Women have made invaluable contributions to science, but often their achievements are overlooked, forgotten, or attributed to a man. That’s one of the many reasons why it’s so awesome that LEGO has announced a new set honoring some of the women who helped NASA—and humanity—reach for the stars.
The set features LEGO minifigures based off real-life radical ladies Katherine Johnson, Sally Ride, Margaret Hamilton, Mae Jemison, and Nancy Grace Roman. It was originally conceived of by Maia Weinstock, who submitted the concept to LEGO Ideas, a site where users can suggest ideas for LEGO’s consideration commercially. If a proposal receives at least 10,000 votes, LEGO reviews the set for production. Designers like Weinstock receive 1% of royalties for ideas that become reality.
The Women of NASA set won’t be available in stores until later this year, or 2018 at the latest, which leaves you with plenty of time to learn about the history that inspired it. Below, we break down the achievements of these five incredible women, so that your LEGO playtime can be just as historically accurate as it is adorable.
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If you’ve seen Hidden Figures (or read the book it was adapted from), you probably already know a thing or two about pioneering mathematician Katherine Johnson. Johnson served as a ‘human computer’ at NASA during the space race, handling calculations that helped put Alan Shepard in orbit around the Moon and return the Apollo astronauts home to Earth safely–and she did it all while contending with segregation and sexism within NASA. Want to learn more about Johnson? You can check out our article celebrating her incredible achievements.
In 1983, Sally Ride became the first-ever American woman in space as a crew member on space shuttle Challenger. In 1984, she went to space on the Challenger for a second time, racking up a cumulative 343 hours in space between the two flights. When the Challenger disaster occurred in 1986, Ride was appointed to the presidential committee investigating the accident.
In addition to her work for NASA, Ride was committed to promoting the joy of science. She co-wrote seven children’s books about space, and in 2001 co-founded Sally Ride Science, an organization dedicated to promoting STEM literacy in young students, particularly women and girls.
Ride was also the first-ever astronaut known to be LGBT, although it wasn’t public until after her death from pancreatic cancer in 2012 that she had a long-term female partner.
At just 24 years old, Margaret Hamilton joined the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory at MIT, where she worked for the Apollo mission. Margaret, the lone woman in the lab, led a team that developed software for the Apollo program and the U.S.’ first space station, Skylab.
Speaking to Wired in 2015, Hamilton explained that, in the ‘60s, there was no rule book for systems programming: "When I first got into it, nobody knew what it was that we were doing. It was like the Wild West. There was no course in it. They didn’t teach it.”
The software Hamilton developed for Apollo dramatically changed not only the future of the space race, but the field of software engineering, impacting innumerable aspects of modern life.
In 1992, physician/chemical engineer/all around bad-ass Mae Jemison became the first-ever African-American woman to travel to space. As a mission specialist aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour, Jemison co-investigated bone cell research experiments, and also conducted experiments relating to motion sickness and weightlessness.
Jemison resigned from NASA in 1993, and went on to work as a professor of environmental studies and found various scientific organizations, including the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, named after her mother. In 2012, the Jemison Foundation began managing '100 Year Starship,' a project funded by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The long-term goal of 100 Year Starship is to ensure humans are capable of traveling beyond our solar system in the next 100 years.
Jemison credits Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, with inspiring her interest in space. In 1993, Jemison herself appeared on the show, playing Lieutenant Palmer in The Next Generation episode "Second Chances." She was the first (but not last) actual astronaut to appear on Star Trek.
Nancy Grace Roman
In the early 1960s, Nancy Grace Roman—also known as "the mother of the Hubble telescope"—founded NASA's astronomy program as the first-ever Chief of Astronomy and Solar Physics in NASA's Office of Space Science. She was also the first woman to hold an executive position within the organization.
During her 21 years with NASA, Roman oversaw the launch of orbiting solar and astronomical observatories. She was also heavily involved with facilitating the Hubble Space Telescope, and convinced congress to fund the project.