Without women, less space exploration

Sunday June 23 is not just the national holiday in Luxembourg. It’s also the International Day of Women Engineers. While gender parity is still far from being achieved in the professions grouped under this label, the gap is gradually being reduced. Women scientists and engineers have marked history, without necessarily being recognized. The space sector, so virile and military in its early days, could not have developed without their contribution. Here’s a glimpse into the world of the stars, a world that should inspire little girls and boys alike.

From weighty sexism to weightlessness

A few days before the departure into space of the first American astronaut, Sally Ride, NASA holds its traditional press conference. The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger (mission STS-7) faces questions from journalists, specialized or not. The most important question: “Are you going to wear a bra?” Indirect answer: “Nothing sags in space”. Curtain.

The question, which today would attract volleys of reactions for its sexism, remains discreetly inscribed in the press kit. On June 18, 1983, in the cloudy dawn of Florida, Challenger tore itself from the ground with an indescribable roar, similar to dozens of simultaneous explosions. The “Space Transportation System”, with its reusable orbiter, is then still the stuff of dreams for fans of the conquest of space. The Challenger disaster on take-off and the Columbia disaster upon re-entry, costing the lives of fourteen astronauts, will shed a different light on a program that was ultimately costly and managed in spite of common sense.


But in June 83, NASA (the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was still in a state of euphoria. Challenger disappeared into the clouds, the Kennedy Space Center handed over the controls to Houston and Sally Ride became the third woman in space, after the Soviets Valentina Terechkova in 1963 and Svetlana Svitskaya in 1982. At the age of 32, the American is also the youngest member of this select club to experience the joys of unsimulated weightlessness.

Scientist and literary

Do some see the astronaut as a mere trophy, or at best a symbol? The facts blithely dispel the stereotype. Ride graduated from Stanford University with a Bachelor of Science in Physics and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature in 1973, a Master of Science in Physics in 1975 and a PhD in Physics in 1978 for her research on the interaction of X-rays with the interstellar medium.

Ride’s example is symptomatic. Women have played a vital role in the conquest of space, but their contribution has always tended to be regarded with haughtiness, when it was not simply overlooked. Or worse: instrumentalized.

Since the very beginnings of the space program, women have played an essential role in various fields, often in the shadows.

Women in the shadows

Calculators: women mathematicians and computer scientists like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson played a crucial role in the complex calculations required for the first space flights. Their story was popularized by the film “Hidden Figures”. This is an adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, featuring African-American calculators Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who contributed to NASA’s aeronautics and space programs.

The film shows how Katherine Johnson came to calculate the trajectories of the Mercury program and the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in 1969, how Dorothy Vaughan became head of the computer calculations department and Mary Jackson the first African-American aerospace engineer.


Women engineers: Women engineers have been essential to the design and development of space technologies, such as Margaret Hamilton, who led the development of onboard software for the Apollo 11 mission.

Scientists: Countless women scientists have contributed to space research in fields such as astrophysics, planetary geology and space medicine.

Astronauts: The first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet cosmonaut who flew in 1963. Since then, many other women have followed. Helen Sharman was the first British woman in space in 1993, and Claudie Haigneré the first French woman in 1996.

A recent study – to be taken with a grain of salt, given the small sample size (four space travelers, two women and two men) – suggests that women’s bodies are more resilient in space. Their immune systems, in particular, seem more capable of resisting the weakening observed in space travelers.

In principle, the first Luxembourg astronaut will be a man, Raphaël Liégeois, but the path is open for other women to follow in his footsteps.

A woman astronaut in Luxembourg


The Shopping Center in Kirchberg (Luxembourg) has devoted the month of June to space-related activities. Until June 30, the public can discover a digital exhibition on Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”. It’s an opportunity to plunge into an immersive journey, with your head in the stars. Other activities and workshops are organized in parallel.

The highlight of this special space month: French astronaut Claudie Haigneré will be present on Wednesday June 26, from 2 to 4 pm, during a public conference where she can be questioned.