New Female Astronauts Show Evolution of Women in Space

Half of the newest astronauts are female, but that wasn't always the case.

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


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.