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By Aswan Magumbe
he gender equity gap in the space industry has long been subjected to scrutiny. After years of rapid technological advancements, it feels bittersweet that it has been unable to do so for bringing women into the space (no pun intended), with a little over 12% of the industry being women.
However, that number is taking off. Chairwoman of Space Frontier and executive director for Space Prize Kim Macharia is leading that change by helping to initiate the careers of aspiring female space entrepreneurs.
It all started with a NASA jacket discovered during a trip to the thrift store and a musical; now, space pioneer Kim Macharia is on a mission to launch more women into space. “My last script was a musical comedy about two women competing for a free trip to space, and that script was inspired by just a NASA jacket,” she said.
“I think most reasons why young women can't envision a pathway for themselves into this space is because there aren't too many of us here in leadership."
“My research for that script led me to understand and uncover just how difficult it can be to enter into the space industry if you're a woman, if you're of colour or if you're born in a non-spacefaring nation.” So, as a philosophy student, she wrote her senior thesis about ‘democratising the space industry’. Her initial aspirations towards the industry she describes as ‘bold’ and ‘audacious’ but it is nothing short of admirable.
“I've had the great pleasure of getting to work on a number of projects centred around democratising and diversifying the space industry which was the whole reason I ever wanted to enter space,” she said. “A lot of opportunities have come my way and I'm incredibly grateful for that.” And with this, she hopes to show the next generation how these opportunities are also available to them.
It was four years ago when Macharia embarked on this new endeavour and at that time, she was one of - if not the only - few in the room but “it's definitely improved since I first entered the industry.”
“Only 12% of astronauts have ever been women. On top of that, only four astronauts ever have been black women.”
It was alarming to her that an industry of this magnitude seemed so internally sheltered, and she set on ensuring that the next four years wouldn’t look like that for the next generation of space entrepreneurs. “I think most reasons why young women can't envision a pathway for themselves into this space is because there aren't too many of us here in leadership positions, at least that are being spotlighted. By adjusting that, we'll start to see some enhanced representation.”
The term ‘diversifying and democratising’ is one that is stamped to Macharia’s name, and in the aeronautical field, this can be difficult to decipher. But she breaks it down. “I'm a numbers person so right now when you think about the space industry, astronauts are the most visible individuals you can think about and everybody thinks about Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong,” she states enthusiastically. “Unfortunately, only 12% of astronauts have ever been women. On top of that, only four astronauts ever have been black women.”
This year will be the celebration of 30 years since Mae Jemison, the first Black female in space, orbited the earth for nearly eight years. Yet since Jemison, only three other Black women have embarked on the same journey: Stephanie Wilson and Joan Higginbotham, NASA astronauts, and Sian Proctor, an astronaut from Inspiration4.
Macharia is committed to increasing that number. “You look at the movie Hidden Figures and the work of engineers who made prolific impact and help to advance the industry further and for me, I want to see more women, more minorities. I want to see gender equity,” she said. As of 2021, only 20-22% of space leaders are women. Macharia believes ‘that number is atrocious’. “We have to start shifting that.”
"I want to see more women, more minorities. I want to see gender equity."
Already, Macharia is leading two major organisations within the space field; she is the Executive Director of Space Prize, a US-based non-profit organisation seeking to empower young women to enter and engage with the space economy.
Currently, they have launched a competition for students in public schools across five New York boroughs in which one student will be selected from each school to receive mentoring from leading women in the industry and most importantly, a seat on a ZERO-G flight which mimics the feeling of being in space.
For this, the organisation has enlisted the help of Poppy Northcutt, the woman who brought Apollo 11 to a safe landing, and Ginger Kerrick, the first Hispanic female space flight director, to help mentor these young women. They are also set to announce a global competition this summer in June, enabling the winners to $250,000 worth of private astronaut experiences including Space Perspective. Together, they are hopeful that this will also increase the representation of those from non-spacefaring parts of the world.
Right now, the only person from Africa who's been to space was a white male billionaire who went on a personally funded journey. No one else from Sub-saharan Africa has ever been to space and the way things are going right now, it's not going to happen anytime soon."
“Right now, the only person from Africa who's ever been to space was a white male billionaire who went on a personally funded journey,” she said. “Other than him, no one from Sub-saharan Africa has ever been to space and the way that things are going right now, it's not going to happen anytime soon.”
She is also the Chairwoman of the Space Frontier Foundation, a non-profit space advocacy organisation that has been around since 1988 and is committed to ‘opening the space frontier to human settlement’ and ensuring maximum accessibility to everyone within commercial space industries.
Macharia has led countless initiatives revolving around climate change, diversity and inclusion, and STEM - or as she coins, STEAM, for the addition of arts. “The ultimate goal is to use space as a tool for transformation,” she says.
As for the future of space and its inhabiting of women, there is hope. From school visits to space conventions, Macharia is one of many women in the sphere showing that the possibilities are truly endless.
“I try and remind girls about the importance of entering a space and maintaining your authenticity, no matter whether or not you're the only one or in a room full of people that look just like you,” she said. “Getting into the art of mastering being who you are in any space is vital to getting comfortable and getting yourself into a position where you can fully secure and leverage, and get the full benefits of the opportunities that come your way.”
Meet Kim Macharia, the chairwoman and executive director for two non-profit organisations orbiting around the clock to increase the number of women making it into space.
By Aswan Magumbe
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