7 Historic Firsts for Women in Space You Might not Know About

A total of 59 women have gone to space including cosmonauts, astronauts, and payload specialists


Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola module of the International Space Station observing Earth.

Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola module of the International Space Station observing Earth. (Courtesy NASA)

Space is truly the final frontier for men and women alike. In fact, the first woman – Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova –  flew into space in 1963, very early in the space flight programs. It would take almost twenty years for the first American astronaut to have the same accomplishment.

Once Americans finally understood that women belong in space as much as men, the numbers of women in space really took off.  Women were part of the astronaut selection process in the early 1960s, but they were not allowed to be astronauts because the original job description mandated that all astronauts had to be military test pilots and that option was available only to men.

NASA finally opened the space program to women in 1978 after anti-discrimination laws were passed. To date, 59 women have gone into orbit as cosmonauts, astronauts, payload specialists, and a few special categories. Of those, 50 different women have flown with NASA.

The women came from the US, Russia, China, Canada, the UK, France, India, Italy, Japan, and South Korea.

Here are some of the historic firsts:

1. First Woman in Space

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to go to space when she was launched with the Vostok 6 mission on June 16, 1963. She was selected from a pool of 400 applicants and five finalists. She was honorarily inducted into the Soviet Air Force so that she could join the Cosmonaut Corps. Tereshkova is the only woman ever to have been on a solo space mission.

2. First US Woman in Space

Sally Ride was the first American astronaut to go into orbit on June 18, 1983, as a crew member on the space shuttle Challenger for STS-7. Ride was one of 8,000 people to answer an ad in the Stanford student newspaper seeking applicants for NASA. She was chosen to join the space program in 1978. She went on one additional mission and spent a total of 343 hours in space.

3. First Woman to Walk in Space

The first woman to walk in space, Svetlana Savitskaya, was also a cosmonaut. She was on her second mission when she space-walked as part of the Salyut 7-EP2 on July 17, 1984. She was also the first woman to have gone into space twice.

4. First Woman Space Shuttle Commander

Eileen Collins was the first female pilot and commander of a space shuttle. She commanded STS-93, the 26th launch of the space shuttle Columbia from July 23-27, 1999. She commanded a second time in 2005. Collins was awarded several medals for her work and logged over 38 days in outer space.

5. First Teacher to go to Space

Christa McAuliffe was a teacher and a civilian astronaut from Concord, NH who was killed with six other crew members when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after launch on January 28, 1986. McAuliffe was selected from more than 11,000 applicants to participate in the NASA Teacher in Space Project. She was planning on conducting experiments and teaching two lessons from space. 

6. First Woman Space Station Expedition Crew Member

Susan Jane Helms was a crew member of five space shuttle missions and was a resident on the International Space Station for over five months from March through August 2001. While on ISS Expedition 2, Helms and Jim Voss conducted an almost 9-hour long spacewalk for a world record.

7. First Chinese Woman in Space

In 2012, China became the third nation to send a woman into space in its own space program. Liu Yang became was launched aboard the Shenzhou 9, the first manned mission to the Chinese space station, on June 16, 2012. It was the 49th anniversary of the launch of Vostok 6. Initially, the criteria for women to be selected included having been married and having a child and no health issues – the marriage and children criteria were later dropped.

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