Fifty years ago this week, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova made history by becoming the first woman in space. Since then, other women have followed the trail she blazed—and more are on the way. On Monday, NASA, the U.S. space agency, selected eight new astronauts—half of them female. This is NASA’s first new class of astronauts in four years, and it features the agency’s highest-ever percentage of women.
Shooting for the Stars
Tereshkova flew into space on June 16, 1963, on the three-day Vostok 6 mission. It took place just two years after another Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, achieved the first piloted spaceflight in 1961.
A textile worker from a modest family, Tereshkova became interested in parachuting at a young age. Her experience in parachute jumping led to her being recruited as a cosmonaut by the Russian government. Tereshkova and four other women were part of the first all-female cosmonaut training group in 1961, but only Tereshkova ever completed a flight.
Tereshkova became an instant celebrity upon returning to Earth. She has received many awards and honors since her flight. Today, she serves in the Russian government.
After Tereshkova’s landmark mission, it would take another 20 years for the United States to send a woman into space. Astronaut Sally Ride became the first female American astronaut to leave Earth on June 18, 1983. Since then, a total of 57 women from nine different countries have blasted off.
Two women are currently in orbit. NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg is aboard the International Space Station. Last week, China sent its second-ever female astronaut, Wang Yaping, to work on its orbiting space module. However, Tereshkova remains the only woman to complete a solo flight.
In recent years, NASA has run into trouble with funding. Currently, there are no American spacecraft that can carry humans to space. However, this new class of astronaut candidates suggests that NASA is looking ahead to the future of space exploration. The group includes the first female fighter pilot to become an astronaut in almost two decades, as well as a female helicopter pilot.
The class will begin training in August. “They’re excited about the science we’re doing on the International Space Station and our plan to . . . [go] there on spacecraft built by American companies,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement. “And they’re ready to help lead the first human mission to an asteroid and then on to Mars.”