The writer put together these Lego figures of Mae Jemison, M.D., left, and Sally Ride, Ph.D. In 1992, Dr. Jemison became the first African American woman to travel in space when she went into orbit aboard the space shuttle Endeavor. Physicist Dr. Ride was the first American woman in space when, in 1983, she flew on the space shuttle Challenger. Photo by Meg Evans Smith

“Hidden Figures” introduced the country to just a few of the talented women at NASA who helped advance America’s early space program. To learn about other trailblazing NASA women, one could go to the library, search the internet … or play with some Legos.

Last November, Lego released its Women of NASA set, featuring four real-life NASA scientists. The set was designed by Maia Weinstock, deputy editor of MIT News, who also teaches the history of women in science and engineering at
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a Lego fan.  

As a hobby, Ms. Weinstock has created dozens of Lego minifigures (called “minifigs”) modeled after science and technology professionals, including luminaries such as Jane Goodall, Temple Grandin, Ada Lovelace, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Stephen Hawking. She proposed the Women of NASA set in July 2016 through Lego Ideas, a crowdsourcing platform for new Lego designs. Within two weeks, she had garnered the 10,000 supporters needed before Lego considers an idea for production.  Sixteen months later, her set was rocketing off store shelves.  

Space Pioneers Live on as Minifigs
“Ladies rock outer space!” proclaims Ms. Weinstock on her Lego Ideas submission page. “Women have played critical roles throughout the history of the U.S. space program. Yet in many cases, their contributions are unknown or under-appreciated – especially as women have historically struggled to gain acceptance in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).”

Women of NASA spotlights Margaret Hamilton, the computer scientist who developed on-board flight software for the Apollo moon missions; Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space alongside Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; and Nancy Grace Roman, an astronomer and NASA executive who oversaw the planning and development of the Hubble Space Telescope.  

Ms. Weinstock’s original idea also included Katherine Johnson, the “Hidden Figures” mathematician who calculated trajectories for the Mercury, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs. Lego says it did not receive permission from Ms. Johnson to be included in the set.

The set recreates a 1969 photo of Margaret Hamilton standing next to a tower of binders containing the printed Apollo flight code she wrote. Nancy Grace Roman’s minifig accompanies a Lego model of the Hubble Space Telescope, and a Lego Space Shuttle perches between Dr. Jemison and Dr. Ride, whose minifigs sport their respective Space Shuttle suits.  Ms. Weinstock says the set provides an educational building experience to help young and old alike learn about the history of women in STEM.  

“My dream would be to know that the first human on Mars – or an engineer or computer scientist who helped her get there – played with the LEGO Women of NASA as a child and was inspired to pursue a STEM career as a result,” said Ms. Weinstock in Lego’s press release about the set.  

Nancy Roman: The Mother of Hubble
Against a steady tide of discouragement from educators who believed girls should not study math and science, Nancy Grace Roman persisted. She completed an accelerated high school-college curriculum, graduating from Swarthmore College’s Astronomy Department in 1946. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and worked in radio and microwave astronomy at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C.  When NASA was formed in 1958 and took over some of NRL’s science projects, Dr. Roman was invited to set up their astronomy program. She became the first Chief of the Astronomy and Relativity Programs in NASA’s Office of Space Science and their first ever female executive.  

Under Dr. Roman’s supervision, planning and development of the Hubble Space Telescope began in the 1970s.  She says her biggest job was convincing NASA, the Bureau of the Budget, the executive branch, and Congress that it was worth doing. In April 1990 Hubble was sent into orbit above Earth’s atmosphere, where it has captured dazzling space images ever since. For her extensive role in shepherding the project through, a former NASA colleague dubbed Dr. Roman the “Mother of Hubble.”

When a Congressman balked at Hubble’s cost, Dr. Roman told him that for the price of one night at the movies, Hubble would provide each American with 15 years of exciting scientific results. “Even if it amounted to a night at the movies once each year,” Dr. Roman, now 92, told the NASA oral history project, “I think we have had more than our return in excitement from Hubble.”  

Margaret Hamilton Landed Men on the Moon
Like all software developers in her day, Margaret Hamilton learned computer programming not at school or coding boot camp, but on the job. After earning a mathematics degree at Earlham College in Indiana, Ms. Hamilton took a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology writing code for meteorology and national security projects. She joined MIT’s Draper Laboratory, where she was placed in charge of writing in-flight software for NASA’s Apollo program.   

Ms. Hamilton wanted to add error-correcting code to the Apollo software, in case someone flipped a wrong switch or some other system mishap occurred during a mission. NASA resisted, claiming “astronauts are trained never to make a mistake,” but ultimately agreed. That one small step kept the 1969 Apollo 11 mission from ending prematurely. Minutes before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down, the computer system overloaded (later attributed to pilot error) and sounded an alarm. Her revised software analyzed the problem, compensated for it, and kept the lunar lander on track for its historic moon landing.

Ms. Hamilton – who coined the phrase “software engineer” during her Apollo career – is currently CEO of Hamilton Technologies. She received the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award for scientific and technical contributions, and in 2016 Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

Mae Jemison Followed her Dreams Into Space
Astronaut Mae Jemison declared her intent to be a scientist when she was in kindergarten. “Don’t you mean a nurse?” her teacher responded. She did not, and she tenaciously pursued science at the schools, libraries, science fairs, and museums in Chicago’s Woodlawn and Morgan Park neighborhoods, where she grew up. She balanced her studies with dance (a lifelong passion), the arts, student council, Russian language, and dreams of space travel.  

At age 16, Dr. Jemison bypassed offers from MIT, Cornell, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in order to study chemical engineering as well as African and African American studies at Stanford University. She went on to Cornell University Medical College, and applied her medical training with the Peace Corps in Africa.

Dr. Jemison applied to NASA’s astronaut training program in 1985; she was the first African American woman accepted, and the first to travel into space. As a science mission specialist on the space shuttle Endeavour in 1992, she conducted experiments on bone loss, motion sickness, cell biology, human physiology, and tadpole development in zero gravity. After NASA, Dr. Jemison founded a company that integrated technology with social issues. She has written children’s books about space, received numerous awards and honorary doctorates, has several schools named after her, and even appeared in an episode of “Star Trek: Next Generation.”

Sally Ride  First American Woman in Space
Reporters asked America’s first woman in space some pretty dumb questions before her historic space shuttle flight in 1983.  Armed with three Stanford University degrees, including a Ph.D. in physics, plus several years of intense astronaut training, 32-year-old Sally Ride was asked about bath-room facilities, makeup, and whether she cried when the simulator malfunctioned. She said she would have preferred being asked about deploying communications satellites or operating the shuttle’s new robotic arm.  

Dr. Ride spent her youth in California studying science and playing competitive tennis but did not imagine herself as an astronaut until she saw an ad in the Stanford student newspaper inviting women and men to apply for NASA’s space program. She was one of a handful selected out of a thousand applicants. She flew as a mission specialist on two Challenger flights, in 1983 and 1984, and was scheduled to fly a third mission when Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff in 1986. Dr. Ride served on the committee investigating that accident and the Columbia explosion in 2003.  She is credited with leaking suppressed information about O-rings, whose malfunction caused Challenger’s demise. After retiring from NASA, she taught physics at Stanford and founded Sally Ride Science, a non-profit organization promoting STEM literacy and careers to young people, especially girls.  

Dr. Ride died from pancreatic cancer in 2012 at age 61. The following year Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was accepted by her life partner, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy.  During the ceremony, President Obama declared that, “As the first American woman in space, Sally did not just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, she blasted through it.” It may be fair to say that all the Women of NASA took a cosmic crack at that ceiling, too.

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...