It sneaks up on you, Ada Lovelace Day. I’ve written about a variety of women as part of this over the years: Eve, Lise Meitner, Caroline Herschel, and my mother. This year, I want to take us slightly further afield – I want to take us to space.
Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova left school at 16, and then switched to evening classes so she could work during the day. By her early 20s, she was a textile worker in a local factory and an amateur skydiver. It was her expertise in skydiving that eventually led to her selection for the USSR’s female cosmonaut corps. Between February and November 1962, Tereshkova and her four colleagues underwent extensive tests and training, and four of the women eventually passed and were inducted into the Soviet Air Force.
Only two years after Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, on June 16th 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly into space, piloting Vostok 6. She was 26 years old. She orbited the Earth 48 times and was in space for nearly 3 days, logging more flight hours than all US astronauts up to that point combined. During her flight, Tereshkova gathered important data on the effects of spaceflight on the female body, took pictures of Earth, and passed within 5km of another spacecraft, Vostok 5.
After her spaceflight, Valentina Tereshkova took the opportunity to continue her education. She studied engineering and by 1977 obtained a doctorate. She became an instructor and test pilot and later a research scientists. She also entered politics and currently serves in the Russian State Duma.
Sally Kristen Ride didn’t join NASA until the age of 32. Before that, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in English and physics, as well as a master’s and a PhD in Physics, all from Stanford. Her career at NASA was varied: she was the capsule communicator for two early space shuttle flights, and helped develop the shuttle’s robot arm.
On June 18th 1983, almost exactly twenty years after Tereshkova, Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly into space. She was a member of the 5-person crew of the seventh space shuttle mission, on board the Challenger. As part of the mission, Ride used the robot arm to retrieve a satellite.
Unlike Tereshkova, Ride flew again, in 1984, though after the Challenger disaster in 1986 her career took a different turn, and she led NASA’s strategic planning effort. After she left NASA in 1987, Ride became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, and later led two NASA public outreach programmes. With her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, Ride also co-founded Sally Ride Science, a company which produces science education materials for children, and co-wrote a number of children’s science books.
Sally Ride died on July 23rd 2012.
In the 1960s the US weren’t terribly keen on sending women to space. Whereas other Soviet achievements in the space race, such as the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and Gagarin’s flight in 1961, sent the US into a panic, many regarded the first woman in space with derision.
However, a privately funded programme was established in 1960 to put Jerrie Cobb and a number of other women through the same tests that male astronauts in NASA’s space programme took. 13 women passed Phase I of the tests, with several passing Phase II and Jerrie Cobb passing Phase III while Wally Funk tried to take the Phase III tests after the programme was ended.
The science didn’t seem to match political attitudes of the time which is how it took another twenty years before an American woman flew in space.
Some other firsts
Svetlana Savitskaya was the second woman in space, though she didn’t fly until 1982. She was the first woman to walk in space.
The first Iranian in space was also a woman, Anousheh Ansari. She was a spaceflight participant on the Soyuz TMA-9 mission to the International Space Station in 2006, and also the first Muslim woman in space.