Twenty Years Ago Today, NASA First Sent a Woman to the ISS. Here’s What She Sees for Future Missions.

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

Twenty Years Ago Today, NASA First Sent a Woman to the ISS. Here’s What She Sees for Future Missions.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Twenty years ago today Lt. Gen. Susan Helms arrived at the International Space Station where she would go on to carry out a historic mission.

During a five-month stint at the station, she emerged to take a spacewalk with fellow astronaut Jim Voss that spanned nearly nine hours, breaking world records for both the longest spacewalk ever and the longest completed by a woman.

Since then, she's been on another mission to inspire a new generation of aerospace pioneers and help them build their own legacy.


Melanie Stricklan co-founder and CEO of El Segundo-based Slingshot Aerospace, credits Helms with helping launch the startup that counts NASA among its clients. To date, the company has raised over $17 million from investors including L.A.-based Stage Venture Partners and Noname Ventures. And Helms' guidance and insight has been key to that.

"She is a pioneer. She made way for lots of other women to go to service academies and after that to pursue engineering degrees like she did," Stricklan told dot.LA. "She was the first military woman in space; the first woman to inhabit the ISS."

Slingshot Aerospace CEO Melanie Stricklan (L) and Lt. Gen. Susan Helms (R).

Stricklan, who was an Air Force military officer for over two decades before she took her degree in aeronautical space engineering to found Slingshot Aerospace in 2017, met Helms when she was Stricklan's superior in the service.

Helms' mentorship has helped Stricklan and Slingshot secure contracts from NASA, the U.S. Space Force and Air Force, as well as private contractors like Boeing, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems.

But Helms also boosted Stricklan's confidence as she helped develop Slingshot Aerospace.

The company sells two products. Slingshot Laboratory is a mixed-reality space simulation training tool that can be used by NASA astronauts and K-12 students. Although it's still in beta mode, it's being used to train university students and the Space Force Guardians.

Then there's Slingshot Orbital, an air traffic control-like system for space travel. The system gives the government a more accurate idea of exactly what's going on up there, without having to actually send more crafts into space. Helms talks about Slingshot as if she's making a pitch for her own company. Slingshot Orbital, she said, is key to protecting the U.S. from foreign threats in space as access to the stars becomes more democratized.

"Space has now become so accessible, you have to start thinking of it as a place where conflict could take place," Helms said. "Therefore, you have to focus on it with resources and defensive strategies."

Both point out that every launch produces debris, and even an accidental collision with another country's tech could have disastrous consequences.

"Space is one of the most critical environments to make accurate decisions in, especially with all of the hundreds of new satellites increasingly filling orbits," Stricklan said. "(There's) millions of pieces of debris... It's not a hair-on-fire moment, space is big."

Both have been working in the industry to help the next generation of women in space

"We're no longer hitchhiking on Russian rockets, which I love," Stricklan said. "I love the fact that women are leading the charge," Stricklan said.

Most major aerospace firms now have a woman in their C-suite — Leanne Caret is the CEO of Boeing Defense, Space and Security; and Marilyn Hewson ran Lockheed Martin for seven years until June 2020.

"Elon gets a lot of credit for what SpaceX is doing but [its CEO] Gwynne Shotwell is terrific. When we got our ticket back as a U.S. entity to go into space on the first privatized ride, she helped Elon get there," Stricklan said.

In 2019, 75% of all the major science divisions in NASA were run by women, the organization said. This includes Sandra Cauffman, a Costa Rican-born engineer who was the first woman to be appointed to the NASA Inventions and Contributions Board in 1994.

Helms now serves as the vice president of Texas-based Astra Femina, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging young women to pursue careers in space. Astra Femina was founded by Sandra Magnus, a former Department of Defense chief engineer and one of the few astronauts to fly on the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011.

"Some of them have to just see it to be it," Stricklan said about young women interested in the field.

Helms won't be satisfied until there's finally a woman who sets foot on the moon.

"The astronaut office was 25% female when I showed up," Helms said. "What I'm looking for are the days when it's 50/50. There's people that say, why go back to the moon if we've already been there, and my answer is well, only 50% of you have been there. When you talk about human exploration, you're talking about humans in general."

The anniversary has her feeling nostalgic.

"I'm feeling kind of sad that the spacecraft I flew on that day isn't around anymore," Helms said. " I usually don't think about the anniversary that much, but since it's the 20 year anniversary and it sets us on International Women's Day in particular, it seems especially poignant."

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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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PCH Driven: Director Jason Wise Talks Wine, Documentaries, and His New Indie Streaming Service SOMMTV

Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.

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