Studying women in the twentieth century, I come across a lot of firsts. The first women to be deployed in overseas occupied territory as spies, the first women to fly fighter jets, and more recently, the first women to go into space. After watching Hidden Figures (which is a brilliant film – blog post coming…) with my husband and his parents last week, I got curious. As an avid Star Trek fan, I am no stranger to the idea of people going into space. Speaking to my mother-in-law after the movie, though, I found myself wondering what it was like to sit with family in front of a television, watching a rocket launch that would take a man beyond the boundaries of earth for the very first time. She could remember doing just that, and I’ll admit – I’m a little envious! As Hidden Figures so eloquently highlights, space travel was, for a long time, dominated by men. There are, however, several women who did escape earth for a short time, defying expectations and taking great leaps for womankind.
A part of the Cold War which has always fascinated me is the Space Race. A twentieth century competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Space Race was a battle for supremacy in spaceflight capability. So much of the Cold War concerns perception, and capability is the key word here. To be able to send men into space, huge funds, great intelligence and scientific superiority were required. The proof of ultimate world supremacy was, in the minds of the Soviet Union and the United States, in such capability. As the world watched in April 1961, Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet pilot and cosmonaut, became the first human to venture into space. About a month later, Alan Shepard became the first American cosmonaut to match the Soviet Union’s feat. A number of now famous men followed, from several nations. I can only imagine how exciting it must have been watching Star Trek on television, knowing that so recently space travel had become a reality. Among those brave adventurers to the stars were several women. I will focus on three of them – each a first.
- Valentina Tereshkova
The Soviet Union had a surprisingly advanced attitude towards women. I have studied the Nightwitches, the Soviet all-female fighter pilots who bombed Nazi strongholds in World War II (where both the U.S. and the U.K. did not allow women to fly fighter missions until 1992). After Gagarin’s flight, the chief Soviet rocket engineer suggested that women should be sent into space as well as men. A textile-factory worker, Valentina Tereshkova wondered, “If women can be railroad workers in Russia, why can’t they fly in space?” An expert skydiver, she applied for the program and was selected to be a cosmonaut. Tereshkova’s training included weightless flights, isolation tests, centrifuge tests, rocket theory, spacecraft engineering, 120 parachute jumps and pilot training in fighter jets. In November 1962, Tereshkova was commissioned as a Junior Lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force. She was nominated to pilot Vostok 6, and her role was confirmed by Nikita Khrushchev himself in May 1963.
On 16 June 1963, Tereshkova was helped into her spacesuit and taken to the Vostok 6 launch pad. I cannot imagine how she felt. No woman had ever done what she was about to do, and very few men had either at that point. She was sealed inside the Vostok (which looks like a giant space grape/eyeball – see picture below), and after a two hour countdown, she launched without any problems. Experiencing nausea and physical discomfort, she orbited the earth forty-eight times in around three days spent in space. She photographed the horizon, and her pictures later led to the identification of layers within the atmosphere.
To say this lady was a trailblazer is a bit of an understatement. After her groundbreaking accomplishment of becoming the very first woman in space, she graduated the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy with distinction as a cosmonaut engineer and earned a doctorate in engineering.
2. Dr. Sally Ride
In July 1969, the Apollo 11 mission landed the first two humans on the moon. Both were men. Space travel was advancing, and Sally Ride knew it. She had watched Valentina Tereshkova become the first woman in space, followed by the second, Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya. Sally would now make history by being the first American woman in space, and the youngest American astronaut to travel to space at the age of 32. She graduated Stanford University with a PhD in physics, specializing in astrophysics and free electron lasers (whatever those are…). It being the Cold War, the Stanford student newspaper was appealing for applicants for the space program, and Sally applied. She was recruited by NASA in 1978, and was subject to media attention because she was female. Once, during a press conference, she was asked, “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”, followed by, “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” If I had been her, the only person weeping would have been the (undoubtedly male) individual who had asked the question. Much more mature and calm than me, Ride insisted that she saw herself in only one way – as an astronaut.
On June 18 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Her five person crew deployed two communications satellites and conducted pharmaceutical experiments during the mission. Ride was the first woman to use the shuttle’s robotic arm (which she had helped to develop back on earth), using it to retrieve a satellite. She completed a second mission to space aboard Challenger in 1984, and was preparing for a third when the Challenger disaster destroyed the shuttle in 1986. All seven crew members were killed, among them two women. After Ride’s death in 2012, General Donald Kutyna revealed that she had provided him with important information concerning O-rings, a significant part of the Challenger’s mechanical make-up, that eventually led to the identification of what had caused the explosion.
Like Valentina Tereshkova, who had volunteered for spaceflight even if it meant only going one way, Sally Ride knew the dangers involved. She said, “When you’re getting ready to launch into space, you’re sitting on a big explosion waiting to happen. You have to reach a level of comfort with risk”. Comfort with risk is not easy, and I can only dream about and admire the kind of courage it would have taken these ladies to do what they did.
3. Mae Carol Jemison
At the same time the Cold War was being waged, another battle for freedom was in process. The Civil Rights Movement took America by storm from 1954 to 1968, and the world watched as African Americans fought for the fundamental pillars of all that was American to finally apply to them as well as to their white neighbours. Mae Carol Jemison grew up through this struggle, and would go on to be the first African-American woman to travel in space. When asked in Kindergarten (shortly after Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech) what she wanted to be when she was older, she replied that she longed to be a scientist. Her teacher frowned, and asked, “Don’t you mean a nurse?” Jemison witnessed the Soviet and American spaceflight missions, the Apollo 11 moon landing, and both of Sally Ride’s missions. As well as these triumphs, she also witnessed the Challenger disaster which killed five male and two women astronauts, as well as the struggle for freedom and equality which African Americans and women faced around her. None of this was enough to put her off. With incredible persistence and courage, she advanced towards her goal at NASA. She saw King’s dream not as a fantasy, but as a reality, saying that “the best way to make dreams come true is to wake up”.
Graduating from Stanford in 1977 with a degree in chemical engineering, she had experienced prejudice from her white male professors and fellow students throughout the course of it. Inspired by Star Trek legend Nichelle Nichols, who led a recruitment drive for NASA (and who I think I’ve mentioned is a personal heroine of mine… several times…), Jemison applied for the astronaut program in 1983. She was accepted, and worked for NASA on the ground until 1992. Her chance to go to space came in September that year, when joined mission STS-47 as a Mission Specialist. Forty-three investigations were conducted on this mission, and as a qualified doctor, Jemison led the ones on bone cell research, weightlessness and motion sickness.
Jemison is also awesome because she defied NASA’s rigid protocols by starting each shift with a Star Trek salute – “hailing frequencies open” (this is Lieutenant Uhura’s famous catchphrase). A Star Trek fan who had actually been to space, she was honoured by the Star Trek: Next Generation cast when she was invited to appear in an episode (Second Chances), which made her the first real-life astronaut to ever appear on Star Trek.
All of these ladies are firsts. First woman in space. First American woman in space. First African-American woman in space. They all broke down barriers, defied expectation, stereotype and prejudice, and proved to the world and the stars beyond it what women are capable of. I salute the three of them, for making such giant leaps for womankind.