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Going Off Script with Michael Epstein, Director of MAKERS: Women in Space

Michael Epstein produced and directed MAKERS: Women in Space along with producer Sarah Wolitzky. He says he learned "everything" in the making of this documentary, tracing the history of women who define America's aeronautical legacy. He interviewed groundbreakers including Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot a spacecraft, and Poppy Northcutt, one of the first women to direct shuttles back to earth from mission control. MAKERS asked Michael for a behind-the-scenes perspective on these courageous women and their journeys into space.

Why do you think this is an important film?

Encouraging young women to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is so important. Right now there is a profound gender gap in these innovative fields. Women make up half of the workforce, and yet only a third of STEM jobs in the US. That needs to change. My hope is that young women and girls will watch the show, see remarkable women like Poppy Northcutt, who was an engineer on the Apollo 8 and 13 missions, or Peggy Whitson, who was the first women commander of the International Space Station and think, "I can do that." We really want to change what is possible, and one way of doing that is telling these MAKERS stories.

What is one thing you learned in the process of making this?

One thing? Try everything. Sadly, I knew very little of this history. I knew nothing of the women who were tested in the Lovelace Clinic--and had hoped to go up in space like the Mercury astronauts. I didn't know much about the shuttle program other than the Challenger and Columbia disasters. And I probably couldn't have named a single woman astronaut other than Sally Ride. Truly, I was pathetic. A poster child, as it were, for why the MAKERS series is such important history to tell.

What’s your favorite takeaway from this film?

Well, I have two. The first is by Ellen Ochoa, who was an astronaut in the Shuttle program and later was the director of the Johnson Space Center. She told a story of driving by the Space Center one day with her son, and I guess given the world he knew with his mother flying missions into space asked, "Can boys could be astronauts too or only girls?"

The other was by Kathy Sullivan, who was part of that historic 1978 class that included the first six women astronauts in NASA's history. (Included in that class was Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.) Kathy was the first American woman to do a space walk, but being first didn't matter to her. "It's the work," she told us. "Come be part of this adventure. Look what you can do. I don't want somebody saying, 'Well, the first is already gone so there's no reason.' It's not about the first. That's a moment in time. That's an artifact in the history books. The exploration, the discovery, the chance to make such a difference in the world is still all there. An endless frontier. Your endless frontier." It was the best piece of advice I've ever heard. 

How can viewers follow up with this film? Are there websites or other films you would recommend to further the inspiring, informative track?

Check out NASA's website and social media feeds. The videos they've posted are amazing. (And not the stuff you already know--Hubble images for example.) My 10-year-old daughter particularly loved the video of Karen Nyberg washing her hair on the ISS, and Cady Coleman playing the flute in zero gravity. (Also check out Karen and Cady's social media feeds.)

Michael Epstein with Cady Coleman and Sarah Wolitzky

If you made another film on the same subject in a year, how would your focus change?

I guess I'd really want to focus on the entire shuttle program. The shuttle doesn't get the glory that the Apollo program did, but it's an amazing technological achievement--every bit as impressive as landing on the moon. It's an epic story, fully of triumph and tragedy. Jeez--I sound like a grant proposal already. 

If you missed Women in Space on PBS, join us on for a special screening with Mae Jemison, 8 PM ET!