Red Planet Mission: Women Onboard


Working at NASA is a dream for many people, especially those who wish to one day set foot on a surface millions of kilometers away from Earth. Women are part of this great human endeavor; it was in 1978 that NASA hired its very first female astronauts. Since then, many women have travelled into space, and now, with our sights set on Mars, the first manned mission to the Red Planet will have women onboard.

Every four or five years, NASA accepts new astronaut trainees; the selected astronauts are of the highest caliber and have to go through an intensive application and training process. NASA’s 2013 batch of astronauts is composed of four women and four men; they were chosen out of 6100 applicants, which shows how competitive and difficult it is to become an astronaut. The trainees have to go through many physical and psychological tests to see how suitable they are for a space mission.

Years of intense training follow, where they must learn many skills that will aid them in their journeys into outer space. One of the things they have to do is to experience the weightlessness that goes with being in outer space; they do so by taking a ride in a plane that simulates that feeling. The plane is sometimes called the “vomit comet” for obvious reasons. Another thing they must learn is how to pilot supersonic jets, which is no small feat.

This batch of astronauts will be the first to be trained and prepared for a Mars mission that is expected to take place in 15 to 20 years. While the astronauts prepare for their eventual travel to Mars, this will only become a reality once engineers and scientists create a suitable spacecraft. The technology that will allow for a manned Mars mission is still being developed, since the spacecraft that is to be made has to withstand a nine-month long travel period to the Red Planet.

On this task is one of NASA’s female engineers, Elizabeth Robertson. Robertson is a propulsion engineer at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, who just had a breakthrough that will help with the mission to Mars. She and her team were able to manufacture a turbo pump that will be part of the launch engine for the Mars spacecraft.

This pump is quite a complex piece and she was able to manufacture it using 3D printing. The 3D printing is helping by leaps and bounds; what used to take years to make can now take only months. This is great because it allows those working to test what they are making as they go, which gives them the chance to tweak and make alternations as they manufacture the engine parts needed. The cost of 3D printing is also lower than traditional manufacturing, which will help in speeding up the process of making the spacecraft headed to Mars.

By using 3D printing there is much more flexibility when it comes to designing the engines; Robertson said that: “We are no longer constrained to tooling access and straight lines. Cooling passages can be built into housings, multiple parts can be built as a single piece, and wall thicknesses can vary over a part to add or remove strength as necessary”.

Another NASA engineer who is overseeing the efforts for the manned mission to Mars amongst many other things is Teresa Vanhooser. She is the second in charge at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, and is in charge of leading 6000 people who make up the staff of the center. She is in charge of the astronauts who will be going to explore Mars, and is in charge of the USD 2.5 billion budget of the center.

Vanhooser started working at the Marshall Flight Center in the 1990s and was the first woman at the center to head a mission for Spacelab, which is the laboratory that flies on a space shuttle. She is also responsible for “…leading the environmental data satellite SERVIR, the Chandra X-ray space telescope, and critical testing for the new James Webb Space Telescope—the most powerful ever space viewing device”. However, what Vanhooser is most enthusiastic about is the work going on at the center to make the first manned mission to Mars a reality.

So far, the Red Planet had only unmanned spacecrafts as visitors; in the near future, however, human footsteps will be making their way on Mars’ surface. As of now, men and women are working side by side in breaking grounds in coming up with new technology that will soon put humans where we once thought they will never go.


*Published in SCIplanetWomen and Science (Spring 2016) Issue.

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