, the rover experienced a temporary communications shutdown last week. Scientists eventually managed to fix the problem: a glitch that was making Spirit’s computer reboot several times a day. Since then, the rover has succeeded in transmitting a steady stream of signals back to mission control.

During its first week on Mars, Opportunity has whirred through its work without a hitch. The rover has explored a small crater and taken samples of the first bedrock ever discovered on Mars. It has beamed back a series of startling photographs: pictures of sandy dunes and soil much darker than expected.

Now that Spirit and Opportunity are both up and running, scientists hope both rovers will function for another five months. Each day of their mission, they will roll several hundred feet forward, taking photographs and gathering soil samples while braving winds of up to 60 miles per hour and nighttime temperatures below minus 157 degrees Fahrenheit.

Though both rovers will recharge by taking afternoon "siestas," there will be no rest for scientists controlling them. There are tests to perform, batteries to exchange and thousands of satellite photos to analyze. Many researchers on the mission are working on "Mars time," which runs 37 minutes longer per day than time on Earth. To take advantage of daylight on Mars (which can fall in the middle of the night in California), they will stay up until the a.m., fueling their 16-hour workdays with coffee and raw adrenaline.

"I have to catch naps between meetings," says Trosper. "But the excitement is enough to keep me going."

Though this project is space science as usual–high-pressure, high-tech and high-stakes–it has been affected in measurable ways by the presence of so many women on the team.

"Women have great negotiating and compromising skills, which are crucial on a mission like this," says Chodas. "To achieve our goals, we had to work in teams and understand how to listen and be open-minded."

Inspiring the Next Generation

In the weeks since Spirit’s successful landing, female scientists from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab have enjoyed new-found celebrity. They’ve participated in a live Webcast, held forth at press conferences about being female scientists at the Lab, as well as general questions about the project, and sorted through mountains of fan mail. They’ve toured classrooms from coast to coast, fielding questions from excitable students, many of them girls with scientific aspirations.

"My hope is that young women will look at what we’ve done and realize that they can do this, too," says Chodas. "Our hope is that they will stop and say, ‘I’ve got the capability; I’ve got the drive, and I want to be part of that.’ To serve as inspiration for the next generation could be our greatest mission of all."

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City. 

For more information:

NASA Quest–"Women Working on Mars":