Breaking the atmospheric ceiling: 6 women who made history in space (part 1)

6 Mar 2015

While names like Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are household names, not many of space’s pioneering women get mentioned in the same way. We pay tribute to six of those women, over two parts.

As of the latest mission to the International Space Station (ISS), 536 human beings have left the surface of this planet, either to enter its orbit, or achieve one of the greatest events in human history and land on the surface of the moon.

However, did you know at of this number, only 11pc of them (59) are women? Of course, much of the reasons for women lagging so far behind in the ‘gender space race’ are due to the lower number of engineers, pilots and scientists that existed when the US and Soviet space programmes began to ratchet up in the 1960s.

Not only that, but scientific research at the time, and now even, suggests that the female body is better able to cope with the rigours of space travel as well as being more economic due to a lower requirement of daily food intake.

Despite this, here are some examples of women who defied convention and got the phrase ‘the first person in space to …’ attached as a prefix to their name.

Valentina Tereshkova – First woman in space


Valentina Tereshkova flanked by Yuri Gagarin (far left) and Nikita Khrushchev (far-right). Image via Wikimedia Commons

As an idealist nation, the Soviet Union, unlike the US, had never shied away from treating women as equal members of their society (bar its highest leadership) with numerous examples during World War II of female fighter plane squadrons, female sniper teams and tank commanders, none of which would have been possible under many other nations.

As a result, it might not have come as a surprise then that not long after Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space in 1961, the Soviet Union decided that a woman must also take the first step to visiting the cosmos.

As a result, soon after Gagarin returned, the Soviet authorities established the first female cosmonaut corps which whittled down 400 applicants to five, before finally selecting 25-year-old Valentina Tereshkova, the daughter of a Soviet war hero, to be the first woman to leave Earth.

Just one year older, Tereshkova was strapped into the Vostok-6 craft on the morning of 16 June 1963 where she blasted into Earth’s orbit for three days circling 48 times.

Despite not having no engineering background, Tereshkova went on to become an accomplished pilot, space engineer and politician and is revered as a hero to this day at the age of 77 in her native Russia.

Svetlana Savitskaya – first woman to walk in space


Image of Svetlana Savitskaya via Imgkid

Once again, the Soviet Union laid claim to another first for the advancement of women in science, that being, the first female to leave the safety of her spacecraft and walk in space, usually referred to as an extravehicular activity, or EVA.

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that Savitskaya caught the high-speed explorer bug from an early age given that her father was Yevgeniy Savitskiy, a decorated WWII fighter pilot, but certainly defined her own future as a celebrated and award-winning pilot and parachute jumper, where she got her in with the Soviet authorities by being one of the air force’s top test pilots.

It was in 1980 that she was approached by the government to join the cosmonaut programme and not long after in 1982, she was selected to climb into the Salyut 7 spacecraft with two of her male colleagues.

Her big moment came however two years later on 25 July 1984 on another Salyut 7 mission when she was taked with stepping outside the craft to perform an EVA that lasted 3 hours and 35 minutes to cut and weld metals in space.

She later spoke in an interview that throughout her time, she experienced regular examples of sexism, particularly with her role as a welder on spacecraft, “Even among our space colleagues the men wondered why we needed to weld and said that we might burn each other’s space suits, or the spaceship’s exterior. It’s a great responsibility. My spaceflight shut everyone up!”

Mae Jemison – first African-American woman in space


Image of Mae Jemison via Wikimedia Commons

In general, NASA were pretty late to the party when it came to female advances in space, with Sally Ride becoming the first American female in space as late as 1983, 20 years after the Soviet Union, but perhaps more significant was the achievement of Mae Jemison as the first African-American in space.

Entering Stanford University as a literal whizz-kid, Jemison began to spend the next few years overcoming racism amongst students and faculty alike before finishing with her BS in chemical engineering and subsequently received a doctorate in medicine.

However, after being inspired by Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek and Sally Ride’s spaceflight she applied for entry into NASA, where she was rejected and subsequently accepted in 1987.

Four years later on 12 October 1992, the first mission after the Challenger disaster, Jemison travelled as part of the STS-47 mission as a mission specialist and carried with her an image of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to fly an airplane.

She resigned from NASA in 1993 to be a proponent for greater science education, but said of her achievement, “I wouldn’t have cared less if 2,000 people had gone up before me… I would still have had my hand up, ‘I want to do this.'”

Now go to part two published to mark the celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Inspire 2015 is Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-19 June in Dublin, connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Buy your early bird tickets now

Child dreaming of an astronaut image via Shuterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic