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Women Are 'Bright Spots' in Solar Research Program
03.09.12
 
Dana Brewer

Image above: Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) Program Executive Dana Brewer is shown with an image of the SDO satellite in 2010. Image credit: NASA
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Nancy Grace Roman

Image above: Dr. Nancy Roman, one of the nation's top scientists in the space program, is shown with a model of the Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO) in 1963. Image credit: NASA
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Women scientists have been at the forefront in space exploration and discovery, managing NASA's solar research missions "with flare" over the past 50 years.

Nancy Roman was chief of astronomy in the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters in 1962 when the first of NASA's eight Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO) satellites launched from Cape Canaveral on March 7. Roman, who "reached for the stars" in more ways than one, is distinguished as the first woman to hold an executive position in the agency.

Roman’s astronomy credentials included a bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College and a doctorate from the University of Chicago.

Women often encountered resistance in their pursuit of scientific careers during that era and Roman was no exception.

"At Swarthmore, the Dean of Women was very opposed to women going into science or engineering," Roman recalled during an interview in 2000 for an oral history project, "so opposed that if she couldn't talk a girl out of it, she just never had anything more to do with her for the four years she was there."

A transcript of Roman's interview is available online in its entirety at www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/ oral_histories/NASA_HQ/Herstory/RomanNG/romanng.pdf.

The OSO-1 spacecraft made Roman proud, transmitting 1,000 hours of real-time data on solar phenomena, including measurements of 75 solar flares, until May 1964.

Before Roman retired in 1979, she had oversight for the planning and development of several other astronomical satellite programs, including the Cosmic Background Explorer and the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA's solar research continues today, 50 years later, with NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), managed by a bevy of women scientists including SDO Program Executive Dana Brewer.

Brewer's experience with career advice was not unlike that received by Roman.

"I accepted the challenge of succeeding in science when a chemistry professor told me that women should not get science degrees, because it's a man's field," Brewer reported in an interview for the SDO Team website.

Brewer was not deterred and earned a bachelor’s degree in general science from Penn State and a doctorate in quantum chemistry from Virginia Tech.

When the sun erupted March 6, 2012, with one of the largest solar flares of this solar cycle, SDO, which launched from Cape Canaveral in February 2010, captured the event, categorized as an X5.4, from its orbit 22,300 miles above Earth.

One of the most dramatic features apparent in a video of the event is the way the entire surface of the sun seems to ripple with the force of the eruption. This movement comes from something called EIT waves because they were first discovered with the Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) on the Solar Heliospheric Observatory.

Since SDO captures images every 12 seconds, it can map the full evolution of these waves and confirm that they can travel across the full breadth of the sun. The waves move at over a million miles per hour, zipping from one side of the sun to the other in about an hour.

The video, available online at www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/ sunearth/news/News030712X1.5.html, shows two distinct waves. The first seems to spread in all directions; the second is narrower, moving toward the southeast. Such waves are associated with, and perhaps trigger, fast coronal mass ejections, so it is likely that each is connected to one of the two ejections that erupted on March 6.

The journeys of the OSO and SDO spacecraft have been successful but how do these two women scientists feel about their career paths?

"Well, when I joined NASA," Roman said, "…because the women's pages (of the newspapers) were so very anxious to get material, I got a great deal of publicity, much more, I think, than I deserved, but in a way, it was fun. As a result, of course, I had a lot of opportunities that I probably would not have had as a man in the same job."

Brewer concurred, "Society's acceptance of female engineers has caught up with my activities."

For additional information on the "Women of SDO," visit www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/ sdo/team/women-of-sdo.html.

For information on NASA's commitment to attract and retain students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines, visit www.nasa.gov/education.

 
 
Kay Grinter
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center