The Adler Planetarium celebrates women in space science and STEM education in a full-day special event

Posted by Alison Klesman
on Monday, May 15, 2017

The Women in Space Science program has highlighted outstanding women in STEM fields since 2002. // Courtesy of the Adler Planetarium

Last Thursday, May 11, the Women’s Board of the Adler Planetarium hosted their 15th annual Women in Space Science Award Celebration. This day-long event began with an award ceremony honoring a unique and accomplished woman in the field of space science and exploration, then culminated in an afternoon STEM workshop for local Chicago schoolgirls.

I had the pleasure of attending the celebration, which this year honored Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Interiors Program Manager and Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses. Virgin Galactic is the world’s first commercial spaceline, pursuing a goal that has graced the minds and dreams of both women and men since long before the first human beings orbited the globe: accessible spaceflight for all. As 2017’s award recipient, Moses joins past honorees that include NASA astronauts Sunita L. Williams and Colonel Pam Melroy, astrophysicists C. Megan Urry and Vera Rubin, and president and COO of SpaceX Gwynne Shotwell.

The award luncheon at the Drake Hotel in Chicago included a keynote presentation by Moses. After the luncheon concluded, Moses gave additional presentations to the school groups visiting the nearby Adler Planetarium as part of the afternoon’s STEM activities.

The Women in Space Science Award Celebration is not only an important opportunity to shine the spotlight on a woman who has achieved success in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and math), it is also a major fundraising effort to support ongoing STEM education programs at the Adler Planetarium. The remarkable turnout and success of the 2017 event helped to raise more than $130,000 toward this goal. 

Spotlight on Beth Moses

Beth Moses during her keynote presentation at the Drake Hotel. // Courtesy of the Women’s Board of the Adler Planetarium; photo by Bob Carl

Virgin Galactic aims to bring spaceflight within reach of everyone, ending its current exclusivity for all but a select few. The spaceline is already testing its craft for flight. SpaceShipTwo, Virgin’s versatile passenger spacecraft, will be carried to an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) for air launch by the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. Once set free, SpaceShipTwo will rocket away with up to six passengers and two pilots to altitudes of 62 miles (100km) or more before descending back to Earth.

An integral part of putting spaceflight into the hands of the public is astronaut training for the public — and an important question thus arises: “How do you train the average citizen to become an astronaut?”

A veteran aerospace engineer at NASA, where she helped to turn the International Space Station from a blueprint into a reality, Beth Moses is not only Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, she is also its inaugural astronaut instructor. As she says, “I don't just get to do this job, I get to create this job. It’s never been done, we have to figure it out as we go, and that it can enthrall so many and space is opening up to the public is so amazing.” Of her work, she adds that, “No one has ever developed private spaceflight or private spaceflight training for the general public. And that is daunting and amazing and exciting.”

Moses has been dedicated to space and spaceflight all her life. While she admits that there were classes and subjects in school she found challenging, she never considered giving up or faltered from that path, even when a “well-meaning NASA advisor” suggested she go into mechanical engineering, rather than aeronautical and astronautical engineering, because of broader job prospects.

Overall, Moses says she was surrounded by other aerospace engineers, first in school and later at NASA, who created an environment of support and belonging. “I’ve been really fortunate – everyone around me has always supported me and been equally passionate about the field,” she says. “You can’t do it alone – there’s no way you can build a spacecraft alone. You have to team up and that buoys everyone.”

Moses is passionate, excited, and enthusiastic about her work and the incredible meaning it holds not only for the future of human spaceflight, but potentially the human race as a whole. “I’ve always had a passion for space,” she says, “and I think space and space travel and astronomy bring out the best in humanity, and I really feel it’s a great unifying force.”

Her overall message is simple: “I want people to realize that we’re doing this – humanity is doing this today, there is an International Space Station flying today. Sixteen countries have built it. Companies beyond Virgin Galactic are currently developing systems for private citizens to fly to space and it really unifies everyone. I think it’s cool. And I think it’s important – there’s some thread of importance in there. It brings people together.”

Adler’s Women in Space Science Celebration

Guests prepare for the awards luncheon and a keynote presentation by Beth Moses at the Drake Hotel. // Astronomy: Alison Klesman

Moses’ message during her keynote presentation at the award luncheon was also one of unification. “Space is the great unifier,” she said, addressing a ballroom of more than 400 guests, including numerous family and friends; Moses grew up in nearby Northbrook and visited the Adler Planetarium regularly as a teen. 

Award recipients are chosen based not only on their achievements, but also on the way their work provides inspiration for young girls seeking to pursue similar careers. Moses stressed that she was not there to speak just about being a woman in STEM, but rather about being a part of humanity’s first endeavors to “open spaceflight for all.” Nonetheless, before embarking on her heartfelt and inspiring, presentation, she stressed, “We [women] are not few and far between” in the aerospace industry, adding, “Engineers don’t come in pink or blue.”

The presentation included both personal memories of her hard work and achievements — including the support that made them possible — and a look at some of the recent test flights undertaken by Virgin Galactic as the company continues preparations that will send its more than 700 currently-ticketed customers into space, starting with the company’s founder, Richard Branson.

Her presentation concluded with the same message of unity and, perhaps, peace. “Spaceflight by nature is a global endeavor,” she said, and “the aim of Virgin Galactic is to open space to all to change the world for good.” By allowing all of us the opportunity to see our planet from afar, traveling to space can lend a more global perspective to the everyday thinking of any and perhaps every citizen of Earth, reminding us that our world is fragile, beautiful, and shared.

Adler Planetarium Student Program

Following the luncheon, I accompanied the planetarium staff back to the Adler to check out the STEM workshops taking place. Around 250 middle-school girls from the area attended a short presentation by Moses, which included the opportunity to ask questions about her struggles, her inspirations, her goals, and her thoughts on the future of spaceflight. 

Beth Moses addresses a theater full of young girls at the Adler Planetarium. // Courtesy of the Women’s Board of the Adler Planetarium; photo by Bob Carl

The girls then headed to one of many team-based, hands-on STEM projects set up around the planetarium, including the “Wind Tunnel Challenge” in the Community Design Lab and “Can You Land on Mars?” in the glass-windowed planetarium café. The latter station focused on creating and landing a spacecraft (in this case, a paper airplane) on Mars (for workshop purposes, a full-color image of the planet). These students tested their designs under two sets of circumstances, first attempting to toss paper airplanes by hand (powered flight) in the hopes of achieving the right power and trajectory to land on the planet. Next, they tested their design’s ability to reach their goal via unpowered flight, dropping their planes with the push of a button from a balloon at ceiling height, letting them free-fall to the planet and hoping their design would provide the right amount of glide to hit their mark. 

A paper airplane is raised high above the planet Mars (placed on the floor) as students prepare to test their spacecraft's accuracy via unpowered flight. // Astronomy: Alison Klesman

At each station, Adler staff provided support and all the supplies necessary to let the students’ imaginations run wild, offering encouragement and guidance while focusing on letting the students work together to find the solution to their given quandary. Overall, the STEM workshop highlighted the benefits of group problem-solving and engineering innovation, two of the major points stressed by Moses as vital to aerospace engineers around the world during the day’s presentations.

This workshop is just one of many STEM education and outreach efforts put on by the Adler Planetarium, which this year celebrated the 87th anniversary of its opening in 1930 as the first planetarium in the United States. You can visit the Adler online find out more about the planetarium and its current and future programs for all students interested in space science and engineering.

Chicago-area students work on the 'Wind Tunnel Challenge' in the Adler's Community Design Lab. // Astronomy: Alison Klesman

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