Red Planet Bound

Inspiring Women of Exploration: A Tribute on International Women’s Day

By Ashton Zeth, Guest Writer, Red Planet Bound, 03.08.24

International Women’s Day (IWD), celebrated annually on March 8th, is dedicated to honoring the achievements and contributions of women throughout history. Beyond celebrating the triumphs of women, IWD also focuses on raising awareness about ongoing struggles and campaigning for gender equality. According to the US Census Bureau, International Women’s Day dates back to March 8, 1857, in New York City, when “female textile workers marched in protest of unfair working conditions and unequal rights for women. It was one of the first organized strikes by working women, during which they called for a shorter work day and decent wages.” Observation of International Women’s Day officially began in 1910, merely 10 years before the 19th Amendment granted American women the right to vote.

Over a century later, women today earn more than their predecessors, are more educated, and hold some of the highest leadership positions, but there remains substantial possibility for growth. Did you know 11% of all astronauts are women? Or that women make up only 34% of the workforce in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields? Lastly, women represent 20-22% of the space industry workforce, which is on par with the percentage from 30 years ago?

On this International Women’s Day in 2024, I applaud all the trailblazer women who broke through gender barriers, reached the highest levels of leadership, and paved the path for modern women to brave the next frontier…. of space and beyond.

Today I am reflecting on the women who have most impacted my STEM career journey, including Kellie Gerardi, Dr. Sian Proctor, and Emily Calandrelli.

Kellie Gerardi

One of the most influential books I have ever read is Not Necessarily Rocket Science by Kellie Gerardi. During a casual stroll through Barnes and Noble, my attention was drawn to a specific book featuring a beautiful brown hair, brown-eyed woman in an orange space suit. Immediately I purchased the book and dove into the first chapter. At that moment, I did not comprehend the impact this book would have on my new trajectory.

Kellie Gerardi is an American astronaut, researcher, author, technology professional, and popular science communicator. Forbes Magazine detailed how Kellie has leveraged social media platforms and her Luna Muna book series, to share her story and “reinforce the notion that representation matters and STEM is cool.”

Recently, in November of 2023, Kellie flew to space as a payload specialist on the Galactic 05 research mission with Virgin Galactic, during which she conducted healthcare and thermodynamic fluid experiments on behalf of the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS).

The most valuable message from Not Necessarily Rocket Science is that space is for everyone! And not just men, scientists, or engineers. But women, mothers, storytellers, artists, and dreamers. Kellie graduated college with a film degree, but that did not stop her from taking countless roles which provided critical knowledge to develop a career in space. Especially with the emerging private and commercial space industry, space is becoming more accessible for all people. “My professional journey is proof that there is no one specific degree or background required to contribute to the future of space exploration. Space is for everyone.”

In Not Necessarily Rocket Science, Kellie offers endless advice to readers interested in launching their own space careers, including finding valuable mentors, getting involved at every chance, and volunteering for seemingly unspectacular roles. Kellie recollected taking the small, odds jobs, saying “During evening events I helped with the check-in and coat check, and when the front desk was short-staffed, I was happy to reprise my old role as receptionist. My commitment to the club’s most basic core operations earned me credibility for the more glamorous ones.”

This specific piece of advice is how I originally became involved with the Mars Society. I wanted to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who I could learn from and contribute to in return, so I joined the Mars Society in 2020 as a member. When the Mars Society announced the Ambassador program, this felt like the perfect opportunity to utilize my energy and background in communications for a cause that I am passionate about. Through the interview process, the Mars Society directors offered me the hosting role of the Red Planet Live podcast and eventually, the chance to write this article.

Dr. Sian Proctor

In 2021, a new space documentary called Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space was released on Netflix, which altered my outlook on the chance of “normal people” like myself, reaching space. This limited series chronicled the SpaceX Dragon mission, Inspiration4, in which four civilians, Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Christopher Sembroski, and Hayley Arceneaux, launched into space on a three-day trip. The mission also served as a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s hospital, which raised more than $250 million.

Dr. Sian Proctor is an American astronaut, geology professor, artist, author, and science communicator. In September 2021, Proctor made history when she became the first African American woman to pilot a spacecraft. Before her launch, she completed several analog astronaut simulations including a two-week mission at the Mars Desert Research Station, in Utah.

Watching Dr. Proctor and the Inspiration4 crew complete their historic all-civilian mission was a pivotal moment, that proved to me and millions of others, that space is becoming increasingly accessible to people of all backgrounds.

Despite her successes, Dr. Proctor has been open about her life-long struggle with imposter syndrome. In an interview with CNBC, Proctor described the self-doubt she experienced after failing NASA’s astronaut selection process in 2009, telling herself “You’re not good enough, you never should have applied and all of these things. How are you going to make yourself better? Because clearly, you’re not as good as you could be.”

That experience resonated with me, and likely many others. I too have doubted myself. It is easy to have negative thoughts following a failure. The feeling that you are incapable of achieving a goal, or that undeserving of certain opportunities. I learned from Dr. Proctor that everyone feels that way, even astronauts. To overcome that anxiety, she emphasized a refocus on highlighting skills, recognizing positive characteristics, and acknowledging victories, no matter how small.

Sian Proctor is proof that with dedicated preparation, positive self-talk, perseverance, and an artistic flare, it is possible to become an astronaut.

Emily Calandrelli

Emily “The Space Gal” Calandrelli is a renowned science communicator, Emmy-nominated television host, author of multiple books, and an advocate for STEM education. With a master’s degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT, she combines her academic background with her entertainment industry experience to make complex scientific concepts accessible to all.

One topic that Calandrelli is fiercely outspoken about is parental and women’s health rights. She has delivered talks on television programs such as CBS and The Today Show, industry conferences, and presented at various corporate events, speaking about the importance of diversity in STEM, the value of representation, and championing women’s reproductive rights.

Representation of women in the sciences is lacking, but efforts by women like Emily Calandrelli, are leaving an impact on young children and spawning a whole new generation of future scientists. Emily’s Wonder Lab is a popular Netflix program that teaches science to kids through fun and interactive experiments. While on Red Planet Live podcast, Calandrelli illustrated to me the effect of Emily’s Wonder Lab, by recalling a specific instance when a young viewer illustrated his rendering of a scientist. But it was not the traditional Albert Einstein-looking character. But rather, a drawing of pregnant Emily, who filmed the first season of Emily’s Wonder Lab while expecting her first child. In his mind, a pregnant woman could be a scientist. This is a great example of the powerful influence that representation can have on children and altering perceptions of gender roles.

Emily juggles life as the “Space Gal” with being a wife and mother-of-two, and does it with an infectious blend of humor, humility, and grace. And somehow, she still manages to support others in their endeavors, like speaking with a newcomer podcast host, like me.

Before our Red Planet Live interview, I spent hours researching Emily’s educational background, watching her show Xploration Outer Space, listening to her TedTalks, and consuming content she produced for social media. During our conversation, she complimented how prepared I was for our interview. That small compliment was a meaningful gesture because I take pride in the opportunity to host Red Planet Live and strive to produce a quality interview, where listeners are engaged and feel welcomed to join in the conversation.

I admire Emily Calandrelli for her advocacy of STEM education, women’s rights, and inspiring future scientists! 

International Women’s Day is just one day of the year that we highlight the achievements of women throughout history. But the impact of these three women can be felt year-round. I am proud and confident that with these women at the helm, the world is destined for greatness.

As I always say, The Best is Yet to Come!

Ashton Zeth is an Account Executive for Nintex, an autonomation software company, host of the Red Planet Live podcast, and a Mars Society Ambassador. Ashton is a long-time space enthusiast, who is passionate about STEM education, making humanity an interplanetary species, and the future of settlement of Mars.