How history can inspire diversity

The National Air and Space Museum’s location in Washington, D.C., is getting more than a physical update. The museum plans to place new emphasis on the people who defied racial and gender biases to break new ground in the aerospace field. It is a matter of justice, and much more. Director Ellen Stofan explains.


As I see girls and young women exploring our museum and interacting with our content, I can’t help but think about my first work experience at the National Air and Space Museum. I had just finished my freshman year in college, and I was interning for the museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies. While I found an incredible mentor there who really helped me in my career, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. Here were real scientists doing important work understanding the solar system, but none of them could be a role model for the challenges I encountered so often as the only woman in the room. When I became director, I was forced to consider that it’s also what young girls might feel when they walk through the museum. Are we providing them with the role models, the resources, the encouragement to make their mark in STEM fields?

We started talking about this a lot at the museum, and it’s such an important conversation to have because the kind of achievements we commemorate take the combined efforts of whole sectors of society. A workforce of hundreds of thousands put a person on the moon in less than 10 years. That same energy and talent built industries that, over aviation’s first hundred years, shrank the world, creating the global community that greeted the new century. From defense and commercial aviation to communication satellites and deep-space probes, the opportunities have never been greater nor the stakes higher than for the next generation of aerospace innovators. The future of aerospace relies on top talent, and increasingly that means recruiting the best minds from science, technology, engineering and math programs across the country. To hiring managers, that competitive talent pool can sometimes seem vanishingly shallow, but nothing can be further from the truth. Women make up 49% of the world population, account for 47% of the U.S. workforce but only fill 29% of STEM jobs. Black and Hispanic workers are underrepresented in the STEM workforce as well. There’s an obvious disconnect and a clear opportunity for companies and organizations that are interested in successful innovation. From the “internet of things” to climate change, the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century will outmatch any workforce that underutilizes key sections of our population.

Research shows that diverse teams are stronger, more creative and more agile at solving problems and taking the steps that lead to the next giant leap. But sometime between childhood and the first or second job, whole segments of society are apt to drop away from math and technology subjects or fields. Whether it’s stereotyping, inflexible learning environments or unconscious or conscious discouragement from peers, professors or even parents, this attrition within the pipeline remains an enduring problem that threatens not just individual careers but whole industries. When a little girl climbs into the cockpit at our Innovations in Flight family day and spends the rest of the afternoon talking excitingly to her parents about how she wants to be a pilot, I want to encourage her to know that her dream is achievable. There are pilots out there who look like her, and there’s a place for her in aerospace.

Familiar stories

As we work to ensure that we are a museum that provides that kind of support and encouragement for people of all backgrounds, the first step is to think about the stories we’re already telling. When you think about the Air and Space Museum, you will probably think of the Wright brothers, Apollo 11 and Chuck Yeager, and this is with good reason. These legends of aviation and space transformed our world and have earned prominent positions in our exhibitions. They embody what our museum is all about and what it’s for: ideas that defy expectations, preconceptions and our imaginations. They understood that you don’t change the world by sticking to the status quo, accepting limitations as facts or allowing yourself to believe those who utter the word “impossible.” You change the world by conceiving an idea, believing in its possibility and making it happen despite the challenges. After all, before the 20th century the idea that humans could fly seemed impossible. In fact, people would say, “You may as well try to fly,” when they wanted to underscore that something just couldn’t be done. The Wright brothers proved that wrong and defied common understanding of what was possible. A little over 116 years ago on the coast of North Carolina, the Wright Flyer took off and our world was forever changed. Then just 66 years later Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the surface of the moon as Mike Collins circled above them in the command module. Only 66 years separated the dunes of Kitty Hawk from the Sea of Tranquility. That rate of innovation seems all but impossible except for the fact that it happened. And it is thanks to the ongoing innovation in aerospace that occurred between that day in 1903 and that night in 1969.

No figure of that era looms quite as large as Chuck Yeager, a pilot who truly had the right stuff. Yeager flew the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis to over Mach 1 in October 1947 to become the first person to break the sound barrier. The X-1 hangs in our Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. It represents the vital flight data that ushered in an era of supersonic flight.

Stories like these — a unique dilemma, unconventional solutions and unprecedented success — are seen over and over in the chronicles of aviation and space history. And there is a reason we tell them: They are and always will be a vital part of the story. But if we stop there, if we only tell these stories, we limit our ability to affect real change in the lives of those who walk through our doors and, indeed, we contribute to the workforce pipeline problem.

“You can’t be what you can’t see”

Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, has said: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” That’s why at the National Air and Space Museum we’re working to tell the stories of all people who have helped move aerospace forward, including women who defy. We want to elevate the stories you may already know and uncover new stories of women who broke and are breaking barriers for their rightful place in aerospace.

Women like Phoebe Waterman Haas, whose name is on our public observatory at the museum. Phoebe was one of the first American women to earn a doctorate in astronomy, in 1913. When she was a child she witnessed a partial solar eclipse and fell in love with astronomy. She earned an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in astronomy and then went to work in a solar observatory. But despite her two degrees, the work she was given was disappointing to her. Instead of supporting the work of male astronomers, she wanted to work on an independent project and test her own theories.

When she started work on her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, she found the support she was looking for: Colleagues who believed in her as much as she believed in herself and she was able to do the same work as the men. To me she embodies the idea of a woman who defies. She was determined to do the same work as the men. She discovered her passion, found her place and pursued her dreams.

So did Bessie Coleman. In a time before women were supposed to fly, before Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic, Bessie was flying through multiple glass ceilings. She dreamed of being a pilot, but it was the 1920s and she was an African American woman. The Tuskegee Airmen wouldn’t take to the skies for another 20 years.

American flight schools didn’t admit African Americans or women, and that was two strikes against her. She didn’t let that stop her. In 1920, at the age of 28, she left her job and moved from Chicago to Paris to learn how to fly. As the result of her tenacity she became the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license. When she returned to the United States, she took up barnstorming, performing stunts at aviation shows. And even as she worked to make a name for herself, she defiantly stood up for what she believed in. In an era of intense racial prejudice and Jim Crow laws, Bessie Coleman would perform at an aviation show only if the crowd wasn’t segregated. Bessie is one of my heroes for these reasons and more. She didn’t let other people hold her back. She charged forward and seized opportunities, even those that weren’t readily available to her.

A discussion of groundbreaking women in aerospace isn’t complete without mentioning astronaut Eileen Collins. Growing up watching gliders in upstate New York, she dreamed of flying, and at the age of 18, she worked multiple jobs to get a pilot’s license. She went on to get a bachelor’s degree and then joined the U.S. Air Force, graduating from undergraduate pilot training. But early on in her training she met some women who set her a different course. The first class of astronauts that included women visited her base and that’s when she knew she was going to be an astronaut and she was going to fly in the space shuttle. In 1990 she was selected to the astronaut program, and five years later she became the first woman to pilot the space shuttle, specifically Discovery’s 1995 close approach to Russia’s Mir space station. In 1999 she made history again as the first woman to command the space shuttle, when Columbia and its crew deployed the Chandra X-ray Observatory. When she was asked about being the first and, at that time, only female space shuttle commander, her response was, “Hopefully not for long.” She was already pulling for Pam Melroy to command a mission, and Pam finally did, in 2007. As we look to the future of aerospace, we see women still pushing the envelope of what is possible.

In 2018, the National Air and Space Museum trophy was awarded to such a woman, Afghan American pilot Shaesta Waiz, who in 2017 became the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe solo in a single-engine aircraft. When she decided to fly around the world, she knew that she wanted to do it for something much bigger than herself. Shaesta was a young child when her family emigrated to the United States. She developed a passion for aviation and founded the Women’s Ambassador Program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to mentor and support young women pursuing education in aviation and engineering. And then she founded an organization called Dreams Soar with the mission of inspiring young people around the world in aviation fields. Her solo flight turned out to be the perfect opportunity for her to spread that mission. Over the course of her five-month, around-the-world flight, she visited 22 countries, meeting young people growing up in socioeconomically underprivileged environments and in regions unsupportive of women.

What makes these innovators so inspiring isn’t just what they achieved as women. It’s about how they pushed the envelope of what’s possible, not just as women, but as humans. At the museum, we’ve taken steps to find these types of stories and share them in the programming, lectures, online content and more. But now we need to take it a step further.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, we’re in the middle of a massive renovation of the National Air and Space Museum location in Washington, D.C., transforming all of our galleries to tell new stories and share new artifacts alongside the iconic artifacts that you expect to see. We will bring our exhibitions into the 21st century and reflect on where we are heading 50 years after we landed on the moon for the first time, and over 100 years since the first airplane flight. The new National Air and Space Museum will use the past and present to show our visitors that no matter their race, gender or nationality, they have the ability to transform our world.

Related Topics

A group of children and adults sit on a rug, listening to two people read books at an aviation museum, with vintage aircraft displayed in the background.
Before social distancing, visitors listen to a volunteer read “Nobody Owns the Sky: The Story of ‘Brave Bessie,’” a biography of aviator Bessie Coleman by Reeve Lindbergh, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center outside Washington, D.C. Credit: Jim Preston/National Air and Space Museum
A person wearing a pilot's uniform and helmet, standing on a biplane's wing, holding onto the plane’s fuselage.
Bessie Coleman moved to Paris in 1920 to learn how to fly because U.S. flight schools would not accept African Americans or women. Credit: National Air and Space Museum
Two individuals are handling equipment on a construction site. One person is sitting on a suspended platform, while the other stands holding tools. A house wall and a large container are visible in the background.
Astronomer Phoebe Waterman Haas ascends the Mount Wilson 46-meter Solar Tower in California around 1910. Credit: National Air and Space Museum
A person wearing a blue aviation jumpsuit stands smiling with arms crossed in front of a small aircraft inside a hangar.
Shaesta Waiz in 2017 became the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe solo in a single-engine aircraft. Credit: National Air and Space Museum

How history can inspire diversity