LIFT OFF: Women Adding Greater Impact In The Space Industry

LaBonte and AYVF Students. Image Credit: AVYF

April 14, 2017 – Over the past several weeks, commercial or ‘new’ space, NASA, and space travel, have made more frequent headlines. The wave of stories included the much anticipated release of “Hidden Figures,” a film celebrating female contributions to the American space industry at NASA, President Trump’s signing of the $19.5 billion NASA funding bill, and most noteworthy and a looming “game changer” Elon Musk’s Space X launch and landing of the Falcon 9 rocket, with implications that rocket reusability will dramatically reduce the costs associated with space transport.

Building on the space theme, last week’s 33rd Space Symposium held in Colorado Springs, showcased forward movement of commercial space flight. Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin and Musk’s Space X have reinvigorated the discussion of private sector space and their respective ambitions for space travel (both suborbital and Mars bound) and transport and both men are engrossed in what seems their own “Private Space Race.” Bezos appeared in Colorado alongside his Blue Origin rocket which made its stunning debut during a spectacularly picturesque snow storm on the Space Symposium’s opening night.

In addition to Bezos at the Blue Origin capsule and rocket display press conference was one of Blue Origin’s top female executives, one of the slowly growing number of women in the male dominated space industry. Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX graced the Symposium stage and shared her hopes of a future where more women are engaged in the space industry.

Shotwell shared a quote from former U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug, who said “Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.” Shotwell’s words hold weight as a space super star and female role model for young professionals and aspiring girls in fields of engineering and space. When asked what needs to change for women to have a greater presence in the industry, Shotwell stated, “I think it’s really important to be inclusive and to go beyond what your normal scope is.”

For delegate Lisa La Bonté, a pioneering female entrepreneur and CEO of UAE’s Arab Venture Foundation (AYVF) who began her career in Silicon Valley with aerospace defense contractor McDonnell Douglas, leaving her comfort zone of the business world to launch a groundbreaking NGO and forging an innovative partnership with NASA in the Middle East region, securing an historic International Space Act Agreement in 2009, Shotwell’s sentiment hit the bullseye.

“There is much work to be done to promote and deliver space education that is hands-on and conducted in real world settings along with access that affords professional opportunities in the space sector for women around the world.” said La Bonte. “The unique AYVF, UAE, NASA Research Fellows program consisted of 40% female engineering students and enabled cross-cultural student exchange teaming students from the Middle East and USA who were mentored by NASA scientists, researchers, and engineers within actual NASA mission teams.” Most noteworthy however may be that AYVF’s programs served US foreign policy goals and were created by a private sector, American female owned foreign NGO without one dollar of US taxpayer funding.”