Mission Possible: Women of the Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most scientifically
productive spacecraft in NASA’s history and changed our
fundamental understanding of the universe.
Behind Hubble are some remarkable women who overcame
challenges to help make Hubble one of the greatest scientific
instruments of all time.
Mission Possible: Women of the Hubble Space Telescope
[music swells]
One Christmas, I remember my mom giving me a
Barbie doll house—a dream house. They put it together the night
before, I guess, and I was pretty upset that it was already
put together because I wanted to do it. That was one of
the things—that was one of the things very early on that they
had a clue that maybe she wanted to do something with her hands
and that later evolved to engineering. My father used to
play games with me, mental arithmetic, I recognize now
that it was algebra on his part, but of course, I didn't know
they were algebra as an eight-year old.
I never really thought
about being a scientist when I was growing up because I didn't
know any scientists, I didn't really know that that was a
pathway I could pursue. I was not someone who had a distinct
thought in mind of what I want to be or what I want to do when
I grow up. I knew two things really were strong interests for
me, I was inspired and curious and fascinated by the grand
adventure I was seeing the early astronauts have on
television. I watched everything from Alan Shepherd's 15 minute
flight on forward. [Recording: It's progressing beautifully. I
believe they are setting up the flag now.] And it was just a
scale of drama and boldness and adventure that even the world
had never seen and watching that at a young age was a great
inspiration to me. But it mainly made me curious. About how do
people get that kind of adventure in their life? I was
born in Korea in the poor environment. My mother she
raised two daughters as a single mom. She decided that we should
immigrate to the United States. And then things were really
tough because the language and the kids were mean back then;
they were always making fun of us, my sister and I. And most of
my friends were dropping out of high school and most kids just
get a job after high school. That was my goal also. I worked
in the sewing factory with my mom. I was making a penny for
sewing one piece of clothes. I thought: wait a minute. This is
not, this is not something I want to do. I can't do this. I
need to better myself. Make a better living. I needed to
expand my knowledge I guess in math. Study something on it. My
counselor of course said: engineering is for you. I am
from Baltimore, Maryland. Born and raised. I attended Baltimore
public city schools and I also attended high school which was
an engineering-based. It was not too open to women being at
the school. The other challenges might have been financial.
Having to work through college and having to work a semester to
pay for the upcoming semester which of course delayed me
graduating. And I don't know if I would have ended up at Goddard
had I finished when I thought I should finish. Well, between
fifth and sixth grade, I organized my friends into an
astronomy club to study the constellations. And by seventh
grade, I decided I wanted to be an astronomer and I was going to
try for it. And I knew it was going to take me an additional
twelves years of schooling but I figured I'd try. And if I didn't
make it, I could probably teach physics or math in high school.
I was told from the beginning that women cannot be scientists.
In high school, one of the experiences I remember is that I
asked my guidance counsellor for permission to take a second year
of Algebra instead of a fifth year of Latin. And she looked
down her nose at me and sneered: “What lady would take
mathematics instead of Latin?” I was not encouraged as a woman.
My thesis professor was one I'd often didn't get the support
that I expected. There was a period in which he went for six
months without speaking to me even when I said hello to him in
the hall. He was angry because I'd left the University to go to
the government. My role in Hubble was as Program Scientist.
Being the first executive woman at NASA turned out not to be
terribly eventful. I was accepted very readily as a
scientist and in my job. The men were very cooperative. I never
found that anybody looked at me from a gender standpoint. I was
part of the group. Hey, Facebook! We're here live at the
Goddard Space Flight Center. I'm Erin Kisliuk and we're talking
about Hubble's brand new frontier. It was the summer
before my senior year. My internship was, um, with Human
Exploration and Operations in their Education and Outreach
Group and it was the opporutnity of a life time. The course of my
career took me to Houston to work for NASA, it took me back
to the DC area to work for NASA again and I found myself at age
25 for reasons completely beyond my control having lost three
different jobs and I thought that was it for me to be honest.
Um, but, I gave it one last shot and I'm here. In the place I
exactly wanted to be. And I was nearing the end of graduate
school when NASA opened the competition for space shuttle
astronauts. I never thought of my life that way: I want to be
an astronaut. So when the Hubble deployment crew was being chosen
one of the key factors in the NASA leadership mind was someone
with experience in every one of the crew positions. These guys
are looking for expedition managers. They want someone that
is a hybrid of the ship's company as we would call it and
are attached to the shuttle and we were going to host and
operate scientific experiments. So it's a different model than
an oceanographic research ship, but familiar. I think there were
times when I felt really intimidated. I had come from a
small town in rural Arkansas when I entered the University
environment, I felt intimidated a lot of times in my classes.
But I learned how to seek out help. I learned how to find
mentors, find tutors, ask questions and not be embarrassed
to do that.
The advice I have for young people, especially
those underprivileged is don't let anything stop you. If I
hadn't had some of the stumbling blocks I had to get to where I
am now, a, I wouldn't appreciate it as much as I do right now,
and b, I don't know if I would have been in the right place at
the right time to end up where I am now. So, if there's
something, this light at the end of the tunnel that's keeping you
going, keep your eye on the prize. You don't want to spend
your life doing something you don't like. Stay curious. Learn
how to learn. Understand you're going to have to match your
passions and your dreams with really hard work. A lot of
people have already paved the way. There's still a lot of
things that have to change, but I think a lot of doors are open.
And, opportunities are vast. I'm here and there are a lot of
others like me here. If I can do it, they can do it also.
www.nasa.gov/hubble @NASAHubble
[satellite swooshes by, beep beep, beep beep]
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center www.nasa.gov/goddard
[music fades]
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