Women in Space

views updated

Women in Space

One cannot discuss women in the space program without mentioning the women in research and aviation who paved the way for the eventual inclusion of female astronauts. Two of the most significant people in this regard are Harriet Quimby and Pearl Young. In 1911 Quimby became the first American woman to earn a pilot's license. Just a year later, she became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. She served as a forerunner to more prominent female pilots such as Amelia Earhart. Young was the first female professional to work at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (a precursor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA]), paving the way for women to work directly within the U.S. space program.

First Women Astronaut Candidates

It was not until 1978, thirteen years after the official start of NASA, that the first women were selected for astronaut training. Within those thirteen years, only one astronaut screening took place that included women. Earlier, in 1961, the Mercury 13, a group consisting of female top-flight pilots, was secretly tested by an independent medical organization. This thorough testing increased the standards for women astronauts when NASA finally conducted its first tests in 1961. Whereas the men's sensory isolation tests lasted roughly three hours in a silent room, Jerrie Cobb, the first woman to undergo testing, had to endure nearly ten hours submerged in a sensory isolation tank filled with warm water. Other tests Cobb endured required the consumption of radioactive water and liquid barium, the swallowing of nearly a meter of rubber tubing, the injection of ice-cold water into her ears to check for vertigo, and the insertion of eighteen needles in her head for brain-wave recording. Jane Hart, another test subject, recalled, "it seemed we went for days and days without anything to eat."

While all the women did well in the testing (and in most cases, better than the men according to one of the doctors in a public statement), NASA dismissed the women before final selections were made. Subsequent hearings in the U.S. Congress on the matter ended in the cancellation of further discussions. Following the canceled congressional hearings, astronaut John Glenn stated, "If we could find any women that demonstrated they

NameDegreeDateSelection AgeType
Anna L. FisherDoctorate (Medicine); Masters (Chemistry)1/7828Mission Specialist
Shannon W. LucidDoctorate/Masters (Biochemistry)1/7835Mission Specialist/Board Engineer
Judith A. Resnik*Doctorate (Electrical Engineering)1/7828Mission Specialist
Sally K. RideDoctorate/Masters (Physics)1/7826Mission Specialist
Margaret Rhea SeddonDoctorate (Medicine)1/7830Mission Specialist/Payload Commander
Kathryn D. SullivanDoctorate (Geology)1/7826Mission Specialist/Payload Commander
Mary L. CleaveDoctorate (Civil and Environmental Engineering); Masters (Microbial Ecology)5/8033Mission Specialist
Bonnie J. DunbarDoctorate (Mechanical/Biomedical Engineering); Masters (Ceramic Engineering)5/8030Payload Commander/Mission Specialist
Millie Hughes-FulfordDoctorate1/8351Payload Specialist
Roberta Lynn BondarDoctorate (Medicine and Neurobiology); Masters (Experimental Pathology)12/8338Payload Specialist
Ellen S. BakerDoctorate (Medicine); Masters (Public Health)5/8431Mission Specialist
Marsha S. IvinsBachelors (Aerospace Engineering)5/8433Mission Specialist
Kathryn C. ThorntonDoctorate/Masters (Physics)5/8431Mission Specialist
Linda M. GodwinDoctorate/Masters (Physics)6/8532Payload Commander/Mission Specialist
Tamara E. JerniganDoctorate (Space Physics and Astronomy); Masters (Astronomy)6/8526Payload Commander/Mission Specialist
S. Christa Corrigan McAuliffe*Masters (Education)7/8536Payload Specialist
N. Jan DavisDoctorate/Masters (Mechanical Engineering)6/8733Payload Commander/Mission Specialist
Mae C. JemisonDoctorate (Medicine)6/8730Mission Specialist
Eileen M. CollinsMasters (Operations Research and Space Systems Management)1/9033Pilot/Commander
Nancy Jane CurrieDoctorate (Industrial Engineering); Masters (Safety)1/9031Flight Engineer
Susan J. HelmsMasters (Aeronautics/Astronautics1/9031Payload Commander/Mission Specialist/Flight Engineer
Ellen OchoaDoctorate/Masters (Electrical Engineering)1/9031Mission Specialist/Payload Commander/Flight Engineer
Janice VossDoctorate (Aeronautics/Astronautics); Masters (Electrical Engineering)1/9033Mission Specialist
* Deceased
NameDegreeDateSelection AgeType
Catherine G. ColemanDoctorate (Polymer Science and Engineering)3/9231Mission Specialist
Wendy B. LawrenceMasters (Ocean Engineering)3/9232Mission Specialist
Mary Ellen WeberDoctorate (Physical Chemistry)3/9229Mission Specialist
Kathryn P. HireMasters (Space Technology)12/9435Mission Specialist
Janet Lynn KavandiDoctorate (Analytical Chemistry); Masters (Chemistry)12/9435Mission Specialist
Susan Still-KilrainMasters (Aerospace Engineering)12/9433Pilot
Pamela A. MelroyMasters (Earth and Planetary Sciences)12/9433Pilot
Joan E. HigginbothamMasters (Management and Space Systems)4/9631Mission Specialist
Sandra H. MagnusDoctorate (Material Science and Engineering); Masters (Electrical Engineering)4/9631Mission Specialist
Lisa M. NowakMasters (Aeronautical Engineering)4/9632Mission Specialist
Julie PayetteMasters (Computer Engineering)4/9632Mission Specialist
Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-PiperMasters (Mechanical Engineering)4/9633Mission Specialist
Peggy A. WhitsonDoctorate (Biochemistry)4/9636Mission Specialist
Stephanie D. WilsonMasters (Aerospace Engineering)4/9629Mission Specialist
Tracy E. CaldwellDoctorate (Physical Chemistry)6/9828Mission Specialist
Barbara R. MorganBachelors (Human Biology); Teaching Credential6/9846Mission Specialist
Patricia C. Hilliard Robertson*Doctorate (Medicine)6/9835Mission Specialist
Sunita L. WilliamsMasters (Engineering Management)6/9832Mission Specialist
K. Megan McArthurDoctorate (Oceanography)7/0028Mission Specialist
Karen L. NybergDoctorate/Masters (Mechanical Engineering)7/0030Mission Specialist
Nicole Passonno StottMasters (Engineering Management)7/0037Mission Specialist
Valentina Tereshkova196225Cosmonaut
Svetlana Yevgenyevna SavitskayaMoscow Aviation Institute198032Cosmonaut
Elena V. KondakovaMoscow Bauman High Technical College198932Flight Engineer
* Deceased

have better qualifications [than men], we would welcome them with open arms." Congress even went so far as to support NASA's decision to have all future astronauts be drawn from military-jet test pilots, an exclusively male group until 1972.

Russian Space Program

Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian, was the first woman in space. On June 16, 1963, Tereshkova began a three-day voyage on Vostok 6 orbiting Earth. While this event was a milestone in proving that women were fully capable of participating in spaceflights, it accomplished little else. Tereshkova, a mere mill worker, received little preparation for the mission beyond some parachute jumping and became very ill while in flight. She served as a last-minute replacement for the woman originally selected.

The next female cosmonaut to travel in space, Svetlana Savitskaya, accomplished much more in her spaceflight. In 1982 she became the first woman to walk in space and later became the first woman to be sent into space twice. She was part of a group of three people who successfully connected with the Salyut space station, spending a week on the station. Despite this, she still had to endure chauvinistic male humor from one of her colleagues, Valentin Levedev. Upon boarding the station, he warmly suggested that she do the cleaning and cooking, saying, "We've got an apron ready for you, Sveta."

Women at NASA

Between the Mercury 13 tests in 1961 and the inclusion of the first female astronauts in 1978, advances were made for female roles at NASA, primarily in research. Noted accomplishments include the work of Nancy Roman (Ph.D., astronomy) and Emily Holton (Ph.D., medical science). Roman became the first chief astronomer and the first female senior executive at NASA in 1960, while Holton was the only biologist at NASA Wallops (one of the oldest launch sites in the world) in 1973.

The most significant achievement for women in the history of the U.S. space program took place in January 1978 when the first female astronaut candidates were selected. Six out of the eight candidates selected were women. From this class arguably came the most well-known female astronauts, including Sally Ride (Ph.D., physics), the first American woman in space. The launch of the space shuttle Challenger in June 1983 (STS-7) piqued the interest of the nation, as 1,600 people packed the press grandstand, forcing the posting of a "No Vacancy" sign. Not only did this serve as a media booster for NASA, Ride's performance spoke wonders for the inclusion of women astronauts. Ninety-six percent of all objectives were fulfilled, there were fewer anomalies than on any previous mission, and evidence suggests that the inclusion of a woman relaxed the crew and softened the curtness in conversation. Ride's fellow 1978 class member, Kathryn Sullivan (Ph.D., geology), became the first American woman to walk in space in October 1984. Judith A. Resnik (Ph.D., electrical engineering) was one of the seven astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986, and Shannon Lucid (Ph.D., biochemistry) was the first woman to live on the Russian space station Mir, setting the U.S. single-mission spaceflight endurance record at 188 days.

The next major hurdle was overcome in 1995, when Eileen Collins (a colonel in the U.S. Air Force) became the first American woman to pilot a spaceship. Collins has frankly stated, "I'm sorry, but maybe you do have to work harder than men when you're one of the first women, one of the few women." She would later go on to be the first female to ever command a space mission in 1999.

The Future of Women in Space

While nothing can be taken away from the collective accomplishments of all of the women who have participated in the space program over the years, the significance of these accomplishments can possibly be trivialized in the future. In 1999 an all-female shuttle flight crew was proposed. Several women in the program believed this was a publicity stunt by NASA to garner attention and funding. According to an unpublished report by NASA in 2000, these fears were justified. The results of the report concluded that no significant scientific advancements could be accomplished from sending an all-female crew, and the proposed project was dropped.

In this new century, women will play a major role in advancing the space program. As stressed by Mae C. Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut, the space program is not just "some silly male stuff going on." Women studying all facets of science and engineering and other relevant fields will be needed to continue the work started a mere half century ago.

see also Challenger (volume 3); Challenger 7 (volume 3); Collins, Eileen (volume 3); Cosmonauts (volume 3); History of Humans in Space (volume 3); Nasa (volume 3); Ride, Sally (volume 3); Space Walks (volume 3); Sullivan, Kathryn (volume 3); Teacher in Space Program (volume 3); Tereshkova, Valentina (volume 3); Vostok (volume 3).

Cynthia Y. Young and Fredrick E. Thomas


Ackmann, Martha. "Right Stuff, Wrong Time: Mercury 13 Women Wait." Christian Science Monitor 90, no. 214 (1998):15.

Associated Press-NASA. "The Right Sex or the Right Stuff?" Newsweek 133, no. 14(1999):4.

Golden, Frederic. "Coloring the Cosmos Pink." Time 121, no. 24 (1983):58.

"Mission Accomplished: Sally Ride and Friends. . ." Time 122, no. 1(1983):24-27.

Sheridan, David. "An American First: Eileen Collins." NEA Today 14, no. 2 (1995):7.

Internet Resources

Burgess, Colin, and Francis French. "Only Males Need Apply." 2000. Nauts Inc.<http://www.nauts.com/history/features/onlymales/index.html>.

Career Astronaut Biographies. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.<http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/astrobio.html>.

Payload Specialist Biographies. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.<http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/PS/index.html>.

Walley, Ellen C., and Terri Hudkins. "Women's Contributions to Aeronautics and Space (Historical Milestones)." 2000. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. <http://www.nasa.gov/women/milestones.html>.

About this article

Women in Space

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Women in Space