Unlike other women’s firsts, women began traveling in space only two years after the first man was launched. Here are stories of three great female astronauts.
Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova was the first female to travel in space. Born in 1937 and raised in Maslennikovo, Russia, she dropped out of school at age 17 to work in a textile plant to support her family. While working, she learned how to skydive at the DOSAAF Aviation Club, a division of the Soviet Air Force. In 1961, the first Soviet man was launched into space—Yuri Gagarin on the Vostok-1 spacecraft—and the race began soon afterward for the USSR to beat the U.S. into launching the first woman into space. Although it wasn’t necessary to have piloting experience, parachuting abilities were necessary, so Tereshkova was recruited. Although the least qualified to fly in space—her coursework and test scores were low—she was a supportive Communist and was chosen for the mission. On June 16, 1963, Tereshkova became the first woman in space aboard the Vostok 6.
Sally Ride was the first American female to travel in space. Ride grew up in Los Angeles and received a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate degrees in Physics from Stanford University in 1973, 1975, and 1978, respectively. In January 1978, NASA selected Ride as an astronaut candidate, and she completed a training program the following year, becoming eligible for space travel. Her first flight was on June 18, 1983, as a mission specialist aboard STS-7. This mission was the Challenger’s second flight and the first 5-person crew. The following year, Ride flew on the STS 41-G, and was scheduled to fly again in June 1985, but this mission was terminated following the Challenger accident in 1986. Ride continued her work at NASA as a Special Assistant to the Administrator, where she engaged in strategic planning operations. In 1989, Ride joined the University of California San Diego faculty as Physics Professor and Director of the University of California’s California Space Institute.
Peggy Whitson was the first woman to command an International Space Station. A native of Beaconsfield, Iowa, Whitson received her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and Chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1981 and her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Rice University in 1985. After receiving her doctorate, Whitson worked for NASA as a research Biochemist in the Biomedical Operations and Research Branch. She later held several other positions at NASA, including the Payload Element Developer for Bone Cell Research, a member of the US-USSR Joint Working Group in Space Medicine and Biology, and the Deputy Division Chief of the Medical Sciences Division. In 2007, Whitson became the first female International Space Station commander aboard the Expedition 16.