Women of Tomorrow: European Space Agency Seeks to Set Girls on a Trajectory Toward Space

The European Space Agency and international press agency Sipa Press are creating a touring exhibition that showcases the stories and testimonies of women around the world who share a passion for space.

Young girls in the mission control room during a simulated space station mission at space camp in Izmir, Turkey. Image Credit: Space Camp Turkey

Young girls in the mission control room during a simulated space station mission at space camp in Izmir, Turkey. Image Credit: Space Camp Turkey

Since 1963, 58 women have broken through the barrier of Earth’s atmosphere to explore the expanses of space. For each of these women and others working in the field, the bound of gravity wasn’t the only barrier they had to overcome to achieve their star-filled dreams.

Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first female U.S. astronaut in space, once noted in an interview: “out of roughly 4,000 technical employees (scientists and engineers) at [NASA] Johnson Space Center … there were only four women.” Since then, a great deal of progress has been made in addressing this disparity. For example, in NASA’s recent, highly publicized New Horizons mission to Pluto, women made up 25 percent of the team. However, despite this increase, women remain a minority in the fields of science and technology internationally.

Seeking to further minimize the gender gap, the European Space Agency (ESA) has partnered with the international press agency Sipa Press to produce Space Girls Space Women, a photo exhibition presenting the stories and testimonies of girls and women who are passionate about space. The exhibition aims to inspire future generations of girls and to promote public awareness of the important role that women play in the space industry today.

To create the exhibition, a multi-cultural team of female photojournalists traveled the globe to document the experiences of three generations of women: from young girls participating in space camps and launching homemade rockets to graduate students at the beginning of their space careers and successful leaders in top positions at ESA and other international space organizations. They created 19 original video interviews that showcase these women and their unique stories, their motivations, and their encouragement for others.

Among those included is Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who earlier this year concluded a 199-day stay aboard the International Space Station.

I always say you have to put yourself on the line, take the difficult paths that lead off the beaten-track, because it’s these experiences … that convince people that we are capable of total commitment and of learning stuff that’s new and different,” Cristoforetti says in her profile.

Also interviewed is the head of ESA’s Electrical Engineering Department, Carla Signorini. Like Cristoforetti, Signorini places an emphasis on the desire to investigate unexplored concepts and frontiers as the driving force in pursuing a scientific career.

“I think that to work in space, the first quality you need to be is curious, and this curiosity should orient you to towards studying science,” Signorini says. “The other point is, you must like working with other people. This is a key point … the human factor is very important: anything in space is made by many, many experts working together,” she concludes.

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on the International Space Station in February 2015, during her Futura mission. Image Credit: ESA/NASA

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on the International Space Station in February 2015, during her Futura mission. Image Credit: ESA/NASA

Space Girls Space Women seeks to kindle this desire and curiosity for space in three parts. A main touring exhibition, which opened in Paris in June, will be shown until November at two locations: the Musée des Arts et Métiers (Museum of Arts and Crafts) and the l’Observatoire de Paris (the Paris Observatory). After Paris, the exhibition will travel to other locations in Europe and North America. An official website contains all of the video interviews, as well as photos, links, and exhibition information. A mobile app also allows users to create their own Space Girls Space Women profiles, network with others, and take educational space quizzes. Access to all of these components is free of charge.

Bettina Boehm, head of ESA’s Human Resources Department, is enthusiastic about the project.

“We hope that the young women presented in this exhibition will serve as a great inspiration to young girls around Europe, encouraging them to follow in their footsteps,” she says. “The testimonies of these women are so true, so strong, that they can certainly act as role models for many girls who think, or are told, that science and technology is just a matter of boys.”

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