History of women in space
Every year on May 26, Americans celebrate Sally Ride Day, a national holiday dedicated to the country's first woman in space. The holiday, which falls on Ride's birthday, pays tribute to the woman who paved the way for other female space explorers when she entered orbit June 18, 1983, aboard NASA's STS-7 mission. After the mission, Ride said she was aware of its significance. “I did feel a special responsibility to be the first American woman in space,” she said. The holiday is meant to celebrate the contributions that women have made to space exploration and to encourage young girls interested in careers in science, math, and other STEM disciplines to pursue their dreams.
Women have been contributing to space exploration since its early days, both as astronauts and as scientists. The United States currently has the highest running tally of women in space, although Russia accomplished this first, sending Valentina Tereshkova into orbit in 1963 aboard the Vostok 6 mission. Today, three nations have space programs in which women regularly take part in including China, Russia, and the U.S.
Yet even with these advances, there are still plenty of challenges for women in this field. In 1978, for example, when NASA's Astronaut Corps graduated its first class that included women, the six women astronauts who took part were referred to as “Glamornauts,” at one point called “eye-popping space gals.” More than 40 years later, the agency still struggles with gender equality, a fact that was evidenced in March 2019 when an all-women space mission—meant to be a historic moment—had to be canceled because the agency didn't have enough space suits for them. The first all-women spacewalk did end up happening seven months later.
Among the missteps, however, are obvious leaps forward. In 2013, NASA's new astronaut recruits were split down the middle with four men and four women joining the program. The space agency's style guides have also been updated to eliminate gendered phrases such as “manned spaceflight” (calling it a “human spaceflight” instead). Jim Bridenstine, the current head of the agency, has been quoted several times saying his organization is committed to fostering diversity. And in a keynote speech by Bridenstine at the International Astronautical Congress in October 2019, he said the next astronauts on the moon in 2024 will likely include multiple women.
Read on to learn about the history of women in space.
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1961: Katherine Johnson
U.S. mathematician Katherine Johnson was an influential figure throughout her 35-year career with NASA, which began when the agency was a fledgling organization called NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). Her first major contribution came in 1961 when she successfully calculated the flight trajectory for the first American in space. Other contributions made by Johnson, who was featured in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures,” included ushering in the agency's uses of computers, aided in large part by her sharp knack for manual calculations.
1963: Valentina Tereshkova
In 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova made world history when she piloted the Vostok 6 solo mission, becoming the first ever woman in space. Prior to her involvement with the Russian space program, the bold cosmonaut was an amateur skydiver. More than 50 years later, she remains the only woman to have flown a solo space mission.
1982: Svetlana Savitskaya
After Tereshkova's solo mission, it was nearly 20 years before another woman went into space. That occurred in 1982 when another Soviet cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, flew aboard the Soyuz T-7 mission, making her the second woman in space. Two years later, she earned herself a second title as the first woman spacewalker on her third flight when she welded metal outside the spacecraft during the Soyuz T-5 mission.
1983: Sally Ride
The following year, the United States caught up with the Soviet space program in terms of women's participation when NASA astronaut Sally Ride joined the STS-7 mission to deploy communications satellites, a mission that later earned her the namesake holiday. One of the satellites she helped set up was the Anik C2—the first in a series of satellites that were three times more powerful than any of their predecessors. Ride's historic mission occurred aboard the Challenger, the same spacecraft that exploded three years later due to a structural failure.
1984: Kathryn Sullivan
U.S. astronaut Kathryn Sullivan came close to becoming the first woman to walk in space but Svetlana Savitskaya, mentioned earlier, beat her by about 80 days. Instead, she became the second women spacewalker when she carried out her EVA Oct. 11, 1984. During that spacewalk, which was part of NASA's STS-41-G mission, Sullivan spent more than three hours illustrating how a satellite might be refueled while in orbit.
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1986: Judith Resnik
Among other accomplishments, NASA engineer and astronaut Judith Resnik was the first Jewish woman in space. Throughout the course of her career, which included working as a NASA electrical engineer, she logged a total of 145 hours in space. Resnik was killed in 1986 during the Challenger explosion that killed all seven crew members on board when the spacecraft burst into flames less than two minutes after takeoff.
1990: Nancy Grace Roman
In 1990, NASA executive Nancy Grace Roman saw two decades of work come to fruition when the historic Hubble space telescope—the first ever of its kind—was launched into orbit. Roman, who joined NASA in 1959, six months after the agency launched, was known as the “Mother of Hubble.” In addition to being the agency's first chief of astronomy, as well as the first woman to hold an executive position, she was instrumental in getting the project off the ground during Hubble's formative years.
1991: Ellen Ochoa
Among numerous accomplishments during the course of her career, NASA astronaut Ellen Ochoa was the first Hispanic American woman to join NASA's space program in January 1991. Two years later, she made history again when she became the first Hispanic American to go into space. In 2013, Ochoa was appointed the director of the Johnson Space Center, becoming the second woman ever to hold the title.
1991: Helen Sharman
British astronaut Helen Sharman made history in 1991, five months after Ochoa joined the space program when she as a part of Project Juno, a private British space program backed by the Soviet Union that flew to the Mir space station. She was one of four civilians selected of 13,000 applicants who responded to a series of ads in British newspapers, one of which read "Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary."
1992: Roberta Bondar
Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar joined the ranks of many of the other women on this list in January 1992 when she joined mission STS-42 as a payload specialist aboard shuttle Discovery, becoming the first Canadian woman in space. The accomplished astronaut worked as a physician prior to her space mission and was also the first neurologist in space of any gender. She has been a recipient of the NASA Space Medal and was honored with a special Canadian coin in 2017.
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