Three Women Designers Blasting Through NASA’s Glass Ceiling

As these three female NASA alums prove, the space agency is a breeding ground for urban planning, product design, and architectural ideas.

Clockwise from left: Jessie Kawata, Constance Adams, Michelle Addington. Images courtesy Kawata/Adams/Addington.

Despite lopsided portrayals in pop culture in past decades, young girls have never lacked female role models when it comes to space. There’s “mother of the Hubble” Nancy Roman, one of the first female executives at NASA, and astronomer Carolyn Shoemaker, who holds the record for the most comet discoveries by an individual. Astronomer Vera Rubin is credited with proving the existence of dark matter, while astrophysicist Sandra Faber was instrumental in the design of the Keck telescopes in Hawaii.

Fortunately, pop culture has finally caught on. This year saw the unexpected success of the film Hidden Figures, which told the true story of Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan, three African-American women mathematicians working at NASA at the height of the space race. LEGO also recently launched a Women of NASA collection, which, in addition to Johnson and Roman, included plastic effigies of computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, and astronauts Sally Ride and Mae Jemison.

For these women, NASA was not simply a career but a training ground—a rare thing indeed. And while the field of architecture and design is less commonly associated with the science-driven thinking of NASA, the two worlds are increasingly linked—Michelle Addington, Constance Adams, and Jessie Kawata have dipped their toes in both realms, in the process helping frame space exploration through a more human lens.

The Engineer-Turned-Architect

Michelle Addington in the early 1970s at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where her work was part of a co-op program with her engineering school.

Though Michelle Addington is better known in architecture—she will soon leave her post as Hines Professor of Sustainable Architectural Design at the Yale School of Architecture to become dean of the school of architecture at the University of Texas at Austin—she spent her formative years in the field of engineering.

Impulsiveness has often worked in her favor. During her studies at Auburn University and Virginia Tech, she took part in a co-op program that enabled her to work for six months of the year. Her first choice for the program was working on the design of nuclear submarines at what was then the David W. Taylor Naval Ship Research and Development Center. But when she showed up on her first day at the research facility, a security guard denied her access, skeptical that there could be such thing as a female engineer. Rather than figure out what went wrong, she went home and called her second option: NASA. The next day she reported to work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, changing her career trajectory entirely. “The funny part about it is that the Navy called me a week later, wondering why I’d never showed up for work,” she laughs.

Addington worked at NASA on and off from 1973 to ’76. “It might seem like a very small chunk of someone’s life, but it was incredibly formative,” she says. “When I think about the way that I approach things now, almost all of that comes from the things that I encountered at NASA.”

Her work at Goddard focused on unmanned spacecraft such as satellites and how they could withstand launch. “Every satellite that goes up faces a multitude of extreme and transient conditions,” she explains. “Just where the sun’s radiation hits on part of a satellite in any given moment can create an incredible range in thermal expansion. You don’t just design for the extreme, but for the changes that are constantly taking place.”

Inevitably, Addington encountered challenges as one of the few female engineers at NASA (she had to request permission to wear pants rather than dresses after she noticed men gathering below her whenever she stood on a ladder). But fortunately in engineering, intellect swiftly levels the playing field. “In worlds like that, if you can fix a problem that nobody else can solve, the whole gender thing will quickly disappear,” she says. “It was all about what you knew that mattered, and people differentiated themselves in that way.”

After graduation she spent the next decade working as a process-design and power-plant engineer for DuPont, but her lessons from NASA stuck. Addington eventually left her career as an engineer to pursue an architecture degree at Temple University. In the three decades since, her professional work, teaching, and research have focused on energy systems, advanced materials, and new technologies. She has also consulted on projects relating to the Sistine Chapel and the Amazon rain forest.

“I think the interesting contrast between NASA and the field of architecture is that things have to work,” she says on reflection. “You don’t get to concoct a really elegant story about how things should work. Everybody I encountered at NASA had this almost innate understanding of how the world worked and how things worked in the world.”

The Urbanist As Space Architect

In 2005, Constance Adams was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for her work advancing the space architecture field. The magazine had to make several attempts to contact her about the honor because she thought it was just being unusually persistent about getting her to subscribe.

Architect Constance Adams’s earliest recollection of NASA is when she was traveling with her family in Communist Hungary as a five-year-old and the broadcast of the 1969 Apollo 11 landing came on the hotel TV. “All these people came to watch this event with the Americans,” she says. “Apparently there was this voice-over in Hungarian that said it was just a movie made in Hollywood and that the Americans had not landed on the moon, and people were looking at us apologetically. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that they knew—they wouldn’t have been in the room if they hadn’t.”

Accompanying her father on his frequent work sabbaticals abroad ensured that Adams would develop a peripatetic nature. Sure enough, after earning a degree in sociology from Harvard and her master’s in architecture from Yale, she headed to Tokyo for an apprenticeship with Kenzo Tange Associates, followed by a four-year stint working on master-planning projects in Berlin. When she returned to the U.S. to work in Houston, she sent her résumé to NASA on a whim, despite having no prior experience in engineering. A year later the agency offered her a job working on a prototype surface habitat for Mars known as BIO-Plex, and she officially became a space architect at Lockheed Martin Space Operations.

She also later worked on a variety of projects, from crew-station and cabin design to vehicle integration and human-factor engineering—including the International Space Station TransHab, an inflatable-module concept that was initially proposed as living quarters on future Mars-bound spacecraft and also considered for crew quarters for the ISS. The project was ultimately quashed by budgetary constraints, but it laid important groundwork for the future of space habitation.

Adams admits that when she started at NASA, she had to scramble to adjust to a significantly different mind-set. But just as Addington found that her engineering thinking could apply to architecture, Adams discovered that there are many similarities between designing for an urban setting and designing for space. “A space-craft really is a master plan,” she says. “It’s not just a city—it’s an entire region. It’s like a closed-loop system the size of a house or an apartment, depending upon which phase of a space station it is.”

Her initial work on BIO-Plex aimed to create an ecosystem that would support six human beings living on the surface of Mars for more than a year, incorporating vital technology such as plant-growth chambers, waste management, and clean-water systems. While the research was intended for Mars, Adams says its lessons are equally important for Earth. She has since collaborated with the United Nations Development Programme to transfer the water-cleansing system that NASA developed in parallel with the European Space Agency for use in the developing world as a basic system for purifying water using bacterial cultures. Adams and her colleagues’ work on BIO-Plex and the ISS TransHab are perhaps even more relevant today, now that the space race is ramping up again thanks to programs being infused with private capital from investors like Elon Musk and Richard Branson, with a focus on Mars exploration and colonization.

Human-centered design is what has helped Adams pioneer the field of space architecture over the past 25 years. Her focus now is on her role as founder and president of Synthesis International, an innovation consulting firm that works with NASA and other companies on space systems, architecture, and product design. “Engineers don’t need architects when it’s just about the technology,” she says. “It’s the insertion of the human factor that freaks them out.” What architects can learn from engineers, she adds, is to embrace the discipline behind the design decisions. “As architects, we need to define the goals and priorities in designing, and then burn them down as we make our decisions,” she says. “I can’t make a design choice that I can’t defend.”

The Product Designer Turned NASA Strategist

Kawata’s artistic background has proved invaluable when engaging in problem solving in her role as creative strategist in JPL’s Innovation Foundry.

In a similar vein to Adams, Jessie Kawata is striving to insert a human element into engineering-minded processes through her work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). As a child she had vacillated between the worlds of science and art. “I was always interested in the intersection between them,” she says. “I really didn’t think it would be possible to make a career of that in the future.” So she veered toward her creative side and enrolled to study illustration at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, later switching to product design.

The ArtCenter campus happens to be less than a ten-minute drive from JPL—appealing to someone who had always been fascinated by science. “Of course I was always curious,” she says. “I went to JPL’s open house quite frequently.” Her opportunity to engage the intersection she had long been seeking came when JPL was looking for someone to work on a project who could “tinker” like a mechanical engineer but with a creative, human-centered focus.

Kawata has now been at JPL for five and a half years, and is currently industrial design lead and creative strategist in its Innovation Foundry. Her work has included advising on new ideas for mission proposals and concepts for a rover on Venus and for a small spacecraft that would perform cinematography in space. While JPL deals only with robotic exploration (whereas the Johnson Space Center focuses on human exploration), Kawata says she strives to emphasize the human element in her work. “When people think of NASA they think of astronauts,” she says. “But what I’m trying to influence there is that we do have a direct human user: humanity. We use these tools and methods, and our missions—especially our earth science missions—have a human impact.”

In addition to their work at NASA, Addington, Adams, and Kawata share a passion for cultivating future generations in their fields. Addington admits that one of the things that held her back in her career was her own desire to be the person who solves a problem, rather than being content to contribute to the solution: “What I’m interested in now is how we work with what’s possible. The challenge for me has been to accept that we move a little bit forward—I think I could have accomplished a lot more had I been willing to do that.” She now takes pride in seeing her former students develop her ideas far beyond what she ever imagined.

Both Adams and Kawata are passionate advocates for inspiring young girls to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. “I think that our rate of growth and technological change over the past 100 years has been no accident,” says Adams. “If you look at the curve of new patents and technologies, it’s rapidly increasing upward. Then compare that with societies where women still don’t have the same kinds of educational chances or career chances. Everybody who has an idea needs to be on deck, and we need absolutely every single girl who’s got an idea to be able to contribute it. We can’t leave half of humanity behind.” 

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