When the men at NASA first started exploring space, they claimed they excluded women “because of the degree of scientific and flight training, and the physical characteristics, which are required.”
Famous US astronaut John Glenn said “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”
When NASA officials were first preparing to send women in space, they thought they’d need to send up a makeup kit and 100 tampons for a 1-week flight.
Even today, only about 10% of all people in space have been women.
Despite all the odds against them, the women below fought for their ambition and achieved their goal of being a female astronaut:
- Valentina Tereshkova: first woman in space (1963)
- Sally Kristen Ride: first American woman in space (1983)
- Mae Jemison: first African-American woman in space (1992)
Who are these amazing women astronauts? Let’s take a closer look…
1. Valentina Tereshkova: First Woman In Space
Valentina Tereshkova was born in 1937 in central Russia. She was raised by her mother, a cotton mill worker, and became a textile worker herself.
But at the same time, she became interested in skydiving and trained as a competitive parachutist. Her experience and skill in skydiving helped her get selected as a cosmonaut.
(It wasn’t until after her flight that she earned a doctorate in engineering in 1977.)
Valentina was 26 at the time of her flight in 1963. She orbited the earth 48 times over nearly 3 days (more flight time than all male American astronauts by that time combined!). She was responsible for keeping a flight log and also taking scientific photographs of the horizon.
Valentina is still the only woman to have been on a solo space mission, ever.
And it took another 19 years after her flight before the second woman flew into space.“Americans, Asians, everyone who has seen it says the same thing, how unbelievably beautiful the Earth is and how very important it is to look after it.” Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space #womenshistory Click To Tweet
“Our planet suffers from human activity, from fires, from war; we have to preserve it. […] People shouldn’t waste money on wars, but come together to discuss how to defend the world from threats like asteroids coming from outer space.”
2. Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space
Sally Kristen Ride (1951-2012) was born in Los Angeles. Before becoming an astronaut, she studied English and physics in college and went on to earn a PhD in physics in 1978, doing research on X-rays in space!
That same year, she was one of 35 people selected out of 8000 applicant to join NASA Astronaut Group 8.
The media singled her out with sexist questions like “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” and “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
Sally became the first American woman in space in 1983. She was responsible for operating the robotics arm to send out and retrieve the first Shuttle Pallet Satellite, used for both scientific and military purposes.
After working with NASA and completing a second space flight in 1984, she became a professor of physics at the University of California in San Diego and also director of the California Space Institute.
She also founded a company called Sally Ride Science to create programs and publications to encourage middle schools students, especially girls, to become interested in science."For a long time, society put obstacles in the way of women who wanted to enter the sciences." Sally Ride, first American woman in space #womenshistory Click To Tweet
Recommended Reading: Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space
3. Mae Jemison, First African-American Female Astronaut
Mae Jemison was born in Alabama in 1956, but grew up in Chicago.
From a young age, she wanted to go to space and was interested in learning about science.
Her parents supported her, but her teachers didn’t. When she told a teacher she wanted to be an astronaut, the teacher said “Don’t you mean a nurse?” When she went on to study engineering in college, she was ignored and ridiculed by her own professors.
“Growing up…I was just like every other kid. I loved space, stars and dinosaurs. I always knew I wanted to explore. At the time of the Apollo airing, everybody was thrilled about space, but I remember being irritated that there were no women astronauts. People tried to explain that to me, and I did not buy it.”Mae Jemison
Despite nearly everyone being against her, she went on to become a doctor in the Peace Corps. But she still dreamed of being an astronaut.
Mae was a Trekkie and was inspired by Nichelle Nichols who played Uhura in Star Trek. (Later on in 1993, she actually became the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek when she guest starred on “Second Chances,” an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation!) She was also inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and considered his dream to be a call to action.
In 1987, she was one of 15 candidates chosen out of 2,000 applicants to NASA’s astronaut program.
In 1992 she became the first black woman in space. She was a Mission Specialist, conducting experiments on bone cells, weightlessness and motion sickness, and more.
On the mission, she brought a photo of Bessie Coleman, the first black woman to fly an airplane.
Mae is now a Professor-at-Large at Cornell University. She founded her own company called the Jemison Group to research, market, and develop science and technology for daily life. She also started the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, named after her mother, to help students build critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Recommended Reading: Find Where The Wind Goes: Moments From My Life
The path is still not easy for female astronauts, but women like these pave the way for more!
If you’d like to learn more about women astronauts, check out the book Women in Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity-Breaking Adventures.
And don’t forget to check out the Women In Science biographies here on Amazing Women In History.
- Blakemore, E. (2018, June 18). When Sally Ride Took Her First Space Flight, Sexism Was the Norm. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/sally-ride-first-astronaut-sexism
- Dejevsky, M. (2017, March 29). The first woman in space: ‘People shouldn’t waste money on wars’. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/mar/29/valentina-tereshkova-first-woman-in-space-people-waste-money-on-wars
- Finnerty, A. (2000, July 16). Outnumbered: Standing Out at Work. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2000/07/16/magazine/outnumbered-standing-out-at-work-161977.html
- Knapp, A. (2012, July 24). Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space, Dead At 61. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2012/07/23/sally-ride-first-american-woman-in-space-dead-at-61/#2627a540265d
- Mae C. Jemison. (2019, April 18). Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/astronaut/mae-c-jemison
- Majors, D. (2007, September 26). Sally Ride touts science careers for women. Retrieved from http://old.post-gazette.com/pg/07269/820564-85.stm
- Makers. (n.d.). Mae Jemison. Retrieved from https://www.makers.com/profiles/591f267b6c3f64643955861c
- Ryan, M. (1983, June 20). A Ride in Space. Retrieved from https://people.com/archive/cover-story-a-ride-in-space-vol-19-no-24/
- Siegel, E. (2017, March 06). The First Woman In Space Turns 80, And You Probably Never Heard Of Her. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2017/03/06/the-first-woman-in-space-turns-80-and-you-probably-never-heard-of-her/#54d12963ae5e