NASA Women in Lego

NASA Women in Lego
Achievements may be honored with prizes and medals, but few get represented as children's toys. However Lego responded to a proposal to showcase women in space and astronomy by making a Lego set representing four such women and their major contributions. Who were these women?

Women of NASA
Maia Weinstock, deputy editor of MIT News, author, and Lego enthusiast, wanted to add mini-figures of women in STEM fields to the range of Lego sets. (STEM = science, technology, engineering and mathematics) She pitched an idea to Lego of five NASA women, and they accepted it.

The proposal included mathematician Katherine Johnson, who calculated trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo programs. She was also represented in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. However the Lego company wasn't able to obtain Johnson's approval.

The final product, Women of NASA, was released in October 2017, and sold out quickly. It consisted of four mini-figures and four things to build that represented the expertise of the featured women, plus a booklet with biographical information and instructions for the builds.

Margaret Hamilton – computer scientist, systems engineer
Hamilton majored in mathematics and minored in philosophy for her B.A. degree. She intended to do graduate study in abstract mathematics at Brandeis University, but took an interim job at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) on a project to develop weather prediction software. It was the early 1960s when software development was in its infancy, and programmers learned as they worked. Discovering that she had a flair for the work, the PhD was abandoned.

Her success at MIT led her to NASA as lead developer for Apollo flight software. Hamilton invented the term software engineering to describe what they were doing, and it became recognized as an engineering discipline. Her rigorous systems approach to the Apollo software was essential to its success. She said about Apollo, “There was no second chance. We all knew that.” When no bugs were found in any of the crewed Apollo missions, the software was adapted for Skylab and the Space Shuttle.

Nancy Grace Roman – astronomer, NASA executive
At age eleven Nancy Roman formed an astronomy club. In high school she decided to be an astronomer. Roman received a B.A. in astronomy at Swarthmore College and went on to get a PhD at the University of Chicago. She worked at Yerkes Observatory for several years, but finally left academia due to the lack of tenured jobs available to women.

Roman went to the Naval Research Laboratory where she worked in the radio astronomy program. When she was made aware that NASA wanted someone to create a program for space astronomy, she applied and got the job. As the first Chief of Astronomy in NASA's Office of Space Science, Roman set up the initial program. This also made her the first woman to hold an executive position at NASA.

Although she developed, budgeted and organized the scientific participation for a number of programs, Roman earned a special epithet for her contribution to the creation of everybody's favorite space telescope – she's often known as the Mother of Hubble.

Sally Ride – astronaut, astrophysicist, college professor, science promoter
Sally Ride was fascinated by science, yet was also an excellent tennis player with professional potential. But science won, and she earned a B.S. degree in physics at Stanford University alongside a B.A. in English. An M.Sc. and finally, a PhD in astrophysics followed.

When NASA broadened its criteria for astronaut candidates, instead of just choosing test pilots, Ride applied. She was one of those chosen out of the thousands of applicants. As an astronaut she did two years of ground support before being assigned a space mission. On June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman in space.

Ride got a second mission, but missed out on her third assignment when the shuttle program was thrown into disarray by the 1986 Challenger disaster. Her expertise was valued so highly that she served on the accident investigation boards for both Challenger and Columbia.

When she left NASA Ride accepted jobs in academia, including one as professor of astrophysics. Yet she also co-founded Sally Ride Science to encourage the interest of young people – especially girls – in science and math.

Mae Jemison – engineer, doctor, astronaut, dancer, college professor, businesswoman
As a youngster, Jemison had always liked science. She was an exceptional student, starting her degree at Stanford University at age 16. In addition to earning a B.S. degree in chemical engineering, she also fulfilled the requirements for a B.A. in African and Afro-American Studies.

Sally Ride had chosen science over tennis. Mae Jemison had to choose between being a professional dancer or a medical doctor. She chose medicine, obtaining her M.D. at Cornell Medical College, but still dances. “Many people do not see a connection between science and dance, but I consider them both to be expressions of the boundless creativity that people have to share with one another.” After a time in general practice, Jemison served two years in the Peace Corps.

But Jemison had a yen for space, and when she applied to NASA, she was accepted. Although she was the first African American woman to fly on the space shuttle, being first didn't interest her. She said she would have wanted to go even if there had been thousands before her.

After Jemison resigned from NASA, she founded a company researching the application of technology to daily life. She's also, as of 2018, a professor-at-large at Cornell University.

Note: This article isn't commercially sponsored, it reflects a personal interest.

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