Stardate 1963. Back home on Earth, the counterculture movement was challenging the old ways and spaceships were revving their engines. That year, 26-year-old Soviet factory worker Valentina Tereshkova was blasted up to space. Just two years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, she became the first woman in space.
As Tereshkova’s minuscule Vostok 6 spaceship was on its three-day cruise around space, the ink had barely dried on the U.S. Equal Pay Act – signed just six days before she blasted off to space. Although this was a period of change and progression, embarking on one of the biggest political and scientific pushes of the day, it would be 16 years before the first female head of state in the West – Margaret Thatcher.
It would be optimistic to think of Tereshkova’s mission as purely a bold pro-woman move. The move was tied to the Cold War rivalry and the ideal of a strong Soviet womanhood, and was motivated by that perhaps more than the idea of gender equality we have nowadays. Equally, it would be foolish to think of space as some kind of frontier of feminism – even today, just 59 out of the more than 500 individuals who have been to space have been female.
Tereshkova became a national icon in the USSR, as seen in the 1963 Romanian Stamp. Image credit: bissig/Shutterstock.
Nevertheless, the history of women in space has reflected their path back on Earth, perhaps – arguably – even ahead of the curve.
It took 19 more years for the second woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, to make the leap into space in 1982. In this decade, “the Iron Lady” was calling the shots during the final days of the Cold War and women were enjoying a new freedom climbing up the corporate workplace ladders. From this climate, 10 other women boldly went where very few men or women had gone before. Among these was Anna Lee Fisher, a chemist and NASA astronaut, who became the first mother in space in 1984. No doubt it was a proud moment for the spirit of women's progress born out of the '80s, boasting the fact that you can be intelligent, ambitious, successful, a scientist, a woman, and a mother.
1986 saw one woman make the ultimate sacrifice with the first U.S. space disaster. Christa McAuliffe died along with six other crew members in the Challenger disaster. Again, in the Columbia disaster in 2003, astronaut and U.S. Navy captain Laurel Clark died, leaving behind her son, as did Indian-born Kalpana Chawla, an aerospace engineer on her second mission, who perished alongside their five other crewmates.
Anna Fisher, the first mother in space, in Houston, Texas. Flickr/SDASM Archives. “No known copyright”
The number of women in space has continued in a positive direction throughout the noughties. As of 2016, a breadth of women from Russia, the United States, China, Canada, France, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom have all become space-faring humans.
Earlier this year, NASA’s astronaut class was comprised of 50 percent women for the first time in history. It is also important to realize that there’s an abundance of women working behind the scenes in space programs – including Dr. Ellen Stofan, chief scientist for NASA and Dr. Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the International Space Station – working in an array of high-powered engineering, scientific research, science communication, and leadership roles. While they might not have got the starring role as an astronaut as often as the men have, their work over the years and right now has gone towards making some of the most exciting and consciousness-shifting scientific discoveries of our time.
You can read the profiles and watch video interviews with many of these women who currently work with NASA on the Women@NASA website.
NASA's latest class of astro-graduates. NASA