News

Women Flying High

The history of women in space began 50 years ago—and continues to this day

June 17, 2013
GETTY IMAGES

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, shortly before takeoff on June 16, 1963

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, sits in the cockpit of a NASA space shuttle in 1983.

GETTY IMAGES
Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, sits in the cockpit of a NASA space shuttle in 1983.

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.

U.S. astronaut Karen Nyberg takes part in a training session inside a space capsule on May 17.

AFP/GETTY IMAGES
U.S. astronaut Karen Nyberg takes part in a training session inside a space capsule on May 17.

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.

Looking Ahead

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.

Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping heads for the launch site shortly before her mission to dock with a space lab on June 11.

GETTY IMAGES
Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping heads for the launch site shortly before her mission to dock with a space lab on June 11.

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.”


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