On 16 June 1963, the Soviet Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to orbit the Earth. Fifty years on, and there have been only 57 female astronauts for over 470 men!
In the 1960s, women's place in society was very different. Without getting into a debate, which is not the role of Enjoy Space, we should remember for example, that in France and until 1965, a woman could not open a bank account without her husband's permission! In fact, there is no surprise that it was men who were involved in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union from the 1950s. Yuri Gagarin therefore became the first man to orbit Earth on 12 April 1961 on board a spacecraft designed by the brilliant engineer Sergei Korolev. The rulers of the Soviet Union, led by Nikita Khrushchev, were quick to see this historic event as proof of the superiority of their political and economic system, which of course, angered the United States...
«Women are not involved in these activities» At the request of their leader in Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev, the bosses of the Soviet space programme prepared for a flight with a woman. The aim was political, to achieve a new first at the expense of the Americans and at the same time symbolise the communist ideal of formal equality between men and women. In the "opposing camp", the White House had already planned a response to the audacious Soviet successes by creating NASA and recruiting a contingent of astronauts ready to leave as soon as the American spacecraft was developed. These were all men, the famous Mercury 7 (because there were 7 of them and the NASA program was called Mercury). However, there were no American women! In 1960 a private initiative trained the Mercury 13, 13 female pilots selected using the same physical and psychological aptitude criteria as their NASA counterparts.
Jerry Cobb, the figurehead of the Mercury 13, a selection of American women pilots chosen using the same criteria as the NASA astronauts. The private initiative did not actually take place. Credit: DR
This project, backed by Doctor William Lovelace through his Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research, came to a sudden halt when the Naval Medical School in Pensacola, Florida refused to accept the space flight candidates for additional testing. The pilot Jerry Cobb, the figurehead of the Mercury 13, appealed to Washington and a House of Representatives Committee even reviewed the case in July 1962. The problem was that NASA had decided to recruit military test pilots, a profession which, at the time, was not open to women (they could only be civilian pilots). So, access to the Mercury programme was closed for women, without any formal gender discrimination by the American agency. However, in a sign of the times, John Glenn, who became the first American in orbit, did not hesitate to declare seriously before the committee that the "role of men is to go to war and into space. Women are not involved in these activities." Valentina Tereshkova, the first A year after this declaration, the Soviet Union once again got the better of the Americans by sending a woman into orbit around the Earth. This woman was Valentina Tereshkova, then aged 26, making her the youngest woman to go into space. The selection began just after Gagarin's flight and 400 candidates were initially chosen. Through successive selection procedures, the number remaining on the list for the first female flight was greatly reduced. Eventually, Valentina Tereshkova won, certainly for the qualities that she demonstrated during the tests, but also because her status as a textile worker from the age of 18 was in line with the propaganda that Nikita Khrushchev (who was involved in the final selection) wanted to see applied to the Soviet Union's space programme.
Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space on 16 June 1963, one year and two months after Yuri Gagarin. Credit: DR
This young woman took off from Baikonur on 16 June 1963 and her flight lasted 2 days, 22 hours and 41 minutes, totalling 48 orbits. Alone on board her Vostok 6 capsule, she did however fly in tandem for some time with the Vostok 5 of Valery Bykovsky which had been launched a few days earlier. The two spacecraft flew up to 5 kilometres apart and established a direct radio link. Tereshkova's mission was not without problems. She experienced nausea, but above all she had to deal with the failure of the automatic guidance system in her spacecraft which made her return to Earth impossible! She received instructions from the ground which enabled her to correct the fault. Sergei Korolev then asked her to keep it a secret so as to avoid compromising the programme, which she did for 30 years until the engineer who made the mistake, Yevgeny Khrunov spoke openly about it. A confession that released Valentina Tereshkova from her promise to Korolev. Watch the video below.
A 19 year absence The belief could have been that the successful propaganda about Valentina Tereshkova's flight would lead to the opening up of space for women. This was not the case. Reportedly, Sergei Korolev, known for his fiery nature firmly declared that he no longer wanted to send a representative of the fairer sex into orbit due to the nausea of the first female cosmonaut. However, notably convinced by Gagarin, he would agree to reconsider his decision and plan a flight with two women aboard a new version of the Vostok spacecraft. This mission was cancelled, just like the others planned on Vostok. In any case, manned flights would remain closed to women until... 1982! Nineteen years after Tereshkova, it was once again a Soviet who flew in Earth orbit and more specifically to the Salyut 7 space station on 19 August 1983. Svetlana Savitskaya stayed in orbit for one week, but returned to Salyut 7 in July 1984 for an 11-day mission during which she became the first woman to perform a spacewalk.
Svetlana Savitskaya, the second woman in space and first woman to perform a spacewalk. Crédit: DR
Between Savitskaya's two missions, NASA opened up the manned space programme to women for the STS-7 flight of the Challenger space shuttle in June 1983. The 5 person crew did in fact include the astrophysicist, Sally Ride. The first American woman in space flew a second time (STS-41G the following year) then handled the agency's strategic planning before leaving in 2001 to dedicate herself to education through her company Sally Ride Science. She recently passed away from pancreatic cancer on 23 July 2012. The NASA video below pays tribute to the legacy left by this astronaut.
The space shuttle years While NASA missed the opportunity to make women astronauts from the start by ignoring the initiative of the Mercury 13, it must be recognised that it caught up with its space shuttle programme. Designed to transport crews that were not exclusively composed of military test pilots (even if they still monopolised the jobs of pilot and commander), the space plane allowed NASA to relax its selection criteria, thus 48 women, including 43 Americans flew on board Columbia, Discovery, Challenger, Atlantis and Endeavour. A remarkable number since on the day this article is published (31 May 2013) only 57 women in total have ever been to space. The space shuttles alone therefore transported 84 % of female astronauts! A percentage obviously destined to evolve quickly since these spacecraft are now retired and other women will be taking part in future manned missions. The American space shuttle also allowed women to become pilots and commanders of a spacecraft. However, alone aboard her Vostok 6, it could be considered that Valentina Tereshkova was pilot and commander of her spacecraft.
Eileen Collins, the first woman pilot then commander of a space shuttle. Credit: NASA
Mission STS-63 by Discovery to the Russian space station Mir in February 1995 involved the first woman pilot of a space shuttle, Eileen Collins from the US Air Force. The dream of the Mercury 13, that a woman would pilot a spacecraft, had become a reality. Furthermore, 7 of the Mercury 13 would visit the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in order to celebrate this decisive step. Collins was once again pilot for STS-84 in 1997, then in 1999 commander (the first) with STS-93 (launch of the Chandra space telescope). Finally, she commanded STS-114 in July 2005, an incredibly important mission as it marked the return to space flight after the Columbia disaster.
7 of the Mercury 13 visit the Kennedy Space Center when the space shuttle Discovery to be commanded by Eileen Collins is on the launch pad. From left to right: Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerry Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. Credit: NASA
Columbia (flight STS-107) broke up on re-entry into the atmosphere in February 2003, killing the 7 astronauts on board, including 2 women, the Americans Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark. Seventeen years previously, another space shuttle accident, that of Challenger (STS-51L), ended in the loss of the crew, this time on take-off. The Americans Judith Resnik and Christa McAuliffe (a teacher selected for the Teacher in Space programme) lost their lives. NASA's space shuttles have had two other female pilots: Susan Still (2 flights) and Pamela Melroy (3 flights). Pamela Melroy held the position of commander for her last mission, STS-120 in October 2007. She was therefore also the last woman to have piloted and commanded a NASA space plane. Nevertheless, there were women on board several of the missions that followed (as mission specialists) and on the final flight, STS-135 on Atlantis in July 2011, Sandra Magnus was the only woman in the four-man crew.
Not just space shuttles As we have just seen, while the winged American spacecraft greatly contributed to putting women into space, it did not however have the monopoly. Apart from Tereshkova's Vostok, the other spacecraft that has taken women into space is the Soviet, then Russian three-seater Soyuz. In May 1991, nine years after Svetlana Savitskaya, the "sardine tin" as it is nicknamed, took the British Helen Sharman, aged 28, into space. The flight to Mir was bought from the Russians by an alliance of private companies in the United Kingdom as part of an initiative called Project Juno. While Helen Sharman was only the fifteenth woman in space, she was however the first British citizen to reach orbit and therefore also the first woman to pave the way for a country's space flight. In April 2008, the South Korean Yi So-Yeon, again on Soyuz, but to the ISS, became her country's first astronaut. The case of the space tourist Anousheh Ansari two years early (still on Soyuz and to the ISS) is more controversial. An American citizen born in Iran (her family left Iran on the fall of the Shah), some people see her as the first Iranian in orbit. A title that is not really to the taste of the regime in Tehran which is looking to send an Iranian into space using national resources. The Russian Soyuz also carried another first woman: Claudie Haigneré, the first French woman in space (and patron of the Cité de l'Espace in Toulouse). The next European woman in orbit will be an Italian, Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency, who is scheduled to fly to the ISS in 2014.
Shannon Lucid on board Mir in 1996. She was the first woman to have accomplished 3, 4 then 5 space flights. Credit: NASA
Obviously, the ISS (International Space Station) has accommodated women in its expeditions, giving several of them the opportunity to perform long-term missions. Previously, only the American Shannon Lucid (a real legend with 5 missions to her name) had completed this type of flight, remaining on board Mir for 188 days in 1996. She held the record for the longest female space flight until in 2007, her fellow countrywoman Sunita Williams took the title with her 195-day mission aboard the ISS (this record still stands).
The American Sunita Williams holds the record for the longest flight for a woman: 195 days. Credit: NASA
However, the woman who has accumulated the most days in orbit is the American Peggy Whitson with 376 days. She was also the first woman to command the International Space Station from October 2007 to April 2008.
On 25 October 2007, for the first time, two women who have commanded a space mission find themselves in space: Pamela Melroy (left) commander of flight STS-120 of the space shuttle Discovery is welcomed by Peggy Whitson, commander of Expedition 16 of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
Despite a quick flash onto the scene in 1963, we can see that it has been a long journey for women in space. And when women's participation in space flight began again, 19 years after Valentina Tereshkova's historic flight, we were very far, and still are, from achieving equality.
In April 2010, the record for the number of women in space simultaneously was achieved with four women on board the International Space Station: 3 came with the space shuttle Discovery (flight STS-131, in blue polo shirts) and one other was a member of the ISS crew (burgundy polo shirt). Clockwise from the latter: the Americans Tracy Caldwell-Dyson and Dorothy Metcalf-Lidenburger, the Japanese Naoko Yamazaki and the American Stephanie Wilson. Credit: NASA