Today, although NASA’s workforce is still mostly white and male, the agency employs more women than ever before as astronauts, engineers, scientists, and other workers. Of the 18 astronauts the agency has selected to train specifically for a future moon mission, half are women, including several women of color. Three of NASA’s four new flight directors, announced last month, are women. More women than in the past are in senior roles at NASA and at the private space companies that contribute to the agency’s missions. Last year, Kathy Lueders became the first woman to lead the agency’s human-spaceflight program, which is in charge of all astronaut missions, including flights with SpaceX, itself steered by a woman, Gwynne Shotwell. In the past decade, many longtime NASA contractors, including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing’s space division, have been led by women.
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After Biden won the election, the prospect of a woman running NASA seemed almost inevitable to many in the space community. Potential candidates included Ellen Stofan, a former NASA chief scientist who is now the director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum; Wanda Sigur, a former vice president at Lockheed Martin who began her career there as an engineer; Wanda Austin, a former president of the Aerospace Corporation with a doctorate in systems engineering; and Laurie Leshin, a scientist who serves as president of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts.
These women are eminently qualified to run NASA, but the administrator gig has no hard-and-fast rules about résumés. Dan Goldin, who served mainly under Bill Clinton, was an engineer who worked on classified space programs. Sean O’Keefe, who was appointed by George W. Bush, was fresh from the Office of Management and Budget; Mike Griffin, who took over during Bush’s second term, was a physicist and aerospace engineer. Bolden, Obama’s pick, was a Marine with no political experience.
While Nelson received training for his spaceflight experience in 1986, he flew on the space shuttle as a tourist, and returned to the halls of Congress after he touched down. The magnificent sight of Earth from orbit has stayed with Nelson over the years. “That impression has informed a great deal of my public service,” he told me in an interview last year. Nelson’s remark about Bridenstine’s qualifications is bound to come up during his own confirmation hearings. But it’s unlikely to amount to more than an awkward sound bite, not something that will sink his confirmation vote in a Senate controlled by the president’s party.
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If confirmed, Nelson will carry out Biden’s space-policy plans. The administration has expressed support for former President Donald Trump’s Artemis program, named for Apollo’s sister, which will take a new generation of astronauts to the surface of the moon—including the first woman. Trump wanted astronauts to reach the moon by 2024, the end of what he imagined would be his second term, but Biden is expected to set a later, more realistic deadline.