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Women's History Month: What it's like working as a woman in aerospace

Aerospace engineer and astronaut Bonnie Dunbar discussed gender misconceptions as she works to open doors for young men and women to aerospace.

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When you think of aerospace, rocket launches and space suits are often the first things that come to mind. However, to female astronaut Bonnie J. Dunbar, she describes it as, "challenging, futuristic, and rewarding."

Dunbar wears a number of hats at Texas A&M University, including being the chair of Aerospace Engineering and Director of their Aerospace and Human Systems Laboratory. 

"Just really enamored with space, so I decided really young I wanted to either build space ships or either fly in them. So I loved math, I loved science, I loved athletics," said Dunbar. "There was no such thing as nerd back then."

Her love for all things space started as a child, as she had a clear idea of what her passion and career were going to be. She grew up on a farm, and said it taught her math skills that were vital out in the country. 

"You have to know that you're going to spend most of your money most of the year because your income's gonna be in the fall or when you sell the cattle," said Dunbar.

Those skills would later aid her in her first mission to space in 1985.

Dunbar is one of the first women from Washington state to become an astronaut that made five trips into space. She served as mission specialist and payload commander throughout her career with NASA. Over the course of 30 years working for them, before retiring in 2005, her team launched 135 flights.

Dunbar's many spaceflights and over 1,200 logged hours include:

  • STS-61A
  • STS-32
  • STS-50
  • STS-71
  • STS-89

She has received numerous honors and awards for her dedication and contribution to space and engineering. 

However, with the aerospace and engineering fields being incredibly complex and difficult for many to break into, Dunbar says she enjoys the challenge.

"You're discovering information that's new, solutions that are new, so everyday is different," she said.

Dunbar also explained that she's been fortunate to not encounter challenges just because she's a woman. Instead, she believes it's divisive speech that's pushed on young women to create a divide in the workplace, specifically in male-dominated industries.

According to a career database, at least 11% of aerospace engineers are women, while 88% are men.

She recommends to young girls that wish to go down her path to start with algebra when you're young to set yourself up for the challenges that come with entering the field of engineering. The skills that are learned early on in one's academic career will set you up for an easier time when more advanced engineering, math, and science courses that will have to be taken later in your academic career.

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