Women in Space: Making history

To date, women represent 10% of the people who have flown to space, with 58 women astronauts vs. more than 500 men. Hoping that these numbers will become more equal in the years to come, DiscovHER presents some of the women who have made history by reaching for the stars, literally!

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in Space


In 1963, Soviet Union’s Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, as she launched with the Vostok 6 mission, staying in orbit for 70 hours. Before her recruitment as an astronaut, Tereshkova was a textile-factory assembly worker and an amateur skydiver, the last skill being vital for returning to Earth, since at the time, space shuttles were not safe for landing. The decision to send a woman into space so early on was in line with the Soviet Union’s quest to give an image of communist egalitarianism during the Cold War. 19 years had to pass for another woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, to venture into space in 1983!


Sally Ride, the first American woman in Space


The United States did not have a woman in space until 1983, when Sally Ride launched on the STS-7 mission of the space shuttle Challenger. Born in 1951, she earned a master's degree and a Ph.D. in physics at Stanford University, while doing research on the interaction of X-rays with the interstellar medium. Ride was one of 8,000 people who answered an advertisement in the Stanford student newspaper seeking applicants for the space program, being among one of six women selected to be astronaut candidates. After leaving NASA, she became an advocate for girls and minority groups to pursue careers in STEM subjects.


Mae Jemison, the first black woman in Space


In September 1992, NASA astronaut Mae Jemison flew on space shuttle Endeavour, becoming the first black woman to travel to space. A brilliant student, Jemison holds a B.S. in chemical engineering from Stanford University, as well as a Doctor of Medicine degree from Cornell University. After her medical education and a brief general practice, Jemison served in the Peace Corps from 1985 to 1987, when she was selected by NASA to be an astronaut. Today, she has become a crusader for science education — and for a new vision of learning that combines arts and sciences, intuition and logic.


Eileen Collins, the first female Space Shuttle Pilot and Commander


Following the completion of her studies in Stanford University and Webster University, she finished her pilot training in Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, and was later selected for NASA’s astronaut program in 1990. Collins became the first female astronaut to take control of a spacecraft in 1995, leading the shuttle Discovery to make the first-ever encounter with Russia's Mir space station. She would go on to be the first woman to command a space shuttle mission in 1999, leading the STS-93 crew flying Columbia to deploy the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Collins left NASA in 2006 after logging nearly 40 days in space. A former test pilot, she retired from the U.S. Air Force with the rank of colonel.


Peggy Whitson, the first female Space Station Commander


Whitson flew her first space mission in 2002 as a flight engineer to the International Space Station as part of the Expedition 5 crew. While there, then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe gave her the title of first NASA Science Officer. During her second stay on the station, Expedition-16 in 2007-2008, she was named the commander. Peggy Whitson turned 55 on 2015, and NASA announced she would be one of six astronauts propelled 240 miles into space next year. This will make her the oldest woman in space.


These astronauts show that with courage and determination there is no limit to what we can achieve. DiscovHER congratulates their efforts in driving women in science and humanity as a whole further along the quest for discovery and progress. Tell us who is your favorite woman astronaut at @4womeninscience !

L’Oréal–UNESCO
For Women in Science

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