Careers

NASA to teenage Hillary Clinton: 'Sorry, little girl, we don't accept women into the space program'

Hillary Clinton
Drew Angerer | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Hillary Clinton

In her post-election tell-all "What Happened," Hillary Rodham Clinton shares an anecdote about writing to NASA as a uniquely determined young teenager.

But the story doesn't go as you might expect. Unlike today's inspiring tales of kids writing to NASA and receiving encouragement, the future Secretary of State's experience was far more grim.

"I don't know what it's like for other women, but growing up, I didn't think that much about my gender except when it was front and center," she writes.

"Like in 8th grade, when I wrote to NASA to say that I dreamt of becoming an astronaut," she continues, "and someone there wrote back: Sorry, little girl, we don't accept women into the space program."

Clinton wrote the letter sometime around 1960. It wasn't until 1978 that the first female astronaut candidates were admitted into the program.

A NASA representative told CNBC Make It that the letter was "a reflection of the early 1960's culture when astronauts were required to be military test pilots. We believe NASA today embraces the race and gender diversity that reflects America and its values."

"I didn't think that much about my gender except when it was front and center." -Hillary Clinton, "What Happened"

The response from NASA was one of the first times Clinton says she was reminded of her gender, which she writes plays a complicated role in her life and career and at some points, was a barrier to her success.

Clinton details, in another part of the book, how Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg warned her of the obstacles sexism would present in her campaign. She also writes about the extreme discomfort she felt when then-candidate Donald Trump seemed to follow her around the stage during a 2016 presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis.

And yet at other points, she writes, being a woman has filled her life with joy and power. She cites attending the all-female Wellesley College, raising her daughter, Chelsea, and connecting with other women and girls as real highlights of her career, and her life thus far.

"Later in life," Clinton writes, "I started to see myself differently when I took on roles that felt deeply and powerful womanly: wife, daughter to aging parents, girlfriend, and most of all, mother and grandmother."

Still, it was complicated. These new roles "felt both like pulling on a new garment and shedding of my skin."

And thankfully, the rules have changed at NASA: Of the 12 astronaut candidates selected this year from a pool of more than 18,000 people, five are women.

Don't miss Sheryl Sandberg's warning to Hillary Clinton: 'They will have no empathy for you'

And check out Sallie Krawcheck's surprising and upsetting story about being a woman in business.