Women on the Edge
Women are responsible for countless discoveries and inventions since the start of civilization, but they often receive little recognition for their work in the sciences. Women have developed gadgets and tools from everyday items to specialized military equipment. Female Air Force scientists, engineers, mathematicians, medical professionals, and artists have developed cutting edge inventions providing protection, comfort, and nourishment to Airmen over the decades. Some notable examples of their ingenuity include pressure seals for spacesuits, ear protection for aircrews, pressurized masks and helmets for high-altitude flights, and space food.
Art to R&D
Alice King Chatham
After completing her fine arts degree at the Dayton Art Institute in the 1930s, the military recruited Alice King Chatham to work on high-altitude protective gear. As a personal equipment design engineer/scientist in advanced biotechnology at the Aero Medical Laboratory her knowledge of the human form and expertise in sculpture assisted in developing devices to protect Airmen. Throughout her Air Force and NASA career, she worked on many notable projects including helmets, oxygen masks, protective clothing, and restraints and tethering devices for humans and animal test subjects.
One of Chatham’s first military designs was a pressurized rubber mask for fighter pilots. After the war she hand-sewed the helmet Chuck Yeager wore while breaking the sound barrier. While working for NASA she again relied on her sculpture skills and knowledge of anatomy to create custom-fitted masks and helmets for the Project Mercury astronauts by casting the heads of the original seven astronauts in wax.
Lee Curry Rock spent 30 years at the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories and Aeronautical Systems Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as a mechanical engineer. During this time Rock focused much of her attention on developing protective and functional space clothing and life support systems.
In 1969 Rock patented a pressure sealing closure for full pressure space and diving suits as well as for engine covers and shipping containers. Her airtight and watertight closure solved sealing and flexibility problems associated with zippers. Other significant projects Rock worked on included a durable fog-resistant coating for visors on pressure suit helmets and a protective space suit for astronauts working outside the spacecraft.
By the Numbers
Dorothy B. John joined the Aeronautical Systems Division’s Avionics Laboratory in 1956 as a mathematician analyzing computer logic for guidance systems. Three years later, John moved to a more complex task engineer position in the Inertial Guidance Applications Section of the Navigation and Guidance Laboratory. In this position, she studied the equations applied when steering navigation and guidance vehicles. While at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, John used her math skills on a variety of projects including aerospace interception techniques and development of guidance and navigation techniques for space vehicles.