Lass in space: How women conquered the cosmos



Getting into space in the 20th century was backed by massive military tension between the world’s two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The huge investments made in getting out there paid off in huge developments in technology and science we take for granted today.

To even be considered for participation for massive state efforts to stare down at our home world from a tin can in nothingness, you essentially have to be some sort of übermensch with physical and mental superpowers. Unbeknownst to most, some of the mutants who’ve attempted to get their feet in the airlock hatch have, since the earliest days, been women. Here are a few of their striking stories.

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The Mercury 13

The word “attempted” is key here. There were low glass ceilings indeed covering the whole avionics field that influenced the space race and defined the astronaut profession. In 1959, during the planning stages of the very first manned space missions, private funding was provided to test a group of female elite pilots for spaceflight. The individuals who passed the test are known as the Mercury 13.

Some of the women outperformed male would-be astronauts in certain aspects. One of the women, Jerrie Cobb, spent nine hours and forty minutes in sensory deprivation without experiencing hallucinations. At the time, the previous record was six hours and 20 minutes.


But in the end, nothing came of it. Some of the women had quit their jobs for additional testing at the point when NASA cancelled the program: all astronauts had to be test pilots. At the time, only men were test pilots.


Soviet Russia went first

Soviet rocket bureaucrats saw it fit to make a point of sending a woman into space as a followup to Yuri Gagarin. From a large group of competent candidates, Valentina Tereshkova was seen as a particularly fit candidate. There was a political dimension: her doubtlessly proletarian background. Tereshkova was the self-educated daughter of a war hero who had died for his country in the Finnish Winter War during WWII.

Valentina Tereshkova
Tershkova was no imcompetent politruk though. Physical, psychological and academic training and testing proved her to be just the kind of mutant engineering type to send places no one can survive. On June 16 1963, she was launched into a reportedly nauseous trip into space for three days.

What to do after defying self-preservation by being shot into space? Politics of course. Tereshkova held several high positions within the Sovjet political system and became something of a face of women in socialist countries through a couple of UN gigs in the seventies. She lost political power after the fall of the Sovjet Union but is definitely, along with other surviving cosmonauts, considered a national hero in present-day Russia.


Chasing the hammer

From a female perspective, the space race between east and west continued into the eighties. In 1983, physicist Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, but at age 32, also the youngest American astronaut on a mission to date.

An unexpected part of her job, it seemed, was having to face public implications about how spaceflight would bad for the female reproductive organs (an ancient trope) and that she’d ruin everything by breaking down crying all the time. For Ride, an intensely private person, being in the spotlight of a nation’s stupidity appeared far more taxing than being blasted into space.

Sally Ride

Before participating in shuttle missions, Ride participated in the engineering of the robotic arm of the space shuttle. One particularly daunting assignment was her participation in two panels investigating the fatal incidents involving space shuttles Challenger and Columbia in 1986 and 2003 respectively.


“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”

That’s what America’s would-be Teacher In Space told viewers of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show before her early 1986 launch on Space Shuttle Challenger. Yes, that Challenger. Take her advice with a grain of salt.

As an enthusiastic child of the space age with an infectious enthusiasm, McAuliffe got picked as the winner of a highly publicized open call for a teacher the US could send into space. The mission: Communicate the feats of science and engineering to the young and old alike.


Communications were interrupted however, as Challenger disintegrated and went down in flames roughly a minute after launch off the coast of Florida, killing everyone on board. It was an ugly affair: the incident, which was televised live and watched by many schoolchildren, turned out to be highly preventable. It was caused by known problems in the design of specific parts of the shuttle in relation to the cold weather of the launch time.

judith resnik and christa mcauliffe

McAuliffe wasn’t the only woman on board that day. With her perished Judith Resnik, the second American woman in space, who’d been flying with Challenger since its maiden voyage in 1984.

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Diversity and ambitions

The insanity of the Challenger story beats even the wild theories of lost Soviet cosmonauts. Why NASA cut corners on the maintenance of a ship on which you place a massive PR strategy McAuliffe may have paid with her life for a grander lack of vision in the space program, something that NASA may be only getting to fixing as the concept of a human one-way trip to Mars picks up speed.

In the public eye, the application of space technology appears to have shifted from interplanetary to early communications and more difficult to grasp staring into the universe through satellites in the late 80s and 90s, Spaceflight continued to draw people with imagination, many of them highly educated women from different parts of the planet, including Japan. Chiaki Mukai became the first Japanese woman in space back in 1994.


Bonnie Dunbar and Ellen Baker were among the first American crew to dock with a Russian space station in 1992. Mae Jemison and Ellen Ochoa represented African American and Hispanic identities in space through their work, also in the early 90s.

nancie j curry

Ladies such as Nancy J. Currie were among the first to participate in the building habitation of the longest continuous human presence in space, the International Space Station.

The repeated Shuttle tragedy of 2003, in which the first Indian-born woman in space, Kalpana Chawla lost her life, showed that the risks of spaceflight remain real.

kalpana chawla

What do you find most intriguing about the people who go into space? Share your comments with us.

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1 reply
  1. Aldamato
    Aldamato says:

    Brave brave women. Still so clearly remember the challenger disaster. What a sad quote from McAuliffe in hindsight.


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