Russian Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space. In June of 1963 she orbited the planet Earth 48 times. The grueling 70-hour stint in orbit gave Tereshkova the distinction of having spent more time in orbit than all the U.S. Mercury astronauts combined. Tereshkova truly had the right stuff.
In the early 1960s, NASA had trained female astronauts, but made the dubious decision that America was not yet ready for women astronauts. Yet, by the 1970s, eager to again make history with the space program, NASA chose six women. Among these pioneering astronauts were Anna Fisher, Shannon Lucid, Rhea Seddon, Sally Ride, Judith Resnick and Kathryn Sullivan. Although all were vigorously trained, not all would make the journey from Earth to orbit.
Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman to go to space in 1983. The following year, in 1984, the Russians responded by sending their female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, on a mission to become the first woman to walk in space. Also in 1984, the U.S. sent Anna Fisher to become the first person to retrieve a malfunctioning satellite.
By October of that same year, Kathryn Sullivan was the first American woman to walk in space. However, it would be almost a decade before another U.S. woman astronaut, Kathy Thornton, had her chance to break Sullivan’s record by taking several historic space walks that lasted more than 20 hours of accumulated time outside the spacecraft.
During the years in between 1984 and 1992 was the tragedy of the Challenger space shuttle. Challenger mission specialist, polymath Judith Resnick, and carefully selected civilian teacher, Christa McAuliffe, were both aboard the ill-fated shuttle when it exploded at just a little over one minute after launch. The risky January 1986 cold weather launch proved invaluable for research into all later safety measures and regulations of policy concerning public relations related missions and timelines. The launch, televised live, shattered hearts and dreams, but it also steeled the resolve of those determined to keep the dream alive, including several courageous women pioneers at NASA.
By the 1990s, new openings for women in NASA were created, and although most women worked tirelessly earthbound, a select few made historic spaceflight milestones. Ellen Baker and Bonnie Dunbar were two women of NASA that were aboard for one historic unification of Russian and U.S. efforts with the docking of space station Mir.
By 1996, the U.S. had many more female astronauts on the payroll. The 1990s saw the first African-American woman, Mae Jemison; the first Hispanic woman, Ellen Ochoa; the first Japanese-American woman, Chiaki Mukai; and the first Indian-American woman astronaut, Kalpana Chawla. All were present in that decade’s several missions.
In 1996, Shannon Lucid returned triumphant from a six-month stint aboard Mir. She was awarded the U.S. Congressional Space Medal of Honor, as the first person ever to accumulate so many off-world months in space. Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark, like heroic women before them aboard the Challenger shuttle, were killed upon re-entry to Earth orbit aboard the Columbia in 2003. All astronauts aboard, who contributed enormously in nearly 80 experiments, were awarded the U.S. Congressional Space Medal of Honor posthumously.
The 1990s were a busy decade by any standard in the U.S. space program. Other women astronauts who flew missions included Marsha Ivins, Linda Godwin, Tamara Jernigan, Millie Hughs-Fulford, Jan Davis, Janice Voss, Nancy Currie, Eileen Collins, Wendy Lawrence, Mary Weber, Barbara Morgan, Catherine Coleman, Susan Still Kilrain, Kathryn Hire, Janet Kavandi, Stephanie Wilson, Lisa Nowak, Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper, Julie Payette, Pamela Melroy, Peggy Whitson, Sunita Williams, Sandra Magnus, Karen Nyberg, K. Megan McArthur, Nicole Stott, Joan Higginbotham, Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger and Shannon Walker.
Non-American astronauts include Yelena Kondakova from Russia, Claudie Haignere from France, the United Kingdom’s Helen Sharman, aboard Soyuz in 1991 and Canadian Roberta Bondar, who flew in 1992. Liu Yang was the first Chinese woman to fly, and Anousheh Ansari was the first woman "space tourist" from Iran to visit space. Naoko Yamazaki of Japan and Yi So-Yeon of South Korea are also among the few who participated in space missions.
For every woman that flies, of course, there are countless men and women, from the first inspiring teacher to the accomplished engineers who build spacecraft, who should be acknowledged. Although one rarely pictures a woman when the phrase“It’s not really rocket science” is spoken, these select women defy that stereotype. They represent just a few of the talented and courageous women ahead, to slip the surly bonds of earth, and to go where few have gone before.