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Women’s Place in Space

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As she became the first American woman in space in June 1983, headline-writers couldn’t resist wordplay on her name: O What a Ride! A Ride in Space, Sally’s Ride into History, Sally’s Joy Ride.  People at the launch chanted and wore T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Ride, Sally Ride,” echoing the refrain of the 1960s hit song “Mustang Sally.”

Sally Ride

Sally Ride was the first American woman in space.

STS-7

Inflight view of the crew of STS-7. From left to right are Norman E. Thagard, mission specialist; Robert L. Crippen, crew commander; Sally K. Ride, mission specialist; and John M. Fabian, mission specialist. Seated in front of the group between Crippen and Ride is Pilot Frederick H. Hauck.

Despite this frivolity, Sally Ride’s presence on Challenger for the seventh space shuttle mission truly was a ride into history, for it broke the sex barrier in U.S. human spaceflight. Granted, it occurred 20 years after Valentina Tereshkova soared into orbit for the Soviet Union and almost 20 years after Barbie became an astronaut. Yet after that milestone passed, the space shuttle and then the International Space Station became places where women could work and eventually take command, as routinely as in workplaces on Earth.

Ironically the first American woman to go into space had not aspired to be an astronaut since childhood, as others had.  She learned of NASA’s astronaut recruitment as she completed graduate school and instantly decided to apply for a career in spaceflight.

The priority of Sally Ride might have been otherwise; any of the six women accepted into the 1978 class of astronauts might have been cast as the first to fly.  Anna Fisher, Shannon Lucid, Judith Resnik, Sally Ride, Rhea Seddon, and Kathryn Sullivan completed training and qualified for flight assignments together. All flew in space within two years.

First Class of Female Astronauts

From left to right are Shannon W. Lucid, Margaret Rhea Seddon, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Judith A. Resnik, Anna L. Fisher, and Sally K. Ride. NASA selected all six women as their first female astronaut candidates in January 1978, allowing them to enroll in a training program that they completed in August 1979.

These six women navigated together through the ways of an all-male astronaut corps. In their wake a total of 48 women became astronauts, accounting for almost 20% of the 258 astronauts selected for the shuttle-space station era and including seven women of African-American, Hispanic, or East Indian descent.

Only three women were selected as pilots: Eileen Collins (USAF), Susan Still Kilrain (USN), and Pamela Melroy (USAF), all of whom arrived in the 1990s after gaining the requisite military flight experience. A woman commanded three of 132 shuttle missions launched to date. Collins flew twice as pilot and twice as commander; Kilrain flew twice as pilot; and Melroy flew twice as pilot and once as commander.  All have now left NASA so there will be no women seated up front on the final missions.

Forty-five women have served as mission specialists— the onboard scientists, engineers, and physicians responsible for much of the workload in orbit.  They hold 25 Ph.D. degrees in various fields of science and engineering and seven M.D. degrees. Three of them—Bonnie Dunbar, Shannon Lucid, Tamara Jernigan—have flown in space five times. One woman—Peggy Whitson—served as space station commander and set a new long-duration space record. More than half of the women astronauts also fly aircraft.

Sally Ride made history as the first U.S. woman in space, but the feat is more nuanced. She and the other five women who were first selected to be shuttle astronauts each made history, through grit and determination and some dreaming, to be ready for the opportunity of spaceflight. They entered science and engineering in the 1960s as these fields began to open up to women. They came of age as the civil rights, equal rights, and women’s movements stimulated changes in American society and opened new career possibilities. They were poised to step through the door opened by NASA’s affirmative action policy and its aggressive recruitment of women and minorities for the astronaut corps.

Accomplished American women have flown in space since 1983, so it no longer seems newsworthy; it’s just natural.  That is the history that flowed from Sally Ride’s shuttle mission.

Valerie Neal is in her 20th year as the Shuttle-era human spaceflight curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s Space History Division.

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4 thoughts on “Women’s Place in Space

  1. Great post! All of us who grew up in the 70s & 80s remember how incredibly proud we were to see these women & how our parents reminded us to finish our math homework if we ever wanted to be like them :)

  2. What a great story to recognize the role of women in space exploration, including Valentina Tereshkova twenty years earlier. That it’s no longer noteworthy that a woman flies on the Shuttle is indeed an accomplishment.

  3. Rachel (8 years old) picked Sally to be her “most important person from history” for a school project. She will get to dress up as Sally and inform parents/classmates about Sally’s amazing life. The above was inspiration. Rachel thinks she wants to be a scientist and follow in the footsteps of these amazing women.

  4. Pingback: Sally Ride: First U.S. Woman in Space, and More | AirSpace

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