Lady astronauts have served as a beacon of inspiration for girls since the flight of Valentina Tereshkova in 1963. Here the first female shuttle astronauts pose during training. Photo Credit: NASA
When I was asked to write about the top female astronauts, I was faced with a daunting task. So many outstanding women have made important contributions to human spaceflight we’ve gained remarkable learning from their efforts. Could I get it down to just a handful? Researching these wonderful women, I was humbled and awed. I whittled my shortlist down to the following six astronauts, listed in chronological flight order. They came from ordinary backgrounds like you and me, but they knew how to dream big and had the ambition to take it all the way. I’m certain you’ll be inspired by their stories and accomplishments!
Valentina Tereshkova, “First Lady of Space”
Dr. Valentina Tereshkova holds the distinction of being the first female to go into space. In the early 1960’s, with the U.S. and Soviet Union racing each other to reach a series of “firsts, ” Tereshkova made some landmark accomplishments. At age 26, she was ten years younger than America’s youngest Mercury astronaut. Gordon Cooper. She logged more hours in space during her single flight on Vostok 6 than the combined flights of all the Mercury astronauts, spending almost three days in her capsule, orbiting the Earth 48 times. Her final words prior to liftoff were, “Hey, sky! Take off your hat, I’m coming!”
While in orbit, Tereshokova conducted biomedical & science experiments to learn about the effects of space on the human body, took photographs that helped identify aerosols in the Earth’s atmosphere. and manually piloted the ship. The Soviets’ space missions were timed so closely that Tereshkova’s Vostok 6 capsule and the Vostok 5 actually passed within 3 miles of each other, and she spoke to her fellow cosmonaut, Valery Bykovsky, over the radio during her flight! Tereshkova, whose call sign was “Seagull, ” was one of four females selected to the Cosmonaut Corps, and the only one from her group to ever fly in space.
In her daily life she was a textile worker, but she was also an expert parachutist. This was a critical skill for cosmonauts flying those early missions. After re-entry and descent, the only way to get back to Earth was to eject at about 7, 000 feet with a parachute because the Vostok capsules could not land safely. After Tereshkova’s successful mission, space travel remained exclusive to males for close to 20 years. In 1982, cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, traveled to the Salyut 7 space station where she became the first woman to perform a space walk. Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut, followed with her space debut a year later.
After her flight on Vostok 6, Valentina Tershkova studied at the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy, graduating with distinction as a Cosmonaut engineer. She pursued her education further, and went on to earn a Doctorate in Engineering. Dr. Tereshkova rose to prominence as a politician, and remains politically active today.
At age 76, on the 50th anniversary of her flight in Vostok 6, she once again displayed her pioneering spirit by raising her hand to take a one-way flight to her favorite planet, Mars. “Of course, it’s a dream to go to Mars and find out whether there was life there or not, ” Tereshkova said. “If there was, then why did it die out? What sort of catastrophe happened?” Given the opportunity, I have no doubt this amazing woman will help us find out!
Sally Ride, First American Woman in Space
Dr. Sally Ride was the celebrated first American woman and youngest American astronaut to travel into space. She served as CapCom (capsule communicator) for the second and third-ever Shuttle flights, and helped to develop the Space Shuttle’s robotic arm. Ride flew two space missions (STS-7 and STS-61), both aboard Challenger, serving in the capacity of Mission Specialist.
The purpose of these missions was to deploy satellites and perform pharmaceutical experiments. Ride was the first person to use the robotic arm to retrieve a satellite, and the first woman to use the arm in space. Ride spent several years working at NASA headquarters where she founded NASA’s Office of Exploration. She also served on the Presidential Commissions that investigated both the Challenger and Columbia disasters.
She wrote or co-wrote seven books on space aimed at children, with the goal of encouraging children to study science. She became a Physics professor and Director of the California Space Institute, and also led public outreach programs through NASA.
The ISS EarthKAM and the GRAIL MoonKAM were made accessible to middle school children, allowing them to request photos of the moon and the Earth. Dr. Ride also created a company called “Sally Ride Science, “ which focuses on creating entertaining science programs with an emphasis on STEM learning for girls. Sally Ride lost her battle with pancreatic cancer in 2012 at age 61, leaving an amazing legacy of inspiration.
Mae Jemison, First African-American Woman to Travel to Space
Dr. Mae Jemison drew her spacefaring inspiration from Sally Ride and Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek series. After serving as a physician in the Peace Corps, Jemison applied to the Astronaut Corps. Her acceptance to the astronaut training program was delayed due to the Challenger disaster, but Jemison was finally selected and joined NASA in 1987.
On Sept. 12, 1992, Dr. Jemison became the first African American woman in space on Space Shuttle Endeavour’s second flight, which carried her and six other astronauts into space for eight days. She served as Mission Specialist and worked on the bone cell research experiment flown on STS-37, a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan.