Ladies who launch: Women are powering the private space industry




By Michal Lev-Ram

Candace Johnson is showing me a photo taken in Kourou, French Guiana, on Dec. 12, 1988. It’s a grainy, black-and-white picture. But her recollection of that day is crystal clear: The photo was taken on the eve of the launch of the first Astra satellite, made by European aerospace company SES, which Johnson cofounded. (Another visionary entrepreneur, Rupert Murdoch, was her very first customer, and he used that inaugural satellite to launch his Sky Television Network.)

The image, uploaded to Johnson’s computer and shared with me over Zoom, depicts two rows of people, the team behind the Astra-1A launch. Some are standing and some are crouching. Most of them are wearing white button-down shirts, khakis, and rectangular name badges. But Johnson is easy to spot. Out of the group of nearly 30, she’s the only one in culottes—and the only woman on the team. 


The space suit snafu didn’t come as a surprise to Dava Newman, director of the MIT Media Lab, a former deputy administrator of NASA—and yet another Johnson connection. She’s known for developing the BioSuit, a lighter-weight, “second skin” space suit that allows astronauts greater range of motion. It’s also designed for people shorter than 5 feet 5 inches (such as Newman), who haven’t fit into NASA’s previous models, and was widely tested on women. Bringing a broader range of people into the field is essential when it comes to pushing such innovations forward, she says. “We have a long way to go—there’s been little incremental change when we look at who the workforce is.”

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