Women in aerospace have been making important strides in the field ever since June 16, 1963, when Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova blasted into the blue beyond to become the first woman to travel in space. As the rocked launched, BBC notes that the 26-year-old shouted, “Hey, sky, take off your hat, I’m on my way!” Over three days, she completed 48 orbits of Earth aboard the Vostok 6, literally blazing a trail for female astronauts who followed.
In the half century since, 58 other women in aerospace have demonstrated what Linda Cureton, the first African-American CIO of NASA, calls “leadership courage,” the kind that helps someone overcome the fear embedded in being the first to do something remarkable: “The fear looks like voices in your head. It looks like the people saying you can’t do it. It looks like a mountain too high to climb,” said Cureton, who retired from NASA in 2013 and is now the founder and CEO of Muse Technologies. But it’s also the fear that motivates, she said. “Courage takes that fear and turns it into preparations for success.”
In honor of International Women’s Day, here are three courageous women who left indelible impressions on history — not just for women, but for everyone.
First U.S. Woman in Space
“‘The moment of the launch, when the engines actually ignited and the solid rockets lit, everyone on the crew was, for a few seconds, overcome with what was about to happen to us,'” Sally Ride said in an interview for PBS. She was talking about the seconds before blasting into the cosmos aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. But another thing was happening on that 18th day of June 1983. Ride was making history as the first U.S. woman to travel into space.
As a mission specialist for STS-7, NASA’s seventh shuttle trip, Ride operated the shuttle’s robotic arm to deploy and retrieve communication satellites. A little more than a year later, on Oct. 5, 1984, Ride went into space for a second mission, STS-41-G. Again, she used the spacecraft’s robotic arm, this time to remove ice from the shuttle’s exterior and to readjust a radar antenna.
Though she had an advanced degree in astrophysics and was a trained astronaut, talking with the press proved to be a difficult challenge for Ride. Journalists asked Ride questions that focused more on her gender and less on her skills. “‘Everybody wanted to know what kind of makeup I was taking up,'” Ride said in an interview for PBS. Years later, for a segment on NOVA, Ride said she felt that the extra attention she received made her all the more determined to do things right.
Sadly, Sally Ride passed away at age 61 on July 23, 2012, from pancreatic cancer. When her obituary was published, stating that Ride was survived by Tam O’Shaughnessy, her “partner of 27 years,” the world realized that Ride had achieved another first: the first gay woman in space.
First African-American Woman in Space
“‘I was a young girl who used to stare up at the stars. I imagined myself going there,'” said Mae Carol Jemison in an interview for NOVA. On Sept. 12, 1992, Jemison fulfilled her wish. She flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, mission STS-47, and in doing so became the first African-American woman in space.
Her journey to space took an unconventional route. In 1981, Jemison obtained her M.D. degree from Cornell Medical College and began working as a general practitioner. Her passion for healthcare took her to many different countries, including Cuba, Kenya, Cambodia and Thailand, where she provided care to people without access to basic medical services. Jemison joined the Peace Corps, and from 1983 to 1985 she worked as a Peace Corps Medical Officer in Liberia and Sierra Leone. But she always had her eyes on the stars.
After seeing Sally Ride go into space, Jemison said she felt that NASA had become open to accepting women into the space program. “‘I picked up the phone. I called down to Johnson Space Center. I said, ‘I would like an application to be an astronaut.’ They didn’t laugh,'” she said in the NOVA interview. On June 4, 1987, Jemison became the first African-American woman to be admitted into the NASA astronaut training program, earning the title of mission specialist. Onboard, she conducted scientific experiments related to bone cell research, weightlessness, fertility, motion sickness and others.
“‘Once I got into space, I was feeling very comfortable in the universe. I felt like I had a right to be anywhere in this universe, that I belonged here as much as any speck of stardust, any comet, any planet,'” said Jemison.
Among many of her accomplishments, Jemison has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Medical Association Hall of Fame and is a recipient of the National Organization for Women’s Intrepid Award. Today, she leads 100 Year Starship, a global nonprofit initiative to ensure that humans have the capacity to travel beyond our solar system within the next 100 years.
“I did always want to be an astronaut just like her,” Cureton says of Jemison. But when Cureton was a young girl, she didn’t see any astronauts that looked like her. While at NASA, Cureton participated in many STEM events designed to encourage girls to pursue careers in science and technology. “I wanted the young girls to see somebody like them in places that they dreamed to go,” she said.
First Woman Space Shuttle Commander
“‘When I was very young and first started reading about astronauts, there were no women astronauts,'” Eileen Collins said in a NASA press statement. Collins helped change that, and, in the course of her career as an astronaut, she accomplished two aerospace firsts: She became the first female space shuttle pilot and the first female shuttle commander.
From the time Collins was a little girl, she wanted to be a pilot. She said she was inspired by astronauts, including John Glenn and Alan Shepherd, who flew in Project Mercury — the U.S.’s first human spaceflight program, running from 1958 through 1963. Even though she had no female astronauts for role models, Collins followed her dream. After earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and economics from Syracuse University in 1978, Collins enrolled in a pilot training course at Oklahoma’s Vance Air Force Base. It was one of the first classes at the base to include women. She eventually became a test pilot and in 1990 was selected as a NASA astronaut, said Biography.com.
As commander of STS-93, which launched on July 23, 1999, Collins led a four-day mission to deploy the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, an instrument designed to detect X-ray emission from hot regions of the universe. In 2005, Collins served as commander for a second shuttle mission, STS-114. Throughout her career, Collins received many awards, including an Air Force Commendation Medal and a NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal. Collins was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame and retired on May 1, 2006.
Do these women inspire you to follow a career in aerospace? Check out our Careers Page to see how you can become the next trailblazer.