The women who got us close to Pluto

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Meg Urry is the Israel Munson professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Kudos to NASA for pointing out that some 25% of the New Horizons team are women, which is quite a bit higher than the percentage of engineers and physicists who are women (about 15% to 20%) or planetary faculty who are women (13%).

Why are there so many women in this team? It's partly that this is a young team, and the fraction of women is larger among a younger set. Also, the principal investigator of the New Horizons project, Alan Stern, actively recruited women and younger scientists to the team.
And then there is the positive feedback from young students seeing older women role models. Fran Bagenal, who has devoted a significant amount of time to mentoring young women and working for their increased participation, said, "The Voyager and Galileo programs [to explore Jupiter], which got started in the 1970s, were lucky to have a few women. Cassini [mission to Saturn] was better... And once you get a decent number, it feeds in and grows some more."
    But she also advised against complacency. "Some of the young women," she said, "might think it's not a big deal because they are used to it. But it didn't just happen by chance." People worked very hard to increase the number of women.
    There is something special about finding yourself in a room full of women working on a NASA mission. You look around and think: Wow, something's different. It's awesome and it augurs well for the future of NASA.
    25% of NASA's New Horizons flyby team are women.
    Pluto may not be a real planet but this week it has inspired millions of people, just as Clyde Tombaugh's discovery did 85 years ago. Children around the world will learn about Pluto and the Kuiper Belt from the New Horizons mission. Half of those children are girls. Let's hope they have the same opportunities as boys to become the scientists and engineers who will lead tomorrow's exploration.
    Some of the key members of the New Horizons include:
    Fran Bagenal
    Leader of the particles and plasma science team on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and a senior space scientist and just-retired professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Fran and I were both post-docs in the Center for Space Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s, a time when there were very few women in space science.
    Alice Bowman
    Mission operations manager, in charge of the Mission Operations Center during the critical final New Horizons "wake-up" last December. According to NASA, "She personally reads every line of code before it's sent on a four-and-a-half hour journey to New Horizons," a sign of the painstaking attitude that helps space missions succeed.
    Tiffany Finley
    Science operation team manager, who turns science priorities into spacecraft commands. She calls the gender balance on the New Horizons team "refreshing."
    Yanping Guo
    Mission design leader, responsible for designing the spacecraft trajectory. The trajectory had a very narrow window for success, relying critically on a gravity assist from Jupiter, so the arrival of New Horizons at Pluto, within 72 seconds of the planned moment, was a real triumph.
    Leslie Young
    Deputy project scientist in charge of encounter planning leader for the science team.
    And here's the full list of team members who are women. Brava to all!
    Amy Shira Teitel, Cindy Conrad, Sarah Hamilton, Allisa Earle, Leslie Young, Melissa Jones, Katie Bechtold, Becca Sepan, Kelsi Singer, Amanda Zangari, Coralie Jackman, Helen Hart, Fran Bagenal, Ann Harch, Jillian Redfern, Tiffany Finley, Heather Elliot, Nicole Martin, Yanping Guo, Cathy Olkin, Valerie Mallder, Rayna Tedford, Silvia Protopapa, Martha Kusterer, Kim Ennico, Ann Verbiscer, Bonnie Buratti, Sarah Bucior, Veronica Bray, Emma Birath, Carly Howett, Alice Bowman, Priya Dharmavaram, Sarah Flanigan, Debi Rose, Sheila Zurvalec, Adriana Ocampo, and Jo-Anne Kierzkowski.