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Women Spaceflight “firsts”

by Deedra Abboud in Mindset, Travel
March 3, 2021 0 comments

As of December 2019, of the 565 total space travelers, 65 have been women, about 11.5%.


The United States had screened a group of female pilots in 1959 and 1960 for possible astronaut training but later decided to restrict astronaut qualification to men.

Dr. William Randolph “Randy” Lovelace, an aerospace physician and the head of NASA’s committee on life science, started testing potential women astronauts in 1960.

By the end of 1961, a total of 13 women made the final cut: Jerrie Cobb, Myrtle Cagle, Janet Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jane “Janey” Briggs Hart, Jean Hixson, Rhea Woltman, Gene Nora Stumbough, Irene Leverton, Jerri Sloan, and Bernice Steadman. 

Jerrie Cobb was the only woman to officially finish all three testing phases, and she scored in the top 2% of all candidates of any gender, outperforming some of the Mercury 7 astronauts.

Unfortunately, the FLATs program was canceled in 1962 before many of the women even had the chance to attempt all of the tests.


On June 16, 1963, aboard Vostok 6, Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel into space. After 48 orbits and 71 hours, she returned to earth, having spent more time in space than all U.S. astronauts combined to that date.


In 1978, NASA changed its policy and announced that it had approved six women out of some 3,000 original applicants to become the first female astronauts in the U.S. space program.


Svetlana Savitskaya was just the second woman to reach space in 1982. She was also a record-breaking jet pilot. Savitskaya was born in Moscow in 1948 and started skydiving as a teenager.


On June 18, 1983, the space shuttle Challenger was launched into space on its second mission with Dr. Sally K. Ride onboard, who as a mission specialist, became the first American woman to travel into space. The mission, NASA’s seventh, ended June 24, 1983, when the Challenger returned to Earth, and, coincidentally, took place on roughly the 20th anniversary of the history-making launch of Soviet cosmonaut Valentina V. Tereshkova’s flight. Ride flew on Challenger again in 1984.

Kathryn Dwyer Sullivan was a crew member on three Space Shuttle missions and she was the first American woman to walk in space on October 11, 1984. On June 7, 2020, she became the first woman to dive to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the Earth’s oceans. She was Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 6, 2014. Sullivan’s tenure ended on January 20, 2017, with the swearing-in of President Donald Trump.

Anna Lee Fisher became the first mother in space. Fisher was formerly married to fellow astronaut Bill Fisher and the mother of two children. During her career at NASA, she has been involved with three major programs: the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station and the Orion spacecraft.

Margaret Rhea Seddon was selected as part of the first group of astronauts to include women, she flew on three Space Shuttle flights: as mission specialist for STS-51-D and STS-40, and as payload commander for STS-58

Shannon Lucid was selected for the NASA Astronaut Corps in 1978 in response to new anti-discrimination laws. Of the six women in this first class with female astronauts, Lucid was the only one who was a mother at the time of being selected. Lucid was the first American woman to fly on a space station (Mir, 1996), the first Chinese-born woman in space, and the first woman to make a third, a fourth, and a fifth spaceflight.

Bonnie Dunbar flew on five Space Shuttle missions between 1985 and 1998, including two dockings with the Mir space station. Dunbar joined the STS-61-A Challenger (October 30-November 6, 1985), the West German D-1 Spacelab mission. It was the first to carry eight crew members, the largest to fly in space, and was also the first in which payload activities were controlled from outside the United States. More than 75 scientific experiments were completed in the areas of physiological sciences, materials science, biology, and navigation. During the flight, Dunbar was responsible for operating Spacelab and its subsystems and performing a variety of experiments.

In 1985, Mary Cleave joined the STS-61-B Atlantis, the heaviest payload weight carried to orbit by the Space Shuttle to date. In 1989, Cleave joined the STS-30 on Space Shuttle Atlantis, a four-day mission during which the crew successfully deployed the Magellan Venus-exploration spacecraft, the first U.S. planetary science mission launched since 1978, and the first planetary probe to be deployed from the Shuttle. Magellan arrived at Venus in August 1990 and radar-mapped over 95% of the surface of Venus. Magellan has been one of NASA’s most successful scientific missions providing valuable information about the Venusian atmosphere and magnetic field.

Claudie Haigneré the first French woman to go to space as she launched aboard the Soyuz TM-24 on the Russian-French Cassiopée mission in 1996. In 1999, Haigneré commanded a Soyuz capsule during reentry and became the first woman qualified to do so. As the flight engineer on Soyuz TM-33 in 2001, she became the first European woman to visit the International Space Station.

Judith Arlene Resnik was the second American woman in space, the first Jewish woman, and the fourth woman in space worldwide, logging 145 hours in orbit. She was the first Jewish woman of any nationality in space. Resnik died aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. The IEEE Judith Resnik Award for space engineering is named in her honor.


Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire high school social studies teacher, died tragically in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was of Lebanese Maronite descent, making McAuliffe the second person, and the first woman, of Arab-American descent to attempt space travel. [Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was the first Arab and Muslim in space in 1985.] Although McAuliffe never reached space, her legacy still lives on today. In 1985, McAuliffe was chosen by NASA for their Teacher in Space Project. She was selected as a way for the space agency to honor teachers while simultaneously encouraging students to go into STEM careers.

Ellen Baker joined the STS-34 Atlantis in 1989, the STS-50 Columbia in 1992, and the STS-71 Atlantis in 1995. (June 27-July 7, 1995) STS-71 was the first Space Shuttle mission to dock with the Russian Space Station Mir, and involved an exchange of crews. The Atlantis Space Shuttle was modified to carry a docking system compatible with the Russian Mir Space Station. It also carried a Spacelab module in the payload bay in which the crew performed various life sciences experiments and data collections. 

Helen Sharman became the first British cosmonaut (1989), became the first British astronaut in space (1991), the first Western European woman in space (1991), as well as the first woman to visit the Mir space station in May 1991. Sharman had previously worked as a chemist for Mars (candy company) dealing with flavourant properties of chocolate. This later led the UK press to label her “The Girl from Mars.”

Millie Hughes-Fulford became the first female payload specialist aboard the NASA Space Shuttle Columbia in June 1991.

Mae Carol Jemison became the first black woman to travel into space. Jemison joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 1987 and flew on Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992, carrying out a whopping 44 science experiments with her crew. It was her first and only spaceflight.

In 1992, Kathryn Thornton was the third woman to walk in space and first woman to make multiple EVAs (Extravehicular activity) in May 14–15, 1992, Dec. 6, 1993, and Dec. 8, 1993. She was inducted into the 2010 class of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.

In 1992, Roberta Bondar became Canada’s first female astronaut, the first Ukrainian Canadian woman in space, and the first neurologist in space. Bondar has received many honors including appointment as a Companion of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario, the NASA Space Medal, over 28 honorary degrees, induction into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, the International Women’s Forum Hall of Fame and a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.

Jan Davis went to space with her husband, Mark C. Lee in 1992. They were the first married couple to go to space together.

Kalpana Chawla was the first astronaut of Indian descent. In 1994, Chawla was selected as an astronaut candidate. She flew into space two different times aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. But during her second flight, Columbia exploded as it returned to Earth. Chawla and six fellow astronauts were killed on February 1, 2003.

Laurel Clark was a NASA astronaut, medical doctor, United States Navy Captain, and Space Shuttle mission specialist. Clark died along with her six fellow crew members in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. She was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

Wendy Lawrence is a retired United States Navy Captain, former helicopter pilot, engineer, and a former NASA astronaut. She was the first female graduate of the United States Naval Academy to fly into space and she has also visited the Russian Space Station Mir. She was a mission specialist on STS-114, the first Space Shuttle flight after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

In 1995, Eileen Collins became the first woman to ever pilot the space shuttle, also carrying out a docking with Russia’s Mir space station. Later in her career, Collins’ crew was responsible for deploying the massive Compton X-ray Observatory from the space shuttle. In all, she’d fly a total of four different shuttle missions before retiring from NASA in 2006. Interestingly, her spouse, Pat Youngs, was also a pilot, flying passengers for Delta Airlines.

In 1996, Linda Godwin performed a six-hour spacewalk, the first while docked to an orbiting space station, to mount experiment packages on the Mir docking module to detect and assess debris and contamination in a space station environment. The packages will be retrieved by a future shuttle mission. This mission was also the first flight of Kidsat, an electronic camera controlled by classroom students via a Ku-band link between JSC Mission Control and the Shuttle, which uses digital photography from the Shuttle for science and education. In 2001, aboard the Endeavor, Godwin used the Shuttle’s robotic arm to install the MPLM onto the Station Node, and participated in a spacewalk to wrap thermal blankets around ISS Solar Array Beta Gimbal Assemblies.

Julie Payette became the second Canadian woman in space and the first French Canadian woman in space in 1999. Payette also served as Governor General of Canada from 2017 to 2021, becoming the second governor general to have resigned the office, after Roméo LeBlanc (who resigned due to health issues), the first to resign due to scandal, and the first to have left a vacancy upon resignation.

Susan Helms was the commander of the 14th Air Force (Air Forces Strategic) and commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Helms was a crew member on five Space Shuttle missions and was a resident of the International Space Station (ISS) for over five months in 2001. While participating in ISS Expedition 2, she and Jim Voss conducted an 8-hour and 56-minute spacewalk, the world record for the longest spacewalk, and the longest spacewalk for a woman.

Captain Samantha Cristoforetti, is an Italian European Space Agency astronaut, former Italian Air Force pilot, and engineer. She holds the record for the longest uninterrupted spaceflight by a European astronaut (199 days, 16 hours), and until June 2017 held the record for the longest single space flight by a woman until this was broken by Peggy Whitson and later by Christina Koch. She is also the first Italian woman in space.

Peggy Whitson holds the impressive designation of having spent more time in space than any other American astronaut. Between 2002 and 2017, Whitson had three long hauls on the International Space Station, where she spent 665 cumulative days in space. During that time she also served as commander and helped perform hundreds of science experiments.

In 1993, Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman to go to space when she served on a nine-day mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Ochoa became director of the Johnson Space Center upon the retirement of the previous director, Michael Coats, on December 31, 2012. She was the first Hispanic director and the second female director of Johnson Space Center.

Janice Voss was an American engineer and a NASAastronaut. Voss received her B.S. in engineering science from Purdue University, her M.S. in electrical engineering from MIT, and her PhD in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT. She flew in space five times, jointly holding the record for American women. Voss died in Arizona from breast cancer on February 6, 2012

Nancy Currie-Gregg has served in the United States Army for over 22 years and holds the rank of colonel. With NASA, she has participated in four space shuttle missions.

Chiaki Mukai was the first Japanese woman in space, the first Japanese citizen to have two spaceflights, and the first Asian woman in space.

Yelena Kondakova was the third Soviet/Russian female cosmonaut to travel to space, the first Russian woman to travel in two different spacecraft, and the first woman to make a long-duration spaceflight. She was the last Russian female in space until her successor cosmonaut Elena Serova flew to the International Space Station (ISS) on September 25, 2014.

In 2001, Stephanie Wilson flew to space onboard three Space Shuttle missions, and is the second African American woman to go into space, after Mae Jemison. Her 42 days in space are the most of any female African American astronaut. On December 9, 2020 NASA announced that Stephanie Wilson was among the candidates for the Artemis program and if selected, she could be both the first woman and the first African-American on the Moon.

Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper is an American Naval officer, former NASAastronaut, and the first Ukrainian American woman in space. She has achieved the rank of Captain in the United States Navy. She is also a qualified and experienced salvage officer. Her major salvage projects include de-stranding the tanker Exxon Houston off the coast of Barbers Point, on the island of OahuHawaii, and developing the plan for the Peruvian Navy salvage of the Peruvian submarine Pacocha.

On September 18, 2006, a few days after her 40th birthday, Anousheh Ansari became the first Iranian and first female Muslim in space. Ansari was the fourth overall self-funded space tourist, and the first self-funded woman to fly to the International Space Station. Her memoir, My Dream of Stars, co-written with Homer Hickam, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2010.

Sunita Williams is an Indian and Slovene American astronaut and United States Navy officer who formerly held the records for most spacewalks by a woman (seven) and most spacewalk time for a woman (50 hours, 40 minutes). Williams was assigned to the International Space Station as a member of Expedition 14 and Expedition 15. In 2012, she served as a flight engineer on Expedition 32 and then commander of Expedition 33.

Joan Higginbotham is an electrical engineer and a former NASAastronaut. She flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-116 as a mission specialist and is the third African American woman to go into space, after Mae Jemison and Stephanie Wilson.

K. Megan McArthur is an American oceanographerengineer, and a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut. She has served as a Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) for both the space shuttle and space station. Megan McArthur has flown one space shuttle mission, STS-125. She is known as the last person to be hands on with the Hubble Space Telescope via the Canadarm.

On February 5, 2007, Lisa Nowak was arrested in Orlando, Florida, after she accosted and pepper sprayed Captain Colleen Shipman, a U.S. Air Force officer who was also romantically involved with astronaut William Oefelein. Nowak was released on bail and initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, which included attempted kidnapping, burglary with assault, and battery. Her assignment to the space agency as an astronaut was terminated by NASA effective March 8, 2007. On November 10, 2009, she agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to charges of felony burglary of a car and misdemeanor battery. She remained a Navy captain until August 2010, when a naval board of inquiry voted unanimously to reduce her in rank to commander and to discharge her from the Navy under other than honorable conditions after 25 years of service.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson was the first astronaut born after Apollo 11 flight.

Barbara Morgan is the first educator astronaut. Morgan trained with Christa McAuliffe and the Space Shuttle Challenger crew at NASA’s Johnson Space CenterHouston, Texas. Following McAuliffe’s death in the Challenger disaster, Morgan assumed the duties of Teacher in Space Project Designee, becoming the first educator astronaut in 2007. She was also the oldest woman in space by the time of first flight (aged 55).

Yi So-yeon is a South Korean astronaut and biotechnologist who became the first Korean to fly in space.

Dorothy “Dottie” Metcalf-Lindenburger was the first Space Camp alumna to become an astronaut. On April 16, 2012, NASA announced that Metcalf-Lindenburger would command the NEEMO 16 undersea exploration mission aboard the Aquarius underwater laboratory, scheduled to begin on June 11, 2012 and last twelve days. The NEEMO 16 crew successfully “splashed down” at 11:05 am on June 11. On the morning of June 12, Metcalf-Lindenburger and her crewmates officially became aquanauts, having spent over 24 hours underwater.

Naoko Yamazaki is an engineer, former Japanese astronaut at JAXA, and the second Japanese woman to fly in space. The first was Chiaki Mukai.

Liu Yang is a Chinese pilot and astronaut who served as a crew member on the space mission Shenzhou 9. On June 16, 2012, Liu became the first Chinese woman in space.

Beth Moses is Chief Astronaut Instructor and Interiors Program Manager for Virgin Galactic‘s SpaceShipTwo program and is a commercial astronaut. She was the first woman to make a spaceflight on a commercially launched vehicle, the VSS Unity VF-01 flight of 22 February 2019. The maximum altitude achieved was 295,007 ft (55.87 mi, 89.92 km).


Christina Koch holds the record for the longest extended stay in space by any woman and the first all-female spacewalk. NASA selected Koch to be an astronaut candidate in 2013. And in October 2019, she launched to the International Space Station on Expedition 59. It was the start of a 328-day stay that would involve six spacewalks — including the first all-female spacewalk. Her teammate on the pioneering spacewalk was fellow NASA astronaut, Jessica Meir, who also happens to be her good friend.


Jessica Meir is a Swedish and Israeli American of Iraqi-Jewish descent, making her the first woman astronaut of each Israeli, Iraqi, Swedish descent. In 2002, Meir joined NASA’s aquanaut program, living under the surface of the ocean for five days. She eventually became an astronaut, too, and launched to the International Space Station in 2019. Meir spent hundreds of days on the ISS and participated in the first all-female spacewalk with her friend, NASA astronaut Christina Koch. Meir was included in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020.


Kathleen “Kate” Rubins is a viral disease expert and has spent more than 100 days in space. NASA selected Rubins as an astronaut in 2009. During a mission to the International Space Station in 2016, the virologist became the first human to ever sequence DNA in orbit. Rubins launched on her second mission on October 14, 2020, (her 42nd birthday) with Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov aboard Soyuz MS-17. Her return to Earth is scheduled for April 2021. Rubins was on the ISS at the time of the 2020 United States elections and cast her absentee ballot from the station.

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