Female space explorers share their experiences bridging the digital gender divide on World Telecommu
ITU celebrated the annual World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD) Thursday at the ITU headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland with an impressive ‘AI-powered Moonshots’ panel discussion that showcased the experiences of leading women space explorers.
The global audience heard insights from astronaut and pilot Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman in space; Samantha Cristoforetti, the first Italian woman in space; and the world’s first female private space explorer, Anousheh Ansari, who is also the Chair of Management, XPRIZE Foundation Board of Directors.
From left to right: Anousheh Ansari, Liu Yang, Samantha Cristoforetti and ITU Secretary General Houlin Zhao. 17 May 2018, Geneva, Switzerland. Photo credit: ITU
WTISD is held annually on 17 May to promote the potential of the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve societies and economies worldwide.
The day also marks the anniversary of the signing of the first International Telegraph Convention and the creation of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialized agency for ICTs.
This year’s WTISD theme is “enabling the positive use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for all.”
Indeed, AI is poised to play an important role in space exploration as well, something the woman astronauts discussed on the stage in Geneva.
“We can anticipate that AI will be very helpful in human space-flight missions,” said Ms. Liu. “We believe exploration will be greatly improved with AI astronauts.”
Astronaut and pilot Liu Yang gives a presentation during the commemoration of World Telecommunication and Information Society Day held in Geneva, Switzerland on 17 May 2018. Photo credit: ITU
Breaking gender barriers in space
The women astronauts provided also a unique look at what life is like in space, as well as the challenges each women has overcome to break gender barriers in a male-dominated field. They also provided some advice and inspiration for the next generation of women leaders in science, mathematics, engineering and technology (STEM) fields.
Ms. Ansari, who moderated the panel, started by telling the audience about how her passion for space began as a young child in Iran.
“I grew up with passion and a vision of going to space. I fell in love with the stars from a very young age,” she said, adding that she told her friends and family from a young age that she would go to space.
“No one believed me,” she told the admiring audience, before explaining how she came from Iran to the United States as a teenager.
She emphasized her pride, not shame, in being interested in space throughout her youth: “I was a trekkie. I loved science fiction books.”
Samantha Cristoforetti told the audience how she grew up in little Italian village with bright stars that inspired her from the earliest days to seek the experience of going to space.
Unlike Ms. Ansari, “I was never told I couldn’t [become an astronaut],” said Ms. Cristoforetti. “But I never doubted,” even though she “knew it would take a lot of luck.”
Anousheh Ansari, during the commemoration of World Telecommunication and Information Society Day held in Geneva, Switzerland on 17 May 2018. Photo credit: ITU
What are the chances for young women today to become astronauts?
“We are in a very dynamic environment right now,” said Cristoforetti, mentioning commercially available flights and reusable rockets. “It’s an exciting time where opportunities will multiply to go to space.”
Cristoforetti mentioned that typically, there are two fields (STEM and Aviation) that recruiters look for in terms of academic backgrounds for astronauts. But she emphasized the importance of operational experience in dangerous environments.
“I would try to add to STEM curriculum something operational to show recruiters that you are comfortable outside of a lab,” she said, giving examples of scientist astronauts who also had experience working on oil plants or studying live volcanoes.
Regarding some of the challenges faced in space, Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman in space, spoke of needing physical strength and psychological stamina to withstand space sickness experienced daily when living without gravity.
She also wowed the audience with her presentation and description of the feeling of being in space.
“Though I had been prepared, I was deeply astonished,” said Ms. Liu. “I could hardly describe how beautiful and miraculous [the Earth] is. The beauty of our planet is quite beyond words. I couldn’t help shouting: ‘Look the earth is round, indeed.’ … I felt like a free fish swimming in the ocean of space.”
Astronaut and pilot Samantha Cristoforetti during the commemoration of World Telecommunication and Information Society Day held in Geneva, Switzerland on 17 May 2018. Photo credit: ITU