NASA — 4 Little Known Women Who Made Huge Contributions…



LaRue Burbank, mathematician and computer, is just one of the many women who were instrumental to NASA missions.

Women have always played a significant role at NASA and its predecessor NACA, although for much of the agency’s history, they received neither the praise nor recognition that their contributions deserved. To celebrate Women’s History Month – and properly highlight some of the little-known women-led accomplishments of NASA’s early history – our archivists gathered the stories of four women whose work was critical to NASA’s success and paved the way for future generations.

LaRue Burbank: One of the Women Who Helped Land a Man on the Moon

LaRue Burbank was a trailblazing mathematician at NASA. Hired in 1954 at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (now NASA’s Langley Research Center), she, like many other young women at NACA, the predecessor to NASA, had a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. But unlike most, she also had a physics degree. For the next four years, she worked as a “human computer,” conducting complex data analyses for engineers using calculators, slide rules, and other instruments. After NASA’s founding, she continued this vital work for Project Mercury.

In 1962, she transferred to the newly established Manned Spacecraft Center (now NASA’s Johnson Space Center) in Houston, becoming one of the few female professionals and managers there.  Her expertise in electronics engineering led her to develop critical display systems used by flight controllers in Mission Control to monitor spacecraft during missions. Her work on the Apollo missions was vital to achieving President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the Moon.

Eilene Galloway: How NASA became… NASA

Eilene Galloway in her home in Washington  on August 7, 2000. Photo from the collection of Herstory Interviews (1999-2002). Eilene Galloway sits in a cream-colored chair before a fireplace and bookshelf. Wearing a blue dress and suit jacket she looks towards the camera. In front of her on a desk sit multiple pieces of space legislation. Credit: NASAALT

Eilene Galloway wasn’t a NASA employee, but she played a huge role in its very creation. In 1957, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Senator Richard Russell Jr. called on Galloway, an expert on the Atomic Energy Act, to write a report on the U.S. response to the space race. Initially, legislators aimed to essentially re-write the Atomic Energy Act to handle the U.S. space goals. However, Galloway argued that the existing military framework wouldn’t suffice – a new agency was needed to oversee both military and civilian aspects of space exploration. This included not just defense, but also meteorology, communications, and international cooperation.

Her work on the National Aeronautics and Space Act ensured NASA had the power to accomplish all these goals, without limitations from the Department of Defense or restrictions on international agreements. Galloway is even to thank for the name “National Aeronautics and Space Administration”, as initially NASA was to be called “National Aeronautics and Space Agency” which was deemed to not carry enough weight and status for the wide-ranging role that NASA was to fill.

Barbara Scott: The “Star Trek Nerd” Who Led Our Understanding of the Stars

Barbara Scott (left) helps to plant a Moon Tree, a tree grown from a seed flown around the Moon, at the Goddard Visitor Center as William Mecca (center) and Dr. Robert Cooper (right) look on, 1977. This desaturated image features Barbara Scott in a professional dress and heels shoveling dirt around a sapling. Behind Scott, a small crowd of young women look on. In the far distance a line of trees blends with the horizon. Mecca wears a white lab coat; Cooper wears a suit jacket and dress pants. Credit: NASAALT

A self-described “Star Trek nerd,” Barbara Scott’s passion for space wasn’t steered toward engineering by her guidance counselor. But that didn’t stop her!  Fueled by her love of math and computer science, she landed at Goddard Spaceflight Center in 1977.  One of the first women working on flight software, Barbara’s coding skills became instrumental on missions like the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) and the Thermal Canister Experiment on the Space Shuttle’s STS-3.  For the final decade of her impressive career, Scott managed the flight software for the iconic Hubble Space Telescope, a testament to her dedication to space exploration.

Dr. Claire Parkinson: An Early Pioneer in Climate Science Whose Work is Still Saving Lives

Dr. Claire Parkinson, 1999, posing with a sled dog at the North Pole during an expedition with NASA to Resolute Bay. Parkinson smiles, wears a large red winter coat with navy blue pants and pets the fluffy, majestic, and goodest sled dog sitting before her. In the background, other sled dogs are seen standing and sitting, and there is a single orange and navy-blue tent assembled in the background. The entirely of the background is dominated by the white snowy tundra of the North Pole. Credit: NASAALT

Dr. Claire Parkinson’s love of math blossomed into a passion for climate science. Inspired by the Moon landing, and the fight for civil rights, she pursued a graduate degree in climatology.  In 1978, her talents landed her at Goddard, where she continued her research on sea ice modeling. But Parkinson’s impact goes beyond theory.  She began analyzing satellite data, leading to a groundbreaking discovery: a decline in Arctic sea ice coverage between 1973 and 1987. This critical finding caught the attention of Senator Al Gore, highlighting the urgency of climate change.

Parkinson’s leadership extended beyond research.  As Project Scientist for the Aqua satellite, she championed making its data freely available. This real-time information has benefitted countless projects, from wildfire management to weather forecasting, even aiding in monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic. Parkinson’s dedication to understanding sea ice patterns and the impact of climate change continues to be a valuable resource for our planet.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space! 

Leave a Comment