Former NASA Engineer’s Interesting Take on Women in Science

Former NASA engineer Beth Moses is chief astronaut instructor at Virgin Galactic, the world's first commercial spaceline. (YouTube / Virgin Galactic)Former NASA engineer Beth Moses is chief astronaut instructor at Virgin Galactic, the world's first commercial spaceline. (YouTube / Virgin Galactic)

Not long after joining Virgin Galactic in 2014 as its chief astronaut instructor, former NASA aerospace engineer Beth Moses was asked to weigh in on the topic of gender.

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The question was not out of left field (or outer space), given that women make up just 11 percent of aerospace engineers in the U.S., according to a 2013 study by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But the request caught Moses off guard.

“I got an email one day asking me to write a blog about my issues with gender in the workplace,” said Moses, who grew up in Northbrook and is tasked with training customers of the world’s first commercial spaceline. “And I wrote an email back saying, ‘Well, I guess I’ve never had any.’”

Moses’ resulting blog post, titled “Women in STEM – why engineers don’t come in pink or blue,” was a stream-of-consciousness release that she says still reflects her stance on the topic.

“I have never really noticed any diversity variables or factors,” Moses told Chicago Tonight. “Like, I’ve never really noticed the number of women or the number of any given minority because the projects I’ve done have been so global in nature. And if you stop and you think and you count heads, you go, ‘Oh look, there were only two women in that room.’ But when you’re doing the job, you never notice it. It’s just a bunch of engineers in the room trying to solve a problem, right?”

Moses has solved some pretty big puzzles since beginning as an intern at NASA in the early 1990s while still studying aerospace engineering at Purdue University. At NASA, she started off designing mockups for astronauts to test tools underwater. She eventually became the spacewalk system manager for the International Space Station, leading a global team responsible for designing and testing all hardware used by astronauts to construct the ISS in orbit.

One of the things that I believe in is that if a greater slice of humanity can experience spaceflight, it will translate to untold benefits and changes on Earth. What if every world leader saw Earth from space? It might be a more gentle, kind planet.”

–Virgin Galactic astronaut instructor Beth Moses

This week, Moses returned home to receive the Women in Space Science Award from the Women’s Board of the Adler Planetarium, which has recognized trailblazing women in STEM fields (that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics) for 15 years. The board, founded in 2002, also supports education and outreach programs to reach underserved youth – with a special focus on young women – in STEM fields.

Beth Moses (Adler Planetarium)Beth Moses (Adler Planetarium) Moses is scheduled to receive the award Thursday during a reception at the Drake Hotel. After the reception, Adler will host a group of about 250 young women from Chicago-area schools for an afternoon of STEM workshops at the planetarium.

Chicago Tonight connected with Moses to discuss women in STEM fields, designing tools for outer space, the future of space tourism and more. 

Chicago Tonight: Where did your passion for building things – and for space – come from?

Beth Moses: I just was always interested [in space and engineering]. When I was growing up, the space shuttle was launching, and it was fascinating and phenomenal. I was always somewhat of an engineer, even in my youth, I suppose. I was one of the kids that would go build the model raceways and cobble together whatever I could from my brothers’ toys, usually. People always ask me, ‘What got you into it?’ I don’t know. I just remember always loving it and always playing that way, and nobody ever stopped me, which was wonderful. I guess I was a tomboy and a bookworm and a little tinkerer.

CT: Did you always want to go to space?

BM: Oh, of course. Who doesn’t? It’s crazy if you don’t.

CT: Have you been to space?

BM: I have not. It’s extremely competitive, and the NASA program has eyesight requirements that I didn’t meet. Nowadays, I think they accept corrective surgery, but not throughout my career … But I’ve had the great honor of engineering the International Space Station. I haven’t gone yet, but I have my fingers crossed that I’ll get to go one day.

CT: How many women were in your aerospace engineering program at Purdue?

BM: Not very many. I was in the minority, but I wasn’t the only one. Generally, in the larger classes, there were a handful of women. And then as you got more specialized in your coursework, I was sometimes the only woman in a classroom of 10 or 15 males. But frequently there was at least one other lady in the room.

As part of Adler's Women in Space Science Award celebration, about 250 young women will participate in an afternoon of workshops at the planetarium. (Adler Planetarium)As part of Adler's Women in Space Science Award celebration, about 250 young women will participate in an afternoon of workshops at the planetarium. (Adler Planetarium)

CT: What are your thoughts about the public dialogue and media coverage around the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields?

BM: With full respect to your profession, I find it irrelevant, really. At least in the projects I’ve done. So a headline says, oh, we have a shortage of female engineers or there isn’t much female representation at certain levels. But day to day, if you’re doing the job and your teachers and your bosses and your colleagues and those under you are both men and women and both local and global, you don’t notice it and you don’t care. You just get on with the job, right? I mean, I’ve never felt singled out. You just do the job. It really doesn’t matter who you are; it matters that you know your [stuff].

CT: Would you like to see more women in your field?

BM: I would like the aerospace field to include anyone who is attracted to it and capable. If there are other women who would like to participate, I would love for the field to welcome them. I don’t know that it doesn’t.

CT: How did you start at NASA, and what kind of work did you do?

BM: I started as an engineer designing mockups for underwater testing and then I eventually grew to lead the entire global effort that designed and tested all the hardware to make sure that it could be assembled in orbit and then maintained. And actually, I’m super proud: It all fit together. Not everything fit together originally. It all had to fit together in space even though we could never plug it all together on the ground. So that’s a bit of a trick, right?

CT: Um, yeah …

BM: You have to understand how the hardware behaves when it goes through hot and cold cycles of day and night – and is in a vacuum in the same time. So things like power cables get stiff, and different cables get stiff in different ways, and some of them shorten. So you have to understand, is it going to be stiff? Is it going to be too short? Things like fluid lines – fluid lines were the worst part of the space station – high-pressure ammonia lines that are designed to survive in space for decades, and yet a human in a spacesuit has to manipulate them, line them up and connect them. It would be like if your garden hose was your worst nightmare high-pressure garden hose and you couldn’t get it to point where you wanted to – and you’re in a spacesuit. So to [design] that, you literally put a human in a spacesuit in a thermal vacuum chamber and you make the hardware hot and cold and pressurized – just like it would be in space – and you use it in a spacesuit to learn how it should be built. Does that make sense?

CT: Yep, sure ... So, you’re working to develop the astronaut training program at Virgin Galactic. Where does that stand?

BM: The program for pre-flight training is still being developed and tested. So I have not started to train any future astronauts. I have started to consult with future astronauts about what they expect out of their training, what they expect out of their flight, answering questions, getting to know them, that kind of thing. My portion of the training is the training the week before you fly, essentially. We haven’t started customer flights, so my program will start when we start customer flights.

CT: Does Virgin Galactic have an estimate on when customer flights will begin?

BM: No, we don’t. It will be as soon as is safely possible. And after the conclusion of our flight-test program, we will relocate the program from California, where we’re flight testing, to New Mexico, and then we’ll start customer flights.

CT: Who are the customers that have signed up for the flights?

BM: There are over 700 of them. They are all private individuals from I think 58 different countries who have all paid either a deposit or in most cases the full price for a ticket on Virgin Galactic. The price is $250,000. But I’ll tell you, there’s a fallacy that they are all high net-worth individuals. In actuality, that’s not the case. The stereotype of a billionaire astronaut or a high net-worth traveler is pretty much a stereotype. We have future astronauts from all walks of life, all means – folks that have mortgaged their homes to fly with us; folks that have saved for a decade to fly with us; folks that have taken out personal loans.

CT: Will space tourism become more affordable?

BM: Absolutely. The price will definitely come down over time, and not just from Virgin Galactic, but from other companies as well.

CT: How do you compare working for NASA to your current position at Virgin Galactic? 

BM: At NASA, I was testing and training career astronauts to fulfill a specific function. And at Galactic, I’ll be training astronauts for their own enjoyment. It’s completely different. One of the things that I just really, truly, personally believe in is that if a greater slice of humanity can experience spaceflight, it will translate to untold benefits and changes on Earth. Imagine what folks are going to bring back. At NASA, I never trained an artist. I never tested hardware for a poet or a business leader or a politician. It was always for a career astronaut. What if every world leader saw Earth from space? It might be a more gentle, kind planet.

CT: What are you going to say to the young women during Adler's award reception? 

BM: That's a good question ... I do plan to touch on the meaning of space to humanity and the fact that space is a great unifier and that we are all kind of sitting at the dawn of something new – this is going to be a new era when private citizens can travel to space. It’s going to be something no one has ever seen before, and it stands to have very transformative power, I think. I’m also going to talk a little bit about my past, hopefully a humble inspiration to folks to follow their dreams.

CT: Anything else you’d like to add?

BM: Just my deep, deep gratitude for the award. I’m incredibly humbled by the award. The prior recipients have been CEOs and astronauts and women who I admire very greatly, and I’m deeply humbled and honored that they sought me ought and found me and chose me for the award this year.

Follow Alex Ruppenthal on Twitter: @arupp

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