NASA wants you to know it’s going to send a woman to the moon. The agency has been talking about it a lot lately, stressing that its planned 2024 Artemis mission will land “the first woman and next man” on the lunar surface. The phrase has become something of a press-release tic, but the fact is, it’s worth repeating—a lot.
Skeptics can quarrel with whether the 2024 target is realistic (probably not) but the country has staked its claim to a return to the moon, and the odds are good we’ll indeed get there eventually. Now imagine the crew for that first mission. Could you picture it not including at least one woman? No, you could not. And assuming more or less equal qualifications among all of the crew members, could you picture a woman not being tapped commander? No again. Women will fly the mission, a woman will lead it, and following U.S. lunar tradition, the commander will be first down the ladder, so the next American to put boots on the moon will be a woman.
Lately we’ve been looking back admiringly at the early pioneers: the women of Hidden Figures; Poppy Northcutt and Margaret Hamilton, two women who played key roles in the Apollo program; Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb, a pair of pilots who strove—and, it being the middle of the last century, ultimately failed—to be the first American woman in space (their stories are recounted in the upcoming book Fighting for Space by space historian and YouTube phenomenon Amy Shria Teitel).
But that’s the past; the present is already female and the future will be too. Today, the idea of women in (and leading) the fields of astronautics and aeronautics is no longer remarkable. Veteran astronaut Ellen Ochoa was the director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston from 2013 to 2018; engineer Jody Singer is the director of the venerable Marshall Space Flight Center, a position once held by Wernher von Braun; Natalie Batalha just wrapped up her service as director of the historic Kepler Space Telescope mission. Forty American women have now flown in space, with rookie astronaut Jessica Meir set to be number 41 in September. But we’ve long since stopped paying attention to that particular metric—which is as it should be.
Just this week, the industry empowerment group Women in Aerospace released its 34th annual list of honorees—saluting the work of six leaders in the field. That’s a good thing and the shout-outs were well-earned. But eventually, there will be no need for such a list. Soon enough we won’t recognize the work of female aerospace engineers in particular, because the fact that they are in the field at all will not be remotely remarkable.
We’re not there yet, but we’re making progress. And that first woman on the moon in 2024 or thereabouts will get us a whole lot closer.
NASA visited Iceland. The U.S. space agency sent some of its top engineers and scientists to spend three weeks on the Lambahraun lava field in Iceland to work on the design of its new space rover. The prototype has four-wheel drive, and two motors powered by 12 car batteries. Adam Deslauriers, manager of space and education at Mission Control Space Services—a company NASA has hired to help test the rover—told the AFP that the vehicle, designed to go to Mars, is “basically indestructible.” Why Iceland? Well, today, Mars is basically an inhospitable, frozen desert. But experts believe that some 3 billion years ago, it had the same sort of glaciers, volcanoes, and hot springs that exist today on Iceland.
NASA made Alabama very happy. Texas lobbied hard to host the U.S. space agency’s program to build the next moon-landing spacecraft, but ultimately, NASA decided to give that honor to Alabama. The work for the Artemis project will be done at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, where, in the 1960s, NASA designed, built, and tested the Apollo missions’ Saturn V rocket. The Artemis mission is likely to cost in the tens of billions of dollars, which could be a significant boon to the Alabama economy.
Scientists saw a black hole behaving strangely 900 million years ago. Astronomers picked up evidence of gravitational waves they believe to have been triggered by the merger of a black hole and a neutron star—essentially, the remains of a star that has already exploded and died—some 900 million years ago. The world of astronomy isn’t 100% certain yet, but it’s very excited about the possibility: National Geographic reports that scientists all over the world have put their instruments’ regularly scheduled observations on hold in order to focus on patch of sky where the gravitational wave signal was detected.
CHART OF THE WEEK
New data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released this past week show that July 2019 was the hottest July—and hottest month—on record. Those data—plus the news that NASA was testing Mars rover designs in Iceland—made me curious about how our planet stacked up, in terms of temperature extremes, with our nearest celestial neighbors.