THE NEXT GIANT LEAP: Women & the Future of Space Exploration. This is the first of a three-part series leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon, and how Purdue’s College of Engineering is woven into the story of human space travel.
Her Lifelong Vision Is Now a Near-Future Reality
As commercial spaceflight has shifted from sci-fi dream to present-day reality, Purdue alumna Beth Moses is helping turn what was once unthinkable into something that is unforgettable.
“Every child has an explorer deep inside. I think every child looks up at the stars and wonders. I just sort of never let that go.”
Decades removed from being that small wide-eyed child, Beth Moses (BSAAE; MSAAE) no longer has to wonder what it’s like to be among the stars.
She’s been there.
Earlier this year, Moses became the first woman to work on board a commercial spaceflight. As Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor and Cabin Test Lead for the SpaceShipTwo program, she is part of a groundbreaking crew working to make commercial space travel a reality — and soon.
“People keep telling me, ‘Oh my God! History!’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’” she jokes. “Well, it’s slowly dawning on me: ‘Oh my God! Yeah, that is history!’ I’m beginning to appreciate what happened.”
Moses’ historic journey into space began as the musings and insatiable curiosity of a child, but was fostered by her time at Purdue. On campus, her ambition was paired with the skills and knowledge she needed to succeed. As with many others before her, the Purdue College of Engineering prepared her for a future that could only be imagined way back when.
Where gender didn’t matter
Purdue was the first concrete step in Moses’ career journey. There were other moments, of course, like her never-ending building projects around her childhood home or the times she would get lost in the National Geographic “Our Universe” books. But whereas space captivates many kids, Moses knew she wanted to be an astronaut as a child and headed to West Lafayette because, well, that’s where future astronauts went.
Once she was on campus, her professors taught her to break down “every term in the equations, every assumption in what you’re trying to solve” and then apply that to problems moving forward. “You’re not just learning engineering formulas, engineering practices, and engineering code, and doing engineering homework,” she says.
“You’re learning what it means and why — which in human space flight is the real key,” Moses says. “The people who check their ego at the door, check their assumptions along the way in the engineering sense and respect that they might not know the answer — those are the ones you want in human space flight.”
Moses lives those lessons. On a Virgin spaceflight, no detail is too small, whether it relates to safety or comfort. These flights won’t be about shuttling seasoned astronauts, but rather creating once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the everyday person to enjoy.
Where she is now and where Moses started is its own compelling journey. Just after graduating from Purdue, she landed at NASA, where Moses designed and developed spacewalk mechanisms for the International Space Station. Again, she relied on the skills she learned as a Boilermaker to work as part of a group to solve complex engineering problems. Sometimes that meant collaborating in the office, sometimes it meant coordinating with peers on the other side of the country — or even on the other side of the world.
What she found, rather quickly, is that whether she was working from the Johnson Space Center in Houston or convening in Italy with experts from across the globe, she found an environment open to exploration and infused with the collaboration essential to solving the world’s greatest and most vexing challenges.
“What I always tell people is this industry welcomes everyone,” she says, noting that while women are in the minority, she never felt limited because of her gender. “There’s a place for everyone in this industry. It doesn’t matter what you look like, or where you are from, or what engineering discipline you practice as long as you come and help solve problems.”
Only ‘natural’ Purdue will drive exploration
Having the unique perspective of working in both the private and public sector, Moses doesn’t see the sectors as competing on the next space travel breakthrough. The industry’s culture of problem-solving, she says, will help lead explorers like her to the next great place, whether it’s revisiting the moon, or eventually landing on Mars.
“The key is taking the most cost-effective piece from each private company, public organization, or nation and putting it together,” she says. “Leave it alone until it succeeds. Let it be. Write the requirements, and then get out of the way. Let the experts engineer it.”
Humans have managed to do the seemingly impossible, she says, because of the “hardcore schools of excellence within aerospace and specifically within human spaceflight.” The significance of the long lineage of greats in her field who began as students in West Lafayette is not lost on Moses.
Purdue alumnus Neil Armstrong set the standard for all of history with the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, so it’s only “natural,” Moses says, that Purdue would have a hand in forging the future of private space travel.
How could it be any other way?
Humankind’s never-ending journey
At Virgin, she’s helping to write a new chapter in human space travel — one that will allow everyday people, not just professional astronauts, to journey to the stars, which Moses believes will come sooner than most expect.
“It is certainly in the very low number of years — maybe not even plural,” she says. The queue is already forming: Aspiring trailblazers from 58 countries have purchased a ticket for whenever the Virgin spaceflights launch. And Moses has to train all of them — in their respective languages.
That’s part of what appealed to Moses as a child, then while studying aerospace at Purdue, and now across her professional life spanning NASA and Virgin: There’s something universal — inspiring awe and great humility — that happens when a person travels to space and looks down at Earth.
Before her flight, Moses heard former astronauts describe the otherworldly serenity that hits them while they’re in space. Looking down on the planet inhabited by billions is an experience known to just a few humans across history. With her flight, she joined an exclusive club that soon — because of humankind’s never-ending quest for discovery — will invite others to see the stars as she has.
“Human spaceflight — the actual experience of human spaceflight — refines your connectedness to your planet, and fellow life on it,” she says. “It just sort of soaks into your soul.”