February 8, 2020.

NASA astronaut Christina Koch works on U.S. spacesuits inside the Quest joint airlock of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

NASA Astronaut Christina Koch returned to Earth on Thursday after spending 328 days on the International Space Station, having set the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman. The story of women in exploration is one that inspires me tremendously and holds lessons for all of us who strive to defy convention and succeed against all odds. This has a lot to do with the fact that I have lived this very experience – much like the famous photograph of the only woman engineer in the firing room during Apollo 11, JoAnn Morgan.

Unfortunately, this century-old saga has had many fits and starts due to numerous external influences. Through tremendous advancements in technology, two world wars, national policies on civil rights and employment, the Cold War and various space races, and gradual changes in our society, women have come a long way but not far enough. This is very much the case across the board, literally – from corporate boards and C-suites to science and engineering careers.

As reported by the Washington Post in November:
In the aerospace industry, only 24 percent of employees are women, and there has been little change in years, according to a study done by Aviation Week. For many, another example of how far the agency has to go came just a few weeks ago when NASA announced its “honor awards,” what it calls its “highest form of recognition” to employees and contractors. In total, 42 people were honored. All but two were men. “We haven’t moved very much in the last 30 years in overall diversity,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, the president and CEO of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, an industry group. “Aerospace is still heavily male and white, and we’re not moving very quickly.”

JoAnn Morgan later accomplished many “firsts” for women at NASA: winning a Sloan Fellowship, becoming a division chief, senior executive and agency director of Safety and Mission Assurance. So many others, both well-known and “hidden”, have also helped pave the way. And now, Christina Koch has broken Peggy Whitson’s 2017 record of 288 single mission days, and she was only 12 days short of the American record set by Scott Kelly in 2016. A woman still has the overall career duration record for any astronaut, at 665 days in space—Dr. Peggy Whitson. This is yet another vivid example of a concept very dear to me: when women of equal capability are given equal opportunity, the sky is the limit.

It was thrilling to see Christina in the first all-female spacewalk last October, where she and Jessica Meir made history in low-Earth orbit while guided on the ground by capsule communicator (CAPCOM) astronaut Stephanie Wilson. These three women are part of a small cadre of current female astronauts, one of whom is destined to become the first woman to set foot on the surface of the Moon, addressing another significant achievement gap that is perhaps one of the greatest in human history.

No less than 55 years will have passed before a woman will be able to make this unforgettable journey that changed the world, a stunning example of the steps forward and back we continue to face. The fact is, the larger and more bureaucratic the technology program, the longer it takes for women to have a primary seat at the table. In some ways I have done my part, launching Stellar Solutions as a woman-owned technical company after already blazing new trails in my own engineering career and helping open doors for other women who followed. But this work is never done–it is up to all of us, as a community, as a company and as individuals – to usher in a future of boundless possibility for all.

The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific and religious freedom have always been nonconformists. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back. – Malala Yousafzai

About the author: Celeste Ford is the Founder and Board Chair of Stellar Solutions. Read her bio here.