A new aerospace industry fellowship for women aims to address the field’s gender inequality

Brooke Owens, the late space expert who inspired a new fellowship for women in aerospace.
Brooke Owens, the late space expert who inspired a new fellowship for women in aerospace.
Image: Brooke Owens Fellowship
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Lori Garver remembers that when she was deputy administrator at NASA in 2013, senior leadership meetings were held at a table with 25 seats, only seven of which were filled by women.

Such disparity isn’t unusual in the aerospace world. The latest figures from the National Science Foundation show that in 2013, women accounted for just 15% of working engineers, despite gender parity among college-educated workers as a whole.

While some women have beaten the odds and landed high-ranking positions in the sector—Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, and Garver herself, for example—the demographic makeup of the field “has been a challenge for so many of us, and while it has changed, it hasn’t changed enough,” Garver says.

To that end, Garver and a group of space industry veterans have founded a fellowship in memory of Brooke Owens, a pilot and space policy expert who died this year of cancer at the age of 36. The fellowship will provide undergraduate women interested in aerospace with substantive summer jobs and professional mentors who can help guide their careers. Applications are being accepted until Dec. 5.

“I do think we lose people when we come out of school because they don’t know the opportunities,” Garver says. “Women do tend to go to fields that are connected to advancing some sort of cause, making humanity better, we have seen women now going in greater numbers into fields of medicine and law. The connection that I think space and aviation have to advancing our place in the universe, and our ability to have a positive effect, is going to speak to more women.”

Owens worked for NASA, the FAA, and eventually the White House’s Office and Management and Budget. There, as a program examiner, she was frequently tasked with pushing for cost-cutting at the space agency or vetoing expensive projects, yet she managed to retained the affection and respect of her industry colleagues.

Indeed, her work came at a critical time for the space agency as it sought to shift more work to the private sector in the wake of the decision to cancel the Space Shuttle. Ultimately, the change in priorities “allows [the agency] to do more science,” Garver said. “She was key to the commercial advances that we made.”

The new space sector fostered in part by those policies will be contributing to and benefitting from this fellowship, with SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Planet among the companies set to host fellows and provide mentors next summer. The fellowship hopes to attract not just engineering students, but also those interested in business and policy.

Owens’ legacy was not just as a policymaker, but also as a networker in the cozy field of aerospace who brought together women in the field and whose influence reached across contentious divides between NASA researchers and space entrepreneurs.

After her death, Garver says, ”a lot of us didn’t want that to be the end of the community she really symbolized.” Along with Virgin Galactic vice president Will Pomerantz and Vulcan Aerospace director Cassie Kloberdanz Lee, Garver created the fellowship as a way to ensure that young women engineers could access the kind of role models that Owens represented.

“[We are] making sure we choose women who have a creative side, to bring that creative side to space,” Garver says. “Not only for the women, but for the future of aviation in space. It can only be better by having more people like Brooke involved.”