Women Pioneers in Spaceflight – Tereshkova, Cobb, Ride, Sullivan, Collins, Melroy, Whitson

July 5, 2017 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Online Auction

Becoming an astronaut today would certainly be a non-traditional career choice for a woman – but just barely! The Department of Labor defines a non-traditional field for a woman as one in which 25% or less of those employed are female. Currently, about 26% of NASA’s astronaut corps are women.

Although most people in the United States probably think of Sally Ride as the first woman in space, she was actually preceded into space 20 years earlier by a female cosmonaut, the Russian Valentina Tereshkova, who became the first woman in space in 1963. And although Ride was the first American woman in space, the first American female astronaut was Jerrie Cobb, in 1960. All three women took different paths on their journey to becoming an astronaut or cosmonaut.

Valentina Tereshkova flew aboard Vostok 6. She was a textile mill worker, but also an expert amateur parachutist. As there weren’t many female pilots, her parachutist expertise got her recruited into the Russian space program.   Tereshkova spent almost 3 days in space and orbited the earth 48 times. This was more time in space than the combined times of all the American Mercury astronauts who had preceded her. 

Although Tereshkova turned 70 in 2007, she said it was still a dream of hers to fly to Mars – even on a one way ticket!

The U.S.A. could have had the first woman in space. The first female American astronaut, Jerrie Cobb, never got the opportunity to fly in space. Jerrie Cobb earned her commercial pilot’s license at age 18, but in 1949 the aviation jobs available to women were as flight attendants, not pilots. So Cobb got a job at the Miami airport and consequently met Jack Ford, who had a business that ferried aircraft around the world. She convinced him to hire her, and thus flew all types of aircraft around the world. This led to her invitation to the Lovelace Clinic to undergo the same testing the Mercury astronauts did, and in 1960 she passed the same physical and psychological tests as the Mercury astronauts. 

After she passed this testing, she then helped recruit 24 other women, twelve of whom also passed the tests and were chosen to undergo further testing at the Naval Aviation Center in Pensacola, Florida. These women became known as the FLATs – First Lady Astronaut Trainees, or Mercury 13.

Unfortunately for the women, many of whom had quit their jobs in anticipation of this round of testing, they never got the opportunity to train as astronauts. The Navy would not allow the use of their Pensacola facilities for testing, as there wasn’t an official NASA request for the training. There was still much resistance by members of NASA to women becoming part of the space program. Without the testing, they could not proceed into the Mercury project.

Jerrie Cobb, along with many others on her behalf, have lobbied NASA to get Cobb onto a flight into space, but efforts have so far been unsuccessful. When John Glenn flew back into space at the age of 77 in 1998, her hopes were renewed. She even stated that she’d make the trip even “if I knew I wasn’t coming back.”

It wasn’t until 1978 that NASA truly opened its doors to women. This class marked the first year that women were chosen to be astronauts. The 1978 was chosen specifically for the space shuttle, and six of the 35 were women, including Sally Ride. Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983.

Dr. Sally Ride, an astrophysicist, flew on the Challenger STS-7 mission, as a mission specialist, thus becoming the first American woman in space. She flew again on the Challenger a year later, on the first flight to include two women. On that flight her friend, Kathryn Sullivan, became the first woman to walk in space.

The first female space shuttle pilot was Eileen Collins, in 1995. She piloted another shuttle in 1997 and then made another historic first, becoming the first woman to command a space shuttle in 1999. This was such a momentous occasion that it was announced by President Clinton at a White House press conference.

The year 2007 brought other historic firsts. The second woman to command the space shuttle, Pam Melroy, and the first woman to command the International Space Station, Peggy Whitson, marked the first time there were two women commanders in space at the same time.

A sign of progress for women in space is that this 2007 event wasn’t exceptionally remarkable. In an October 2007 speech given by Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator, he remarked that “In my usual clueless fashion, I had failed to notice – until receiving a question from a member of the media – that this is the first time we have had women commanding both the Space Station and the Space Shuttle.”

Times are changing, and opportunities for women to play significant roles in our country’s space program are increasing. This will not only be beneficial to the space program, but also for encouraging girls and young women to pursue scientific and technical careers, whether in the sky or on the ground.

© Koval Associates LLC

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