Women Drivers on Mars
March 12, 2008: Little noticed by the general public, February 23rd was a special day in space exploration. For the first time in history, an all-woman team of scientists and engineers guided a major NASA mission—the Mars Exploration Rovers.
"We were in control of Spirit's activities for the day," explains Barbara Cohen of the Marshall Space Flight Center who headed up the science team. "It was a milestone in mission planning to be able to staff the uplink team with all women."
Right: Barbara Cohen poses with a lifesize model of Spirit.
The occasion was Women's History Month—March 2008. (By meeting in February, "we got an early start," says Cohen.) According to a resolution by the US Congress, March is the time to recognize and celebrate achievements by American women. Cohen's team felt that an all-female "Spirit day" would be a fitting tribute.
Cohen and colleagues laid their plans for Spirit via conference call. From all around the country, more than two dozen female scientists and engineers dialed in to help. (Scroll to the end of the story for a list of participants.)
"Hey, any ladies in the house?" asked Cohen as the call began.
"Any guy attending today is required to wear a tutu," came one response.
The banter quickly subsided and the team got down to the business of scheduling Spirit's day. At the moment, notes Cohen, "Spirit is hunkered down for the winter, covered with dust." But that doesn't mean the rover can’t stay busy. With a bit of "women's ingenuity," Spirit was able to gather important data on Feb. 23rd just by watching the landscape and studying its surroundings.
"During the winter, we study how the landscape of Mars changes over time," says Cohen. "This gives us valuable information about Martian seasons."
"We also study rocks right in front of the rover. That's important because when the rover is traveling, it passes by them quickly and leaves them behind. Right now we can really zoom in on some of these rocks and understand them in depth."
Finally, "we look at things on Spirit itself, like the composition of the dust that collects on its surface."
Above: The view from Spirit's overwintering perch on the Home Plate Plateau. Across a valley filled with sand dunes lies Husband Hill. [More]
Did Cohen notice any differences with only women calling the shots? "Not really," she says. "We've all been working in our roles for some time, and all the team members, both male and female, are very good at what they do. So we all just did our jobs. It's a big friendly group, so even the banter online was par for the course."
Although Feb. 23rd was a good sign of progress, it's not the end of the road, she cautions. "Women in science are still very much underrepresented. It's a testament to the way the Mars Exploration Rover mission is run that we have brought so women on board and we all feel comfortable."
"However," she adds, "I think now it would be nearly impossible to have a spacecraft team with no women on it. The work that women have done on spacecraft, both now and before us, shows that we bring absolutely as much talent, knowledge, and teamwork to the table as men do."
And please, no jokes about "women drivers on Mars!"
Uplink Team for Mars Spirit Rover:
Spacecraft Engineering Team, Jet Propulsion Laboratory:
NASA's Future:The Vision for Space Exploration