National Geographic Daily News
Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly in space.

Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly in space.

Photograph from TASS/AFP/Getty Images

Melody Kramer

National Geographic

Published June 18, 2013

On Monday, NASA announced that eight new astronauts would be joining the U.S. space program. Of the eight new recruits, four are women—marking the first time NASA has selected an equal number of men and women for an incoming astronaut class. (See National Geographic's space-exploration time line.)

Headlines around the world have touted the gender parity.

It's "one giant leap for womankind," the Houston Business Journal proclaimed.

"Now that's what I'm talking about," tweeted a senior adviser to the President.

"One small step for woman," said the Daily Mail.

Or a giant leap, maybe. It was this week, 50 years ago, that cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova lifted off in the Vostok 6 to become the first woman in space. (Related video: "Women in Space.")

When she returned to Earth, Life Magazine declared, "She Orbits Over the Sex Barrier," describing Tereshkova as a "blue-eyed blonde with a new hairdo [starring] in a Russian space spectacular." Other publications described her as a "Russian blond" and a "pleasant-looking, gray-eyed, athletic young woman."

None of the biographies of the incoming astronaut class, meanwhile, mention their physical attributes. We know that one of the incoming female astronauts is a test pilot and another is a major in the Marine Corps—but nothing about their hair color.

But the road to parity was paved with moon rocks.

A Step Backward

In the early 1960s, 13 U.S. female pilots were selected for an Air Force pilot project at the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico. They had passed all of the physical and psychological tests that the original Mercury 7 astronauts had taken, and were expected to receive further testing at a Navy facility in Florida—leading to open spots in the astronaut training program. (Related: pictures of early U.S. spaceflight.)

Days before the testing began, however, the women received telegrams from NASA telling them that the space agency wouldn't allow them to use the Navy facility. The women went to Washington, pleading for the program to continue.

Hearings were held at which NASA administrators and astronauts testified that including women in the space program would be a detriment to the future of the mission.

"The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them," astronaut John Glenn said in testimony before the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics in the 1960s. "The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable."

Women in space remained undesirable throughout the entire Apollo mission. In fact, it would be 20 years before the late Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman in space, piloting the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.

That wasn't an easy ride.

"Out of roughly 4,000 technical employees at the Johnson Space Center, I think there were only four women, so that gives you a sense of how male the culture was," Ride once said in an interview for the Academy of Achievement.

"Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?" one reporter asked her. And after her flight was delayed, Johnny Carson joked that Ride had held up the mission to find a purse to match her shoes. (See "Sally Ride: A Source of Inspiration.")

A Step Forward

But Ride's historical spaceflight—which took place 30 years ago this week—also marked a turning point for NASA. Since her mission, 45 female U.S. astronauts have flown into space.

Many more are training for missions that may include time on the International Space Station or, further in the future, the chance to explore an asteroid or Mars.

Perhaps more telling: On Monday, the media touted the gender of our newest astronauts; the astronauts themselves did not. Few—if any—of the current crop of astronauts mentioned gender yesterday online as they congratulated their newest colleagues.

"Congrats to Drew, Ike, Duke, Christina, Nick, Jessica, Josh and Anne!" tweeted astronaut Reid Wiseman. (Related: "The Astronauts You Should Start Following on Twitter.")

"A hugely impressive group," tweeted Commander Chris Hadfield, who recently returned to Earth.

Karen Nyberg, the only female astronaut currently in space, didn't mention the new crop either, possibly because she had more pressing things on her mind.

"Fluid physics!" she tweeted. "Working w/ Capillary Flow [Experiments] to improve future spacecraft fluid systems!"

Which sounds like it might be an even bigger leap forward for man—make that humankind.

9 comments
Max Dacat
Max Dacat

Didn't we learn from past experience?

"Honey, hand me that tool bag, willya?"

"I lost it!"

jim oberg
jim oberg like.author.displayName 1 Like

Sadly, this article contains historical errors based on inadequate research,  and ignoring the SECOND woman currently in space barely scratches the surface.

"Days before the testing began, however, the women received telegrams from NASA telling them that the space agency wouldn't allow them to use the Navy facility. ..."  FALSE. The sponsor of the tests at the Lovelace Clinic had failed to obtain the funding he hoped for, and without it, nobody gets to use those facilities for free. NASA sent no telegram to the women. The agency wasn't even involved. 

[more]

jim oberg
jim oberg like.author.displayName 1 Like

[continued]

"The women went to Washington, pleading for the program to continue."  FALSE. Some of the women pleaded that a program of training be started, but NASA was acting in accordance with a White House directive on selecting the first astronauts from among experienced test pilots. This was based not on physiological ideals but on the expectation -- validated by subsequent flight experience -- that pilots who had faced extreme stresses and kept their heads would be most likely to survive early space flights.

Women had been barred from such professions, and there was no ground test that could demonstrate such crisis responses [the women's candidate pool had not been 'selected out' for this key quality, so it was felt it wasn't worth the risk]. Note that thousands of male pilots had the same test results as the Lovelace subjects, but without jet experience -- without surviving test piloting terrors -- none of THEM were selected either.  

These issues are dealt with more fully in articles such as http://www.thespacereview.com/article/869/1 and http://www.jamesoberg.com/mercury-13-oshkosh.pdf and the author of this piece [and her editor] might have benefited from a wider range of research.

Brett Donadeo
Brett Donadeo

I think it's fair to point out that, even though there was no mention of the physical attributes of the latest crop of astronauts, we have much better pictures of them today. Their eye and hair color didn't need to be mentioned, for example, because we see those traits in the profile pictures on NASA's announcement page.

Hikaru Sulu
Hikaru Sulu like.author.displayName 1 Like

So to every red blooded american boy we've encouraged to dream about space, sorry there's too much interest in by your sex in space exploration. Go to the kitchen and make some cookies. The road to hell is paved with social engineering. Just because men have shown so much love and interest in rocket flight, they get to go to the back of the line now? So now when 1 millions men apply to be astronauts and 100 women apply, we get 50 women and 50 men, that is not fair, it's a sick twisted un-equality.

Eric Gieseke
Eric Gieseke

congrats for all the space world, we are a family we pray for peace and the continued exploration for all humankind

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

  • Teen Wonder: Taylor Wilson

    Teen Wonder: Taylor Wilson

    After achieving nuclear fusion at age 14, Taylor, now 19, is working with subatomic particles for solutions to nuclear terrorism and cancer.

See more innovators »

Phenomena

See more posts »

Latest News Video

  • How a T. Rex Packs for a Road Trip

    How a T. Rex Packs for a Road Trip

    The nation's most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimen is taking a 2,000-mile road trip from Montana to its new home in Washington, D.C.

See more videos »

See Us on Google Glass

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »