Women's Contributions to Aeronautics and Space: Historical Milestones

Essay by ages_1College, UndergraduateA+, November 2002

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When NASA was chartered in 1958, women had begun to make their mark, not

just in support roles, but also, as pioneer engineers, scientists, pilots, mathematicians and

technicians. The contribution of women to the mission of the National Aeronautics and

Space Administration dates back to NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory

Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The contribution of women to flight and

aeronautics dates back almost to the first successful powered flight on December 17,


Destinies sometimes seem to reveal themselves early in a person's life. For

Annie Jump Cannon, her early fascination with stars and rainbows cast from prisms was

a clue to what her life's work would be. At sixteen, Annie was among the first of the

young women from Delaware to attend college. Although she displayed a talent for

music, she chose to focus her studies on physics at Wellesley College. Following

graduation, Annie also developed skills in the new art of photography, and traveled to

Spain to photograph the solar eclipse in 1892.

Two years later, Annie Cannon returned to

Wellesley to assist in the physics lab. she studied mathematics and advanced physics, and

added courses in astronomy. With her interests in stars, photography and spectrums, she

was a natural for a career in astronomy, which she was beginning to realize.

In 1897, Annie Cannon joined the staff at the Harvard College Observatory, where she

was to work for over forty years. During her lifetime of studying spectrograms


(photographic plates), she learned to read the stars' spectra with ease. "They aren't just

streaks to me," she said. "Each new spectrum is the gateway to a wonderful new world. It

is almost as if the distant stars had really acquired speech and were able to tell of their

constitution and physical condition." Annie Cannon ultimately named...