12 APRIL 2017
BY ISLA MACNEIL, FOUNDER OF INGENUES


Today marks the UN's International Day of Human Space Flight. This was established in 2011 on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s epic 1961 mission when he became the first human in space.

Of the 533 people who have travelled into space since Gagarin’s first mission, around 10 percent of these have been women and 1.5 percent have been women of colour. Women have been involved in the space race since it began and more of their stories need to be told.

A mere two years after Gagarin’s mission, another Russian cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space when she piloted Vostok 6 in June 1963. In 2013 - aged 77 - she volunteered for a one-way trip to Mars (she’s still waiting to go).

It would be another 29 years before Mae Jemison would became the first woman of colour in space in 1992. Jemison was inspired to join the space programme by Sally Ride, who in 1983 was the first woman from the United States to leave our atmosphere.

In more recent news, Peggy Whitson who is currently living on the International Space Station, has been breaking records left, right and centre. She is the first female Commander of a space station (and now the first woman to do this twice). She has also completed the most space walks as a woman and is currently the oldest woman to have travelled into space.

None of them got there alone. Behind every person in space there were thousands of engineers, operators, physicists and mission controllers working towards each launch and mission. And as the recent film Hidden Figures showed us so brilliantly - many of them were women and women of colour.

My mission at Ingenues is to tell their stories and inspire children - specifically young girls - to follow in their footsteps.

One of the very first Ingenues activity packs was about Mae Jemison. She was an astronaut on the Endeavour Space Shuttle in 1992 and the first woman of colour in space. She also studied Chemical Engineering and Medicine at university and first trained as a doctor before later enrolling on a NASA space programme in 1987. Jemison now travels the globe delivering inspiring lectures and has a long-standing interest in the promotion of Science and the Arts to children. In a word, she is incredible.

When I took my Mae Jemison activity to the WoW festival in March I noticed people very excitedly but incorrectly identifying Mae Jemison as one of the women from the recent film Hidden Figures - a film set decades before Jemison’s first mission.

While the number of female astronauts is small, it is nevertheless improving and the future is looking brighter with NASAs latest class of astronauts having a 50:50 gender split. But our past is full of unexplored and unheard tales of incredible women who have done incredible things - and we should keep finding them and shouting about them.

A good starting place for such work is with children so that they can see this as something interesting and potentially accessible to them too. Once this seed has been planted, it is then important to keep them interested through STEM that is engaging and inclusive. This is part of the aim of my own company, Ingenues. By creating activities and workshops for children based on inspirational women, we hope to inspire these young people to take a closer look at what they could also achieve.

Telling these stories should be the least we can do - a small step forwards towards a more equal society. But with missions to the moon and Mars coming in the next couple of decades, maybe they’ll inspire a young girl somewhere to take a giant leap forwards for womankind. And that could change everything.


Isla MacNeil, founder of IngenuesAbout author

Isla Macneil is the founder of Ingenues. This is a not-for-profit company which creates activities and workshops based on inspirational women and their careers, including Mae Jemison and Amy Johnson.