Fifty years ago this month, a former textile factory worker named Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly in space. 26-year-old Valentina was selected from more than 400 applicants because of her skill and experience as a parachutist, and because her father had been a war hero. On June 16, 1963, she blasted off in Vostok 6 and returned to the ground almost three days later, having orbited the Earth a then-record 48 times.
Although another 19 years passed before a second woman went into space (Svetlana Savitskaya, aboard Soyuz T-7), the number and importance of female space-travelers has grown significantly since the early 1980s. To date, 57 women have been astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts (members of the Chinese space program), with representatives of this still exclusive club coming from nine different countries of origin.
Now, on the fiftieth anniversary of Valentina Tereshkova’s astonishing flight into history, NASA has announced that of its 2013 class of eight trainee astronauts, four are women. According to Janet Kavandi, NASA’s director of flight crew operations, “We never determine how many people of each gender we're going to take, but these were the most qualified people of the ones that we interviewed."
Although the media has made a great deal out of this crop’s female intake, the astronauts themselves are rather more nonchalant. Few – if any – have referred specifically to gender in tweets and interviews. “A hugely impressive group,” was the tweet offered by Commander Chris Hadfield.
It wasn’t always like that, however. In the early 1960s, a team of First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs) was assembled, tested, and trained for a space flight. Then in July 1962, the thirteen women – known collectively as the “Mercury 13” – were abruptly told that their services their services were no longer required. In a statement before the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, astronaut John Glenn said that "The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable."
Harsh though this comment may have been, Glenn was accurate in one regard: in the early days of the U.S. space program, there was simply no place for women. Even 20 years later, when Sally Ride became the first female astronaut, there were only four women employed at the Johnson Space Center as technical staff, and roughly 4000 men.
Ride’s maiden flight aboard the space shuttle ‘Challenger’ was a turning point, not only for America’s space exploration, but for women around the world. No longer was gender an issue for female pilots and scientists with dreams of the stars, and in the years to come, women from Russia, Canada, France, Japan, China, Britain, South Korea, and Iran would log impressive achievements in space.
Some of the highlights are as follows:
Svetlana Savitskaya, the second woman in space, also became the first to take a spacewalk (EVA) during her second trip aboard a Soyuz in July 1984. American Kathy Sullivan repeated this breathtaking feat three months later when she took a walk outside the space shuttle.
In 1992, a further barrier was broken when Mae Jemison’s role aboard the ‘Endeavor’ made her the first black woman to journey beyond the Earth. It was a long time coming, but these days, race is as unimportant as is gender when it comes to choosing the best person for a job in space.
Shannon Lucid holds a special place in the honor role of female spacefarers. She flew on four shuttle missions between 1985 and 1993, before joining the Mir space station crew for an astonishing 188 days in 1996, a record which stood until Sunita Williams eclipsed it aboard the International Space Station in 2007. Lucid was also NASA’s Chief Scientist in 2002-’03, and lead CAPCOM (capsule communicator) at Mission Control from 2005 until her retirement in 2012.
Women have increasingly held command positions on space flights. In July 1999, Eileen Collins became the first woman to command a space shuttle mission; an achievement she repeated in 2005. In 2008, Peggy Whitson took command of the International Space Station. Whitson also holds the record for the most time spent by a woman in space – a remarkable 376 days.
International space travelers have also become the norm, beginning with Briton Helen Sharman in 1991, Canadian Roberta Bondar in 1992, and Chiaki Mukai from Japan, who flew on shuttle missions in 1994 and 1998. Last year, on the anniversary of Tereshkova and Ride’s flights, Liu Yang became the first Chinese woman in space.
Anousheh Ansari was the first Iranian-born space visitor, but her case is a little special. The millionaire businesswoman paid her own way aboard a 2006 Soyuz flight, becoming the first female and fourth overall ‘space tourist’.
Ironically perhaps, the female astronaut best known to most Americans is one who never made it into space. This was Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died (along with Judith Resnick) in the 1986 ‘Challenger’ disaster. Two other women – Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chawla – also died in the ‘Columbia’ tragedy in 2003, but the lure of space is strong. The influence and importance of women in space programs around the world has continued to grow, and in 2007, McAuliffe’s backup on the fateful ‘Challenger’ mission, Barbara Morgan, finally realized a dream in becoming the first teacher in space.
Since Tereshkova’s pioneering achievement, and especially in the past thirty years, women have established themselves as true citizens of space. The newest intake will no doubt uphold the proud record of those who blazed the trail, but surely, they have big shoes to fill. In the next fifty years, what might all of humanity, and not just its men, achieve in the void between the Earth and the stars?