The first Friday in May is International Space Day, and this year, we are extra-ready to celebrate. Between an inspiring portrayal of NASA’s first female mathematicians in Hidden Figures and astronaut Peggy Whitson breaking yet another record, women working in the field of space technology are in the spotlight lately.
These days, the sight of a female astronaut is relatively common, but that hasn’t always been the case. Even before cosmonaut Valentina Terskova piloted the Vostok 6 in orbit around the Earth in 1963 (becoming the first woman in space), women have worked in space programs — but for a long time, most of their work was done on Earth. Since Terskova’s flight, however, female astronauts, engineers, pilots, and scientists have developed technology, performed experiments, made repairs, commanded crews, and made all kinds of progress to further our understanding of space.
In honor of International Space Day, we’ve compiled a list to remember just a few of the many accomplishments made by women in space.
1The “grand dame of space” helped create NASA.
Though she never went to space, Eilene Galloway was instrumental in America sending humans there. In 1941, Galloway joined the Legislative Reference Service, analyzing and reporting to lawmakers on national security and international relations abstracts from the most important thinkers of the day.
Just before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Galloway wrote “Guided Missiles in Foreign Countries.” She also advised the House Majority Leader John W. McCormack (D-Mass.) to establish a space committee, which he did. That committee became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. She was instrumental in its development until the end of her long career.
2First Lady Astronaut Trainees proved that women could go to space.
In 1960, during the early days of the space program, Dr. William Randolph “Randy” Lovelace II and Brig. General Donald Flickinger chose award-winning pilot Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb to begin the Air Force’s Women in Space project. At that time, nobody had been to space, and they theorized that women’s bodies might be better suited for it than men’s. Eventually, nineteen female pilots became the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLAT). The description of the testing all astronauts of the time underwent is gruesome, but thirteen of the pilots made it through. In the final phase of testing, the project was abruptly shut down. Jerrie Cobb and others lobbied for reinstatement, but to no avail. (I’m disappointed to report that astronaut John Glenn, who would eventually become the first American to orbit the earth, testified against them.)
These pilots could have and should have been among America’s first astronauts, but instead we recognize their bravery not just as pilots but as women who never gave up fighting for their — and consequently, our — rights.
3Sally Ride was the first to use the space shuttle’s robotic arm to grab a satellite.
Sally Ride is famous for being the first American female astronaut to go to space, which she did on June 18th, 1983 as a mission specialist on the STS-7 space shuttle mission. Part of Ride’s job at NASA was to work on the joint U.S.-Canada project, which resulted in Canadarm, the (gigantic) robotic arm that has been described as the shuttle’s “right hand.” The Canadarm had been in use since 1981, but one of the missions for STS-7 was to find out if it could grab a satellite and bring it back to the cargo bay.
Ride, an astrophysicist, was chosen because of her expertise with the Canadarm, which was actually designed for use by pilots. Her experiment was a success, and the Canadarm has since been used to catch and repair many satellites, including the famous Hubble Space Telescope.
4Peggy Whitson presided over the world’s most expensive renovation.
Peggy Whitson is constantly breaking records in space. She’s the first and the most in almost everything she does. But she’s not just hanging out up there. Whitson is a biochemist, conducting research on the effects of space travel on plants and humans. She’s also one of the world’s most experienced space travelers, having commanded what seems to be her second home, the International Space Station (ISS) — twice.
During her second trip to the ISS, Whitson oversaw the biggest expansion of the station in six years. She and her crew added “the Harmony connecting node, the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Kibo logistics pressurized module and the Canadian Space Agency’s Dextre robot.” And oh yeah, she performed five spacewalks on that mission, too.
5Kate Rubins was the first person to sequence DNA in space.
In 2016, American astronaut Kate Rubins became the first person to sequence DNA in space. Rubins, a microbiologist, performed the sequencing as part of the Biomolecule Sequencer experiment on her first trip to the International Space Station. A NASA article calls it a “game changer,” saying the ability to reliably sequence DNA in microgravity could help protect astronaut health during long duration missions (like those that will occur as part of future missions to Mars). It could also potentially be used “to identify DNA-based life forms beyond Earth.”
6Mae Jemison was the first real-life astronaut to appear on Star Trek.
Yes, she was the first woman of color to go to space, and while she was there, she did some important research on board the Endeavor — like being co-investigator on the mission’s bone cell experiment. Several things could have put her on this list, but today we’re celebrating her appearance on the television show that inspired her and many other young people to take an interest in space travel: Star Trek.
In Season 6 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, she played transporter operator Lt. Palmer. She was visited on the set by Nichelle Nichols, whose portrayal of Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek influenced Jemison’s interest in space as a child. Today, Jemison is the principal of 100 Starship, a study focused on interstellar travel.
Beam us up, Dr. Jemison!
7Eileen Collins performed the first rendezvous pitch maneuver of a space shuttle.
Sounds awesome. What does it mean? It means that Collins, who on a previous mission had become the first woman to pilot and command a U.S. spacecraft, guided the shuttle in basically a slow backflip right next to the International Space Station so astronauts on board could take a picture of its heat shield to check for damages. It’s a very delicate operation that requires a skilled pilot, which Collins is. She performed the maneuver in 2005 when she commanded NASA’s first space shuttle mission after the Columbia tragedy, which occurred in 2003. The manuever is still used by shuttles today.
8After the Challenger disaster, back-up Teacher in Space Barbara Morgan became a regular astronaut.
Most of the people of my generation remember where they were (usually an elementary classroom) when the Challenger exploded a few seconds after lift-off, carrying a crew that included Christa MacAuliffe, who was to have been the first teacher in space. The unthinkable tragedy shocked the whole country, especially children, many of whom had been learning about MacAuliffe and preparing to watch the shuttle launch for months. But it didn’t stop the space program from carrying on its mission. Nor did it stop Barbara Morgan, the reading/math teacher chosen as back-up for Challenger‘s Teacher in Space mission.
In 1998, Morgan was accepted into the astronaut program and went to space in 2007 on the Endeavor, where she was part of the crew that helped build the International Space Station. In her pre-flight interview, Morgan said of MacAuliffe, “Christa was, is, and always will be our ‘Teacher in Space,’ our first teacher to fly. She truly knew what this was all about — not just bringing the world to her classroom — but also … helping to show the world what teachers do and what all the good teachers do across our country day in and day out.”
9Svetlana Savitskaya was named commander of what would have been the first all-female shuttle crew.
In 2010, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson, and Naoko Yamazaki flew on Discovery to the International Space Station, where they met up with a crew that included Tracy Caldwell Dyson. They formed the largest group of women to gather in space — so far.
But back in 1980, the Soviet Union planned to send one of its most famous astronauts, Svetlana Savitskaya, to their Salyut 7 space station as commander of an all-female crew in commemoration of International Women’s Day. The mission was cancelled due to a problem with the space station, but Savitskaya — the first woman to enter space twice and also the first woman to perform a spacewalk — continued with her illustrious career until she retired in 1993. So an all-female shuttle crew has yet to enter space, but with so many inspiring role models, perhaps it’s only a matter of time.