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Gender, Space, and How to Shoot for the Moon: An Interview With Nancy Conrad

Nancy Conrad

Nancy Conrad launched the Conrad Foundation and its flagship program, the Conrad Challenge, after the passing of her husband, Charles “Pete” Conrad. Pete was the third man to walk on the moon and an entrepreneur in aerospace exploration. Earlier this month, NASA confirmed that the first all-women spacewalk would take place on March 29th. We took the opportunity to speak with Nancy, who shares her husband’s passion for inspiring future explorers and has made incredible efforts to keep his spirit for innovation and entrepreneurship alive.

In a sad irony and just one day after we spoke with her, the all-women spacewalk was scrapped due to a lack of spacesuits that fit the women astronauts. This situation brings into focus an issue that spans all sectors, obstructs the advancement of women, and puts women’s lives in danger: men are the default beneficiaries of technology. The Gender Policy of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW) and gender-specific research agenda currently being developed by FSFW are purposeful efforts to offset the dangers of gender-blind research and technology, specifically in the areas of smoking cessation and tobacco harm reduction.

We followed up with Nancy to get her reaction. See what she had to say below.

Challenges as a woman in a male-dominated field

“I don’t look for the problems. I just press on. That was Pete’s favorite expression. Is it difficult to do what I do? Yes. Do I dream up lots of things that don’t happen? Yes. But that doesn’t ever stop me from dreaming.”

“I think that if I were in the classroom right now or to engage with a group of young women, I would tell them, ‘Press on.’ Be the best you can be in the piece of the universe you’ve carved out for yourself and make your mark because you’re really great at what you do.”

“In the space program, [failure] is not an option. In entrepreneurship, it’s mandatory. Understanding that you can fail, that you can fail forward, is something that really needs to be understood by young people – male or female. Have the confidence in yourself that you have leadership skills. Collaboration, communication, leadership, and real authenticity. All of these things are packed into the work we do.. There are no real failures. There are course corrections.”

The significance of the first all-woman spacewalk

“Its time has come. Kathy Sullivan was one of the first people, and the first woman, to do an EVA (extravehicular activity), and she went on to become the head of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). I think they actually tried to fit Kathy with Pete’s Skylab suit. Pete was 5’6.5” and Kathy is not [she is 5’9”], so that was a little difficult for her.”

“Nobody went to the moon [who] was a woman. They just didn’t think that women could do it. Now they are finding out that women have different issues in space than men. I participated in a study at the National Academies of Medicine that was tasked with evaluating the effects of long duration and exploration spaceflight. What it showed is that there is quite a difference with respect to gender and spaceflight and the different aftereffects of spaceflight. We took a deep look at the physical, emotional, and mental things that happen to women in deep space. [They’re] different from men.”

“We’re living through this #MeToo movement, which is really giving women that opportunity for authenticity. I think this is an afterglow of that. Its time has come.”

EVAs and spacesuits

Nancy’s response the day before the all-woman spacewalk was cancelled is touched with irony:

“An EVA is a dangerous thing. When Pete did the EVA in Skylab to rescue the lab, there weren’t any toe holds or hand holds. He was hanging out on a tether and they were praying it would hold. It was tied into the inside of the lab. We’re better equipped now in terms of safety and risk management. They’ve developed improvements for the gloves, which were one of the biggest issues back in the day. They couldn’t hold anything – [the gloves] were just so clunky. We’ve come a long way in spacesuits and gloves, all of the technologies that make this the perfect time to do it.”

Her response to the cancellation of the all-woman spacewalk:

“They missed their shot. They need to get another shot, find another way. I’m sad about it.”

“Every time there is a problem, whether it’s a plane crash or accident, it’s a cascade of events. You can’t point to a single thing that went wrong. This is another example of a cascade of circumstances that was created. You have to understand the whole system when there is an unforeseen event. Everything is a system, and the deployment of the system that we’re currently in is causing these things to happen.”

“This is a good time for NASA to review our report again. Here’s your roadmap so you understand the difference[s] between the male and female in low earth orbit and deep space and don’t have a cascade of unfortunate circumstances.”

“I’ve worked in patient safety for 20 years. I was motivated [to participate in the report] by the patient safety component of it because, if you look at people who are in space, they’re very isolated and have medical issues. Risk management and understanding the differentiators that we look at, particularly . . . gender, diversity, and age . . . are a huge piece of that.”

Women, girls, and social impact

“The thing I think is so appealing to young women and girls in the work we do is social impact and making a difference. We love to make a difference and have an impact on society. Understanding the power of that kind of thinking – of inclusive thinking – is one of the things that women are really great at and have fine-tuned, expanded, and explored. Women are incredibly talented at visioning and understanding how dots connect. We tend to think in circles rather than in linear ways. I believe that type of thinking is baked into our DNA. And while it’s baked into our DNA, we are also very collaborative and open. It is at the very core of the culture of the family.”

“Kids leave our competition spring-loaded and ready to excel in whatever they choose – even creating a company around their product idea. They catch the entrepreneurship bug, the innovation bug. They know how to think. We are developing an innovative workforce. The impact and imprint of the people in our competition are really stunning.”

Working together – the complementarity of men and women

“Figuring out ways to collaborate rather than separate . . . is our underlying philosophy. Those collaboration skills are part of what we teach these kids, because if you don’t work together and silo yourself into one particular model, your ability to grow is stifled. If you have an open mind and accept the differences, you can come to a common conversation that is expansive and collaborative. In the not-for-profit world, we try to collaborate with other entities instead of saying, ‘Hey, our sauce is more special than your sauce.’ If you can take that perspective when you’re working with gender differences, everyone has ‘special sauce.’ When it becomes inclusive and there is diversity, that’s when the special sauce really gets tasty.”

The role of nonprofits in ensuring that women are not excluded or discriminated against

“Go back to the best business plan we’ve had. It’s how we got to the moon! There was leadership, funding, government, industry, and academia working together to make this happen. The special sauce? Collaboration. Deploy that business plan in all scenarios that need change and social impact. Redesign and rethink so we don’t have a cascade of unfortunate circumstances. That’s why we work with the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. We are creating change agents, students who are designing the future. It all comes together into a framework that we know works.”

Portions of this interview have been edited for length.

Category:  Innovation

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