On April 10, 2019, a tweet went viral showing computer scientist Katie Bouman and her look of delightful surprise. Bouman was at the helm of the team that developed an algorithm that stitched together images to give the world a very first look at a black hole. The rest is history, still in the making.
Bouman, a graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (MIT-CSAIL), is an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Bouman’s work with the Event Horizon Telescope team and her own ‘CHIRP’ algorithm, which stands for Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors, was pivotal in the breakthrough that helped create the image of a black hole — intergalactic dying stars that many scientists before her deemed impossible to photograph by virtue of their properties. Bouman and her team, had other ideas.
It is this that underlines the grand narrative of women and their roles in space research and astrophysics. The achievement solidified Bouman as a role model in a field that has been typically male dominated for long. Her work and achievements also pay homage to women in space, and their myriad contributions that have helped mankind understand science beyond the times.
NASA astronaut Christina Koch.
Bouman’s work came right on the back of NASA astronaut Christina Koch’s arrival at the International Space Station (ISS). Soon after her arrival, NASA made a milestone announcement by extending Koch’s stay aboard the ISS until February 2020. This scheduled her to officially become the longest woman resident in space, wherein she is set to clock 328 days in microgravity. Her stay will come mighty close to the 340 days that fellow NASA astronaut Scott Kelly spent at ISS, and her contribution will be instrumental in our understanding of the effects of long term spaceflight in near-zero gravity conditions.
In India, on July 22, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)’s historic Chandrayaan-2 mission took off for the moon. While the mission did not complete its objective due to a part-mission failure with the Vikram lander, ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 still played a crucial role in progressing India’s position in global space mission. At its helm were the ‘Rocket Women’ of India, ISRO’s project director Muthayya Vanitha, and mission director, Ritu Karidhal. Their tumultuous contributions were a part of Mangalyaan — India’s Mars mission, Chandrayaan, and Mission Shakti, India’s own anti-satellite missile test. Karidhal and Vanitha became the face of ISRO’s achievements — while Karidhal’s 22-year stint at ISRO became widely recognised, Vanitha was named as one of the top five scientists to watch by Nature journal.
ISRO mission director Ritu Karidhal.
Back at NASA, Koch set more records later in 2019 when she, along with new ISS resident Jessica Meir, held the first ever all-female spacewalk on October 18. In her post-spacewalk broadcast back to Earth, Koch stated, “We’re in sort of a new chapter now where we’ve crossed that line and two women have done it. Now, hopefully, it will become commonplace and it won’t even necessarily be something that’s a big deal down the road.”
Koch and Meir’s contribution to our space research was the first of its kind, but aims to make it regular and natural for more women astronauts to follow. It is this that makes the contributions of Bouman, Koch, Meir and all other women in space research right now so important — the ultimate goal, after all, is to not have any notion of gender bias around.
The women that made 2019 the year of women in space also pay homage to astrophysicists, engineers and researchers, dating all the way back to the first Apollo mission in 1969. While progress in this field has not been the fastest, it speaks volumes when one considers that during the iconic Apollo 11 mission, the only woman in the entire team was JoAnn H. Morgan, the only woman in the Apollo mission control room, and the first ever female engineer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. For India, the image of women researchers celebrating post Chandrayaan-2’s successful launch will inspire generations to come.
The trail blazed forth by these women have seen their impact already, in the form of NASA renaming the street in front of their Washington, DC headquarters to Hidden Figures Way — in honour of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, women who were pivotal to achievements made in the first Space Race era. NASA further announced the Artemis moon mission for 2024, when the first ever woman is slated to set foot on the moon.
Going forward, 2019 will be remembered as the year when women led mankind’s charge towards the unexplored frontiers, bringing mankind closer to reaching for the stars.
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