Everyone knows the names of important male astronauts: Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and... somebody named John? The point is that no matter how interchangeable their names might be, most people can name at least a few astronauts who are dudes. Meanwhile, the equally badass women astronauts who have worked just as hard as their male peers are largely ignored. Given that most of history reads like a "who's who" of wealthy white men, this shouldn't surprise anyone, but that doesn't make it any less noteworthy (or infuriating). Fortunately, you've come to the right place — by the end of this article, you'll know considerably more about ladies in space than you do right now.
The space race took place during the Cold War, an era not exactly known for its willingness to challenge gender norms. (Next time someone tells you they were born in the wrong decade, remind them that in the United States, most of the previous decades were pretty terrible for anyone but straight, white men.) Back then, women often had to fight for their right to work in STEM fields, but they still managed to contribute to spaceflight in ways you never learned in history class. Here are eight badass women who deserve as much recognition as men.
Born in 1956 in Alabaman, Mae Jemison is something of a Renaissance woman. On top of being an avid reader and dancer, she has a medical degree from Cornell University and worked in the Peace Corps for several years. After returning, she decided to apply to NASA's astronaut training program — when you're that accomplished, why not? Although the Challenger disaster delayed her acceptance, she reapplied the next year and was accepted.
In 1992, she became the first African American woman in space. Since then, Jemison has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates, and she works to encourage diversity in math and science fields.
Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was working in a textile factory and parachuting in her free time when she was chosen to be part of a special program to put women in space. On June 16, 1963, she became the first woman to enter space. Aboard the Vostok 6 for about 70 hours, she made 48 orbits of Earth, conducting numerous biomedical experiments while she was there. Although she never flew in space again, she went on to become a spokesperson for her country.
Like Jemison, Sally Ride was a jack of all trades, studying both English and physics in college. She went on to earn her doctoral degree in physics in 1978, and that same year, she applied for NASA. After going through the training program, she boarded the Challenger shuttle in 1983, becoming the first American woman to fly into space. She made another trip, but plans for a third were cut short by the 1986 Challenger explosion.
After she left NASA, she was director of the California Space Institute and a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego. She also founded a science outreach program, Sally Ride Science.
Before the Americans sent their first women into space, the Soviet Union sent their second: Svetlana Savitskaya. In 1982, the flight instructor-cum-cosmonaut became the second woman in space, but her most notable achievement was yet to come. In 1984, she became the first woman to walk in space. Nearly a decade later, she retired from the cosmonauts and found her way into politics.
After an extensive career in the Air Force, including a stint as an assistant professor of math at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Eileen Collins was selected to join NASA in 1990. Five years later, she became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, and in 1999, during her third mission to space, she became the first woman to command a shuttle. Since then, only one other woman, Pamela Melroy, has served as commander.
Unlike the other women on this list, Peggy Whitson is making history this very minute. The biochemist is currently on her third space mission, orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes aboard the International Space Station, and last month, she broke the record for the most time cumulatively spent in space by any American. Like a true badass, she's modest about it, telling CNN (from the ISS) that "it feels very special to represent the NASA team that makes space flight possible."
7Kathryn D. Sullivan
Working primarily as a scientific researcher before joining NASA, Kathryn D. Sullivan is the first American woman to walk in space, which took place during a Challenger mission in 1984. Although she could have reasonably called it quits after being inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame the next year, she took part in two other missions, logging a total of 532 hours in space. When she retired from NASA, she served as the Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a member of the National Science Board, among several other positions.
If anyone ever tries to say women can't be mothers and maintain fulfilling careers, point them in Anna Fisher's direction. Selected to join NASA in 1978, Fisher holds both a medical degree and a master's degree in chemistry. During her long career, she helped develop rescue procedures, among other roles, and in November 1984, Fisher became the first mother to journey into space. After nearly three decades with the organization, she recently retired from NASA — I'd say the break is well-deserved.