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Honouring Women Astronauts in Celebration of Women’s History Month

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Honouring Women Astronauts in Celebration of Women’s History Month

Women Astronauts

Women astronauts who have spent time in space, ordered by the date of their first voyage. Russian cosmonauts, the pioneering female astronauts, are on this list. It took nearly twenty years after Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to journey to space (Svetlana Savitskaya)—this was during the early days of crewed space exploration in 1963.

Female space travelers increased towards the decade’s close in the 1980s. As of 2019, women accounted for almost 12% of all space travelers. As of April 2022, there had been 73 female space travelers.

Women Astronauts

Since the inception of human spaceflight, women have been flying and working in space. While many women from many countries have done space-related work, women are still far less likely than men to be selected for space missions; by June 2020, just 12% of astronauts will have traveled to space. The number of women among space travelers, however, is proliferating.

Soviet Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel into space on June 16–19, 1963, in the Vostok 6 spacecraft.

 Tereshkova was selected for her years of experience in sport parachuting, her loyalty to the Communist Party, and her propaganda worth; unlike the male cosmonauts of the time, she was a textile factory assembly worker.

 She utilized her training upon landing after ejecting from her capsule. It wasn’t until 1982 that women were finally granted equal rights to males and could work as space pilots. Most of the 70 female space travelers as of October 2021 were American citizens. 

Their missions included the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. Several other nations’ human spaceflight programs have carried out flights, including one, two, or even three female astronauts: the USSR, Canada, Japan, Russia, China, the UK, France, South Korea, and Italy.

 Also, a tourist from the United States has been on a space mission with a woman who holds Iranian and American citizenship.

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2024: Honoring Women Astronauts in Celebration of Women’s History Month

Women Astronauts

“A bird can’t take flight with just its wing. Human space travel advancement completely depends on women’s active engagement. – Veronika Tereshkova

“We need to invest as much in fostering female talent as male talent if we want to see more engineers and scientists emerging from our ranks.” It’s Sally Ride!

We must work together as a global community. A famous Chinese proverb states, “When everyone gathers wood, Liu Yang and others said, “You will make a great fire.”

So far, 75 women have made it into space as of February 29, 2024. Some 47 have served as commercial astronauts, space flight participants, visitors on space shuttle assembly flights, or long-duration expedition crewmembers on the International Space Station.

 This article pays tribute to the trailblazing women who came before them in space and the remarkable achievements of these women from various countries. 

On the ground, numerous women worked as center directors, managers, flight directors, and in countless other capacities to further space exploration, greatly aiding the station’s construction and the ongoing research performed aboard. 

Their successes will help NASA reach its goals of sending the first humans to Mars in the following decades and landing the first woman and person of color on the Moon.

12 Influential Women Astronauts

According to NASA, only seventy-two women have made it into space as of March 2023. On the launchpad, that amounts to around 11% of the total. To date, no woman has set foot on the lunar surface. 

Since women are naturally smaller and lighter than men, Dr. Randy Lovelace contended in the 1960s that they would be ideal for employment in tiny spacecraft.

The success of his “FLATs” (Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees) trainee program showed that women could hold their own in space, if not excel beyond males. 

Even with this, crew roster parity materialized for decades.

Few women were able to make it through the rigorous selection and training processes without facing sexism and other forms of discrimination.

Even though dozens of women have broken beyond Earth’s atmosphere, the glass ceiling remains a different story. 

NASA did not allow women to spend more time in space until 2021 the agency finally established radiation exposure guidelines. In 2013, the first class of astronauts was split evenly between men and women.

When news broke in 2019 that astronaut Anne McClain had to cancel the first-ever all-female spacewalk because the International Space Station didn’t have a small enough suit, it caused a stir.

She missed her opportunity to make history because only large and extra-large suits were packed. Seven months later, Jessica Meir stepped in when the walk proceeded. 

Wally Funk was a member of Mercury 13, a group of female pilots who trained for spaceflight but were never called up to duty (unlike the Mercury 7 astronauts). 

In July 2021, she finally achieved her goal when she became the oldest person to travel into space, surpassing John Glenn’s record. This was a long-awaited right.

There is some improvement. In 2019, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine proposed that the first Martian would be a female astronaut.

 Meanwhile, the 18-person crew of the Artemis: humans to Moon, includes equally male and female astronauts. A woman may be the next person to set foot on the Moon.

Let’s go back in time to the pioneers, to the incredible ladies who dreamed of becoming astronauts: 

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Women Astronauts

  1. Veronika Tereshková

Valentina Tereshkova (born 1937) is a remarkable woman with an impressive series of firsts: she was the first citizen to fly solo in space, the youngest woman to do so, and the first woman in space. The name “trailblazer” could have been coined for her.

The Soviet Union was constantly worried about slipping behind in the Space Race, so it quickly trained a group of civilian women to go into space, and Valentina was one of them. Solo launch onboard the Vostok 6 spacecraft occurred on June 16, 1963, when she was only 26. 

With a smile, she told the BBC, “It made me happy for womankind” after her 48-orbit ride. In doing so, they demonstrated that they could coexist peacefully with humans in space. 

She has continued breaking new ground in politics and science, but her ultimate goal is space travel. “I would enjoy flying to Mars,” she told a reporter in 2007. “I’m ready to fly without coming back.”  

  1. Svetlana Savitskaya

It would be 19 years before a second woman would travel to space. Svetlana Savitskaya (born 1948) launched aboard the Soyuz T-7mission in August 1982 to the Russian Salyut 7 space station, returning to Earth seven days later.

Her return to the space station in July 1984 made her the first woman to fly to space twice and the first woman to spacewalk when she cut metal and welded sections of the Salyut 7 on a 3.5-hour EVA – pointedly trumping American Kathy Sullivan’s EVA later that year.

At age 17, Svetlana completed 450 parachute jumps. She later trained as a test pilot and was part of an all-women world champion aerobatic flight squad before becoming a cosmonaut in 1980.

Despite her eminent qualifications, she reported that, upon entering Salyut 7 for the first time, she was presented with an apron and told to “get to work” by fellow cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev.

  1. Sally Ride

Lagging some way behind the Russians, the first American woman in space wasn’t until June 1983, when 32-year-old Californian physicist Sally Ride (1951–2012) flew aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle STS-7, operating the robotic arm to deploy commercial satellites.

She and five other women were, in 1978, in NASA’s first Astronaut Class to accept women.

Ride recalled that older male astronauts were unsure how to act around the female crew and that NASA engineers had to check whether 100 tampons would be enough for her 1-week flight.

Before take-off, she’d endured questions from the press about whether she planned to have children and whether she’d wear make-up in space. On The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson joked that she’d hold up the Space Shuttle’s departure because she’d be looking for a purse to match her shoes.

She was the only person to serve on the investigative panels for the Challenger and the Columbia Shuttle disasters. She was also the first lesbian in space.

After a second shuttle flight in 1984, Ride left NASA and dedicated much of her energies to increasing women’s and girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math.

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  1. Mae Jemison

One of the people Sally Ride inspired was Mae Jemison. An accomplished engineer and doctor, Jemison joined NASA’s astronaut program in 1987.

Women Astronauts

Women Astronauts

In 1992, she orbited the Earth on Space Shuttle Endeavour’s STS-47 mission for eight days, becoming the first black woman in space. There, she conducted various scientific experiments on motion sickness, frog fertility, and bone cells.

Jemison was one of a crop of female astronauts who cited actress Nichelle Nichols—Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura—as inspiring her dreams of going into space. Indeed, Jemison went on to appear in an episode of Star Trek in 1993.

  1. Susan Helms

A highly decorated Air Force officer, Helms (born 1958) was the first woman from a military background to enter space; women were initially barred from being military test pilots, the most established route to becoming astronauts.

Dr. Susan Helms, a highly esteemed Assistant Professor of Aeronautics, was selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1990. Dr. Helms, a seasoned astronaut, went on to complete five spaceflights between the years 1993 and 2001.

In March 2001, Dr. Helms embarked on a historic mission to the (ISS) as a part of its second expedition crew. Her tenure on the ISS lasted until August 2001, when she became the first woman to stay on the space station. 

Dr Helms’ remarkable achievements include sharing the record for the longest single spacewalk, lasting 8 hours and 56 minutes. This feat was accomplished alongside NASA’s Jim Voss.

Dr. Susan Helms’ contributions to NASA and aeronautics have been invaluable. Her accomplishments inspire aspiring astronauts and researchers worldwide.

  1. Peggy Whitson

Biochemist Whitson(born 1960) is unstoppable. Not only was she the first female commander of the ISS (Expedition 16, 2007; she would command again on Expedition 51, 2017), but she’s also the woman who’s spent the longest total time in space, with a total of 665 days (the US record)

She survived a violent landing aboard Soyuz TMA-11 in April 2008 when a failed module separation sent the capsule into a spin, missing its touchdown target by 470km.

Also onboard was another woman, Yi So-yeon (born 1978), a young South Korean biotechnologist on her first flight and the first Korean to travel into space.

With her eighth EVA in 2017 at age 57, Whitson became the oldest woman to undertake a spacewalk. She’s since raised that total to ten EVAs. She was also the first female chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office.

But she still needs to finish. Whitson recently announced her return to space as the commander of Axiom Mission 2, a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission to the ISS in late 2022.

  1. Christina Koch

Seven months after astronaut Anne McClain missed her chance because of the wrong-sized spacesuit, on 21 October 2019, the historic all-female spacewalk finally went ahead when engineer Christina Koch(born 1979) and marine biologist and physiologist Jessica Meir (born 1977) upgraded a faulty battery charging unit on the ISS.

Koch went on to break the record for the longer continuous time in space by a woman on 28 December 2019, spending 328 days in space.

As one of nine women in the 50% male/50% female crew on the forthcoming Artemis program intending to return humans to the Moon’s surface, Koch is a candidate to be the first woman on the Moon, along with Kayla Barron, Jessica Meir, Kate Rubins, Jasmin Moghbeli, Anne McClain, Stephanie Wilson and Jessica Watkins.

  1. Kathy Sullivan

Women Astronauts

Women Astronauts

Sullivan (born 1951) is a living legend as the woman who helped launch the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990 and subsequently repaired and maintained it.

At one point during Hubble’s deployment, Sullivan was poised for an EVA to hand-crank the scope’s solar arrays into position after they jammed.

Part of NASA’s 1978 Astronaut Class, the first to include women, Sullivan became America’s first female spacewalker when she stepped out of Space Shuttle Challenger in October 1984.

She spent 532 hours in space before retiring from NASA in 1993. Not content with conquering the heavens, In 2020, she became the first woman to reach the Challenger Deep.

  1. Samantha Cristoforetti

Samantha Cristoforetti, a fighter pilot from Italy, will command ISS Expedition 68 in 2022 as the first European woman to do so.

She’s the European with the longest time in space (199 days).

“You’ve been in orbit a long time, and you are looking forward to seeing your family,” she said, “but at the same time, you’ve spent time in an amazing and unique place, and you don’t know if you’ll ever get a chance to go back. You start missing the place before you even leave.”

  1. Helen Sharman

When Tim Peake arrived at the ISS in 2015, many in the media seemed to suffer from collective amnesia and praised him for being the first Brit in space. He wasn’t.

Helen Sharman, a chemist who worked for the Mars confectionery company in Slough, held that honour following her trip to the Russian space station Mir in 1991 when she was just 27.

Tim Peake was beaten by a woman to another record. When he ran the London Marathon virtually, on a treadmill in the ISS, American Sunita Williams had already done it. SheWilliams, who ran the Boston Marathon in orbit in 2007.

  1. Eileen Collins

Collins(born 1956) was a military instructor and test pilot who became the first female to fly the Space Shuttle, taking Discovery to its rendezvous with the Mir space station in 1995.

She was also the first female Shuttle mission commander when STS-93 deployed the Chandra X-ray Observatory in 1999. She was also the first person to fly the Shuttle through a 360-degree pitch maneuver.

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  1. Liu Yang

A major in the Chinese Air Force, Liu Yang(born 1978) became the first Chinese woman aboard Shenzhou 9 when it launched for Tiangong-1, China’s first space lab.

The 13-day mission launched on 16 June 2012, 49 years after Valentina Tereshkova’s flight.

Had attitudes moved on in the intervening decades? Yang told state media that she was equal to male astronauts from the beginning.

On the other hand, Wu Bin, the director of the China Astronaut Centre at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, had a different perspective.

He is quoted as saying that female astronauts would “pose problems for the team’s mentality,” and married women like Yang were preferred as they were “more likely to devote themselves to the hard training processes.”

The Future of Women in Space

A Chinese woman was aboard Shenzhou 9 when it launched for Tiangong-1, China’s first space lab.

This particular space race is far from won. With decades of underrepresentation to undo, it’s only when tokenism is finally left behind that the day will come when women play an equal role in space exploration.

Until then, these trailblazers inspire a new generation of girls with hopes of space travel.

“To countless young girls, it would provide a dream,” said Kathy Sullivan; seeing someone else achieve it gives hope.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. If you enjoyed it, please consider following me on Medium and LinkedIn and subscribing to my website newsletter for more stories in various categories. Have a great day!

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