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Space cadets: 6 brave women who took us to the stars

Feminists in space moon

Happy Monday, Feministas. As you may know, the first commercial flight to space happened last week on July 11, when Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson and his crew flew 55 miles above the Earth on a passenger ship called Unity and returned safely to New Mexico just an hour later.

The response on the ground runs the gamut, from excitement about what this progress might mean for the future to frustration about the way billionaires like Branson and Bezos are choosing to spend their money, when there’s plenty of good it could be doing down here…

But regardless of where you stand on this particular space race, there’s no denying that throughout history, the final frontier has been a beacon of hope for humankind and that the challenge of making our way to the moon, Mars, and beyond has inspired advances in technology we never thought possible. And where curiosity, ingenuity and discovery exist, so too do women :)

So let’s meet some of the ladies behind these giant leaps for mankind and give credit where credit is due.

1. Valentina Tereshkova

Every feminist should know the name of the very first woman in space: Valentina Tereshkova. She made her maiden voyage all the way back in 1963--20 years before the next woman would go to space--aboard the Soviet Union’s Vostok 6. 

After the successful journey of Yuri Gagarin in 1961 (the first man in space), the Soviets read that the U.S. was training female astronauts, and given the extremely competitive Space Race, wanted to make sure they sent the first. Tereshkova never planned to go to space, but she was an amateur skydiver under the age of 30, which made her an ideal candidate for the female cosmonaut corps. 

After just a year of highly intensive training, she was promoted to lieutenant of the Soviet Air Force and was selected to pilot the first female flight, which took place on June 16, 1963. She was just 26 at the time, orbited the earth 48 times, and, to this day, remains the only woman to have flown a solo space mission. She spent the rest of her career training male cosmonauts and since her journey, over 60 women have followed suit. 

Valentina Tereshkova said it best, when she said:  "a bird cannot fly with one wing only. Human space flight cannot develop any further without the active participation of women." Hell yes. 


2. Sally Ride

You’ve probably heard this name before--the first American woman (and third woman overall) to visit space. She was selected as part of NASA Astronaut Group 8, which was the first to include women, and flew twice as a crew member on the famous Space Shuttle Challenger.

It is well known that she endured some pretty sexist questions from the media in the lead-up to her mission, fielding inappropriate questions about her menstrual cycle, makeup, and emotional temperament (e.g. “do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”). But her media attention was so important to women in the U.S., many of whom donned t-shirts saying, “Ride, Sally Ride” on launch day. 

After her time with NASA, she taught physics at UC San Diego and eventually leveraged her fame to help narrow the gender gap in science and engineering, founding Sally Ride Science. It promotes equality and inclusion in STEM studies, especially for girls, and remains an important nonprofit in southern California, carrying on the feminist cause.  

She passed away in 2012, of pancreatic cancer, but she’ll always be remembered as an American and feminist hero, who broke barriers and inspired a new generation of women to shoot for the stars. She is also known for being the first and only LGBTQ astronaut so far. 


3. Katherine Johnson

These next two women have gained some recent notoriety thanks to the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, but for far too long these badass ladies have been hidden behind the scenes. Katherine Johnson was a gifted mathematician and aerospace technologist who gained the reputation of being a “human computer” for NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which eventually became NASA). 

She was always incredibly smart, attending college at age 13(!) and during her time at NACA, calculated flight trajectories for so many of the first American space flights, including Apollo 11, which sent Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin to the moon on July 16, 1969. 

In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her incredible work and contributions to space exploration and travel, and for paving the way for black women in STEM. A powerful woman and a true American hero. 


4. Mary Jackson

The second woman you may have seen in Hidden Figures, portrayed by Janelle Monáe, is Mary Winston Jackson, who became NASA’s first black female aeronautical engineer and spent 34 years working as a “human computer” and then on the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. 

But even before her time with the agency, she was no stranger to breaking barriers in her own life, attending a segregated high school and getting special permission to join graduate-level classes at the University of Virginia at the same time. And because empowered women tend to empower women, Jackson spent the rest of her career as the Langley Research Center’s Federal Women’s Program Manager, where she promoted the hiring and advancement of other women at NASA so her legacy could continue. In her honor, NASA has since named its Washington, DC headquarters the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building. We love to see it. 


5. Margaret Hamilton

This next pioneer is a mathematician, programmer, and computer scientist who played a crucial role in taking humankind to the moon. Margaret Hamilton coined the term “software engineering,” and developed the software used for guidance and navigation in all of the Apollo missions. 

She began her career in the meteorology department at MIT, writing software that predicted weather, and was soon tapped to help with satellite tracking for the U.S. Air Force as part of the SAGE Project. It was this experience that made her eligible to join the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory at MIT, where she was hired to work on the Apollo Space Mission. The in-flight, detection and recovery, and systems software were all designed by teams she led, and she became well-known for her incredibly reliable code before computer science was even an established discipline. 

In 2016, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama and has opened so many doors for young women interested in programming and computer science in the U.S. and beyond. 


6. Nancy Roman

Our final first lady of space is known as the “Mother of Hubble.” She was NASA’s first chief astronomer and earned that nickname because of her role in the planning of the Hubble Space Telescope. 

For the first several years of her career, she worked at observatories, studying stars and making important discoveries about their classification, chemical content, and motion through the galaxy and penned what the Astrophysical Journal would later call one of the 100 most important papers of the century. 

At NASA, she became the Head of Observational Astronomy in 1959, and during her 20-year tenure there, was prolific in her accomplishments. She oversaw the development and launch of the first space-based telescope, several X-ray satellites, and NASA’s scientific ballooning program--all of which are to thank for countless astronomical discoveries over the years. 

And because she believed wholeheartedly in the importance of gender equality in STEM, was an outspoken advocate for women and girls in astrophysics and the sciences throughout her career. She retired from NASA in 1969 and passed away in 2018, but she’ll always be an inspiration for feminists inspired by the final frontier. 


Thanks for reading, Feministas. See you next week for more of The F Word, our weekly newsletter and blog on all things feminist, from activism to fashion and beyond. Want it delivered? Scroll down, sign up, and we’ll send it straight to your inbox.

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