Outer space and female empowerment don’t usually find themselves in the same conversation, but 200-young women were told Monday night that the sky isn’t the limit from women who work beyond it.
The event was part of Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10)’s 10th Congressional District Young Women’s Leadership Program, which filled Heritage High School’s auditorium for a panel and a movie.
Three women from different corners of the space industry sat on the panel. It included Janet Sellars, director of the office of education at NASA’s Langley Research Center; Jessica Millard, a junior at North Idaho STEM Charter Academy; and NASA astronaut Sunita Williams. Millard is project coordinator for her school’s Project DaVinci, which won a grant from NASA to launch a satellite the size of a loaf of bread into orbit. Williams, with seven spacewalks totaling 50 hours and 40 minutes, holds the records for most spacewalks and cumulative spacewalk time by a woman. She’s also the first person to ever run a marathon in space.
“The first time I put a spacesuit on, I was like ‘Oh my God, there’s so much room and how can a guy fill this up … how am I going to do this?’” Williams said. “The suit doesn’t know if you’re a girl or a guy. A helicopter doesn’t know if you’re a girl or a guy, right? You can do the same job those other guys can do.”
Millard described North Idaho STEM Charter Academy winning a $250,000 grant by NASA to construct and launch a “CubeSat,” a cubic satellite weighing less than 3 pounds, which they’ll put into orbit later this year.
“We’re high school students, and we’re launching a satellite,” she said, “Our goal is a really big one, but the sky is obviously not the limit when there are footprints on the moon.”
The women also discussed more down-to-earth matters like networking, multiculturalism, and career advice.
“The thing I really want to expose you all to today is what’s available to you,” Sellars said. “NASA needs everybody … somebody has to manage that money, so we need accountants. Somebody has to do that social media, somebody has to manage the project itself, we need communications kinds of people—all those kinds of things. If you have a skill set that isn’t necessarily STEM, we still need you.”
Sellars’ career advice tied into the overall theme of the summer program.
“The purpose of the program is to expose the girls to as many different careers at this young age so they open themselves up to a lot of different things,” Rep. Comstock (R-VA-10) said. She serves on the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
Comstock started her young women’s leadership program when she was a delegate in 2013, after being inspired by the popular book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. She brought the program to her federal career after winning the 10th district in 2014. Each summer, Comstock hosts around 10 different speakers and events around Northern Virginia and DC for girls in high school and middle school. Since its inception, over 1000 young women have gone through the program.
“It’s interesting to see different fields that are available for us, not just the regular doctor or engineer, but seeing the applications … seeing that there’s so many opportunities out there, it opens up my future for me,” said Riya Dabbi, a high school junior in the program.
After the panel, the program screened the movie “Hidden Figures,” which tells the story of three black female NASA mathematicians who did the calculations behind launching John Glenn into orbit in 1962. For much of the audience, it was a second viewing.
John Patterson is an intern with Loudoun Now. He is studying English and economics at the University of Virginia.